Jesse Andrews on “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”

Jun 12, 2015 | Writing

Novelist and first-time screenwriter Jesse Andrews’ film Me and Earl and the Dying Girl won both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award this year at Sundance. Final Draft had a chance to sit down with him get the details from his exciting journey.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is about a loner teenager named Greg (Thomas Mann), who makes goofy films with his “co-worker” Earl, (RJ Cyler), as they try to distract themselves from the pressure and banality of the high school experience. One day however, Greg’s mom (Connie Britton) urges Earl to pay a visit to fellow high school student Rachel (Olivia Cooke), who’s recently been diagnosed with leukemia.

Like any teen boy, Greg initially resists his mother’s plea. But when Greg finally gives in, he begins not only to hang out with Rachel, but make a film about her as well.

Though the premise may sound a bit like last year’s precious The Fault in Our Stars, there is no actual, physical romance between Greg and Rachel. The characters have each put up far too many walls to connect in an amorous way. Instead, they take refuge in each other, sharing a wall for a time against the outside world when it is just too overwhelming.

Because Andrews claims the story isn’t autobiographical, we wanted to know what drew him, like Edgar Allen Poe long before him, to tell the tale of a beautiful girl facing death.

“When you’re a teenager, everything feels like it’s happening to you the first time. It also feels that it’s the only time and it’s impossible to imagine it happening again, or that it might have less importance 20 years down the road. When someone is actually facing the end, as a teenager, it’s sort of a rebuttal to that idea that ‘oh, this is not that important, you’ll get over it.’ But this is not something that can be gotten over. There’s an opportunity to give teenagers a little more dignity to that part of their life.”

Like Gillian Flynn, author of both the book and the screenplay for last year’s hit thriller Gone Girl, Andrews was given the rare opportunity to adapt his own book for the screen. Though he’d never written a screenplay before, he was lucky enough to get writer Dan Fogelman (Crazy, Stupid, Love and Tangled) to mentor him through the process.

So what was the first thing Fogelman made Andrews do? Purchase Final Draft software. “I was resistant to it,” said Andrews, who was scraping by financially, working as a part-time textbook editor. “Dan was like, ‘You have to buy Final Draft,’ and I was like, how much is it? He said it’s like a hundred bucks or something but I thought I could just do it in Microsoft Word. Dan said, ‘No! Just buy it, you weirdo.’”

Andrews claims getting Final Draft was an important step. “When I had to start being a screenwriter, I felt like I was undergoing this transformation that was somehow symbolized by purchasing and beginning to work in Final Draft. Anything that you type in there looks totally legitimate and immediately you feel so much more like a screenwriter than maybe you even should at that point,” he said, laughing at his own experience.

Aside from getting the right software, there were many other transitions Andrews had to make to become a screenwriter.

“The first thing that really impressed itself upon me when I started reading screenplays was their economy and discipline. The very quick but rich ways it would describe characters. The way dialogue has been paired down to its essential without feeling glib or unnatural. My book isn’t long, but it does really stretch out in places. I was trying for teenage naturalism and the dialogue has a stream of consciousness feeling. There’s a lot of repetition, with ums and ahs, things often for comic effect, hopefully because it sounded real. But you can’t put that into a script. A hint of it here or there is okay, but for the most part, that can’t happen.”

Andrews says he also noticed that there were double and even triple beats in the book and felt there was no room for that time-consuming repetition in a script. “In a movie, it just feels clumsy and throws the viewer off. I think the book-to-script transition is a much easier one because there’s so much pairing down.”

But Andrews did need to do some inventing as well. “I did need to come up with some new story elements, and Dan got me thinking about ways in which a thread in Greg’s life could really come to stand for something, some theme. For example, the way he thinks about college is a way of talking about how he conceives of his entire future and that’s something we can track.”

We asked Andrews what it was like to actually see the physical embodiment of the characters he created on-screen, particularly Rachel who expresses so much sadness and emotion in the movie.

“I feel bad for my characters. Almost like I’m a shitty god to a human who deserves better,” he said with a laugh before getting more introspective.

“Initially, you don’t know what you’re looking at because it’s so familiar and it’s so different. Pretty quickly, though, it becomes the only version that it ever could have been.”

It’s unclear if his film can enchant audiences like The Fault in Our Stars, but we’re certain we’ll be hearing more from Andrews. In addition to writing a second novel called The Haters, about a couple of teens who escape from Jazz camp to have an authentic musical experience, Andrews has written a spec script he’d like to direct a year down the road. “It will probably be a horrible disaster but as long as people let me do it, I can’t wait.”

 

Shanee Edwards

Screenwriter / Film Critic

Shanee Edwards graduated from UCLA Film School with an MFA in Screenwriting and is currently the film critic for SheKnows.com. She recently won the Next MacGyver television writing competition to create a TV show about a female engineer.  Her pilot, Ada and the Machine, is currently in development with America Ferrera’s Take Fountain Productions. You can follow her on Twitter: @ShaneeEdwards.