One of the independent film scene’s leading lights has faded. Producer, director and independent film pioneer Gary Winick died Sunday afternoon in New York at the age of 49, just a month shy of his 50th birthday.
The cause of death was brain cancer, said Mark Ross, a close friend of Winick who was among the friends and relatives with him when he died at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York.
“He had more close friends than anyone I had ever seen,” said Ross, who attended Tufts University with Winick. “He was an amazing mentor and an amazing friend.”
Winick grew up in New York and attended Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School. He took to film early, working with Tufts college friends Niels Mueller, Hank Azaria and Oliver Platt on a TV show they called “Tracks Inn.” Mueller would later collaborate with Winick as a cowriter on his break-out film, “Tadpole,” which received the Director’s Award at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival. Mueller also worked on production drafts of Winick’s “13 Going on 30” and “Letters to Juliet.”
“He cared about the people he came into contact with,” said Mueller. “He leaves behind a real family of friends. His friends were his family.”
After Tufts, Winick entered film school at the University of Texas at Austin, where he received an MFA in directing. He later took an MFA in producing from the AFI Conservatory in Los Angeles.
While directing early films such as “Sweet Nothing,” “The Tic Code” and “Sam the Man,” Winick also taught classes at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, a post that Ross said Winick relished.
Winick was diagnosed with brain cancer in November 2008 and underwent treatment. He still managed to go on location to Italy the following year, directing “Letters to Juliet,” starring Amanda Seyfried and Vanessa Redgrave, between cancer treatments.
While “Tadpole” catapulted Winick to studio films like “Charlotte’s Web” and “13 Going On 30,” members of the tight-knit indie film community on both coasts remember Winick as a generous visionary who wanted to create a new model of filmmaking to mentor small, digitally made passion projects.
In 1999, along with John Sloss as well as Caroline Kaplan and Jonathan Sehring from IFC, Winick launched InDigEnt (short for Independent Digital Entertainment). Alexis Alexanian came on board to run the company, which was inspired by Dogme, the revolutionary low-budget film collective in Denmark. The initial dream was to make 10 films for $1 million, recalled Alexanian; the enterprise largely succeeded, with nearly all of the micro-budgeted movies he produced under the InDigEnt banner finding distribution.
InDigEnt, which folded in 2007, was the production company on some 18 films, including “Tape,” directed by Richard Linklater, “Chelsea Walls,” directed by Ethan Hawke; Winick’s “Tadpole,” starring Sigourney Weaver and Aaron Stanford; “Personal Velocity,” written and directed by Rebecca Miller; “Pieces of April,” written and directed by Peter Hedges, starring Katie Holmes, Oliver Platt and Patricia Clarkson; “Lonesome Jim,” directed by Steve Buscemi; “Puccini for Beginners,” written and directed by Maria Maggenti; and “Flakes,” directed by Michael Lehmann.
In 2003, Winick won the Independent Spirit Awards’ John Cassavetes Award for Rebecca Miller’s “Personal Velocity,” which InDigEnt produced. That same year, another film he produced, “Pieces of April,” garnered its star, Patricia Clarkson, a supporting actress Oscar nomination.
After “Tadpole” provoked a Sundance bidding war, Winick found himself straddling independent and studio worlds on both coasts.
His collaboration with Jennifer Garner on “13 Going on 30” typified the types of relationships he built throughout his career. After that experience, “we had an ongoing collaboration,” Garner said Monday, calling from a movie set in Atlanta. “Any movie I was close to, I wanted him to direct. We were always looking for something to do together—studio stuff, independent stuff.
“I am beyond sad and feel incredibly cheated,” she said. “I don’t think anyone who worked with Gary left without feeling overwhelmed by his generosity. He could be tortured by the decisions and the frustrations of filmmaking, but he also came to life as the leader of a group.”
In the 24 hours since Winick’s passing, many people from the New York film community have conveyed their sadness and spoken of Winick as a leading light.
“It’s a true loss for our community,” said Kaplan, a frequent collaborator and close friend of Winick’s and, most recently, a producer of “Letters to Juliet.”
She said Winick tirelessly helped others, attending screenings of friends’ films and giving notes. “He was a competitive person in sports, but when it came to work, he was such a supporter. He wanted to push everyone to do their best and he was never too busy to take time to help people. He was such a connector.”
Susan Littenberg, another close friend, edited Winick’s “Tadpole,” “Charlotte’s Web” and “Bride Wars.” She added, “Whether it was the head of the studio or a P.A., Gary listened to their opinions and treated people with respect.”
Alexanian called Winick’s passion for filmmaking “infectious.”
“He wanted to create a kind of indie studio,” Alexanian said. “He wanted to have a stable of talent and affiliations of people that would endure over time. It was invigorating and it was the best of its kind at the time.”
Jake Abraham, who later served as Winick’s producing partner at InDigEnt, noted how much Winick looked to foster young talent. “He always had time for his friends and even for complete strangers who were looking to fulfill their own artistic vision.”
Added Abraham, “Gary is something that is very had to find in this business. Someone who is not just there for himself.”
Meira Blaustein, director of the Woodstock Film Festival, wrote in an e-mail message, “Gary was one of the finest human beings in our industry that I have ever known.”
In another e-mail, veteran producer Jason Kliot wrote, “What I always admired in Gary was his extraordinary determination, courage and focus. Gary will be remembered as an independent film pioneer who went on to have a successful career directing studio pictures. What I most admired him for was something other that. I was in awe of the filmmaker with a dream who never gave up.”
Winick, whose older brother, Mark, died two months ago of a heart attack, is survived by his father, Alan Winick; his mother, Penny Williams; his stepmother, Virginia Williams; his stepfather, Ted Williams; and by Emily McDonnell, his fiancee.
Plans for a memorial service have not yet been announced.