Pittsburgh-shot 'Me and Earl and the Dying Girl' gets red-carpet welcome
Not long ago, Pittsburgh was known for being old — Allegheny County was considered by some measures to have the highest average age in America, give or take a nursing-home-packed census tract or two in Florida.
In past few years, though, it's become sort of the opposite, at least onscreen — the perfect spot for setting youthful, coming-of-age movies: “Adventureland” (2009), “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” (2012), “The Fault in Our Stars,” (2014) all were shot here. Now, there's “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” opening June 26 at the AMC Loews Waterfront and Manor Theater in Squirrel Hill.
The Sundance Film Festival-winning (both Audience and Grand Jury Award) little movie — that barely made noise in the Pittsburgh neighborhoods where it was shot last year — is now the talk of Hollywood. It's an adaptation of Pittsburgh native Jesse Andrews' novel of the same name, also set in Pittsburgh.
It all hits pretty close to home for Andrews — they literally shot it in his parents' house, in Point Breeze, in the room where he grew up.
“I was walking around all the places of my childhood,” said Andrews, who now lives in Boston. “It's surreal, seeing this room where you lived as a little kid, and played on the floor,” on the big screen.
“The staging area was my neighbors' house. It was great. We did a lot of saying, ‘Can you believe this is happening? Holy crap!'”
Andrews and several members of the cast are in town this week to promote the movie and attend a red-carpet event June 16 at the Waterfront theater.
Andrews adapted “Me and Earl” himself for the big screen. It was filmed by acclaimed young director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (“Glee,” “American Horror Story”) with a comparatively tiny budget of less than $5 million. Thomas Mann (“Project X”) is the lead, Greg. R.J. Cyler is his movie-making partner Earl, and Olivia Cooke (“Bates Motel”) is “the Dying Girl.”
Though “Me and Earl” looks, at first, like it fits neatly into the Young Adult-novel-adaptation craze of the past few years, it's also a movie that toys with and subverts expectations at every turn. Gleefully so, even.
Though the three titular characters go to Schenley High School (the historic, now-closed 1916 landmark in Oakland) and typical struggles of high school loom large, it's also a surprisingly subtle movie about friendship and its limits and about making movies. It's somehow also both honest about death and frequently hilarious.
Greg breaks the fourth wall regularly, addressing the film's audience, telling them what will happen (which usually doesn't). Violent furry animals — in quick bursts of stop-motion animation — illustrate certain concepts, like what happens when an attractive girl interacts with a lonely guy of no particular social consequence, like Greg. The essential absurdity of adolescence is left intact, without the usual earnestness, sentimentality and unearned uplift that typically trail along in the movies.
Greg is content to stay unknown and aloof, along with his only friend, the mercurial, salt-of-the-earth Earl. They're content with social anonymity, if they can be left to pursue their weird hobby — making endless homemade parodies of strange art films, like tormented, existential warfare of Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski.
They particularly enjoy reducing classics of world cinema to absurdly goofy pun-filled one-joke riffs.
“In ‘My Dinner With Andre the Giant,' one shot tells the story,” Andrews said during interviews June 15 at the Fairmont Hotel.
“I think everybody feels alone (as a teenager),” Mann said. “That's Greg's biggest fear. By choosing to be alone ... you can't be rejected if you're not offering yourself up.”
Everything changes, though, when Greg's mother (Connie Britton) guilt-trips him into paying a visit to Rachel, a girl he barely knows, who was just diagnosed with leukemia.
“The scene where Olivia (Rachel) first loses her hair — that really kicks me in the sensitive ones,” Cyler said. “I watched my grandmother go through that.”
For Gomez-Rejon, the project took on a deeply personal significance. His father was dying during the production.
“I was in deep denial before I made the movie,” said Gomez-Rejon, who realized that if you stop talking and thinking about someone because it hurts too much, that's when the person really does die. “Now, I believe that. He's very much alive as a vivid memory.”
The young cast got to be good friends and spent a lot of time wandering around Pittsburgh together. Being recognized wasn't really an issue, so they could go see the Arctic Monkeys at Stage AE — or inadvertently wander through a cloud of pepper spray on the Fourth of July — without drawing a crowd. That may not last, though.
They also had the opportunity to learn from some truly top-shelf actors: Britton, Nick Offerman, Molly Shannon and Jon Bernthal.
“Nick taught me a lot about Scotch,” Mann said. “I shared a cigar with him.”
“Molly (who plays Rachel's alcoholic mother) — she teaches you how to let go, and how to commit,” Cooke said.
“She's a ray of sunshine,” Cyler said. “She makes you happier than a cat in a room full of yarn.”
Mann, who's previous credits feature the exceptionally lowbrow teen-sex comedy “Project X,” is fully aware of what it means to get a film like “Me and Earl.”
“It's the most creatively fulfilling experience,” he said. “I want to do projects that mean something. It's going to be hard to reach that high (again).”
“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” is getting a proclamation at City Hall on June 16, and its local red-carpet premiere is that night at AMC Waterfront. Tickets are not available to the general public.
Andrews was to throw out the first pitch at the Pirates game June 15.
David Weinstein, who has been finding just the right location for movies in Pittsburgh for 25 years, found some perfect spots for “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.”
“Schenley (High School) was such a lucky score for the film,” says location manager Weinstein.
“There aren't many buildings like it left in Pittsburgh! It's a character in itself,” he says. “The school was a major player in the script; the fact that we were able to shoot at Schenley High School (which had been closed since 2008) was key to the director getting the actors to feel close to what the writer (Jesse Andrews) experienced, because that's where he actually went to high school. It was bare with peeling paint, but our amazing art department transformed the rooms we needed, and our production team used the extras to bring the school to life for the actors.”
Weinstein scouted each location after discussing the needs for each scene with director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, the director of photography and production designer.
“Also I loved that we shot our ice-cream shop in west Oakland at the corner on Robinson Street,” he says. “That came together rather last-minute, and the interplay of the main characters growing their friendship on those steps worked great.
“With a modest budget, I felt Alfonso was able to bring another dimension to the characters through his location choices,” Weinstein says. “(Main character) Greg's house was in Point Breeze. Very unusual that we shot the actual house that Jesse grew up in. This was a fantastic place to shoot — the neighbors were very cooperative and actually turned the week of filming there into a block party.”
The “Dying Girl's” house was in Squirrel Hill, and part of it was built as a set in the old gymnasium at Schenley. Earl's house was on Wood Street in Braddock, with the Mon Valley works in the background, and it “lends a more ‘other side of the tracks' feeling to the character than Greg's home,” Weinstein says.
One particular challenge was getting all the hospital scenes right.
“There are always challenges when trying to balance the characters in the script with the locations the director desires,” Weinstein says. “One difficulty was having to split up our hospital scenes between three locations — the Fairmont Hotel as the hospital lobby, Children's Hospital exterior for the limo drive up and the Kane Scott county hospital in Mt. Lebanon for the hospital room scenes.”
Finding the perfect spot for a scene set at a comic book shop was much easier.
As they were filming in Polish Hill, the director scouted Copacetic Comics, loved the look, and, Weinstein says, “Bill the owner was very gracious to let us shoot in that small but very cool space.”