It is midday on a Monday, and Max Winkler is excited about oysters. The diminutive, red-headed film director is sitting for an interview at his publicist’s Midtown Manhattan office, and rubbing his hands together as he describes the seafood feast he is planning that evening.
“I’m super excited because I really like Aquagrill and they serve these big platters and I’m going with my friends,” the 27-year-old Winkler says, sounding like an eager high school senior awaiting his upcoming prom night. The oysters, as it turns out, are just one stop in a day full of anticipation for Winkler. The dinner has to be early to accommodate the 6:30 p.m. red carpet arrivals for the premiere of his debut feature film, “Ceremony,” starring Uma Thurman and Michael Angarano, which opens in limited release today.
“I’m very excited to have a New York premiere,” he says. “I’m from L.A. so I’ve always put a real romance on this city.”
The son of television staple Henry Winkler, best known as Fonzie from “Happy Days,” Winkler continues to live in Los Angeles where he attended the famous Crossroads high school, followed by USC film school.
Winkler is wearing jeans rolled up to expose his sockless ankles, just-dirty-enough white lace-up Vans, a dark blue Band of Outsiders cardigan with contrasting white stitching on the buttonholes and a navy APC trench coat. He professes a loyalty to Band of Outsiders because they make clothes, as he puts it, “for people of my stature.” (They also provided most of the suits in the “Ceremony.”) He adds, wryly, that he can also fit into Brooks Brothers Kids, a route he opted for when pressed to find a tan suit for his sister’s wedding.
“Their clothes are cut for such big all-American kids,” he explains. “I tried a suit on and it was gigantic on me, I got it taken in! It was like a $200 suit. It was amazing, I just can’t tell anyone.”
Winkler wrote most of the “Ceremony” script in mentor Jason Reitman’s office while the filmmaker was out of town. The “Up in the Air” director is a producer on “Ceremony,” which was shot on Long Island over 25 days in the fall of 2009.
“We literally shot where ‘The Great Gatsby’ was set: East Egg, Oyster Bay, Locust Valley,” Winkler says.
The close-knit coterie of male crew and cast, which included Angarano, Reece Thompson, Lee Pace, Jake Johnson and producer Matt Spicer, boarded together in a camp-like environment. The antics had to be toned down when Thurman arrived for her 12 days of shooting.
“We were a little scared, there was an edge there,” Winkler says of the arrival of his female lead. “We went from just trying to make each other laugh and having fun and Michael’s running around with a fake mustache and Reece is barefoot and Jake is walking around with a Campari bottle and then Uma comes and we all sort of had to be on our game and try to be a little more serious and more focused.”
Asked how the nascent auteur snagged such a high-caliber star for his first film, Winkler shrugs: “She read the script and just really responded to it in a way that I never even thought would be an option. She really related to the character a lot.”
Thurman plays a woman in her late thirties who is surprised on the weekend of her wedding by a former love interest, a 23-year-old played by Angarano, who is trying to win her back.
“Uma in person is very different from a lot of the movies we know her from. She’s hyper, hyper funny and intellectual and at the same time really neurotic in a really beautiful way, which the character is,” Winkler says as he smoothes his palms over his jeans and slumps down in his armchair, his back almost parallel to the seat cushion.
“There is sort of a romantic quality to Uma in real life,” he continues pensively. “You know, the whole movie doesn’t work unless you can believe that she could fall in love with this guy and be with this guy.”
Jesse Eisenberg, another friend of Winkler’s, was originally cast in the lead role but then “The Social Network” reared its head.
“I had a really honest conversation with Jesse,” explains Winkler. “Obviously, I’d be crazy not to know how incredibly important that movie had the potential to be. I knew he had to do that movie, so we hugged and said, ‘Go do it, we’ll do something else.’”
Winkler says that after Angarano read for the lead role he couldn’t imagine anyone else in it. After the summer camp shoot, Winkler edited “Ceremony” in his childhood bedroom, which he turned into an editing suite to save money. (“It was probably kind of Oedipal in a way,” he notes.)
“It was great and it was really comfortable but, I mean, we’d be in a really good groove and then my father would come in in flannel pants offering us cookies and all my street cred went out the window,” he says.
In general, Winkler is pretty Zen when it comes to being The Fonz’s son.
“I don’t resent when it comes up in interviews,” he says. “Obviously it’s the first thing people ask next to ‘how did you get Uma Thurman?’ It just is the way it is, maybe it will be a little less for the second movie and a little less for the third or it won’t and if that’s the worst thing that comes from having a good father then…”
He shrugs and flashes a calm smile.