Before Jesse Eisenberg was cast in that movie about Facebook coming out on Friday, he was in rehearsals for a small, sweet indie movie called Ceremony. Once Eisenberg jumped ship (can you blame him?), he was replaced by BlackBook New Regimer Michael Angarano, initially cast as Eisenberg’s best friend. It was up to the young actor to portray the unbearable heartache of Sam, a sort of hipster doofus set on winning back the heart – and ruining the wedding of – his much older ex-girlfriend, Zoe, played by Uma Thurman. The directorial debut of 27-year-old USC grad Max Winkler (who previously worked on the Michael Cera-starring web series Clark and Michael), Ceremony counts Jason Reitman among its executive producers, a good sign when it comes to hunting for distributors. We sat down with the ambitious young director, Angarano, and Jake Johnson (whose scene-stealing performance as Zoe’s boozy brother is a highlight) shortly after the film’s well-received Toronto International Film Festival premiere to discuss the physical rigours of directing, heartbreak, and Uma Thurman-inspired erections.
Was the premiere a nerve-wracking experience? Max Winkler: I wasn’t nervous about the movie – I’m very confident about the movie. Mike Anganaro: The first half-hour, my heart was just beating really fast because it’s a funny movie, and if people don’t laugh at every funny thing, that makes me nervous.
And did that happen at all? Max: I wasn’t in the theater. I was heavily sedated.
Why? Max: It’s hard for me to watch. I’ve seen the movie so many times, I feel like if I watch it anymore I won’t have the sort of love for it that I have. I’m really proud of the movie and I’m really, really proud of the actors’ performances in it. That’s the part that really kills me. There are certain parts I love and certain parts I wish I could do differently, how anyone feels in any sort of artist project. So it’s hard for me. I would come in and peak and they saved me a seat in the back for the very end.
Did you ask the cast how certain jokes played afterwards? Max: They all came to me in the back room and my face was white. There’s a very famous saying that filmmakers, especially Jewish ones, don’t believe any of the good press, they only want to read the bad press, which I think is very accurate. I took Michael aside and he said that it was very good, and I took Jake aside in front of everyone and I was like, “Jake, come outside with me,” so I took Jake outside and he told me it was good, which I still don’t believe.
Jake’s performance in particular slayed the audience. Max: I think the thing that really excites me the most about the movie is: people know Jake, they know Mike, but they’re really doing something different from what they’ve done before. They have sort of wheelhouses that they’re very comfortable in, and I think anyone who sees it will fall in love with these guys. Lee Pace, Reece Thompson, we have all these sort of amazing young talents that are anchored by Uma, who’s really fantastic. That part really excites me. Jake: One of the reasons I was anxious before, was that we all really like working with Max. Max was my good friend before this but as actors he allowed all of us to make choices, and when you know the director’s with you and kind of steering the ship, it’s a really nice thing. That doesn’t always happen, you’re not always allowed to just try things and go for it.
Max, do you think people will doubt you because of your young age? Max: I’m sure people always will. Max: Here’s the reality: there’s probably a number of first time filmmakers or directors who do go off the rails, not to say that I’m better than them, but I’m so neurotic that I just surrounded myself with really professional, incredible people from my crew to my actors. Jake: I didn’t know what I was doing. Mike: The first day was crazy for all of us, we kind of got in over our heads. Jake: I think things got a lot more comfortable by the second day. Max: Yeah, the second day was fine, the first was one of the worst days of my life. Jake: I freaked out because I had six days off and I went back to L.A. and I talked to Max and I felt like it was where one of my buddies was going to have to be like, “We have to let you go, it’s not personal, you were so good…”
Were you filled with doubt that day when you got home? Max: I could honestly not believe how much my feet hurt. I was dumbfounded by how much my body hurt. I was in training for this like a fucking boxing match, and I couldn’t believe how I felt. I had to wake up the next day at 3:30 in the morning and it felt disgusting and shocking to me.
As your career progresses do you think you’ll start doing bigger budget films? Max: I’d love to have as big of a budget as I can. That being said, I wouldn’t be able to direct a movie that I didn’t feel an incredible, personal connection to. Jake: I want that quoted and in 15 years when– Max: When I’m directing Marmaduke 3.
How did you guys nail the heartbreak thing so well? Max: I was heartbroken when I wrote this and I was just shattered, and I felt like I was the smartest person in the world and the only person to ever feel this kind of pain that no one else could feel. I thought my Dad was crazy for telling me it would pass and my friends were crazy, and I was just obliterated man.
Was it by an older woman? Max: Yeah.
Was she getting married? Max: She wasn’t getting married but I fucking–it was easy to write. I think we all kind of know that heartbreak, in one way or another. We’re all very similar, the three of us, in how we kind of view life and love.
Mike, did you pull from past experiences, because in some of your scenes, it was like, Yeah this guy has felt that way before. Mike: The filming of the movie came at such an important time in my life. I hadn’t worked in like a year and half, which I think was really attributed to how special and novel the movie and the experience felt for all of us. I was making a bunch of genuine, new friends and it was overall a very cathartic experience for all of us. Overall, the whole thing felt like it had this special tint to it, like catching lightning in a bottle, aside from that first day that was horrific. We were all talking before the movie, the three of us especially, how this movie could be really good and it would be a really fun experience, and after the first day we were like Is this going to be the worst thing any of us have ever been a part of? Literally, that was almost the feeling. Max: I didn’t think it was that fucking bad! I was in New York prepping the movie, and I knew these guys were going to be in the movie whether anybody liked it or not, so I had these guys start hanging out, which was really awkward. Jake: He called Mike and he goes,”I have another actor,” and I had to audition for this movie a lot of times so finally Max was like “Well, Jake is in the movie, let’s have him audition with Michael.” So we were basically forced to have a play date.
What did you guys do? Jake: Hung out at my place. Max: You got your hair wrapped didn’t you? Jake: Yeah, we did each other’s hair.
How important was Jason Reitman’s involvement in all this? Max: Incredibly. He’s somebody who makes the movies that he wants to make, on his terms, and incredibly well. He wants something, he gets it. I think one of the most important things is to just know what you want. My first couple movies were with his company, one that I was going to direct but didn’t end up doing, and one that I wrote for him to direct. He’s incredibly decisive and he knows how to get what he wants.
Was he key to getting funding as well? Max: Oh my god, completely. A lot of people probably wouldn’t have taken me seriously with his name not there, and his name is so important to so many people. You just don’t make your first three movies that successful. He’s incredible. He was helpful in the editing and the writing of the script and he gave great notes. He was truly vital.
After your work with Clark and Michael and now Ceremony, it seems that you have an attraction to characters who think they’re the shit but really aren’t. Max: I loved doing Clark and Michael, but that was all them. I don’t take any credit for that. I was just happy to be there. I think there’s something really pleasing for an audience to watch a character have a very different perception of themselves than the rest of the world does.
That’s what translated right off the bat in Ceremony. Max: That makes me so happy because that’s my biggest worry, that some people truly don’t get that. They’re like, Wow, who’s that asshole wearing the cool suits? The suits are ugly for a reason. He’s not Clark Gable, he’s not Cary Grant. He’s a little boy who’s scared and wants his mother and has no idea who he is.
Michael was originally supposed to play Marshall correct? Max: Yes. Sam was originally going to be played by Jesse Eisenberg, but he left for very obvious reasons and we all gave him our blessing and we support him. Mike: Watching Jesse play Sam in rehearsal, it definitely influenced how I played Sam in a way. I didn’t know what it was going to be on day one.
Would Jesse have been able to grow a mustache? Max: Michael’s mustache was fake. Mike: That’s why people say I look like I’m 25 in the movie because honestly, for the first twenty minutes, I can’t smile. Max: I think those characters are my favorite. There’s a real sadness to those characters but they’re also very funny. I think Jeff Daniels in Squid and the Whale is the best example of that character. I think that’s one of the best characters of all time. He was so funny and you laugh at him, but there’s a real sort of sadness to him. I just love those kind of people.
Like Rushmore’s Max Fisher. Max: I feel like there’s this sort of taboo thing, where people kind of turned their back on Wes and denounced him as the creator of bad hipster culture. I think anyone that says that is foolish. He’s one of the best working directors around, and he’s incredible and his movies are amazing. I grew up watching Bottle Rocket. My dad took me to see it at Century City and I think that was the first sort of artistic aesthetic that I was influenced by, and so whether I knew it or not, the intent was not to do it. It was really based on my relationship with an older woman.
Speaking of which, Uma Thurman is amazing in this. Max: So fucking good. The scene where they finally kiss was the first sort of love scene I’d ever done so I was so squeamish and nervous, I felt like a little kid. Mike: I was really nervous but when we were rehearsing the scene she really took the bull by the balls at that point, she literally like, choreographed that whole scene by herself. She’d be like, Alright, well you’re going to– Max: You were erect by this point. Mike: Totally.