Sam Davis, the overconfident young author in "Ceremony," is not unlike his own children's book character, a deep-sea diver intent on winning Chloe the mermaid's heart. Davis, played by Michael Angarano, also shares more than a passing resemblance with Max Winkler, writer and director of "Ceremony" -- and a close friend of mine (I made a piece of music for the trailer). The director and his fictional protagonist share the need to charm, a quick wit, a slight neurosis, and several turns of phrase, among other things.
Both Davis and Winkler are similarly transparent about their influences. Sam recommends F. Scott Fitzgerald to his captive sidekick Marshall while exhibiting the futile bravado of Amory Blaine or Jay Gatsby in his attempts to seduce his old flame Zoe, played by Uma Thurman. The adolescent crisis Davis works through over the course of the movie is so classically Holden Caulfield that his The Catcher In The Rye references are almost unnecessary. These are Winkler's influences too, but that is probably where the similarities end.
Sam emulates his influences as a form of escape -- he refuses to acknowledge who he really is for fear of being unoriginal. Winkler, on the other hand, wears his influences on his sleeve, acknowledging them as important touchstones of his formative years. There are notes of Woody Allen, Wes Anderson, Mike Nichols, and Paul Thomas Anderson, but they sound with an honesty of true admiration that allows the film to escape being a turgid repeat.
Winkler described his film as "a coming of age comedy, where the boy in the end doesn't realize he's a man but instead realizes that he's a boy." Angarano was originally cast as another character, Marshall, "even though I'd envisioned him as Sam originally." Winkler explained. Originally, "we brought Jesse Eisenberg on as Sam," he added.
"For the year leading up to getting ready to film [the three of us] would sit together at my dining room table and read through the script and make notes," Winkler elaborated. After Eisenberg left the project because of a scheduling conflict with the The Social Network, "Michael ended up coming in to read the part of Sam as we were searching for it -- and I feel like he had been secretly sort of practicing. He was unbelievable, and he did the performance very differently then Jesse does. I think reading opposite Jesse really helped him understand both characters."
Winkler did as much as he could to help his actors understand their roles. "I had the soundtrack for the movie before I had given out the script to anybody," he said. "So I sent that along to the producers, and the financiers, and the agents and the actors because I thought it did a really good job of setting up the tone in the movie." The music plays a wonderfully organic role in the film, with compositions from Eric Johnson of The Fruit Bats and Van Dyke Parks as well as a rendition of Paul Simon's "Papa Hobo" by Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend.
"I'm such a nerd," he confessed. "I made the playlist with my producer Matt Spicer before we even started writing the script. We had a gigantic 100 song playlist and a lot of the songs end up in the movie." The director's tone graduates from self-deprecating to playful, "I write to music on repeat, it would annoy the people that were in the office with me to a great, great extent. 'Papa Hobo' has like 700 plays on my iTunes, Kate Bush has so many."
The title of "Ceremony" seems to refer to more than just the approaching marital vows that Sam attempts to stop during the film. The whole gathering seems like a bizarre charade. "Laugh back at her. That's what these people do here Marshall, they laugh at you," boasts Sam after crashing the birthday/wedding weekend. "Ceremony" is full of the stuff of adventure: bandits, underwater explorers, safari travelers, all the trappings of a sort of childhood fantasy. Sam Davis is caught in this type of suspended make-believe, and he drags his friend Marshall along as a sidekick for his ill-conceived seduction.
"There are some things that seem selfish and unlikeable in some capacities," Winkler pondered. "But you can see in his face underneath the moustache and underneath the pompadour he really is just an innocent kid who doesn't really know who he is at the moment." Sam and Marshall spend the weekend in a room with a canoe, rackets, and every type of ball imaginable while the rest of the adults are lodged in respectable rooms, and the irony of this is probably lost on them.
Winkler instead aims for a more bitter truth: a romance with a Spanish-speaking maid a la "Bottle Rocket" is nipped in the bud due to an insurmountable language barrier. Winkler invites the viewer to dig deeper than the surface -- in a way reminiscent of Truffaut or Louis Malle, but still undeniably his own. There is a scene at the end of "The Graduate" where Ben and Elaine face each other with an incredible sadness, like they have been jolted out of a fairytale to face reality right there on the back of a public bus. "Ceremony" seems to continue on this line of thought, asking "adult" questions like: let's say we get what we want, what then?