An interview with director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, whose high-school comedy/drama “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” won top prizes at Sundance and SIFF.

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One day in January, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon was just another filmmaker competing for the Sundance Film Festival’s prizes.

The next day, his second film as a director, “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” had won both the audience award and the top jury award. And a bidding war was under way. Then suddenly there was loose talk of Gomez-Rejon directing Hugh Jackman in a new movie to be called “Collateral Beauty.”

“It’s so early,” he cautioned during a visit last month to the Seattle International Film Festival, “but it’s safe to say that after the (Sundance) screening, my life changed completely.” Earlier this month, the audience at SIFF voted him the Golden Space Needle award for best director.


‘Me and Earl and the Dying Girl’

Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s high-school comedy/drama (rated PG-13) opens Friday, June 19, for a regular run at several theaters. For a review, go to late Thursday or pick up a copy of Friday’s MovieTimes section.

Early screenings had small audiences made up of friends and family, so he didn’t know how it would play for an audience of 1,400 people at Sundance.

“We had zero expectations,” he said. “We only finished it a few days before the screening, and I was very sick and very nervous. To watch the movie and feel that it was catching, that people were responding to it, was very surreal, and very emotional by the end.”

Since he turned 12, Gomez-Rejon has been working his way up through television and a few major films, including second-unit work on “Argo” and “Babel.” He eventually earned an Emmy nomination for “American Horror Story” and recognition for many episodes of “Glee”; his first theatrical film, a reboot of “The Day That Dreaded Sundown,” came out last year.

Gomez-Rejon tried to get a film made of “Me and Earl,” based on Jesse Andrews’ young-adult novel, but the project fell through. Financing eventually became available, and he was able to use Andrews’ script and the actors he had previously cast in the leading roles.

Thomas Mann plays Greg, a loner who tries and mostly succeeds in making himself invisible at school. Olivia Cooke is Rachel, a classmate who has just learned she has leukemia. She’s pretty depressed about it, and Greg’s mother tries to cheer her up by volunteering Greg’s friendship.

“I had no intention, no desire, to make a high-school movie at all,” said Gomez-Rejon. “But I found this very much about what I was feeling (in high school). The school movie was just one layer, and there were many, many layers to the script, and I found that I really connected with it.”

The director picked Mann to play Greg because “I believed him, I liked him personally, he was very honest as a human being, very funny, he had a way with Jesse’s language. He made it his own, he made it feel fresh, funny without trying to be funny.”

How did he know that Greg’s narration, which instantly establishes the tone of the movie, was working? Did he have questions about the mixture of comedy and drama?

“You never know if it’s right,” said Gomez-Rejon. “You’re full of self-doubt. It’s a horrible process. I don’t know why we keep doing it. I knew that something was feeling right. We were having fun, it was a very intimate production, with a very tight, very small crew.

“It was very emotional, in the key scenes, and I was feeling that I was changing, as a person, that whatever I had inside of me that I was trying to get out, I was feeling like I was working through something.”