Max Winkler is new to cinema; his first feature film, “Ceremony,” opens this weekend. But if you’ve seen any of the popular CBS web series “Clark and Michael,” which he directed, you know that his debut film is something to look forward to. “Ceremony” is a great little wedding film, starring Michael Angarano as Sam, a 20-something New Yorker desperate to win back the love of his life (Uma Thurman) before she marries a hilariously self-absorbed documentary filmmaker (Lee Pace).
You can check out my review here. Winkler (yes, Henry “the Fonz” Winkler is his dad) and I spoke about the film, his characters, and how much he loves Woody Allen and Robert Altman. Also, a surprising and career suggestion for Charlie Sheen. Take a look after the jump.
Did you have anyone in mind while you were writing the script?
I had a lot of actors who were eventually in the movie in mind while I was writing it. The script was originally written for Jesse Eisenberg and Michael Angarano together. Jesse had to leave for scheduling [reasons], but Michael’s voice was always sort of in there.
How is the shift from working on smaller stuff like “Clark and Michael” to directing a feature film?
I really like making movies. I loved doing “Clark and Michael,” but we shot that in a lot of ways like a movie. We shot that straight, and it was good preparation. The best part about making movies is that you have the best talented people around you to inspire you and show you things that you didn’t really know. They were all way more experienced than I was, and to have them doing it with me was fantastic. It never really got too stressful for me because it was always what I wanted to do. I sort of thrived on that pressure, and it was really kind of a pleasure.
Is the script autobiographical?
Yeah, I think it is. A good part of the script is based on people I know and parts of myself. And not necessarily the parts I’m most proud of from when I was younger. It’s a story about that time in your life when you’re looking back and thinking maybe you could have done things differently.
Is there a real guy out there like Whit (Lee Pace’s character)?
There’s probably somebody out there that’s similar to him. I think Alan Alda’s character in “Crimes and Misdemeanors” really inspired me, that kind of character. When we cast Lee Pace I told him to watch the movie because I thought it was such a good version, even though totally different. The most important part about Whit is he’s the only guy in the movie that actually handles himself in a way that’s true to who he really is. Everyone else is caught up in this idea of themselves that no one really believes in. Whit is who you think he is and doesn’t really make apologies about that.
Which filmmakers influenced you most in making the film?
I don’t know. I’m such a fan of movies in general. Woody Allen uses the term “anxiety of influence.” When you love movies and you see them at a young age and you’re impressionable and excited… these are the kinds of movies that end up pushing you to go and make movies. Those things that raised you and turned you into who you are become a part of you. Woody Allen’s collaboration with Gordon Willis is some of the best cinematography to be seen in a lighter type of movie, and we really tried to draw from that.
I know that William Rexler, my cameraman, and I watched a lot of Woody Allen movies to see how much we could emulate his choreography. We didn’t have a lot of time to rehearse so we couldn’t get all of those one-shots [long takes], but we tried at least. I wasn’t really thinking about other people when I made the movie per se. Obviously anything I ever do isn’t as cool or tough as Paul Thomas Anderson. He’s the best — maybe ever — so if we could move the camera even one-tenth the way he could, I’d be honored. I don’t think we even do that, but he’s definitely one of my idols.
Sam (Michael Angarano) has a really particular way of speaking, a sort of understated but also cocky quirkiness. How did you write the character?
You know, he’s trying to be something he’s not. No one says, “What kind of dragon do I have to slay to get a drink around here,” but also nobody wears a suit like that, and nobody wears a ridiculous mustache that looks like that. He’s clearly posturing and pretending to be something he’s not because deep down he’s terrified that he’s just a regular 22-year-old with not much to offer the world. So he needs to pretend to be Clark Gable or something like that, because that’s the way he’s going to get what he wants.
It’s really important to us as the filmmakers to set up, from the beginning, that we’re not taking this guy seriously either. Where movies can sometimes trip up and become a little too in love with themselves is when [they] start to show that type of flawed character with a real romance. But I’m being really open at the beginning that we should not take anything this guy says too seriously. The benefit of having somebody like Angarano is that he’s such a beautiful guy and he’s so innocent. He gets away with a lot more than I think a lot of people would get away with, by treating people the way he does. You can so clearly tell he’s pretending.
What are your favorite wedding movies?
I love the Robert Altman movie “A Wedding,” which I’m not sure a lot of people know about. I don’t know the genre of the wedding movie generally, but I do know “weekend in the country” movies. I think “Rules of the Game” and “Celebration” are two of my favorites of that genre. Just having all of these people in a closed environment with no escape, and insanity ensues.
My only true regret was that with our budget we didn’t get to have enough background actors, and I wanted to have hundreds in every single shot, but they’re so expensive. We were filtering and sending my friends who were visiting on set in pea coats. It was insanity.
You do have quite a full ensemble going on, with some great supporting characters that each have their own intimate scenes to try helping Sam along his way. I’m think of Whit, and also Teddy (Jake M. Johnson).
I think a movie is successful if you see a character change and go in a way that you didn’t think was going to happen. And we try to do that with every character in this movie. We tried to turn the genre as much as we could. I think that’s why Altman is amazing, or any P.T. Anderson movie is amazing, because you would want to watch a movie about a supporting character. By doing that you give all these characters as many interesting traits as you can, and try to think the audience is on top of it and then turn it on its ear a little bit. I think that’s the goal.
You have to challenge yourself. We would literally ask ourselves, myself and my producer Matt Spicer, “What would Paul Thomas Anderson do here?” You would watch a version of “Boogie Nights” with any single one of those characters. Same with “Magnolia” and “Punch-Drunk Love,” you would watch the whole Philip Seymour Hoffman version of that movie. You would watch the whole Frank T.J. Mackie (Tom Cruise in “Magnolia”) movie. It would be the best movie of all time. I think Charlie Sheen would have to star as him, though.