Max Winkler has been sitting in a room doing phone interviews all morning, and so the 28-year-old writer/director politely apologizes for standing for some of our interview. He's full of energy and dressed all in white, so I have to sometimes squint to see him as he moves around the conference table. Voted one of Paper magazine's Beautiful People of 2010, Winkler is charming, highly intelligent and, without a doubt, frigging adorable. If his feature-length debut, 'Ceremony,' is any indication, he's also a writer and director to keep a close eye on in the years ahead.
In 'Ceremony,' Michael Angarano plays Sam, a 22-year-old who is full of enough smooth-talking faux swagger that he convinces his neurotic best friend Marshall (Reece Thompson) to take him on a weekend getaway. What Marshall doesn't know is that their destination is just down the beach from Zoe's (Sam's ex-girlfriend) house; what neither of them knows is that it's the weekend of her wedding to her longtime beau, Whit, a pretentious British filmmaker played by Lee Pace.
Much to everyone's surprise, Whit invites the guys to stay with them for the whole weekend, including the wedding. As Sam schemes to win back Zoe (Uma Thurman), he and Marshall party at Whit's Gatsby-esque mansion among eccentric and kind of icky rich people. It's a smart and sweet movie beautifully shot in Long Island, N.Y., that indie film lovers should most definitely seek out. 'Ceremony' premiered at the Toronto Film Festival and is playing South by Southwest; it is currently available via VOD and will open in theaters on April 8.
Cinematical: You've said in previous interviews your influences are Billy Wilder, Woody Allen and people like that. What's your take on today's romantic comedies versus what you've created and the kinds you like?
Max Winkler: Romantic comedy's such a dangerous word. I'd really be too embarrassed to ever refer to this movie as a romantic comedy, just because when you picture a romantic comedy, you picture 'Love Actually' or something like that, which actually I think is an amazing movie, and I'm a big sucker for British romantic comedies ... I think what the movie tries to do is be equal parts sort of sad and equal parts sort of funny at the same time, which a lot of the movies that I've always loved have done expertly with tone, whether it's Hal Ashby movies or Mike Nichols. Peter Bogdanovich's 'Paper Moon' is a huge influence, obviously, on anyone hopefully that makes movies. So we just tried to do that as much as we could with this. I'm trying to think -- what are the good romantic comedies that have been out recently?
There really aren't any. Well, 'Heartbreaker,' which is a French romantic comedy.
I heard that's great. Yeah, I want to see that. Anything else?
'Say Anything' is amazing, obviously. Cameron Crowe is amazing ... I don't know how hip and cool the movie is because it's kind of emotional and it was kind of personal so I couldn't have it be anything else besides me and the people who were in it, so I've always admired that thing Cameron Crowe does in the sense that he's not afraid to be emotional and even sentimental sometimes. I think that's great.
One thing that really interested me about 'Ceremony' is the age disparity between Sam and Zoe, specifically, especially because it flip flops emotionally a couple times during the movie where he's sort of more adult and then she's more adult. But there's definitely a theme of the older woman and the younger man that is not exploitative or gross. Where did that come from?
Probably a pretty personal place.
OK, fair enough.
But also I thought it made for more conflict, and movies are better when there's conflict. When the odds are stacked against something so much, then we the filmmakers have to work harder to try to actually dangle the idea to the people watching the movie and the actors doing it that this could happen. I think they're so good together, and I think Michael is so fearless and crazed and amazing in the movie because he can get away with things that a lot of other actors can't because he has that face, you know what I mean? There's the right kind of handsome. Like, certain actors who are too handsome -- they can't really pull off some things because no matter what, you root for them to lose. Michael's got such an innocent sort of sweet face that when he wears that mustache and that ridiculous f*cking suit, you can so clearly tell that he's posturing and trying to pretend to be out of a Clark Gable movie or something like that, but he's just not, and no one treats him that way.
One of the great pieces of advice I ever got was actually from Noah Baumbach. Jason Reitman, who produced the movie, let Noah Baumbach read the script, which was obviously a big deal for me because I think 'The Squid and The Whale' is probably one of the great movies I've ever seen and a huge influence on my life. He said, "The movie will only work if at every opportunity you have a chance to be hard on Sam, you have to be hard. You can't show him in a heroic light, as the filmmakers, because the audience needs to know that he's gonna get what's coming to him." We tried to do that.
How did you and Sam bond, if he's basically playing a version of you?
We have a very special relationship ... I think we both learned a lot together at the same time. The character of this guy was nowhere near as good in the script as it was when [Michael] put it in, and he brought something to the character that's just that extra thing that some people either have or you don't, and the movie either works or doesn't work because of that. For me, I think the movie works because he's just so emotionally available throughout the whole time.
I wrote the movie about going through sort of a breakup, and he acted in the movie after kind of going through a breakup, so those two things came together and it was like 'Masters of the Universe' and became, like, the ultimate heartbroken man ... [Michael] would always try to f*ck [with me] -- he would always tell me he was going to dye his hair red, which is like my hair color, and I'd be like, stop it. Everyone on set was friends. We all lived on set, so it was like we were with each other every single day and night. It wasn't even like being in the same city; we lived in tiny little beach shanties next to each other and his mom would come and cook us Italian food at night, and we would just go into the city and meet people.
I know what it feels like to present someone with something I've written or a book I love that I want to share. Do you ever lay awake at night thinking, "Why did I do this?" It's an incredibly vulnerable position to be in.
Yeah. I mean, I can't watch the movie. I haven't watched the movie since the day we finished mixing it, and I probably never will watch it again. I feel nauseous when I watch it -- not because I think it's terrible but it is so personal and it's an unnatural thing to do, and then to have people either say they like or dislike it ... It's a very dangerous world, to read any of that or listen to any of that, because the second you allow [yourself], you start making decisions based on those things, you probably start to jeopardize the one thing you have that no one can touch, which is your sense of self.
It's something that I realized a lot of my friends who are also sort of artists, you know, in quotes, you talk to them about how they deal with these things and how they deal with putting themselves out there and what that feels like, and you know the feeling when you give someone what you've written -- it feels so unnatural and scary and the point of the matter is it will never be enough. No review will ever be enough unless it calls it 'Lawrence of Arabia,' which, you know, we're still waiting for, so I just try not to think about any of it too much and just keep writing. I've already written the next thing, and I'm excited to make that soon.
And what is your next thing?
I'm not talking too much about it, just that it's another male melodrama type thing with a woman.
There are a lot of articles recently about men, women -- the Village Voice had this cover story like, "Women! It's your fault!" [Read it here.] And the rebuttal's like, "No! It's not your fault!" [Read it here.] And it's like, who's fault is it? What's happening? It's so f*cked up and crazy. So here's a movie where you have a much younger man who actually does want to commit and settle down in his own mind, who seems almost not reflective of the society around us or how men are portrayed in that society --
That's why she loves him, is because he has that innocent romance in him that no one else can touch, and he's yet to be corrupted and jaded by the fact that life isn't necessarily as good always as it is in the books or as it is in the movies, in 'Gone With the Wind' and stuff like that -- I guess 'Gone With the Wind' is actually a tragedy, but he represents this part of the id that's just the pure, superhuman romance. All he is is romance, and why Uma's so good in it is because she is so vulnerable. We're used to seeing Uma maybe a certain way, but in this, she really is probably the closest to herself that I've seen her, you know, being a highly neurotic, highly emotional, highly intelligent person. And Uma also sort of represents the ideal of what he thinks this woman is. He'd held her on such a pedestal. She represents this 'Garden State' character so when in actuality that isn't real at all and doesn't exist. That's not life, you know what I mean? Those pixies don't come and save your life. They're actually deeply f*cked-up people who will destroy you because they're selfish, too. And she admits it in the end.