Exclusive: Ceremony Director Max Winkler

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One of the nicest surprises from last year’s Toronto International Film Festival was Ceremony, the debut by Max Winkler, a talented filmmaker who was discovered and nurtured by the film’s producer Jason Reitman. (It’s interesting to note that both Winkler and Reitman are second-generation filmmakers with well-known Hollywood fathers.)

Ceremony stars Michael Angarano and Reece Thompson (from Rocket Science) as best friends Sam and Marshall, reunited after a year apart who decide to spend a weekend in Long Island to get reconnected. Marshall soon learns that his writer friend had ulterior motives for bringing them out there as he plans to crash the wedding of his significantly older former lover Zoe, played by Uma Thurman, who is about to marry a pretentious British nature filmmaker, played by Lee Pace.

We’ve seen lots of great independent films based around weddings, but Winkler really has a talent for creating characters and dialogue that makes Ceremony a bit like Wedding Crashers if it was directed by Wes Anderson. It’s Angarano’s first truly adult role and his chemistry with the much-older Thurman and Thompson drives every single scene, as does the edgy humor brought to the affair by Pace and Jake Johnson as Teddy, Zoe’s troubled brother. It’s a great feature debut from the director whose previous credits include online video segments for David Wain and the popular online series “Clark and Michael” (with Clark Duke and Michael Cera).

Last month, ComingSoon.net met up with Max at “The Smile” in the East Village and he was nice enough to buy us a brownie when he learned it was our birthday ’cause that’s just the kind of awesome guy that he is.

ComingSoon.net: What’s the story behind this movie? Was it just a screenplay you’d been working on for a long time?
Max Winkler:
Yeah, I’d written a bunch of other scripts that I’d been working on and trying to make. I graduated from USC film school and I’d been working on developing this other script that we had with Jason Reitman producing, but it was at Searchlight and it just seemed like there was no way to make it for the right amount of money for it to be my first movie. Jason led me to write something personal, and I was going through an emotionally interesting period where I was feeling very raw and romantic, and I sat down and wrote the script and I’m really glad that I did.

CS: How did you meet Jason? Have you known him a really long time?
Winkler:
No, he had seen a short film of mine I had directed while I was at school that was in the Tribeca Film Festival. I sent it to his company because I had known that his company was specializing in first-time filmmakers and getting their movies made. We sold “Ornate,” the first script we ever wrote, to him, Matt Spicer and I, and he’s always been an incredibly supportive person for me and my career, and watching him make movies obviously has been very inspiring for me.

CS: It probably would be safe to assume you had some sort of break-up that inspired this story…
Winkler:
Yeah, it was just a very personal movie, and a lot of the things in it are probably taken from aspects of my life from that period of time when I wrote it, so it came out quickly. I wrote the whole script in about two weeks. My writing partner was going out of town, and I told him that this was the movie I kind of wanted to make, influenced by movies like “The Celebration” and “Rules of the Game” and those old grimoire movies. I just sat down and wrote it. I hate writing so much that when I do it, I try to get it over it with as quickly as possible by doing it very fast.

CS: Did you do a lot of script readings to develop it or do you just write…
Winkler:
I just kind of write it and then figure it out. Yeah, I write very fast and I just kind of felt like I needed to get this one out of me, so I could move on with my life I was really feeling like my biological film clock was ticking. I really felt like I needed to make a movie. For some reason, even though I was young, but I felt like I really wanted it.

CS: What was the timeframe between finishing the script and it premiering at Toronto?
Winkler:
It was probably a couple years altogether. The cast went through a couple incarnations, but pretty fast. Relatively speaking, you hear stories about movies like “Blue Valentine” taking 12 years to make and obviously (that’s a) fantastic movie; this was quicker.

CS: That’s good, because that’s the longest time I’ve heard of a movie taking.
Winkler:
Nah, I don’t think I have that in me at the moment.

CS: You said there were cast incarnations, but you cast you ended up with was pretty amazing. It’s one of those movies where if one piece was off…
Winkler:
The whole movie derails.

CS: Yeah, exactly, and it’s kind of an odd cast. First of all, Lee Pace normally plays the nice guy and he’s not in this case. I forgot that he wasn’t British, because he plays British so well in this and other movies.
Winkler:
Yeah, it’s crazy. He’s a freak of nature, he’s like the best actor I’ve ever seen. He’s like a true Julliard-trained Shakespearean, he’s like made to destroy in acting. He was so good. His box of tools that he can pull from to make a scene work is just incredible. Every person sits down and says, “But this cast is the one it needed to be and this was always meant to be,” but for this movie, I really feel like it was. Anyone who was in it, left for whatever reason, was great in their own right, but I don’t think this movie would have worked with one of these people recast.

CS: I can imagine, so who was the first person who joined it?
Winkler:
Michael and Jesse Eisenberg were originally cast, Jesse was going to play Sam, and Jesse left for the Facebook movie, obviously, and he had my blessing and it was scheduling, and I didn’t want to wait. You’re getting ready to go and make a movie and the idea of stopping and waiting just doesn’t feel right, and Michael was always cast as Marshall, Reece’s character, but we had done some readings–Jesse, Michael and I–that Michael got to know both characters so well – that old Sam Sheppard True West metaphor. So I was like, “Michael, do you want to read for Sam?” and he said “Yes.”

CS: I’m just shocked Michael was originally playing Marshall because he’s so good as Sam in this.
Winkler:
Yeah, I mean he was born for it. He’s so f*cking good in it, and we had a great time and Jake Johnson, who plays Uma’s brother Teddy, who worked with me first on “Clark and Michael” and him and I had written scripts together, and he was a real sort of muse to me, and when I find a project that I’m going to work on, I immediately look for a part to put him in. He reminds me of a ’70s Nicholson type…

CS: He hasn’t really done very much.
Winkler:
He’s just starting. He was in “Paper Heart” and he was just in “No Strings Attached,” and he’s going to be in Liz Merriweather’s new pilot, and he is one of the greatest actors I’ve ever seen. And Reece I’d seen in “Rocket Science” and I couldn’t believe he didn’t really have that stutter. It blew my mind, and then Uma, who sort of anchored the whole movie, who really signed up for it and did something totally different than I think she’d done in a really long time. She was fantastic.

CS: How did you approach Uma to do the movie? Did you just send her the script?
Winkler:
Yeah, Uma had gotten a script and I shockingly heard that she liked it, and I never would have even thought that was a possibility. Certain actors had just dropped out and I was in New York with my luggage, I went to my apartment the day after I got to New York, the day of my birthday, and this guy had sold our apartment, sublet to someone else, and I thought the movie was going to fall away, and I was literally like “Sullivan’s Travels,” just walking on the streets with all my bags and I get a call from my agent saying that Uma Thurman had just read the script and wants to do it, and I was like, “Shut up!” and (they said) “No, she does, go to her house now.” So I went to Uma Thurman’s house with all my bags and she had this gigantic door and she answered the door and I was sitting on a step below and she’s so tall and I’m so small, too, and she bent down and hugged me, and I just felt like a broken man being hugged by my mother and we had a great conversation. She really responded to the character. You’re so used to seeing Uma with a samurai sword literally decapitating people and that feels so natural for her, she’s so powerful, she’s such an incredible force, but the real Uma is really soft and vulnerable and neurotic and smart and romantic, and I think she really responded to that character. There’s part of her that’s really sort of a big kid kind of like Zoe in the movie sort of afraid to grow up, and she was amazing.

CS: Has the movie changed at all since Toronto?
Winkler:
No, it’s the movie that was in the festival. Of course, you show your movie and sometimes you get neurotic and you want to go back and re-edit the whole thing. I think this movie was as good as it was going to be no matter what.

CS: I got the impression that Jake was more in the movie because he’s such a presence.
Winkler:
He is. He’s really one of the things people leave and remember. I think for a lot of people, it’s the first time you meet Jake Johnson, this actor, and I think they’re so blown away by how good he is. He’s incredible. The kind of comedy we’ve always been interested in is like “What would ‘The Deer Hunter’ have been like if it was a comedy?”

CS: Does he write also?
Winkler:
Yeah, he’s a great writer. We actually wrote a movie together that we’ll hopefully get to make someday.

CS: You mentioned that you’d been reading with Michael and Jesse for a long time, so did you have enough time to read Michael with Reece or Michael with Uma to make sure it would work?
Winkler:
No, none. Michael and Uma did not meet until the day they met on the beach in the movie, Uma’s first day, which kind of ended up working, because Uma is so tall and Michael is so small and that energy of a first meeting, it being totally awkward and weird was caught perfectly. It was Uma’s first day, Michael and I had been shooting for a week and a half already, so there was not really a lot of time to rehearse, so we were really finding a lot of the characters on set, which was probably scary for the producers but for me, to watch these guys figure out these brilliant things that they were doing was such a pleasurable experience to watch.

CS: You feel like they have history and that might be since they’re both really good actresses, which is why I was really curious about that.
Winkler:
Reece and Michael started hanging out a lot. When they auditioned together in L.A., I made them start hanging out and going on friend-dates together, and they immediately sunk into their characters. Michael was reading “The Great Gatsby” to Reece before he fell asleep at night in their hotel room, they really started becoming best friends, and I think that’s why that relationship works so well in the movie is because they hung out so much and just dove into it.

CS: Michael is especially impressive, because this really is the first adult role he’s done, and he’s like Jason Schwartzman, where you’re so used to them playing young guys and here, you really feel like he’s an adult. I saw him in this other movie “Homework” which shot right after and what he did in this really carried over to that.
Winkler:
He’s unbelievable. He inspired everyone on set, his work. He was so committed to that character and that’s a character that like you said, if he is 10% off, the movie doesn’t work. He carries the whole movie, literally, I mean picking up the f*cking camera and audience member and taking them on this insane adventure that he’s going on, and he’s the best. I could work with Michael in every movie I write.

CS: Had you thought about having Michael Cera or Clark Duke being a part of this since you had worked with them so much?
Winkler:
No, no, Mike Cera I’m always looking for something to do with and he’s one of my closest friends, and someone I spent a long time with watching movies and talking about movies, a real sort of student of film. He watches more movies than anyone I know. Yeah, I’d love to work with him. That was an incredible experience working with those two guys.

CS: You mentioned “The Celebration,” which is one of many great independent wedding movies, “Rachel Getting Married” is another one, so were you at all nervous about going into that territory that has been covered so much?
Winkler:
No, because it was such a personal movie, I never really worried about it feeling like another movie, because it was the only kind of movie I knew how to make, because it was literally my life at the time. I just love those movies, the weekend in the country weekends where all this sh*t sort of comes out, all these sort of repressed feelings that these people are carrying around start oozing out of the walls. It always seems like something I was excited to do.

CS: What about shooting the movie? You did a little bit in the city.
Winkler:
Yeah, just two days in the city and the rest we were all in that house on Center Island, literally where “The Great Gatsby” takes place on the Long Island Sound. We were all living on set and it was a lot like camp, we were all living in these little beach shanties surrounding the giant mansion, having dinner together every night and talking about the movie every night. Michael’s mom who is this incredible Italian cook would make us dinner sometimes, so it’s as much as you’d want it to be like a Cassavetes-type feeling. We were all together and constantly talking about it and playing jokes on each other and f**king with each other, it was great.

CS: It sounds like a great experience, so do you think it will be hard to do another movie and have that same sort of experience?
Winkler:
Yeah, the only way I could do it is to cast as many of the people from “Ceremony” as I can. It was such a great experience and the idea of working with your friends and working with people you really admire like that and you have such a good second-hand language with seems like something that I really want to do again.

CS: Did it take some time to come to the title “Ceremony”? Did you have other titles or was that always the title?
Winkler:
Yeah, it was actually. I make big playlists of music before I start to write, and that New Order song “Ceremony” was always on there and I always loved it, and I always felt like tonally it encapsulated the playful sadness that I was going for. It was originally called “The Wedding” and then I wanted to send the script out as “Untitled Max Winkler Wedding Project” but they said, “Nobody knows who the f**k you are, nobody will ever read ‘Untitled Max Winkler Project.'” It seemed so cool to have an untitled movie until the very end.

CS: Noah Baumbach can get away with that.
Winkler:
Yeah, I think that’s probably why I did it because Noah Baumbach did it and it’s so much cooler. (Laughs) Finally, I think we just came on “Ceremony” and I had never been crazy about the title, but now I guess it kind of works.

CS: You actually were inspired by the New Order song but didn’t actually put “Ceremony” in the movie and you didn’t go overboard with the music, which tends to be the case with first-time filmmakers. You kept it minimal, so was that hard to do?
Winkler:
No, music is such a big part of my life and it’s the quickest way I get to someplace emotionally, the same way you can feel watching “The Graduate,” you can feel listening to Paul Simon “Pappa Hobo” in two minutes, which is a song in the movie. I’ve always been able to access my deep emotional sad places through music quickest, so I’d always be listening to music on set, if I was trying to figure out exactly what kind of direction to give Michael or whatever I was doing. We’d always sort to have an iPod around and we were listening to music. I think music really helped tonally with capturing the movie and making it feel the way it did.

CS: But you didn’t use a lot of it in the movie. “The Graduate” would be a great comparison, but you didn’t take that approach.
Winkler:
No, because I felt that no one could do it better than “Harold and Maude” or “The Graduate,” but we did have this guy whose in this band that I really admire called the Fruit Bats, Eric Johnson, scored the movie and brought a singer/songwriter sensibility to it, but it was different. Yeah, I don’t think you can try to touch what Cat Stevens or Simon and Garfunkel did with those two movies, just cause they’re the best.

CS: How do feel about the whole Video on Demand aspect of the film’s release? I know some filmmakers are purists where they feel their movies need to be seen in a theater.
Winkler:
Theoretically, I’d love everyone to go see the movie in the theater. I’ll never bring up the VOD thing ever, but it’s a big part of the movie industry now and how people are making actual money on these movies, where these movies might not get distributed, because now the distributors are shrinking and there’s very few people to actually do this. For me, it’s like I’d love for everybody to go see the movie at the Paris Theater or it would have a five-month residency at the Ziegfeld, but it’s just not the case anymore. The industry’s changing and whatever it is to get your movie up there, in the end, you want your movie to be seen by as many people as possible. It seems like this VOD thing has been a really lucrative thing for Magnolia and other companies.

CS: Did the movie do a lot of other festivals besides Toronto?
Winkler:
No, that was sort of our main one and then we did a bunch of small ones and then we’ll be in South by SouthWest, which I’m very excited about.

CS: Where do you go from here? Do you go back to some of the other scripts you were working on before doing this?
Winkler:
No, I just finished writing a new one that I’m very excited to make and I’m starting to cast now. I’m sort of not talking about it, but I’m very excited about it.

CS: So sometime this year you’ll be shooting another movie?
Winkler:
Yes, I’d like to be shooting as soon as possible.

CS: Have you been approached at all about developing other scripts to direct?
Winkler:
Yeah, but nothing yet that is… I’ve always been wanting to write my own things. I just feel like I’m a really neurotic kind of guy, and I like being able to answer every question there is. For me, directing is so much about the writing. A lot of the directing I do is done in the writing of the movie and knowing exactly what needs to happen. That part for me is the part that I really enjoy.

CS: The fact that you can write a script in two weeks is pretty impressive. Most filmmakers who write and direct have to spend years and years writing the script.
Winkler:
I mean granted I had to go back and rewrite a lot, but the first initial thing was written really quickly, and it was just something inside of me that was waiting to come out.

CS: It sounds like you have a lot of things lined-up.
Winkler:
Yeah, I think that’s sort of the way to go. I think you never want to put too many eggs in one basket. I think actually getting to direct and make the movie is the real vocation of the whole thing and the rest is stressful and anxiety-driving, so I think just to get back and make a movie as quick as you can while you still have some energy.

CS: Are you going to try to bring some of the cast of “Ceremony” back as you said earlier?
Winkler:
Yeah, I’d love to. I have them in mind for this new movie that I’m finishing up.

And with that, the birthday brownie showed up and the interview portion was over so that the over-indulgence could begin…

Ceremony opens in New York and L.A. on Friday, April 8.