Max Winkler’s Rites of Ceremony



With so many romantic comedies in theaters that lack both romance and comedy, it’s a relief to find in Ceremony a film that manages both—and even makes room for heartbreak. The film tells the story of Sam, played by Michael Angarano, and his attempts to woo back his dream girl Uma Thurman with the aid of his friend, played by Reese Thompson. Ceremony was helmed by first-time director Max Winkler, who also wrote the film after his own failed romance. Shot on location in Long Island, the film is an appealing look a first love, with Thurman as the flawed object of affection. We caught up with Winkler to ask about throwing a party for a month and what kind of guy wins the girl.

MOHNEY: You wrote and directed the film. What inspired the story?

WINKLER: I had just graduated from film school, and I felt like my biological clock was in overdrive. I was sick of doing Internet stuff or writing scripts for other people. I knew I really needed to make a movie, and Jason Reitman-the producer of the movie-led me in the [right] direction, saying, “I think you should write something kind of personal for your first.” I did, and I wrote the script really quickly—I wrote it in two weeks. My usual writing partner was out of town, and I was going through interesting things emotionally and romantically. It ended up being the easiest thing I ever wrote. My therapist was out of town that week.

MOHNEY: Did you relate to both Sam and Marshall?

WINKLER: Yeah, I think I did. I have relationships where I’m the Marshall character and I have relationships where I’m the Sam character. I have one friend in particular that really inspired me for the Marshall character. He’s been one of my best friends forever and I love him. He’s sort of an amazing guy who ends up over-intellectualizing everything… The script is love letter to a lot of people. It’s a love letter to the worst version of myself, and a love letter to some of my best friends, and a love letter to a girl that I, uh… really liked.

MOHNEY: The film had a very distinctive style—were there specific influences you were looking at while making this film?

WINKLER: The movie was written as a summer movie, where everyone is at the beach swimming. But the scheduling kept getting more in the way, and it ended up being in a fall movie. I think the colors of fall probably influenced the movie more than anything else. The oranges and the leaves and the browns, all of those really made the palette of the movie. Even Sam’s really ugly suit ended up having an autumn feeling. I loved French directors and New Wave movies about young boys who try to posture and act older than they really are—I love The Graduate, and that movie is so influential on my life, there’s no way it can’t be in the movie in some way.

MOHNEY: The film is about a weekend wedding; how do you keep up the energy in the party scenes, like the one in the beginning where everyone is kind of drunk after the big dinner?

WINKLER: I think Michael was drunk. I think he was drinking with Reese. It was one of our last days of shooting, and we were so sad. We’d become such a family, and we had all been living on the set, so it was kind of a party all the time. We would finish shooting and then go into Oyster Bay or Centre Island, which is not a really a young, youthful hotspot. We had to keep ourselves entertained constantly. We were all together all the time. That was one of our night shoots, and whenever a night shoot happens, everyone gets a little insane… It was also the most insane day to shoot. We shot that entire party scene—everything that happens in the same night. We were doing like one, two, three takes of everything then picking up the camera and running. The whole movie we had such a short shooting schedule, we had to have a lot of energy. We couldn’t put things off, and we couldn’t really rehearse a lot of the time.

MOHNEY: How long did you shoot for?

WINKLER: 25 days, it was pretty short.

MOHNEY: Did that give the film an urgency and energy it didn’t have before?

WINKLER: I think it helped Michael’s character. Michael’s character so clearly doesn’t know what he’s talking about for the most of the movie and is just trying to improvise and make something happen that is so clearly not going to happen in the way he thinks it is. And Michael just works from a really emotional place as an actor—he really doesn’t intellectualize anything. You literally say go and he goes. He’ll give you [the scene] ten different ways, but all emotionally volatile. I think he was also going through an emotional time as an actor. He was doing the same kind of thing that I was doing when I wrote it. I think both of our separate break-ups and heartache brought Sam the character [to life].

MOHNEY: You had a great cast and a few unexpected choices, like Lee Pace as the pompous fiancé. Can you talk about how everyone got involved?

WINKLER: I think in any movie, casting is literally everything. Your job is so easy if you just cast right. All of my biggest battles were in casting, because I needed to make sure that we had the right cast. We almost didn’t at a certain point, and then we did, and it was so easy. Lee Pace was a no-brainer. He makes a character that could be one-dimensional have so many different sides and such gravity. You don’t hate the guy, and you should. He’s the only guy in the movie who is honest with himself… I always felt like that was the best guy to lose a girl to. Jake Johnson, who plays Uma’s brother Teddy, worked with me on a web series. He’s a tremendously talented Jack Nicholson-esque actor, who inspires me. Whenever I do a movie, I want to be around my friends and I want to be around people who inspire me. All these actors did.

MOHNEY: How did Uma get involved in the film?

WINKLER: Uma read the script and liked it. I think she was looking to do something smaller. She does such big movies all the time and I think she wanted a change and really focus on her acting and capturing a side of herself that she hadn’t played in a while that’s really there… She really isn’t necessarily always in a yellow jumpsuit. She was so good and was the anchor to the movie. It was her and all these little boys fighting around her.