'Me and Earl and the Dying Girl': Conveying the Complexity of the Adolescent Experience

“I think the movie looks different from what people might expect from this kind of story,” says director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon.
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Based on the popular young adult novel Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, the indie feature of the same name directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon and shot by Chung-hoon Chung focuses on the initially strained relationship between a high-school geek, Greg (Thomas Mann), and a classmate, Rachel (Olivia Cooke), who’s been diagnosed with a serious illness. While such a narrative could quickly become a predictable love story, it does not here. The film builds the friendship haltingly, never losing sight of the emotional pain even many healthy people feel during those awkward high school years.

It shouldn’t be too surprising that the look of the movie has little in common with a sentimental teen romance—neither Gomez-Rejon nor Chung has had much experience with that type of film. The director has shot more than a few episodes of FOX’s macabre American Horror Story and Chung has shot several Korean horror films, including Oldboy, The Unjust and Thirst, as well as the English-language psychological horror film Stoker.

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RJ Cyler as Earl and Thomas Mann as Greg

As soon as the two met over Skype, they hit it off. “He only talked about character,” says the director. “I loved that he didn’t talk about lighting and composition right away. He had a genuine love of the characters, humanity and humor. He’d never gotten a chance to show this side of himself and neither had I.”

Chung agrees. “He talked about the drama, the script, the story. These are the things that interest me first when I read a script. After about 20 minutes of talking, Alfonso said, ‘Can you pack up now and come to America?’ A few days later, I was on a plane.”

Greg (the title’s “Me”) is a geeky high school senior who is trying to blend in anonymously, avoiding deeper relationships as a survival strategy for navigating the social minefield that is teenage life. He even describes his constant companion Earl (RJ Cyler), with whom he makes short film parodies of classic movies, as more of a “co-worker” than a best friend. The two spend a lot of time hiding out in the office of the one teacher who sort of gets them. Greg only visits the vibrant but sick Rachel at his mother’s insistence, although they soon form a friendship.

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Photo by Anne Marie Fox.

“We never saw it as a love story,” the director declares. “We designed shots to make it so people weren’t expecting that. The compositions of the two [actors] are extremely wide-angle shots with either of them all the way on opposite sides of the frame. Even though [Greg] says in the voiceover that this isn’t a love story, if we suggest that it is through the framing or by lingering just a little too long on a close-up, the audience will believe what they see, not what he says. Eventually, after the audience is (hopefully) with us, we felt we could linger on some close-ups or two-shots and the audience would understand what kind of movie this is.”

The movie, shot with ARRI Alexa (XT and Studio) cameras, plays in widescreen 2.35:1 aspect ratio, which was achieved using a combination of spherical ARRI Master Prime lenses (and cropping) for the early portions, and moving to true anamorphic Master Anamorphic lenses as the story progresses. “I love the extreme wide-angle lens,” says the director. “We shot a lot with the 10mm. We couldn’t get wide enough with anamorphic lenses.”

“We wanted such a wide angle that in the high school, it’s sometimes hard to even find Greg in the frame,” Chung adds. “If you think of the school as a factory, he’s just a small part in that factory. When Greg visits Rachel in her room, we show all that space between them. But then, as we get more into the specific story, we switched to anamorphic,” making use of the decreased depth of field inherent in that process. “Little by little we go softer with the background and pull the characters out from their environment.”

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“We wanted such a wide angle that in the high school, it’s sometimes hard to even find Greg in the frame,” the cinematographer says.

Finishing colorist Tim Stipan of EFILM in Hollywood elaborates: “There were a few scenes that were shot for various reasons using the spherical lenses where the filmmakers really wanted that anamorphic feel. For those shots, I’d build a little vignette around the characters during color grade and then add a soft defocus effect to the background. I really loved that concept of switching to the anamorphic lenses because as we progressed through the film, it felt like we got more and more unique and magical.”

Chung and Gomez-Rejon spent a month storyboarding and working out visual concepts with production designer Gerald Sullivan and costume designer Jennifer Eve. There is a cold, fluorescent-lit feel to the school, but a warm, yellowish, sunlit look to the teacher’s office and an even more pronounced warmth in Rachel’s bedroom. Chung shot the Pittsburgh-area school entirely with the type of uncorrected fluorescent units that actually illuminate the space. “I didn’t take any color-corrected Kino Flos,” he says. “I just used the ‘dirty’ fluorescent lighting.”

“You want the school to feel like a prison,” the director elaborates. “Very institutional. Aggressively cold. Then Rachel’s color was yellow: the cycle of rebirth, the sun.”

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Then, as her illness progresses and the treatments prove more difficult than she’d expected, her stoical attitude gives way somewhat. Her environment is still bathed in the yellow warmth, but Chung took some of the color out of the lights hitting her face and Stipan pulled a bit more out in post. Stipan points out, however, “We didn’t want to go too far in taking color out of her face. It was subtle. But then to enhance that feeling, we’d isolate another color, like on the red bonnet she wears. We would isolate that and saturate it a little more so there was this vibrant color in the frame in contrast to her face.”

“I think the movie looks different from what people might expect from this kind of story,” says Gomez-Rejon. “We both had worked a lot in a very dark genre. When Chung read the script, he saw the dark side of it right away, and that’s why I think we worked so well together.” 



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