Thirty-three-year-old filmmaker Max Winkler has practically lived a mini-filmmaking career over the last 10 years. While he released his directorial debut, the Paul Thomas Anderson– and Wes Anderson-influenced “Ceremony” at the age of 26, the precocious filmmaker had, by that point, already directed episodes of David Wain’s “Wainy Days” and Michael Cera’s extremely underrated and influential web series, “Clark And Michael.” Normally a young filmmaker waiting seven years to make his next film might panic, but Winkler kept himself so busy between features, he likely didn’t have time to be anxious.
Keeping himself in directorial shape and continuing to train and flex new muscles, Winkler has directed episodes for a bevy of TV shows including “New Girl,” “Fresh Off The Boat,” Hulu‘s “Casual,” Netflix‘s “Lady Dynamite,” “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” and more. When not helming TV, Winkler and writing partner Matt Spicer (director of the critically acclaimed Sundance hit “Ingrid Goes West”) kept themselves busy generating original projects that still might get made one day (a Western, a “Barry Lyndon”-esque “Trading Places” comedy, and a road-trip movie influenced by the 1970s gem “Scarecrow” starring Al Pacino and Gene Hackman) and penning high-paying Hollywood gigs (“Magic Camp” for Disney, “The Adventurer’s Handbook” for Focus and a current remake of the now-beloved 1990s period superhero movie “The Rocketeer”). He also has a production company with “New Girl” star Jake Johnson.
With just two films to his name, Winkler has still carved out an eclectic career for himself. Nowhere is this more apparent than in his sophomore feature, “Flower.” Making its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival this week, “Flower” is practically the vision of a completely different filmmaker — loose, raw and unpredictable, as opposed to hyper-controlled and stylized.
Featuring a star-making turn by Zoey Deutch (already a star, but this is something else), “Flower” centers on a magnetically charged firecracker of a teenager that, well, like all teens, is alienated from the world. Sexually commanding, but masking her pain, Erica (Deutch) and her friends seduce older men so they can extort them for money. It’s a fun, albeit reckless, game that turns dark and frighteningly real when a new target — a school teacher accused of molesting a student — becomes a victim. What ensues is a volatile wild ride that intentionally mixes teen-comedy vibrancy with thriller and road-trip tropes (Kathryn Hahn, Adam Scott and Tim Heidecker co-star). I recently spoke to Winkler by phone about “Flower” ahead of its Tribeca premiere.
So, tell me about “Flower.” Rough House Productions sent the script to you, right? What compelled you to make the movie, given you’ve generated your own content thus far?
Yeah, the production company of Danny McBride, David Gordon Green and Jody Hill (“Eastbound & Down,” “Vice Principals,” “Observe And Report”). And I’m a huge fan of their movies and their television shows, but even before I read the script, my agents [cautioned me]. He said, “The script’s amazing, but it’s an impossible movie to make, so don’t get attached.” And that ignited something in me. And it was unlike anything I had ever read before. You’re initially just interested in this character, her world and how she keeps out all the pain that she’s feeling. The character of Erica — even in the initial draft, she was fully formed, a living, breathing, complicated 17-year-old girl.
And so despite the advice from the agent, I immediately tried to engage and do everything I could to get on it and immediately started to work on the script. It reminded me of like an ’80s movie my older brother would sneak to me on VHS. It had that feeling to it, and I grew up obsessing over John Hughes movies and complicated youths rebelling…in many ways because they’re not dealing with what’s happening at home or what they’re really feeling. Like, I love “Over The Edge,” “E.T.” obviously, “Breakfast Club,” “Sixteen Candles,” “Pretty In Pink.” I’d always wanted to make a movie like that, and “Flower” felt like that, so we immediately got down to trying to make the movie happen.
You and Matt Spicer rewrote it and made it your own, yeah?
We did a rewrite. Alex McAulay’s original script did this unbelievable job of setting up who she is, and what we wanted to get into is why she is and why she does what she does, and the idea of how this extremely anxious and scared 17-year-old tries to have some sort of control over her life by what she does and how she does it.
She’s exercising control the only way she knows how because she has this mother who lets her do what she wants. She’s looking for some boundaries or some semblance of her life that she can control. So she’s found this one thing which is really complicated: she’s obsessed with men, but she also kind of hates men. We were reading a lot of Andrea Dworkin and Kate Millett, real deep-dive shit of trying to get into her head, of someone who processes all these things, but doesn’t know how to articulate them.
Tell me about some of the influences.
Well, the two totems of the movie, the ones I was obsessing over, were Lynne Ramsay and Andrea Arnold movies. Even though “Flower” is very plot-driven and has a kind of “Risky Business” element to it,…the truthfulness of those movies and how little frills there were in the actual filmmaking were our film’s school-101 guides to be as truthful to the character as possible.
Right, those kinds of sensibilities mashed up with ’80s teen comedies.
Yeah, we were watching “The Breakfast Club” and we would read John Hughes’ original scripts, which were incredible, but at the same time listening to John Williams and the “Interstellar” soundtrack. It was this weird blend, but everything had to serve Erica. It was all about her. That was the most important thing to me: no filmmaking or writing decision would get in the way of what our job was, which was to tell her story.
And it’s not a cautionary tale about kids who get into trouble or bad kids, but it’s really just about this one girl. Sort of like the way you watch “The 400 Blows” and it’s about the recklessness of youth and it’s focused on one kid who doesn’t feel at home in his own life.