Just as it surely took Uma Thurman’s Zoe a considerable amount of time to be wooed by Michael Angarano’s much younger raconteur Sam before the events that unfold in “Ceremony,” it took me two viewings to completely fall for Max Winkler’s directorial debut, a coming-of-age comedy that wears its references on its sleeve. It has the wordplay of Woody Allen, the vibrant color schemes of Wes Anderson and the elegant tracking shots of Paul Thomas Anderson. And no doubt as the son of Henry Winkler, Max is used to comparisons, which is why when he confessed at the film’s recent premiere at SXSW that it was a story about “how scary it can be to be an original,” it felt like a certain weight was lifted off his shoulders.
Something similar occurs to “Ceremony” once the candy coating of its stylistic influences fall away, revealing a filmmaker capturing a deeply personal set of circumstances in ways that are fresh, both in terms of what one imagines its proximity to real life is and how it uses a bittersweet sense of humor to make sense of it all. While Winkler has been coy about just how autobiographical the story is of a children’s author (Angarano) who descends upon the wedding of his former flame (Thurman) to win her back, dragging along a devoted pal (Reece Thompson) to the palatial beachside home of her fiancé (Lee Pace), there’s a boldness that demonstrates the first-time writer/director can flourish with the language of cinema when words fail him, though from spending a few minutes in his company it doesn’t seem like a clever turn of phrase is ever far from his grasp. After returning from a successful bow in Austin where naturally “Shiner Bock [was] coming out of my skin,” Winkler spoke about making the transition from helming the popular Web series “Clark and Michael,” featuring friends Michael Cera and Clark Duke, to film, dealing with unpredictable weather, and what he’s already working on for his next film.
The Web shorts you previously directed are very loose, probably by necessity, and “Ceremony” is so precise and cinematic. Doing a feature, was it important for you to say let’s break out the steadicam and other things you’d be less inclined to do with something on a smaller scale?
The directors that I love are really precise. I will have Paul Thomas Anderson movies on and all I want to be as good as him. All I want is to have as good camerawork as Woody Allen and Gordon Willis and for me, the Web was always kind of annoying because I never had the time and the personnel and the equipment to do that kind of stuff. Even though this is a small movie by some standards, it allowed me the time and the incredible collaborators — production design, camera, costume — to be able to do that. And I’d been waiting to do that for so long — I’d been waiting to [create a] shot list and it’s hard to rally the shot list for an Internet thing when it’s going to be seen on a screen not so big. But I’m a big nerd when it comes to cinema history. I just watched “The Sweet Smell of Success” last night. I just couldn’t believe the camerawork and the blocking. I was trying to talk to people next to me about the blocking and they had total blank faces. [laughs]
Both you and “Ceremony” executive producer Jason Reitman grew up with fathers who were instrumental in an era for screen comedy where directors were largely invisible. Was there a point for you where you realized directors could have as much of a presence on screen as the actors?
Those are my idols and I try to pull from them and steal from all them as much as I can, in a way that I still can make a personal movie that I think is very much me, but there’s no reason why comedy shouldn’t be cinematic. I don’t think [being funny and being cinematic] should ever be different. I love watching movies because of the cinema of it. Woody Allen’s movies are the funniest movies ever. So are Wes Anderson’s. Even Paul Thomas Anderson movies, you laugh the whole time and it looks amazing.
One of the most incredible elements of “Ceremony” is how you use the single setting of the house, which has its own personality as a rundown mansion. Did you write with the specific house you actually shot at in mind?
No way. I was really inspired by “Gatsby” obviously and I was trying to find like that house. This house was not that house at all. This house looked like it should be on the outskirts of San Diego upon first arriving there. It’s owned by some interesting Scottish barons. We shot it on the Long Island Sound, and this does not feel like the “Gatsby” house, but our production designer was incredible, Inbal [Weinberg], and we put shutters on it, we put fake vines on it, and my cameraman Will Rexer and I really [thought of] our house as an old movie star — we’ll just shoot it at the right angles. But it had a lot of open space, which allowed us to do some of those long tracking shots and blocking as much as we could. It was incredibly romantic to be out there in the Long Island Sound and just us, all of these impressionable young men out all living on the set in little beach house surrounding that house.
You’ve said your favorite scene is one between Michael Angarano’s Sam and Jake Johnson’s Teddy from the inside of the house that was rushed because weather prevented something else. Were there a lot of happy accidents like that?
Clearly anyone can see this was a summer movie that was pushed to the fall because of scheduling and I think because everyone was so close and had such an emotional vulnerability, I think the pace and shooting all the pages we’d shoot in a day and moving, it made scenes so much more real because we didn’t have the time to rehearse and people were just thrown into the fire. And the weather was nuts. To shoot in New York on the beach in November is like suicide, but we just did it and I was worried it was going to be my “Lost in La Mancha.” But the acting was so good when it was time to move from scene to scene, we just called the boys and put the camera on.
Was there a lot of improvisation and if so, how did that integrate into your own idea about what this movie was?
Definitely when I wrote it, [I thought] no one’s going to improv. Everyone’s just going to say the lines and I wanted to be like I’ve heard all these great directors have been. But the actors were so terrific and really gave way to some incredible lines because they were so into the characters. For instance, Jake Johnson’s character, I didn’t get to cast him until the Thursday before the Monday we started shooting, so we basically had to find his character as we were shooting. Jake Johnson’s a close collaborator of mine. We met on “Clark and Michael” and we’d been doing shorts and things together ever since, and Teddy wasn’t written as that at all and we just had to keep on finding it. Finally, I just said, “Keep getting weirder.” And then he started making these weird sounds and I was laughing and I thought that was a good test. Michael [Angarano] was so emotionally involved in that character of Sam that the stuff he would say would just come out of him and it felt so right for a character that was so emotionally raw as Sam.
Between “Clark and Michael,” your student film “The King of Central Park” and this, there’s definitely a theme of exploring male relationships. What’s the appeal for you?
I really like the male relationships. The movie’s as much of a love story with Reece [Thompson] and Michael as it is between Michael and Uma and it’s always just something I’ve related to. I have a very good group of guy friends and we have very weird sort of power struggles and interesting dynamics and it’s something that I don’t think is explored too often. Obviously, Mike [Cera] and Jonah [Hill] did it excellently in “Superbad” and it’s something that I’ve always related to. It’s definitely a trend of mine. “The Last Detail” is my favorite movie ever and I think that handles heterosexual male relations in an incredible way and as much as a movie like “Midnight Cowboy” or “Scarecrow” or those weird ’70s movies do.
It sounds like your next one is in that vein.
It is. Absolutely. And I’d love to shoot that as soon as possible. It’s definitely a male-driven movie. “Jules and Jim” is a fantastic movie, too, and I love movies like that where comfortable environments get changed by an outside force and they have to deal with it.
“Ceremony” is now available on VOD and opens in New York and Los Angeles on April 8th.