When director Max Winkler first encountered the script for “Flower,” a comedy-drama about a teenage girl with unorthodox sexual proclivities, it arrived with a warning.
“The script had come to me with a disclaimer,” admitted Winkler. “It basically said, ‘This is a writing sample, it’s amazing but it’s an impossible movie to make.’ ”
When he asked why, the powers-that-be informed him that no one would want to make (or see) a film about a girl like Erica Vandross, a 17-year-old who extorts men of means using sex. That made Winkler only more interested.
“I’d never seen a female character written like this before,” he said. “With this rebellious spirit … To me she was like ‘Rebel Without a Cause’ or ‘Taxi Driver,’ like those types of iconic, really rebellious spirits that probably have good intentions but go about them in the wrong way.”
The original script, written by young-adult novelist Alex McAulay, was overhauled by Winkler and his writing partner Matt Spicer to make it as true to a young woman’s experience as possible. That process continued into filming with Winkler hiring women in key crew roles — including director of photography Carolina Costa, editor Sarah Beth Shapiro, production designer Tricia Robertson, costume designer Michelle Thompson, consulting producer Caroline Goldfarb and line producer Maritte Lee Go — and leaning heavily on the opinions of his star, “Before I Fall” breakout Zoey Deutch.
“It wasn’t something I was doing to prove a point,” said Winkler . “It was the best way to tell this story. For me, the best way to make this movie as authentically as possible was to hire people to really keep me honest and try to eliminate the male gaze as much as I could.
“Zoey was 21 when we made it and the character is 17,” Winkler continued. “You have to be an idiot to think you know what goes on inside a 17-year-old’s mind more than the women on set.”
“I really, honestly, with confidence can say you are the director that has by far listened the best of anyone I’ve ever worked with,” chimed in Deutch. Even though they had never worked together prior to “Flower,” the two have the air of old teammates and the intimacy of longtime friends.
“I’m not a director,” she began.
“You kind of are,” offered Winkler.
“No, I’m not,” she continued. “But if I ever became a director, I would not want to exclude the possibility of making a movie about a boy or a male. Do I know what it’s like to be a boy or a male? No. But I’d surround myself [with] men who understand what it’s like to exist in that body. And that’s what Max did.”
The resulting dark comedy, which was shot in just 16 days for a modest budget of $500,000 and is opening in limited release Friday, tells a nuanced story of a girl seeking to regain control of her life the only way she knows how. Which just happens to include extortion.
“I never set out to make a movie about a young girl’s sexuality,” Winkler said. “Everything that happens in the movie that can be interpreted as sexual I always found to be very transactional and almost the opposite of intimacy.”
For example, in the opening scene when Erica performs a sex act on a cop while her friends secretly record it for blackmail material, it was important for Winkler and Deutch to convey the power play inherent in Erica’s behavior.
Though Winkler originally imagined the character wearing overall shorts in the scene, “We get [to set] on the day of shooting and Zoey’s like, ‘No, I’m not wearing this,’ ” he recalled. “And I’m like, ‘Great. Why?’ ”
Deutch felt that the outfit was inauthentic to Erica’s nature; someone using sex as a tool would never allow her skin to be shown. “ ‘She needs to wear jeans and Timberlands and a shirt that covers up to her wrists because she’ll never allow anybody close to her or to get to her,’ ” Winkler recalled her saying.
Those nods to the character’s deep-rooted fear of abandonment helped to establish Erica as more than just a one-dimensional Lolita, and gave her a depth that Deutch relished.
“This is an exciting part to play,” said Deutch. “This is a part where I get to delve deep, do research, kick ass, work my ass off. I’m not saying it’s easy, but it wasn’t hard. Hard is a one-dimensional female character in a male-driven comedy. Which I’ve done. Trying to make an underwritten part interesting is like… near impossible.”
“You’ve done it, though,” Winkler said.
“I’m just saying it’s truly, truly difficult,” Deutch continued. “It was a really joyous experience getting to live in her brain for 16 days.”
Despite her layered performance, Deutch noted that she’s heard plenty of criticism about Erica’s behavior ever since “Flower” premiered at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival. The actress feels those attitudes reflect a double standard.
“They go, ‘It’s so interesting, she has such few redeeming qualities, it’s crazy that you were so brave to play such an unlikable character,’ ” Deutch recalled with a laugh. “And I try my best not to be judgmental and I try to think, ‘What would they call a male character that does these things?’ Probably ‘morally ambiguous.’ A man would be ‘morally ambiguous’ and a woman would be ‘unlikable and lacking redeeming qualities.’ ”
For Winkler, it was exciting to turn outdated notions of sexuality and respectability politics on their head.
“I loved that it felt like the movies I used to watch as a kid that always had male leads and where the girl was always the object of affection,” said Winkler. He points to films like “The 400 Blows,” “Risky Business” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” as sources of inspiration.
Winkler and Deutch are following in the footsteps of Hollywood parents — he is the son of actor Henry Winkler and Stacey Weitzman, and she is the daughter of actress Lea Thompson and director Howard Deutch.
“I’m sure hanging around on film sets and seeing that this was a potential way to make a living rubbed off on me at a young age,” said Winkler, who was directing short films and Web series like “Clark and Michael” by age 23. “To me, that’s where I’m happiest and probably the least anxious. I just love the community and I love making things with other people.”
“I don’t have any qualms about discussing my family because I am proud of them, they’re awesome artists,” Deutch added. “I spent many years shying away from it because I thought that was something that I was supposed to do. I watched people I admire hide that their parents did the same thing ... because they had a fear that other people would judge them.
“I love that I can talk to my family. That’s what community is. No one can do things alone. And I think it’s specifically something that women are told: that we’re supposed to do things alone. Men for some reason surround themselves with other men and they build each other up. And now [in the era of #MeToo and Time’s Up] it’s so exciting, I feel this energetic shift that we’re all coming together.”
The fact that “Flower” hits theaters at a time when female empowerment is in the zeitgeist isn’t lost on either Winkler or Deutch.
“I think there’s more of a place for [the film] now than there was two years ago,” Winkler said. “Two years ago, everyone’s like, ‘You can’t make a movie about a woman who speaks like this — a girl who speaks like this.’
“But people in positions of power have been abusing those positions of power for years and years, way before anyone outed Harvey [Weinstein] or anyone else. So it felt as relevant to us then as it does now.”
follow me on twitter @sonaiyak