Wall Street Journal JUNE 3, 2015 - by Don Steinberg


Me And Earl And The Dying Girl, which hits cinemas June 12, is a funny movie about a teenager with leukaemia. The creators worked to inject humour and sadness seamlessly into their story.

Me And Earl And The Dying Girl, a funny movie about a teenager with leukaemia, isn't a dark comedy but a playful one, sprinkled with whimsical animations and parodies of classic films.

Following films like The Fault In Our Stars, which covered similar territory more reverently, the creators of Me And Earl worked to calibrate humour and sadness at every step, from writing the script to casting the movie and even the way they used music and camera shots.

"There was a lot of doubt," says director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, a Texas native who has worked mostly in television (American Horror Story and Glee.) "I was concerned if the comedy was too broad, how do we transition to the more dramatic beats?"

At the Sundance Film Festival, Me And Earl won the grand-jury prize, the audience award and a distribution deal with Fox Searchlight for its June 12 theatrical release. The movie centres on Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann), a high-school senior and cinema buff who cultivates an arm's-length relationship with the world through cordial nods, wisecracks and fist bumps. He even calls his childhood pal Earl (RJ Cyler) his "co-worker." They create twisted remakes of cinephile movies, such as A Sockwork Orange (made with sock puppets) and The 400 Bros. Greg's mother (Connie Britton) learns his classmate Rachel (Olivia Cooke) has been diagnosed with leukaemia, and tells him he should spend some time with her.

First-time scriptwriter Jesse Andrews adapted the screenplay from his 2012 first novel of the same name. "I was thinking a lot about terminal illness because my grandfather was very sick. I was very aware about exchanges you have with someone where it might be the last one."

The novel is for young-adult readers, with a teen narrator not unlike Holden Caulfield. Mr. Andrews worked with producer/screenwriter Dan Fogelman (Crazy, Stupid, Love and Danny Collins) to transform it into a movie for grown-ups.

"The first draft was pretty rocky," Mr. Andrews admits. "We had a four-and-a-half, five-hour phone call which started out with Dan saying 'Jesse, awesome job! You crushed it. I have some notes we're gonna go through.' Basically every page was like: 'This is great. I see what you're trying to do. But it's also wrong, and you can't do any of it.'"

Casting was the next challenge in getting the tone right. Adult characters in teen movies often are parodies of parents and teachers. The actors in those roles (Ms. Britton, Nick Offerman, Molly Shannon and Jon Bernthal) indulge the caricatures but add layers.

To play Greg's worried mom for both emotional and humorous effect, Ms. Britton (TV's Nashville and Friday Night Lights), says, "I really had to think about who was this woman who was so determined to have her son be this good guy. In a way, she is living through her son, and the best that her son can be is the best that she can be. I had to give an intention that was so pure and so honest - and I think that's where the comedy comes from. When we get into our earnest mode, it can look so funny from the outside."

Mr. Gomez-Rejon says that in casting Mr. Mann and Ms. Cooke as the leads, he sought an offbeat chemistry to fit the film's cliche-defying non-romance. Greg isn't the classic cute boy. He keeps saying the wrong thing.

"It's awkward to watch him try to be sensitive to her, and I think that's where a lot of the comedy comes from," Mr. Mann, now twenty-three years old, says. When Greg and Rachel meet, camera shots place them at odd angles and distant corners. Even when illness brings them closer and the peppy Brian Eno soundtrack that propels early scenes turns elegiac, Mr. Gomez-Rejon says he didn't amp up the music to overplay the drama.

Cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung, who shot the South Korean classics Oldboy and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, went for a playful vibe, at times using extra wide or extra close angles, or shots tilted sideways.

"At the beginning we were very aggressive with the camera compositions and movements, this exaggerated memory of high school as this battleground," Mr. Gomez-Rejon says. That made it easier to lighten up later, during serious moments.

"As the movie starts progressing toward kind of darker territory, you hope the audience is with you," the director says. "When appropriate, you come back with a funny little detail to push back, before it gets too heavy."

That mix of comedy and tragedy distinguishes Me And Earl from The Fault In Our Stars, about a teenage girl and boy who both have cancer. Fault opened a year ago while Me And Earl was in production. "I purposely didn't want to see it," Mr. Gomez-Rejon says. "I did ask people to go see it, because they also shot in Pittsburgh. We just wanted to make sure we didn't shoot in the exact same house or share any locations. You don't want that. But I was confident that this was a very different kind of movie."