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Max Winkler Attends to “Ceremony”

Max Winkler Attends to “Ceremony” (photo)

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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]

04042011_Ceremony3.jpgBoth 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.

04042011_Ceremony2.jpgYou’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.

04042011_Ceremony4.jpgBetween “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.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

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IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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G.I. Jeez

Stomach Bugs and Prom Dates

E.Coli High is in your gut and on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Brothers-in-law Kevin Barker and Ben Miller have just made the mother of all Comedy Crib series, in the sense that their Comedy Crib series is a big deal and features a hot mom. Animated, funny, and full of horrible bacteria, the series juxtaposes timeless teen dilemmas and gut-busting GI infections to create a bite-sized narrative that’s both sketchy and captivating. The two sat down, possibly in the same house, to answer some questions for us about the series. Let’s dig in….

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IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

BEN: Hi ummm uhh hi ok well its like umm (gets really nervous and blows it)…

KB: It’s like the Super Bowl meets the Oscars.

IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

BEN: Oh wow, she’s really cute isn’t she? I’d definitely blow that too.

KB: It’s a cartoon that is happening inside your stomach RIGHT NOW, that’s why you feel like you need to throw up.

IFC: What was the genesis of E.Coli High?

KB: I had the idea for years, and when Ben (my brother-in-law, who is a special needs teacher in Philly) began drawing hilarious comics, I recruited him to design characters, animate the series, and do some writing. I’m glad I did, because Ben rules!

BEN: Kevin told me about it in a park and I was like yeah that’s a pretty good idea, but I was just being nice. I thought it was dumb at the time.

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IFC: What makes going to proms and dating moms such timeless and oddly-relatable subject matter?

BEN: Since the dawn of time everyone has had at least one friend with a hot mom. It is physically impossible to not at least make a comment about that hot mom.

KB: Who among us hasn’t dated their friend’s mom and levitated tables at a prom?

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

BEN: There’s a lot of content now. I don’t think anyone will even notice, but it’d be cool if they did.

KB: A show about talking food poisoning bacteria is basically the same as just watching the news these days TBH.

Watch E.Coli High below and discover more NYTVF selections from years past on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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