"Ceremony" marks Winker's writing and directing debut. Coming from a very personal place, the film follows Sam (Michael Angarano), a self-absorbed writer who intends to crash the wedding of his ex-sorta-girlfriend Zoe (Uma Thurman) who he still holds a major flame for. Along for the ride is mild-mannered Marshall (Reece Thompson from "Rocket Science"), who's swindled into taking a vacation with Sam but instead ends up helping him infiltrate the private beachside wedding. Rounding out the excellent supporting cast is Jake Johnson as Teddy, the alcoholic brother, and Lee Pace as the deliciously arrogant husband-to-be.
Powered by strong performances by the entire ensemble cast, Winkler's debut makes him a talent to watch, showing a deft hand at negotiating emotionally raw scenes among a much more romantically whimsical premise. The Playlist was able to catch up with the writer/director recently and discuss how he feels about often-made comparisons to Wes Anderson's work and how Jesse Eisenberg left the picture for the pastures of David Fincher (it all worked out for the best).
"Ceremony" is currently available On Demand and goes into limited release this Friday, April 8th.
The Playlist: So much has been made about the Wes Anderson influence, but it also reminds one heavily of Salinger's work. Was this intentional?
Max Winkler: Ironically, the movie's about a guy who's influenced too much by Salinger, he sort of believes he's this Clark Gable or Holden Caulfield character, but he's not that terribly original and not that interesting, and he's terribly scared about that. So he hides in this hideous suit and mustache that he thinks is appealing, and the end he realizes that it's okay to be yourself even if it's not the coolest or most interesting thing in the world.
And with all of the Wes Anderson talk, is that at all detrimental?
I feel like there's a witch hunt by some film sites and people that immediately disregard something if it shows any sort of influence. Like if there's something framed in the middle of a shot with a rock 'n' roll song in the background -- that did exist before Wes, it was in [Martin] Scorsese movies, etc. I was watching "Manhattan" last night, and Woody Allen talks about Ingmar Bergman, as his greatest influence, in his movies.
And you're not glorifying Michael Angarano's character at all.
My perspective as the writer/director, is that we shit on the Angarano character the entire movie. He tries to do the 'Mr. Fox' thing and nobody gives a shit. He's in reality, and no one cares. In the core, there's a beautiful, raw open sore of just a guy who doesn't know who he is. Who's still too influenced by "Catcher in the Rye," he's still hiding behind them.
We all liked Wes Anderson's movies at some point in our lives, but there are people who pretend as if they never had.
The Wes Anderson stuff I've never had a problem talking about because it feels like we're just starting to see movies by guys my age, and the first movie my Dad took me to see was "Bottle Rocket" when I was ten. And I didn't know movies could be like that. That was my first introduction to good movies, in fact I think he was one of the real first filmmakers that I loved unabashedly. He was sort of a gateway drug in a sense because I wasn't ten and watching [Francois] Truffaut or Scorsese movies, but he was influenced by them and [Louis] Malles, etc. and we discovered those through him.
You mention Louis Malle as a big influence. What in particular do you pull from him?
He made great movies about adolescence and perpetual adolescence… you know the French are obsessed with young boys -- in a non-sexual way -- about rascals and them becoming men. I've always been sort of influenced by my male relationships and that period of my life when you start to cringe and be like, "I can't believe I wore this or that." It's the same for [Michael Angarano's character] Sam, and he's just coming to that realization in the film. I love the look, the camera moves, they're timeless.
You described it as a coming-of-age film in reverse. Anything specific you wanted to say in structuring a film like that?
I don't know. It's about a boy who thinks he's a man, and he thinks that's how he's going to get his way. But he realizes throughout the film that he's just a boy. By the end he's a shell of himself, he's been beaten up by everyone but he's finally okay by himself. The conversation he has with Teddy (Jake Johnson) by the window at the end, he says, "Two years you're going to be 25, the sun's going to be burnt out and what's this even going to mean?" I wrote that into a short film that I made when I was younger, the line was delivered by my father in it, but the quote always stuck with me… it's like, we'll all be okay. Hopefully. (pause) Maybe not.
Do you think the Sam character will change in the end?
I don't know. You hope that he'll start new, but you don't know.
You can argue both ways.
He sort of changes when he talks to Teddy at the window and says he doesn't know how good he is, then he has a conversation with Marshall (Reece Thompson) and admits that he's an asshole and asks to see his therapist after being so judgmental of Marshall even seeing one. I think that's the moment, but there's the immediate line after that where he goes back to being about materialism and appearances and says, "Your hair is fantastic." So it's like, he hasn't changed that much! It's not a tied-up-bow ending where it's like "He's great now." He's still self-obsessed. But we all are, at least now he's open about it.
Something fascinating about Lee Pace's character Whit is that he seems to know everything about Uma Thurman and Michael Angarano's past relationship, but is not worried in the slightest.
Lee is kind of the only character that's open about who he really is. The whole movie everyone's dealing with an identity crisis and growing up but also hiding behind someone else. Uma's character is also a stunted character, she has to deal with growing up and not flitting around, Marshall hides behind the fact that he was pistol whipped once and he's afraid to get a job, Teddy hides behind the booze and that he's going to lose his sister, the only person who ever loved him. Lee's the only one that really owns up to who he is, no apologies. I really based him a lot on Alan Alda's character in "Crimes and Misdemeanors," which is probably the great foil for a romantic hero in a movie. He just wins, you don't know how but he just does. And the way Lee plays him is so fantastic, because it could be like a caricature but Lee plays it with some a human quality. He's very likable, and it's a breath of fresh air from the rest of the characters who are all trying to be someone else.
That's interesting, because Michael Angarano's character is sort of like that in a way -- no apologies for his behavior.
But it's an act, that's not really him. The person who he is, is actually really deeply insecure and mired in self-worth, and the only person who believes this is Marshall and that's why he brings him around. Secretly because he gives him an emotional stability too, because he knew the real him. In fact, the most important shot in the whole movie is the scene when Teddy almost drowns. Sam goes up to Zoe and asks her what was wrong. She's freaked out because she almost lost her only bloodline in the world, and he asks her if she's mad at him. He makes it about himself. Then you just see Lee hold her, and you realize that's why she's with him, because Sam could never not make it about himself at this stage. Lee's character takes care of her and she feels safe, secure. Sam could never do that.
Jesse Eisenberg was originally going to lead the film. What was it like when he was attached?
Michael was going to play Marshall and Jesse was going to play Sam, and things were written for those characters with those two in mind. The three of us would even do readings in my living room for that.
But then Eisenberg had to leave for "The Social Network"…. but Angarano really knocked it out of the park.
Right. He didn't even know he'd play that part, and he destroyed. When you see Michael at the end and he's screaming at her, it's perfect. Sam is a hard character for some because he's an asshole, and if you can't get past that then there's nothing that I can do. But he carries the movie, he's literally moving the camera with him, and the amount of energy that he has to have with him in the beginning, this false sense of confidence, is difficult to conjure. Michael doesn't have that in real life, he's actually sort of quiet and more like his character in "Snow Angels," but he was in an emotionally crazy place in the movie. For him to show that explosive, manic energy is inspiring, and it inspired everyone on set. He set the tone for the shoot.
Anybody else you had in mind for the cast that you couldn't get? Or someone maybe for a future script?
Nobody else in mind, but I've always wanted to work with Michael Cera again, and we've talked about it, but that's it. Jesse Eisenberg's a good friend of ours too, and he's a very inspiring guy and a great writer.
What've you learned after doing your first feature?
For so long, there's this thing in making your first movie, and you want it to be like "Lawrence of Arabia" and you think that it's going to change the world and all, and then everyone starts going… "Really good first film." And that's like, ah what the fuck! Isn't this more than a first film? And it took me a long time to realize that it is a first film, I couldn't have made it when I was 30, I had to have written it when I was 24 because that's what I was going through. Trying to figure out who I was and being uncomfortable in my own skin. So I finally became sort of proud that it was my first film.
I think the whole "Isn't this more than a first film?!" sentiment comes from having to live up to Orson Welles, who made probably the best movie of all time when he was about 25.
And Steven Spielberg did "Jaws" when he was young, too. I think maybe it's both that people don't get shots on movies like that anymore and it's also like, those are two of the top geniuses in film. Which I'm not. (laughs) But I'm so grateful and lucky to have been able to make a movie. People will say nice things, say mean things, and there's nothing you can do about it. You can't allow it to affect you, really.
You've made something very personal to you. Have you been checking its reception?
I don't read reviews, good or bad, just for my own sanity… It's hard to put yourself out there, especially when the main character is totally based on you, and they just think he's a fucking asshole! During a test screening I made myself read one of the cards, all zeros, they kept referring to Sam as "crying man" and the last part said, "The main actor reminded me of a terrible version of the director and Harvey Milk." It's like, "What??" You can't take it seriously. But it's my first movie, I'm going through it all the same.
Check out more from Max Winker, including details on what he hopes will be his follow-up feature, a film in the vein of the Jerry Schatzberg classic "Scarecrow." "Ceremony" is currently available On Demand and goes into limited release this Friday.