As Cinetic’s Matt Dentler sadly noted in his tweet announcing the passing of Gary Winick last night, the timing was “too late to make the Oscar [in memorium] tribute, but way too early.” In a cruel twist of fate, it wasn’t unusual for the writer/director, who was set to turn 50 next month, to be ahead of his time.
Winick was of course a filmmaker first, leaving behind a dozen films that grew from small-scale indie dramas to crowdpleasers such as “Charlotte’s Web” and “Letters to Juliet” that charmed audiences by the millions. Yet his most enduring legacy is likely the one he left on a smaller community, the thousands of filmmakers who have and will continue to benefit from his work as a digital pioneer at the turn of the century as the founder of InDigEnt, the collective he created with Cinetic’s John Sloss and IFC Films [our corporate sibling] to make films for under $100,000 on digital video.
Nowadays, what Winick was proposing hardly sounds revolutionary, but then again, the results of the biggest revolutions often don’t in retrospect. Inspired by the Dogme 95 movement out of Denmark, and especially Thomas Vinterberg’s “The Celebration,” Winick saw a similar opportunity in America, knowing the depth (and underutilization) of New York’s indie filmmaking community, observing much of it firsthand as a teacher at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts for nearly a decade. By luring the likes of Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke and then-budding auteurs like Rodrigo Garcia and Rebecca Miller, Winick gave digital filmmaking credibility at a time when it didn’t seem like the inevitability it is today and, better yet, produced 19 films between 2001 to 2007 that included gems such as Linklater’s “Tape,” Miller’s “Personal Velocity,” Peter Hedges’ “Pieces of April” and Steve Buscemi’s “Lonesome Jim” and Andrew Wagner’s “Starting Out in the Evening.”
While the limitations of budget and camera definition was clearly set on InDigEnt productions, there were none placed on what could be accomplished with the films, which is why no less an esteemed cast than John Slattery, Ron Rifkin, Annabella Sciorra and Fisher Stevens found themselves sitting around a table in the opening scene of “Sam the Man,” Winick’s first contribution as a director to the company. His second, “Tadpole,” that brought Sigourney Weaver and Bebe Neuwirth into the fold, was the one that really put the company on the map after selling to Miramax for a reported $6 million at Sundance in 2002, a mixed blessing for InDigEnt as a whole since Hollywood discovered that he was as good at nurturing character-driven comedies as he was with burgeoning technological movements.
In fact, there is a common link between the two since Winick’s general lack of cynicism towards the process and what could be achieved, in regards to the digital format in particular, extended to his work as a director, a quality that made him so compassionate to his characters and a natural choice for the studios to deliver their closest approximations of fairy tales in recent years. Skeptics (myself included, admittedly) wondered why Winick would abandon his role as a leader in the indie film world to become just another journeyman director of big-budget romantic comedies. But for the director, it was just one more proving ground as he pulled the magic out of Jennifer Garner (“13 Going on 30”) and Amanda Seyfried (“Letters to Juliet”) in the roles that established each as movie stars as easily as he found the humanity in Michael Imperioli’s drug-addicted father just trying to make ends meet in 1995’s “Sweet Nothing” and Aaron Stanford’s overeducated, Voltaire-spouting teen whose main goal in life is to bed his stepmother in “Tadpole.”
Winick once told the BBC his favorite quote from a film was from “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” when Jack Nicholson’s Randall McMurphy attempts to move a concrete sink to his fellow patients’ disbelief, concluding in frustration, “At least I tried!” There’s no question Winick could say the same thing throughout his career, though he had considerably less trouble with moving either audiences emotionally or the state of independent film forward.
[Additional photo: Gary Winick, Judy Greer and Jennifer Garner on the set of “13 Going on 30,” Columbia Pictures, 2004]