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By Amy R. Handler | April 27, 2011

“Ceremony” may be Max Winkler’s debut into feature filmmaking, but as this highly provocative narrative indicates, Winkler is no stranger to the cryptic and unexpected.

The plot of “Ceremony” is all too familiar. An up-and-coming children’s author named Sam (Michael Angarano) meets his much older flame, Zoe (Uma Thurman), when Sam and his estranged, best buddy, Marshall (Reece Thompson) are on vacation. But is this rendezvous between the Ex’s strictly accidental—and is anyone who they seem in this somewhat ambiguous, darkly humorous tale? Even more to the point: How does the seemingly wholesome Max Winkler (son of Henry “the Fonz” Winkler) dream up such characters? Hmmmm…

Did you start out by making short films?
Yeah, I made a lot of short films in school. Then in college, I got a Panavision filmmaker’s grant, which changed everything for me. After that, I went to New York with my friend, David Gelb, and we made a short called “The King of Central Park.” The film went through a bunch of festivals and got me my first representation. That was very cool.

Is it a comedy?
It’s sort of similar in tone to “Ceremony” but probably not as good. I also directed and produced a web series called, “Clark and Michael” with Clark Duke and Michael Cera. We shot all 10 episodes like a movie, and had a lot of fun. I learned a lot working with such great actors.

Did you work in TV?
I’ve never done any TV films, but did make some commercials for Norman Lear’s company, which was pretty cool.

Did you go to film school?
I did. I went to USC. They have a very good film program there.

I think your script for “Ceremony” is very Gatsbyesque—with many of the characters using each other for their own purposes—all except Marshall, that is.

Yeah, Marshall’s definitely a Nick Carraway figure.

How personal is “Ceremony?”
It’s a very personal movie. I write best when the material comes from an emotional place that I can really understand. In that way, I can better articulate directions to the actors.

Ah ha… So which character are you?
Sadly, the most flawed of all of them—Sam.

Did you have Sam’s exact experience in “Ceremony?”
Probably… in some respects…

And do you know someone like Marshall?
Yeah. I hope everyone has the pleasure of knowing someone like Marshall.

What I like best is all the ambiguity. All of your characters just reek of haziness–especially Marshall, with that mysterious dark side.

So what was it like being raised by the Fonz?
Pretty ordinary, actually. My dad worked very hard to keep us away from the business as much as possible—though I did grow up in Los Angeles. But I think I had a fairly normal upbringing.

Really… That’s so refreshing. Let’s get back to your writing. What’s your M.O.?
I write every day, even when the very last thing I want to be doing is writing. For me, that works best.

Yup, me too—though lately I’ve been slacking way too much. Do you listen to strangers’ conversations?
Yeah, I do. I guess I probably have a staring and listening problem, because I’m constantly observing people and listening to the way they talk. Then I put everything into my notebook and use a lot of it.

How long did it take to write the script for “Ceremony?”
I wrote the script very quickly.

Did you handpick the actors?
Yeah. I picked the actors that I thought would best tell the story.

I love the guy who plays Uma Thurman’s brother Teddy, in the film.
Yeah, Jake Johnson’s amazing. He’s a dear friend and a tremendously creative muse to me.

Were there any behind the scenes problems?
No there were no difficulties—even though we tended to shoot everything at the same time. We all worked very hard. It was great because everyone was really into making the film.

Can we talk about the delicious music?
I worked with 2 incredible composers, Van D**e Parks and Eric Johnson. Music is very important to me, and I had a lot of the songs in mind before we began the film.

Did you have much input in the creation of the original music?
Yeah, very much so. I went back and forth with Eric all the time about the music. This worked fine even though I was in New York and he was in LA.

Portions of the score feel like a throwback to the French NewWave.
Well, Truffaut movies are a great influence to me.

I noticed a bit of Hitchcock in your characters—where they appear one way but are really something else entirely.
I think people feel that the movie is going in one direction, and the characters are going in another. All directors can do is try to be [half] as good as the greats that influence them— and show different sides of people—like Zoe’s (Uma Thurman’s) fiancé, for instance. The character, Whit Coutell (Lee Pace) appears one way but is definitely someone else.

What’s with Whit? Why does he even put up with the cheating, scheming, Zoe— let alone, marry her?
I think everyone does the best they can. Whit loves Zoe in the way she needs to be loved. He keeps his hand open, like that butterfly metaphor. He’s someone who loves himself so much— so the type of relationship he has with her is all that he’s capable of having. But in many ways, he’s very honest with himself— about his shortcomings— as opposed to some of the others, who are more myths of themselves, and act contrary to their maturity.

Would you say that Sam’s a sad person?
Yeah—definitely. He’s someone who doesn’t know exactly who he is at the moment. He believes in the myth of himself but at the same time doesn’t believe what other people are saying about him. I’m sure he’s having some sort of a nervous breakdown…

If you don’t mind my asking…How old are you?
I’m 27.

Have you been writing all your life?
(Laughs) Yeah, pretty much…

What are you up to now?
Well, I just finished writing a screenplay.

Is it funny?
It tries to walk the line between comedy and drama.

I know most critics think “Ceremony” is funny, but I’m on the fence about whether it’s comic or tragic.
I think it tries to be both.

Whatever it is, it’s a very precocious and provocative film.
Thanks. I really, really appreciate that.

In many ways you remind me of Martin Landau— in terms of your honesty and sensitivity.
Oh, I love Martin Landau.

That makes two of us. Keep up the great work, Max. I’m excited to see what you do next.
Thanks so much.

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  1. Darcy Donnelly says:

    I saw Ceremony at a festival and thought it was surprisingly good for a first film. I figured Max Winkler would be another one of those entitled types considering his dad, but he actually seems to be getting by on his own worth. You’re right about his script too. It’s a good one. It holds the plot together and keeps the audience focused on the movie.

  2. pat dixon says:

    Interesting interview with a personal touch. It is good to see that talent runs in the Winkler family. The same thing goes for Ron Howard’s family!

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