“Flower” is the kind of movie that seems to be asking for trouble: A racy story about a 17-year-old girl who sexually schemes men out of their money, the film was written by three men, one of whom, Max Winkler, also served as director. At a time when Hollywood is already taking heat for not creating enough opportunities for women filmmakers, having a group of men tell a story about a sexually adventurous teenage girl could be seen as playing with fire, which is why the filmmakers turned to several women to help tell the story.
Though billed as a dark comedy, “Flower” veers into both drama and suspense after a late twist that significantly raises the stakes of the story. Produced by David Gordon Green’s Rough House Pictures, the film had its world premiere last week at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival and was acquired for U.S. distribution by The Orchard in the only acquisition so far at the fest. “Flower” stars Zoey Deutch in the lead role of Erica, a confident and rebellious teen in Los Angeles’ suburbs whose habit of seducing and then blackmailing older men takes a strange turn after her mother’s boyfriend and fresh-out-of-rehab son move into her home. Kathryn Hahn, Tim Heidecker and Adam Scott co-star.
Five years ago, the screenplay for “Flower” was Hollywood’s version of kryptonite. The script from Young Adult novelist Alex McAulay made the 2012 Black List, but the subject matter was seen as being too edgy to get off the ground. Though Rough House had the rights to the project, the script had been sitting around with no interest from directors.
“People thought it was impossible because of the sexual aspect to it,” Winkler said during a recent interview. “But to me, sexuality really is the least important part, because the things Erica does for money are a transaction for her. There’s really no sexuality to it whatsoever.”
When Winkler and his longtime writing partner, “Ingrid Goes West” director Matt Spicer, both read the script, they were immediately drawn to the boldness of Erica’s character. “It’s another opportunity for a complicated, powerful, active female protagonist,” Winkler said in a recent interview. “I don’t think there are enough of those parts.”
After Winkler and Spicer revised the script, the pair went about assembling a team of women collaborators who could prevent the so-called male gaze from tainting the project. This included hiring consulting producer Caroline Goldfarb, director of photography Carolina Costa, editor Sarah Beth Shapiro, production designer Tricia Robertson, costume designer Michelle Thompson and unit production manager/line producer Maritte Lee Go.
“I wanted a set and an environment where people could hold me accountable for anything that felt inauthentic or untrue to the female teenage experience,” Winkler said, adding that he and Spicer frequently relied on Deutch to help rewrite Erica’s dialogue. “We were lucky enough to have an actress as outspoken and smart as Zoey, who really has no filter when it comes to calling out bullshit or something that she thinks doesn’t feel real.”
Robertson said that Winkler constantly asked for input from his female department heads, even on creative decisions that fell outside their specific department. “The female voice is just incorporated inherently into the storytelling,” she said. “There’s no male filter put on it at all.” Shapiro added that Winkler “did everything he could do to tell Erica’s story authentically, including [having] the large number of female voices weighing in.”
Though having a large group of female collaborators gave Winkler and Spicer the confidence they needed to do right by the material, Spicer said that his recent experience at Sundance with “Ingrid Goes West” has taught him a lot about Hollywood’s aversion to female-driven stories.
“I was told that just the fact that my movie had a female lead character who isn’t sweet and fun and likable meant that instantly, 25 percent of the people who watch it aren’t going to like it,” he said. “If this was a guy character, nobody would think this is crazy, but the second you make it a woman, it’s like, oh my god, can you do this?”
After “Flower,” Winkler and Spicer will co-write the script for Disney’s “The Rocketeer,” a reboot sequel to Disney’s 1991 film of the same name.
“Flower” marks Winkler’s return to feature filmmaking six years after his debut film, “Ceremony,” which Magnolia Pictures released in 2010. In that time, he’s written a number of original scripts and been offered other projects to direct, none of which attracted his interest.
“They just weren’t movies that I think I would have done a good job on,” he said. Following “Ceremony,” Winkler has directed episodes of shows including “The New Normal,” “New Girl,” “Fresh off the Boat,” “Casual” and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.”
Few critics have weighed in on “Flower,” but the film has already left a strong impression on acquisition executives. The Orchard bought all North American rights to the title over the weekend in a rights purchase that came together very quickly compared to most indie negotiations. The deal marked the first acquisition out of this year’s Tribeca — which means it may not be the last time you read about the male storytellers and its focus on women. “I think it’s irresponsible to say men can’t make good movies about women or that women can’t make good movies about men,” Winkler said. “The more we can place each other inside of each other’s narratives, the better.”