Director Max Winkler’s persistence pays off
When Max Winkler set out to make a movie, he made one thing clear: He didn’t want any help from his Hollywood veteran father, no matter how tempting the prospect.
Editing his directorial debut, “Ceremony,” out of his boyhood bedroom put Winkler mighty close to Dad — Henry Winkler, still remembered best as the Fonz from “Happy Days.”
“I would walk down the hall and I would have a spring in my step knowing [Max] was nearby, but as I turned to come in the room, I would see the door almost in my face,” the elder Winkler recalled. “You can only give him a suggestion if he asks. There is no room for unsolicited suggestions. He’s a very strong-willed human being.”
But that persistence has paid off for his son. Over the weekend, nearly a month after it was released on video-on-demand, “Ceremony,” which the 27-year-old Winkler also wrote, hit theaters. The movie centers on a young man (Michael Angarano) who has fallen for an older woman (Uma Thurman) and rushes to her wedding in an attempt to steal her away from her betrothed. It’s a deeply personal story, Winkler acknowledged.
“It’s a pretty brutal account of probably the worst and most selfish parts of someone who thinks they’re a lot older and more original than they are,” he said, perhaps obliquely referring to himself. “At a certain age, you feel like you have a monopoly on suffering and heartbreak and that no one can really understand what it’s like. But that’s not true.”
That moment came in his own life, Winkler said, after he graduated from film school at USC and realized how difficult it would be to break into the industry.
“I had no idea what I was going to do, and thought I was going to get a ‘real’ job. You leave school with, like, a black-and-white ‘Karma Police’ [Radiohead] music video. And you realize that’s not going to get you paid,” he said, sitting in the tea room at the Museum of Jurassic Technology, which houses an eccentric collection of possessions ranging from decaying dice to portraits of canines who have traveled to outer space.
It was in the Culver City museum that Winkler was finally able to buckle down and focus after graduation. He and a writing partner Matt Spicer spent months there, penning the first script they ever sold, “The Ornate Anatomy of Living Things,” which is still in development at Fox Searchlight. The project attracted the interest of longtime friend and filmmaker Jason Reitman (“Juno,” “Up in the Air”), who went on to executive produce “Ceremony.”
“Really, I just found myself talking to a young man I’d known since I was a child who was about to start the same journey I had just begun,” Reitman wrote in an e-mail. “I tried to relay pitfalls and obstacles that I had encountered. [But] the truth was that Max had the complete movie in his head and knew how to make it.”
In person, the diminutive Winkler, who looks almost identical to his father except for his red hair, hardly exudes such confidence. Putting “Ceremony” out into the world has been a nerve-racking prospect, he said. Heading to the Toronto International Film Festival, where the movie later found a distributor in Magnolia Pictures, sent Winkler into a panic.
“I didn’t enjoy any of it. I just had to medicate,” he said, only half-joking, adding that he hasn’t been able to bring himself to watch the movie since then.
On set, star Angarano, himself only 23, said he was comforted by Winkler’s first-time jitters.
“I was surprised by the fact that he was so close to me in age. But the fact that he was so young was conducive to the fact that we had a great rapport,” the actor said. “He could come up to me and whisper things in my ear and it would uplift me. There was never a question if he was the captain of the ship.”
Though “Ceremony” marks the first time Winkler has directed big names, he’s been around them since he was a kid. He has counted actor Jonah Hill as one of his best friends since the two met in high school.
“We used to do the bar mitzvah circuit together … getting kicked out. We were like little rotten maniacs,” he said.
And though he grew up among the famous, having a celebrity as your dad isn’t as exciting as everyone imagines, he said.
“I feel like people think I rode to school with him on a motorcycle. But he’s really a very unintimidating man. People are always like ‘What’s it like when your dad is famous?’ But it’s really just like having a nice, nerdy guy as your father,” he said.
One whose unfettered parental pride is just as embarrassing as any other dad’s: “Well max did it.. wow we as parents are so proud,” Henry Winkler wrote on his Twitter page last month. “Whatever happens now is up to the universe but max made a smart compelling love story.”
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