The director of Toronto world premiere Ceremony talks about Jason Reitman’s advice, working with actors, and finding that sweet spot between funny and sad.

Director Max Winkler already has credits beyond his years. The Los Angeles native graduated from the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts and promptly got a grant to make his first short film, The King of Central Park (2006). He then made the web series Clark and Michael (starring Clark Duke and Michael Cera) and wrote scripts that have been sold to Fox Searchlight and Universal (more on those later). Now he comes to Toronto with his feature directorial debut, Ceremony, which he shot at the admirable age of 26.

Ceremony has some heavy hitters involved in the film – notably Jason Reitman as an executive producer. Winkler knew Reitman from Los Angeles and sent him his short film when Reitman was eager to help young filmmakers to get their first projects made.  

Ceremony, which Winkler wrote, was that right kind of personal film to make his debut, Reitman advised. The story follows an immature twentysomething man, Sam (Michael Angarano), who recruits his best friend (Reece Thompson) for a road trip to the Hamptons to try to win over the woman of his dreams (Uma Thurman) before she gets married. Winkler admits: “There is part of me probably in Sam as much as I tried to run away from any of that.”

The bittersweet tone of the film sounds close to his heart. “The movies I’ve been influenced by are funny and sad at the same time. I love Hal Ashby, Mike Nichols, Woody Allen, Louis Malle, Truffaut, Billy Wilder.”

Darlene Caamano Loquet and Emilio Diez Barroso of Nala Films (In The Valley of Elah) came on board to produce along with Polly Johnsen and Winkler’s usual writing partner Matt Spicer.

Winkler wooed his cast by sending them more than a script. “I gave them a CD of music, to listen to while they were reading, and I wrote letters to them, and sent them a photo blog to visualise how I wanted the film to look,” he says.

Jesse Eisenberg had been set to take the lead as Sam, but had to leave the project because of a schedule conflict with David Fincher’s The Social Network. Angarano, who had been slated to play the friend role, was perfect for the lead, Winkler realised eventually. “I read so many great actors but they just weren’t right for the part. Michael’s of my favourite actors, it was so clear it was him all along, it was incredible,” he notes. “I even cried a couple of times watching Angarano.”

Winkler clearly has a special appreciation for actors – he cast his father Henry Winkler in his first short and says he’d love to work with him again. “I’d like to see him so something in a Coen Brothers movie, or I’d love to create a role like that for him,” Winkler says.

The 25-day shoot for Ceremony took place at a “Gatsby-esque property in Long Island, New York. “I forced myself to learn everything when I got to set. You learn exponentially every day,” he says. He says part of that learning lesson was his “crew of geniuses.” He edited the film in his childhood bedroom, which he says he’d like to do on subsequent films as well.

Reitman gave him “invaluable advice” on the script and edit, but Winkler confides the best advice that Reitman gave him was more practical: “Wear comfortable shoes.”

In return for such sage advice, Winkler and his writing partner Matt Spicer have written Whispers In Bedlam, which is set up for Reitman to direct. The project is based on an Irwin Shaw short story about a football player who has experimental surgery in 1960s America.

Also on the screenplay side, he and Spicer wrote The Ornate Anatomy of Living Things which sold to Fox Searchlight. That story follows a young man who works in a used bookstore finds a museum devoted to his life. Winkler also co-wrote The Adventurer’s Handbook with Jonah Hill (a childhood friend) and Spicer, which Akiva Schaffer will direct for Universal.

He’s now writing a drama similar in tone to Ceremony “maybe a bit more dramatic” about two brothers.

For now, Winkler doesn’t sound likely to become a writer for hire. “I’m happy writing things I’ll eventually make, but I don’t love the process of writing. I don’t like sitting in a room,” Winkler says. “Writing is the first part of directing.”

(Ceremony has its world premiere in Toronto’s Contemporary World Cinema section; FilmNation is handling international sales.)