Interview with Gary Winick and Aaron Stanford
interview by Sean Axmaker, 2 August 2002

Europe has its Dogme 95, the Danish founded Manifesto of "back to the essentials" filmmaking grounded in "Ten Vows of Chastity" and the freedom granted to filmmakers in the new lightweight medium of Digital Video.

Gary Winick is far more modest with his efforts stateside. After quietly making a place for himself as a director in American indies for the past decade (count Sweet Nothing and The Tic Code among his intimate productions), he created the production company InDigEnt (Independent Digital Entertainment) in partnership with Caroline Kaplan and Jonathan Sehring of IFC Films and producer John Sloss).

In a modern film industry challenged on one side by hundreds of upstarts shooting their scrappy productions on suddenly affordable DV cameras, and on the other by George Lucas pushing the technology into unprecedented levels of clarity, polish, and Hollywood sheen, InDigEnt is carving out a middle ground: interesting stories created on small budgets and fast shoots enabled by DV. In its own way, InDigEnt may be just as influential as Dogme 95 in practical terms. Their initial slate of ten films, co-produced by collaboration of IFC Films, has attracted some serious talent both in front and behind the camera (Campbell Scottís Final with Denis Leary and Hope Davis and Tape with Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman among them). (Read more about the company and the films at their website: http://www.indigent.net/) After producing a handful of films for other directors he finally decided it was time to make his own DV film.

Tadpole, starring newcomer Aaron Stanford as a fifteen year-old who returns home from boarding school for Thanksgiving while nursing a crush on his stepmom (Sigourney Weaver), was all the buzz at Sundance, where it earned him the Directorís Award and sparked a bidding war that was won by Miramax. The film being seen in theaters around the country, however, is not quite the same. Winick has juggled a few scenes, worked on the color balance, and even shot new footage.

Gary Winick and Aaron Stanford accompanied this new version to Seattle, where they presented it to audiences at the Seattle International Film Festival. Winick is as modest in person as you might expect and I caught him relaxing in jeans, a rumpled shirt, and a half dayís growth. Aaron Stanford, small boned with a wispy beard and comfortable dress, looks more like the twenty-five-year-old actor he is than the "fifteen-year-old in a forty-year-oldís boy" he plays in the movie. No longer gawky and uncomfortable in his own skin, heís an adult professional with a Hollywood career taking off. Since finishing principle photography on Tadpole heís shot small roles in Woody Allenís Hollywood Ending and Spike Leeís 25th Hour, and he starts shooting X-Men 2 this summer. Interview veteran Winick's laid-back attitude takes all the tension out of the interview. It feels less like an interview than a conversation.

In between festival showings of their film they took the time to sit down with me and talk about the film, InDigEnt, the nature of working in DV, and the dangerous pleasure of letting John Ritter improvise and leave his partner in a state of uncontrollable laughter.

Sean Axmaker: A simple description of the film makes it sound like a 1980s drive-in comedy. If you just have the plot explained to you-- this kid is in love with his stepmom and loses his virginity to his momís best friend--it sounds like a teen sex farce. But it plays nothing like that.

Gary Winick: My description doesnít give any of the film away but talks about the characters: heís unlike any other teenager and heís wise beyond his years, he loves Voltaire, setting up an interesting character as opposed to the plot.

Aaron Stanford: Itís kind of a drag because the punch of the whole film has been given away at this point. In the very beginning, at the early screenings before the audiences had read anything about it, itís actually a surprise when you find out that his stepmother is the one heís pining after. They set that all up. They set it up in the beginning and all of a sudden you realize "Oh, itís her." And everyone is just waiting for it to happen.

GW: Itís going to be in every review.

AS: Iím not going to compare it to The Crying Game, but the punch is given away.

SA: What went through my mind as I watched it, and I donít want to make a direct comparison, but I was thinking Dogme 95 and the Dogme style. Obviously you donít hew to all those rules that theyíve written in blood, but I think youíve really captured the spirit of what those guys say they keep trying to do with it. Use this lightweight video camera to get at an intimacy, to get into characters, and to get away from the visual gloss and safe stories of Hollywood.

GW: Obviously Iíve spoken a lot about this and Iíve been on a lot of forums on DV(digital video) and the thing that Iíve taken from Dogme, and clearly this is Celebration inspired, is truth of character and setting. All the other rules means that you are not taking full advantage of your tools, although I know they are breaking them and thatís part of the joke. But all the rules are not taking advantage of what allows us to be able to use those and heighten certain parts of the film that we need to heighten as storytellers on film, as a director. So thatís really where I ended it because one of my big things at InDigEnt was to get the best sound house, to get the best music supervisor, to get the best video post house, to work on the picture and work on these films to get them to look and sound the best they can in the theaters. But to shoot them with these mini-DV cameras to create that truth of character and setting.

SA: Having worked in film and moving to DV, how does that change the way youíre able to work with the cast and ensemble, in practical, physical terms?

GW: Practical terms is where it really pays off. The cameraís this big [uses his hands to suggest something about the size of a football], the crewís the size as twelve, the camera can go as close as three feet away from your face and not feel like itís imposing like this big machine, which a 35mm camera is. The tapes are ten dollars for forty minutes so we only have to slate once and we can keep going, we use two cameras at all times, sometimes three cameras, so there is that spontaneity. There is a lot of depth of field so the actors donít really have to follow the focus marks and all those technical things you do on 35mm filmsÖ

AS: Hardly any lighting set-ups.

GW: Hardly any lighting time and itís so location friendly. So whatís great about it is that I can shoot one side and then shoot the other without having to rework and come back in an hour to do that, so youíre still in the scene for the flip side [reverse shot].

AS: We can get into places, like shooting the taxi-cab scenes. It would just be Gary crouched up front with the camera. With a 35mm camera that would be next to impossible.

GW: And youíd have to have a prop taxi and a process trailer and carry it around.

AS: We were just hailing cabs on the side of the road.

SA: (to Aaron) Was this the first time you worked in front of a camera?

AS: Yes, it is. Well, unless you count home videos I made with my friends when I was thirteen. Not even commercials. This was my first time in front of a camera.

SA: How did you get involved with this? Was it open casting?

AS: I wouldnít call it open casting, no. I had just graduated from Rutgers University and I was freelancing with Endeavor and they just sent me on in -- this was probably one of the first ten auditions I went on. It was a brilliantly written script, very clever and fast, and good dialogue and a part that I figured I could do something good with and pull it off. I went and they liked what I did and of course I didnít have any credits to my name so they wanted to make absolutely sure that I was the right one for it. They called me back time and time and time again. I had a bunch of call backs and at the final audition Sigourney was there in the room; she had partial casting approval. There was good chemistry so I got it.

SA: (to Gary) Were you looking for a fifteen-year-old or had you cast your net out for older actors?

GW: I was looking for someone who was fifteen, I was kind of adamant about it, and of course I didnít realize that a fifteen-year-oldís acting is not a forty-year-old in a fifteen-year-oldís body, so of course I should have someone who is older and wiser and looks 15, but I really wanted a fifteen-year-old. I felt that was what was required, and also I had Robert Iler who I cast in the part of Charlie and he really was fifteen so I had to have a match. But the casting director said "Youíre crazy, donít worry," and they kept bringing people in and not telling me how old they were. And finally they convinced me with a couple of people who, like Aaron, were in their twenties but looked fifteen, so I was like "Okay, fine, Iím not even going to ask how old they are, letís just go." But the child labor laws. I mean thank God I didnít choose a fifteen-year-old because I wouldnít have been able to work them that hard.

AS: Oscar needs an edge to him, you need to see the old soul behind the eyes. So I think you made the right call, Gary. You made the right decision to cast me. [laughter]

SA: You were a very convincing fifteen year old. Walking in here I took one look and thought "Oh my god." How old are you?

AS: Iím twenty-five now. When we shot that film I had just turned twenty-three.

SA: I know thereís always a lot of fudging going on, but thatís an amazing amount of fudge.

AS: Itís movie magic, man. First of all you have to change your physicality. I spoke in a bit of a higher register vocally. And they put me in a toggle coat three sizes too big. That helps.

GW: Plus it also helps that youíre really immature.

AS: [laughs] Yeah, Iíd say one of the biggest differences between the character Oscar and myself is that Iím much more immature than Oscar, so it wasnít that tough to get [to] fifteen.

SA: Having worked on bigger sets, in front of bigger cameras, can you reflect back on how it was working in on this film with the small crew and intimate production.

AS: The set was really intimate. One of the great things about theater is that youíre able to do things just in a line. If you do something on stage you play the entire story out without stopping, you keep the momentum going. With film--and this is true of DV to an extent too of course, but especially with film--the set-ups take so long that once youíre in the middle of something you have to stop and you get two hours of down time and you wait, and then have to whip yourself back up to the state you were in when they stopped shooting. Itís tough to do. In DV itís much easier to keep that line going. Youíre working with a small cast in small spaces, itís more comfortable and the set is more intimate.

GW: Youíre part of the set. Uma Thurman , who did Chelsea Walls and Richard Linklaterís Tape with us (InDigEnt), said you really feel youíre on a movie set when youíre making a movie because the lights are so hot and theyíre all around. Youíre not in the context of the set, all around you is the production. In DV you are really in the space.

AS: You really feel like youíre in the room, like youíre in someoneís living room instead of standing against a backdrop.

SA: You say that you would hit the slate once and then roll. Did you work with the script and improvise off it in the ensemble, or were you completely dedicated to the words, or was there some kind of balance between the two?

GW: Weíd do one slate and then weíd maybe run three or four takes from that. But the script was really tight so maybe during the fourth or fifth time through they change a word or two, but there are only a couple of improvs that I can remember in the film. There were times when I would just leave the camera rolling and the scene would keep rolling. So of course you had some actual improvisations with people like John Ritter.

AS: He was the most prolific improviser on the entire set. Any scene that involved John Ritter, there was always five minutes of improv added onto the end because he would just start f*cking with me and we would just keep going back and forth.

GW: In the restaurant scene you can still hear me laughing during John Ritterís improv. I only hear it and no one else does, but itís me laughing during the scene when Oscar finds his moment alone with Eve. We started on John Ritter and Bebe Neuwirth talking so that you knew they were involved in conversation, and then we go to Aaron and Sigourney, which I did with a pan. So I said to John "Just start talking about your book, just have a conversation," and of course we did one take where he just kept on talking so I could just lay it in over. Itís in the film, itís a crime.

AS: He says something like: "My editorís getting on me to cut this thing down. The guyís twenty-six years old, doesnít know what heís talking about." "How long is your book?" "Itís 1,500 pages." [they both start laughing, but Gary more, as if reliving the moment]. Itís just really funny.

GW: You know what, you almost have to do it. Part of the DV thing is, because it doesnít really cost anything, I almost always like to do that just for the fun of the crew because the crew really works so hard, and you want to have a laugh.

AS: And we would do stuff like see how long you could go without the other one breaking. We were at a dinner table scene and were talking about my prep-school teachers, and he improvved something about my history teacher, a night with tequila, and a goat, and I just broke. The whole place went nuts.

SA: Did you workshop the script with your cast?

GW: No, the only workshop we did was basically rehearsals. Which was great because I wanted rehearsals and I thought great, a fourteen-day shoot and two days of rehearsals was fine. Sigourney wanted a week of rehearsals, which is basically the same amount as her shooting; she shot for ten days. So having that seven-day rehearsal was our workshop and we tried to approach it like theater: sit down, talk through the characters and all that. But we were able to change some lines and then with Sigourney we were able to go to the actual locations of her scenes and I was able to get some blocking in my mind and get to know the space. But we didnít workshop it much. If we did do any workshopping it was rehearsals and a little on the set when it didnít feel right.

SA: Fourteen days is a brisk shoot. You pretty much have to hit the ground running.

GW: And within that fourteen days, which is one of the remarkable things about DV, I reshot the cab scenes twice, I reshot the Central Park scene with Bebe, and within the shoot I was able to rework other scenes, which was amazing.

AS: And since the shoot we did pick-up shoots. Up until five months ago we were still doing pick-up shots.

GW: Five months ago? Up until a month ago.

AS: Heíd just call me up. They had me keep the costume at my house and heíd call me up whenever and say "Come on out, weíll go out to a movie. Wear the costume." And then weíll have a couple of shots on the sidewalk of me walking up and down. Because you can just do that, thereís no set-up, thereís no nothing.

SA: Did you work the camera yourself much?

GW: I didnít want to. Believe me, Iíd love to not do that, but because of this film I became pretty confidant with it. I did it not by choice, I had to. The reshoots were easy because it was just me and Aaron so basically weíd just do it until we get it right. If you think of a scene as a paragraph, I was just redoing a word, dotting the i, underlining a word. So I was able to just work on specific shots and I could do that myself, but if it was a complicated scene or any kind of lighting involved, no.

SA: You have a story credit but not a screenplay credit. Did you hatch the story and bring it to your screenwriters (Heather McGowan, and Niels Mueller)?

GW: No, it was me knowing that I get to direct one InDigEnt film out of the slate of ten and not having a story I wanted to do. Niels, who writes all my stuff, wanted to something again and Iíd already given Heather the job to write this, and they decided to collaborate together. They hadnít even met each other but they had read each otherís scripts and decided that talent should stick together, and we went out to Long Island for a week at my Dadís house. We didnít have a story, I just had an idea that I wanted to do a comedy, I wanted to do it in New York in the world that I grew up in, I wanted to do a single point-of-view thing, I wanted it to take place in short period of time, and I wanted it to fit within my constraints. We just threw around ideas until all three of us agreed, which is harder than having two people agree. And actually it was really hard because sometimes two would agree and one disagree, and they would try to overpower the other.

AS: Knives got pulledÖ

GW: It was ugly. So basically I just came back one day and said "Wait, what about a kid coming home from boarding school, a fifteen-year-old having a crush on his stepmom." And thatís all I had and they came up with scene ideas. "Oh, what about a tennis scene, 40-15," which they were very proud of. "What about a scene in the Plaza where all these women know that heís the one whoÖ" and then we had four or five scenes and we say "Okay, now letís work on a plot." It was the character, it was 15-40, and then Heather latched onto Voltaire.

SA: The restaurant scene is hilarious. Sorry to say it, but I think Bebe Neuwirth steals that scene.

AS: Itís not like I havenít heard it before, man. I think sheís great.

SA: And she does it mostly with her eyes.

GW: I gotta disagree. I think Ritter steals the restaurant scene. Heís got the those uncomfortable coughs.

AS: Heís got the classic spit take.

GW: Heís got: "Youíre acting very strange." Heís got all those things. But then Sigourney has the best look in that scene when Bebe smiles "Oscar and I both speak French." The way she looks at Aaron is classic.

SA: Itís such a great ensemble in that scene. Itís like a classical screwball moment where youíve got four people all on their own trajectories, all criss-crossing each other, and everyone plays it perfectly. Itís very funny and nicely timed.

GW: The star is the editing. It took a long time to shape that scene and it really worked out. But when I first read that first draft, I knew. When we blocked it out I knew what I was going to get. I remember reading it and laughing and saying "This is funny." I had a huge responsibility right from the start not to screw it up. But it was the hardest thing in the film because I had the climax in the middle of the movie and where do you go from there? Every scene from after the restaurant was changed in the edited version, in terms of where it goes in the movie. There was something in the script that worked well enough in the read-through so that actors really got their arcs and everything worked. When we got in the editing room I guess it seemed that the arc didnít get pulled off, I couldnít follow the journey of these characters anymore, so I had to flip everything. I mean every scene got rearranged. It took so long to find them. I also couldnít free myself up to "Hey, wait a second. This is a little novella. I canít start rearranging scenes." In other movies you can rearrange scenes because thatís what you do in the editing room but not this because A goes to B, B goes to C, itís such a simple thing. But yet I wound up rearranging every scene that followed the restaurant scene.

SA: So you didnít reshoot.

GW: I just rearranged. I think of it as a slight of hand, but I guess itís fulfilling and it works for people. I donít know how it works but it does.

  • Read the Interview with Gary Winick and Aaron Stanford.
  • Read the Review.



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