Ceremony: An Interview With Max Winkler, Matt Spicer

Ceremony Starring Uma Thurman, & Michael AngaranoMove over Jason Reitman, Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach. A new generation of filmmakers is about to rule the indie roost.

And out from the new stable ride Max Winkler and Matt Spicer, former pals at University of Southern California’s legendary film school. They’re young, they’re talented and they already have highly praised scripts in various stages of development around Hollywood.

Oh, yes, they also have a new movie out in theaters: Ceremony, which Winkler wrote and directed and Spicer co-produced. The film stars Michael Angarano (Sky High, Snow Angels) as Sam, a 22-year-old aspiring writer of children’s books who talks his old friend Whit (Reece Thompson) into joining him on a trip to a beautiful estate in Long Island. Little does Whit know that Sam’s intention is to crash the wedding party of his older ex-girlfriend, played by Uma Thurman, who is about to marry a pretentious filmmaker (Lee Pace of Pushing Daisies).

Buoyed by sharp, snappy dialogue, fine performances and humorous romantic complications, Ceremony firmly establishes Winkler and Spicer as two fresh talents on the rise. The project, which Jason Reitman co-produced, received enthusiastic response at such film festivals as Toronto and South by Southwest.

Winkler cut his teeth directing the web series Clark and Michael, an inside look at Hollywood with Clark Duke and Michael Cera playing fictional versions of themselves, and Wainy Days, an exaggerated bio-series from director David Wain (Role Models).

“Since I graduated from film school a few years ago, my dream was to make my first film a personal one,” says Winkler, the son of actor Henry Winkler, from Austin’s South by Southwest Film Festival. “I was encouraged by Jason Reitman to make it personal, so I knew it was something I wanted to do. I locked myself up in Jason’s office while he was away. The writing wasn’t easy, but I finished the script in two weeks.”

Producer Spicer, who also writes with Winkler, also thinks making the film personal was important for him. But the toughest part of producing the film, which was shot in 25 days on 35mm, was not what you would think.

“Getting financing was surprisingly easy,” states Philadelphia area native Spicer from Austin. “The company (NALA Films, the financiers of Paul Haggis’ In the Valley of Elah) read the script. Loved it and we were off. I learned so many things about all aspects of filmmaking and, in particular, editing. So it was tough with the film coloring and sound mix because computers give you so many options. So you get a week in a room a guy you could end up spending months with, changing the color and the sound mix, and changing the tone of the movie.”

Speaking of tone, Winkler believes getting it right was crucial to Ceremony’s success. Mixing edgy romantic comedy with serious issues involving relationships, maturity and long-term dreams and goals, is not always the easiest thing for a neophyte to achieve. “Tone is a really hard part of a movie to get right, and it was hard here, but I was so clear on what the tone was. It really is everything (in this film). If  tone is off, you really lose people and don’t get them back. It’s finding the spot between humor and pathos.”

Winkler, who said his dad offered him some “fatherly advice” during the making of his debut effort, cites the work of Hal Ashby, Francois Truffaut, Woody Allen and Peter Bogdanovich (particularly Paper Moon) as being big influences that are reflected in Ceremony.

Winkler’s “comfortability factor” with the material was important in getting his first film done, and Winkler says casting and crew selection is certainly a key to getting things to go smoothly.  “If you hire the right cast and crew, no matter how hard it is, it will be an enjoyable experience for me,” Winkler relates. “But, look, the whole thing was insane and hard because we had to do three or four scenes a day on this short a schedule. Sam was prancing around acting goofy in a rust-colored suit in one scene, and in the next he was crying. Things shifted very quickly between emotions and scenes, and it was tough to keep heads in the right places.

“We were concerned with keeping the characters honest,” adds Spicer. “(Sam) thinks he’s a guy who has it all together. But nobody buys into his routine, and we have this guy unravel and sticking true to the message of the film, that we’ve all experienced that feeling when your heart is being pulverized. That’s when he matures, and that’s when we all grow up.”

One of the interesting aspects of Ceremony is the fact the twentysomething  Angarano acts like he’s older—putting on pretentious airs and smoking cigarettes he doesn’t inhale—but proves to be even less mature than his true age in several instances. And Thurman, whose character is in her thirties, recognizes this, but continues to carry a flame for him despite his odd quirks, neediness and obvious desperation.

Noah Baumbach showed me it’s not important to have a character that’s so noble,” says Winkler, referring to Jeff Daniels’ egocentric professor in The Squid and the Whale and Nicole Kidman’s prickly, undermining sister in Margot at the Wedding, two Baumbach creations.

It’s likely that getting longer schedules and higher budgets will get at least a little easier for Winkler and Spicer. They have passion for keeping their projects independent to maintain control, although they have screenplays in different stages with various studios.  Along with an adaptation of an Irwin Shaw story called Adventures in Bedlam, about a football player with extraordinary hearing that Reitman will likely direct, the duo is also working on The Ornate Anatomy of Living Things, which Reitman will produce, about a bookstore clerk who discovers that a hidden museum dedicated to his life exists; The Adventurer’s Handbook, penned by Jonah Hill and Winkler, starring Jason Segal, Jason Schwartzman  and Hill as a group of friends trying to locate  an exotic location they read about in a book; and First Man, written by Winkler and Spicer, that will showcase  Johnny Knoxville as the unpredictable, hell-raising hubby of the first female American president.

As for the secret of their collaboration, Spicer cites their complimentary skills.

“The key,” he says,” is that we trust each other.”