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Ceremony – Director Max Winkler coming from a personal place

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Ceremony - Uma Thurman and Lee Pace
Director Max Winkler © 2011 Magnolia Picture

Max Winkler, the son of actor Henry Winkler, premiered his feature directorial debut, Ceremony, at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival last year. It tells the story of Sam Davis (Michael Angarano) who, along with his friend Marshall (Reece Daniel Thompson), crashes an elegant beachside estate owned by a famous documentary filmmaker, Whit Coutell (Lee Pace), in order to disrupt his wedding to Zoe (Uma Thurman), whom Sam had an affair with.

What made you write about a May/December relationship; is it based on anything in your life?

Ceremony - Poster
Zoe (Uma Thurman) and Sam Davis (Michael Angarano) on the films poster © 2011 Magnolia Picture

The movie is I think pretty personal and I work better coming from a personal place. There are parts of my less attractive self that are in the main characters of the movie. Also by trying to tap into the things I was feeling at that time in my life, I was able to write a script I knew I could make into a completely honest movie.

It’s interesting that you use that phrase less attractive, how do you gage how far you can push the audience, because I think Michael’s character is somewhat annoying in this. There were points in the movie where I wanted to say, ‘Come on, grow up!’

I think it’s a movie about somebody who hasn’t grown up yet, and I think you get away with it because you cast somebody as good as Michael Angarano, who has an innocent face. You can tell within the first two minutes of meeting him, even with the mustache and the hair and the hideous suit that he wears, that he’s not fooling anybody and that underneath all of that stuff he’s just a kid who is desperately afraid to be himself.

I care about the audience, but I know that his character is so clearly faking it and posturing and he’s so impressionable, he’s a child who’s seen too many Errol Flynn performances.

Did you have to work with Michael on the rapid-fire dialogue?

We worked a lot on it. I think it’s unnatural for anybody to speak that fast, let alone Michael who was originally cast as the character of Marshall, because that’s way more who he represents in real life. He’s very sweet, dear, kind and soft spoken.

That said, I had my trusted Woody Allen directing book on hand and the only direction it said in the book that he ever gave was to just be faster, and so I just kept saying, ‘Faster,’ and we ended up where we were.

Michael’s character is like a shark in a way, if he ever stops for a minute he dies, because he has to live with his own anxiety.  So if he just keeps moving forward as fast as possible he can avoid coming to terms with who he really is.

How did Michael go from being Marshall to Sam?

It was a series of scheduling changes three weeks before we started shooting, he had spent so much time with me and the other actor getting ready for it. Jesse Eisenberg was originally cast as Sam, who is a friend of ours and a terrific actor.

We got to a point where we couldn’t push any more and he had to leave, and though I love Jesse we wanted to keep going and Michael had read as the part of Marshall so often with Jesse, just in roundtable in my house, I just said, ‘Do you want to try the part of Sam?’ And he was a natural fit.

Being your first feature as a director, what did you learn that you hadn’t understood before taking on this film?

Ceremony - Lee Pace
Whit Coutell (Lee Pace) © 2011 Magnolia Picture

Just that casting is everything. You cast smart and you look a lot better. By the time it came to actually casting the movie I was really nervous because I like to write and cast at the same time, meaning I write the parts with actor’s voices in my head and I think the idea of being rejected by them was terrifying to me.

However, in the end, we just got so incredibly lucky as we cast pretty much everyone we wanted, all of them, some of my favorite actors from Michael Angarano to Lee Pace to Reece Thompson to Jake Johnson. Uma’s part was the last to be cast and she is an actress I just have tremendous amount of respect for so when I had found that she had read the script and liked it, I was so thrilled.

As the film’s screenwriter, what do you think the essence of the movie and its characters are about?

I’ve always seen the movie as a coming-of-age-story in reverse. The idea of a boy who thinks he’s a man and in the end, actually realizes that he’s just a boy. A story about the time in your life where you are certain that you know everything there is to know about life and romance and love but actually you know very little and realize this the hard way.

I think all of the characters in the movie have a good amount of growing up to do and everyone is sort of coming to these painful realizations throughout the movie.

Between writing and directing, which do you enjoy more?

For me, I think the two go hand in hand. I’ve only written movies so I can then direct them, and I’ve felt like the writing process is actually the first and hardest part of the directorial process. To me, despite the wild hours and insanity that can come with a film set, I really feel like shooting is the vacation.