Max Winkler’s Flower (2017) tells the story of rebelliously quick-witted Erica Vandross (Zoey Deutch) and her group of sidekick vigilante friends Kayla (Dylan Gelula) and Claudine (Maya Eshet). When Erica’s mother Laurie (Kathryn Hahn) and her new boyfriend Bob (Tim Heidecker) welcome his son Luke (Joey Morgan) into the family home on his release from rehab, the two teens form an unexpected bond. Learning the truth about Luke’s anxiety, Erica with Kayla and Claudine in tow, sets out to expose the dark secret of high-school teacher Will (Adam Scott).
The sophomore feature following his 2010 comedy Ceremony, Winkler has directed episodes of Clark and Michael (CBS, 2007), New Girl (2013-14) and Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Fox, 2014-16). Connecting his two feature films is the thread of impulsivity – the first about a character springing on his friend his intention to crash the wedding of a woman he still loves, the second, teens blackmailing morally dubious folk.
In conversation with PopMatters, Winkler discusses his appreciation for cinema and addresses the idea of authorship within a collaborative art form. He also reflects on his creative process and the thematic inclinations that look to the hardships of the human experience, and the tendency for the individual to look outward rather than inward.
Why film as a means of creative expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?
I find it to be the ultimate collaboration. You can put all of these people together with an expertise in their specific fields and get an interesting expression of a collective vision. The movies that I was influenced by growing up were examples of that. I’vealways felt if you have two hours to spare, then it’s the ultimate way to immerse yourself in another world; to have an emotional and visceral reaction if you can be patient with it. There’s something so immediate about music; you can do it in two minutes. But if you are a little more patient, then I think you can get a better interaction or an emotional response with film.
Have your experiences as a filmmaker changed the way you watch films as a spectator?
Yeah, I have such an appreciation for the amount of work that goes into films to get them made. I now try to have more patience with movies that don’t necessarily hook me immediately, and stay with them a little longer. Again… I believe this to be the ultimate collaboration, and the more movies I make, the more I feel that to be true.
The auteur theory states that the director is the author of a film, but does this not undermine the collaboration? or as you describe it ,”expression of a collective vision?” Is the theory still valid, and if so, does it require revision?
That’s so weird because I’m reading this book about the making of Orson Welles’ last movie, and he was railing against the auteur theory. If Orson Welles can think that, then we can all reimagine the take on it.
There are a select few directors that can make something and it feels ultimately their vision. But it’s using other artists at the top of their craft to help bring that vision to the screen. Lynne Ramsay or Andrea Arnold’s lens is completely their creation I believe, but they work with different people all the time, and so it’s always a testament to the other people they are working with. I also feel Wes Anderson and Paul Thomas Anderson’s work, whether it’s with cinematographers Bob Elswit or Bob Yeoman, or their editors such as Andrew Weisblum, or production designers, is a testament to being able to pull off those visions.
I do believe there are filmmakers working today that have a true pure vision, a point of view that is strictly their own. But it’s different than a painter who is just in the room by themselves, and the auteur theory sometimes demeans the work of all the other people that get the film to where it gets to. Maybe Wim Wenders, someone who does the music and shoots the film, who does everything; the writer director is obviously a step closer to it. With Woody Allen’s early work, you can see how much it’s elevated by Gordon Willis when he came into his life, and then Sven Nykvist. So for me, even if someone is writing, directing and acting, and varies his voice, the other artists who work with him have a big role in that.
What was the genesis of Flower and to speak about themes, are you attentive to specific ones from the outset or is it a journey of discovery?
I usually start with the journey that a character is going to go on and the themes then usually come from that. Flower is a movie about regaining innocence, and it’s usually always the reverse story of the loss of innocence. That only came when I started thinking about this character who has repressed all of these intense feelings of abandonment and anxiety in regards to the loss of her father, and how she takes that out on the men and the people in her life. The themes began to come as I first read the initial draft of the script, and found I had a character I had never seen before. I then started putting in themes that I could look at with a broader scope.
I like films where characters carry with them a little anger or there is a small chip on the shoulder, and with Erica and her friends it’s not a case of good versus evil. Rather it’s a morally dubious world from the outset, which taps into cinema as a place where we can shed our social concerns of conforming and what is morally acceptable. Film is a playground where we get to explore the darker shades of ourselves, as well as those darker aspects of sympathy.
I felt the same way, and I felt there was no good and evil in this movie. As in a lot of times in life, I tried to treat every single character with total sympathy, and not write anyone off as either absolutely bad or good. The morality in the movie belongs to the characters; there was no God-like director interpreting what’s right and what’s wrong. Everyone is just trying to do the best they can, and yes, Erica is angry.
I was angry as a 17-year-old; I was such a fuck up I wish I could go back and take some of the stuff I did back. But I didn’t do anything like Erica, who is angry at the lack of control she has in her life, and the fact that she can’t count on the people who are supposed to be caring for her. You are totally right, and I have never seen a 17-year-old version of a Travis Bickle who is trying to do good stuff but it’s misguided. What [Erica] should be doing is looking inward and maybe getting therapy. Or she should be figuring out a way to deal with these things within herself, instead of trying to take on everyone else’s pain as her own and righting the wrongs.
The performances have a feel of authenticity, the past roles of some of the cast a distant association that only serves to deepen our connection to the film and the struggles of the characters.
The casting is 80 percent of my job, and we feel lucky with the actors that we have because again, no one is a cliché. We’ve seen that stepdad character before that Tim Heidecker plays, like somebody who’s not trying and is just kind of an asshole. But there’s something very human about the way Tim plays that character, who tries his best to get by, who met this woman that he thought was maybe outside of his realm, and so he’s desperately trying to hang on, which everyone is desperately trying to do.
Kathryn Hahn plays so many different emotions in every scene and she is living with the guilt of being a mother of a kid that she is inherently fucking up, but she keeps fucking it up because she doesn’t want to say no to it. Adam Scott brings such humanity to a guy who has these demons and obviously it is all held together by Zoe Deutch. In every scene, you can see the anxiety and fear rising from her, even when she is fighting so hard to act like she has it all under control. I am just really proud of all of these actors and they did a terrific job.
Thematically there’s an emphasis on youth lacking the wisdom to navigate the predicaments they place themselves in. Picking up on your observation about Hahn’s character, the film portrays the fact that as humans, we never stop learning, and life remains a confounding puzzle in which we are always improvising and trying to break out of routines or patterns. Philosophically speaking it’s a case of eternal recurrence, the inability to liberate ourselves from these cycles that inherently make life a difficult experience no matter one’s age.
Yeah, we are all trying to not be our parents and yet we end up doing things without realising we have become them. Kathryn’s Laurie Vandross is trying so hard to give her daughter an experience that’s different from her own, yet she’s falling into these patterns by doing exactly just that. It’s hard to be a human and to have feelings in general; to even be in a white box. When things start happening and people start to disappoint you, especially your parents, then you start to realise they are just human, and you begin reacting and acting out.
Everything in Erica’s life to me is a direct response to her dad leaving and everything she does to men is to have some semblance of control over them, because she feels she is so out of [control]. She pushes the boundaries to see if they are going to leave, and then when she pushes too far and they finally leave, she says: “Ah ah. I knew you would leave.” So it’s difficult and I think she’s trying her best, and by the end she has understood that a lot of this stuff is not her job. She just needs to focus on herself and try to find some semblance of happiness in being a teenager, besides all of the things that have occurred by the end.
Expanding the discussion of transformation, filmmaker Christoph Behl remarked to me: “You are evolving, and after the film, you are not the same person as you were before.” Do you perceive there to be a transformative aspect to the creative process, and should the experience of watching a film offer the audience a transformative experience?
I can’t speak for the audience, but the goal when I personally make the movie is to have people feel differently about the character than they felt walking into it. In that experience you will have seen their story and hopefully something that felt original. You take that with you, and it educates the other stories you will go on to watch and read.
For me, you obviously change as you make each movie. I changed exponentially between my first and second movie, and I have changed now as I get set to make my third. By continuing and just trying to take risks is the most important thing. To try things that feel out of your comfort zone, that feel scary, different and new to me is what makes the process that’s already so terrifying and scary even more so, and more exciting.
Speaking with Carol Morley for The Falling (2014), she explained: “You take it 90 percent of the way, and it is the audience that finishes it. So the audience by bringing themselves: their experiences, opinions and everything else to a film is what completes it.” If the audience are the ones that complete it, does it follow that there is a transfer in ownership?
The second I finish making the movie, then I no longer have any ownership over it or people’s reactions. I’m grateful for my experience when it was mine and the crews, and I mourn that loss for a few weeks. But then I move on and write another one, instead of trying to control what I can’t. The second I finish mixing, I don’t watch the movie again and of course, you think about how you wish you could improve this, or you wish you had shot that.
Watching people trying to explain their work after it’s done feels scary to me just because it feels almost futile. For me the moment it’s done, I immediately feel grateful for the experience I had with it, then I part ways, and everybody else gets to do what they will with it.
Flower is available to rent or own now courtesy of The Orchard.