Pittsburgh native’s first novel became his first screenplay — and a film capturing Sundance awards

Pittsburgh native’s first novel became his first screenplay — and a film capturing Sundance awards

Olivia Cooke and Thomas Mann play Rachel Kushner and Greg Gaines in the film adaptation of “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl." (Photo by Anne Marie Fox)
Olivia Cooke and Thomas Mann play Rachel Kushner and Greg Gaines in the film adaptation of “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl." (Photo by Anne Marie Fox)

When you hear the words “teenager with a terminal illness,” it’s likely that the place your brain leaps to isn’t, “very funny.” Yet Jesse Andrews, author of “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” has managed to write a story that is just that — not to mention poignant, real and visceral.

He also authored the script for the film adaptation, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, garnering both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award.

The Pittsburgh native was scheduled to receive a proclamation from City Council on Tuesday. It was sponsored by two councilmen, Bruce Kraus and Dan Gilman, who were also to present it.

The story follows Pittsburgh teen Greg Gaines, an amateur filmmaker in his last year of high school, who with his friend Earl Jackson creates spoofs of famous movies. They boast titles that include “Apocalypse Later” and “Senior Citizen Kane.” Greg’s senior year is upended when his mother guilts him into befriending Rachel Kushner, a fellow senior just diagnosed with leukemia; Greg hasn’t really hung out with her since sixth grade and Hebrew school.

The premise is not a new one. “I knew that cancer was kind of a trope in teen fiction,” said Andrews. His novel is also incredibly funny, and its slightly bumbling and hapless narrator — less of a knight on a white horse and more of, well, a teenage boy —  makes the novel feel much more like a dose of reality, and therefore, all the more touching.

Andrews set out to write a funny book, but one that also “meant something and was about something kind of difficult and wasn’t just frivolous fluff.” At the time he was brainstorming, his grandfather was terminally ill, “so I was thinking a lot about the exchanges that I was having with him … and just how incomplete they tended to feel, how you just never say the thing you want to say with someone close to you who might not be around much longer. You never do the thing you wish you did. You’re always trying to get a moment with them that contains your entire relationship, and you never will because that’s impossible, because that relationship is so complex and full.”

Andrews wrote with a specific aim in mind: “I just wanted to make something about how hard it is, and how if you don’t come out with a tidy little lesson, then that’s OK. It’s OK — life is a big, complicated, difficult thing, and it defies your attempts to make clean little sayings out of it.”

This view is reflected in Andrews’ novel, in that it is completely devoid of saccharine sentimentality. He makes no attempts to explain or justify, or dispense pat apologies. Perhaps this is part of why it has been so successful.

For Andrews, his debut novel was also his first screenplay.

The transition from writing a novel to writing a script was made easier with help from one of the producers, who was also a writer and was able to “guide me through this process,”  Andrews said. His help “made it easier than it would have been, although I wouldn’t describe it as easy.” The process of writing the script was also easier because Andrews was adapting his own novel, and so “I knew who these characters were, I knew what happens to them and how they grow,” he said.

When writing a screenplay, he explained, it’s important to be thrifty with space. Scripts, meant to be read reasonably quickly, don’t allow for the same breadth and scope that a novel does. “In a screenplay, your real estate is really precious and really kind of scarce … so you have to have a lot of discipline … and just pack as much meaning as you can into every exchange.”

Andrews also said that while the script should be well written and enjoyable, “it’s not the thing that the audience will be experiencing.” A script is strong when it empowers everyone involved “to make contributions. It gives them space to fill in their vision and do what they do well. So the less you can legislate, say, how someone is supposed to say something or where the camera is supposed to be, and the more instead you convey the tone and the emotional dynamics of the scene and of the entire movie — that will give your script the power that you want it to have,” he said.

Cuts and changes had to be made when transforming the story for the big screen. For Andrews, one of the biggest changes was the level of growth seen in Greg throughout the story. In the novel, that “is very subterranean. By the end of it, you might have to take it a little bit on faith that he’s learned something. He certainly doesn’t believe that he has.” In a film, this doesn’t translate as well, since movies aren’t as “psychologically intimate” as novels, which allow “you to be a little more opaque with emotional growth,” he said. In the film, “we’re not in his head. We’re on the outside, so he has to show us a little more.” That change had to be slightly more discernable, as it would be disheartening “to watch a movie in which nothing seems to happen,” he said.

Andrews said that he drew from his life only minimally in writing the story.

“I made films with friends. They were awful. That was something that I was able to use.” Also pulled from his own life is the religion of both Greg and Rachel, who are Jewish, as is Andrews. “It’s a thing I know, especially being Jewish, but not having it be a really dominant all-consuming part of your identity,  being kind of secular-Jewish in a way. That’s just a world that I knew,” he said. While the book isn’t one he finds to be particularly Jewish, he said that “the idea of a mitzvah … that’s what kicks off” the friendship between Rachel and Greg, as Greg’s mother points out when urging him to visit Rachel.

Andrews said too, that he likes to subvert people’s expectations, which is partially the reason behind not having Rachel and Greg have a romantic relationship, although it is the obvious option.

“Just thinking back to high school, I thought of all these relationships, connections, bonds that I had with girls that were not romantic, but I was able to have friendships with girls and talk about stuff and connect over stuff. That can happen at the platonic level and there can be a deep connection. And I just hadn’t seen stuff about that, so I wanted to introduce some of that. It felt real, and at least relatively unexplored to me,” he said.

As for setting the story in Pittsburgh, Andrews said that “it’s a world I know, it’s a texture that I know.” And Pittsburgh “evades scrutiny a little bit” due to its smaller size in comparison to larger cities.

For Andrews, Pittsburgh is “underexplored in culture,” which he feels is a shame, given it’s “a rich, interesting place.”

Masha Shollar is an intern for The Chronicle. She can be reached at mashas@thejewishchronicle.net.