This is the funniest book you’ll ever read about death and was this year’s winner of the Sundance U.S. Dramatic Audience Award and Sundance Grand Jury Prize. How did author Jesse Andrews get this book to the movies?
Stop me when this gets confusing: Greg Gaines, the teenage protagonist and narrator of my debut novel, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (now a movie, coming to theaters June 12), is himself a filmmaker. But he has retired, because he thinks his movies are terrible. So he’s telling his story in book form instead.
He doesn’t think the book is any good, either. And he definitely does not think it should ever be adapted into a movie.
“God only knows what would happen if you tried to convert this unstoppable barf-fest into a film,” he muses, toward the end. “There’s a chance you could consider it an act of terrorism.”
So it was with some trepidation that I, the actual author—a person who has a lot in common with Greg, way more than I would like—set off on the task of adapting my book into a screenplay. And indeed, the first draft of the script was not great.
“This first draft is great,” my producer, Dan Fogelman, cheerfully lied on our first Notes Call. We then went through the script page by page, for four hours, discussing in detail everything that needed to be changed, which was everything. “It’s a great first draft, though,” concluded Dan, who hung up and immediately shotgunned an entire bottle of Scotch.
After a ton of work, we got the script to the point where actual directors were interested in it. One of them was a profoundly talented, thoughtful, funny guy named Alfonso Gomez-Rejon.
This is probably where I should describe the story in a bit more detail. Greg has only one friend, Earl, and their friendship consists of eating Greg’s dad’s weird food, watching Criterion Collection filmmakers like Kurosawa and Kubrick, and making violent/potty-mouthed take-offs of those movies, e.g., Eyes Wide Butt. The story begins when Greg’s mom forces him to hang out with Rachel, a classmate who has cancer. He resists the deepening of their friendship at every step. There is no romance, and Greg claims to have learned nothing from any of it.
“It’s a very moving script,” Alfonso told me.
“Ha ha!” I agreed, assuming this was some hilarious deadpan joke.
But Alfonso saw something there. And I got to ride shotgun and watch while he made a beautiful, funny movie out of this strange story—out of these awkward characters and the connections they make that are so flawed, that are not nearly enough and yet way too much at the same time. I got to continually reshape and refine the script with Alfonso and the producers and watch incredible actors figure out how to deliver my weird dialogue. I even got to see film crews in my old high school and my childhood home. They turned my old bedroom into Greg’s bedroom.
(“I remember when you used to do that in there,” said my mom, about a scene in which Greg’s mom enters his bedroom and catches him looking at questionable pictures. My mom was getting kind of teary, recalling it. Being the mom of a boy must be the weirdest emotional experience there is.)
Production was hard work. But it was also full of funny, generous, brilliant people, and every day it felt like we were on to something good. And a few months later, we were showing the film at Sundance, and we got a standing ovation at our premiere. We all walked out onstage—Alfonso, Dan, producers, cast, crew, me—and squinted into the lights and wrapped our heads around the idea that maybe we had succeeded in making the thing we were hoping to make.
Kind of stupidly, I was wondering what Greg would have thought if he had been there with us.