Max Winkler is wandering around the African-buffalo exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History, which is not the part of the museum he wants to be wandering around. “I’m looking for the Hall of Minerals,” he mutters. He stops to ask a girl next to us, who looks about 10, if the beasts were made by taxidermy or are merely replicas. “That’s what I was wondering,” she says. Winkler, wearing rolled-up white jeans, high-top Cons, and a denim shirt, nods. “I just thought she looked so informed,” he tells me as we move on. “We’re going to have the best time, Mike. But I can’t follow basic signs.”
Winkler wants to make sure we visit the Hall of Gems and Minerals because it’s one of his favorite parts of the museum, which is itself his favorite place in New York, just ahead of the Carlyle Hotel, where he’d originally wanted us to meet before he sent a late-night e-mail announcing a sudden change of plans. He has a transparent need to charm. As does, not coincidentally, the protagonist of Winkler’s debut film, Ceremony, which the 27-year-old scripted and directed. In the film, aspiring writer Sam (Michael Angarano) vows to win back the older and ostensibly wiser Zoe (Uma Thurman) on the weekend she’s set to wed a successful documentary filmmaker. Thurman’s character is based loosely on one of Winkler’s own lost loves. “I thought it was the defining relationship of my life,” he says. “I felt like I had a monopoly on the world’s heartache. In that state, you make the worst decisions.”
He made a few others growing up in Santa Monica, where he graduated from the progressive private school Crossroads after being “asked to leave” his elementary school for behavioral problems. (“I have terrible ADD. I took my SATs standing up. It took ten hours.”) He went out with Hollywood starlets, but only, he stresses, for the right reasons. “I dated an Olsen twin because I was in love with an Olsen twin,” he says when pressed about his romance with Mary-Kate. “But I wasn’t in love with her because she was ‘an Olsen twin.’ I just thought she was so pretty and smart and cute.” (He doesn’t want to talk about his current girlfriend—Sasha Spielberg—other than to say, “She’s better than me at everything, so she always makes me feel like I can be better.”)
Winkler is notably unfazed to have grown up as son of the iconic, Fonzie-portraying Henry Winkler, to whom he bears an unmistakable resemblance. “I love my dad so much,” he says. “I don’t have that cool thing where I have dad issues.” He does not, however, watch Happy Days. “It gives me tingles. It’s like watching my own work. I can’t do it.” Nor can he find the elusive Hall of Gems and Minerals, which we’re still supposedly searching for when we end up in the planetarium, after passing the timeline of the universe that wraps around a spiraling walkway.
It was Winkler’s mentor, Jason Reitman, who encouraged him to write the script that became Ceremony. His friends played a significant role in staving off “nervous breakdowns” as he feared the movie would never come to fruition. He describes his crew, which includes Jonah Hill and Jesse Eisenberg, as a bunch of “uncool, moderate-size Jewish dudes.” It might be more accurate to say they’re like the male counterpart to the so-called Fempire, the group of female screenwriters that includes Diablo Cody and Winkler’s friend Elizabeth Meriwether. But Winkler has mixed feelings toward Los Angeles, where he still lives, calling it a place where “young girls never eat sandwiches on white bread” and “weird producers” take the movie industry too seriously. Ceremony is set entirely in New York. “I’ve always had a romantic view of this city,” he says.
When we finally do find the Hall of Gems and Minerals, it’s accidental and anticlimactic. His quest to find the room seems to have been more a way to funnel his anxiety about being interviewed than anything else, though the 563-carat Star of India is admittedly impressive. Outside the museum, Winkler asks me what I thought of his movie. “You hated it. You can be honest.” (Actually, I didn’t hate it at all.) “I can’t even watch it.” Momentarily, he looks nervous. “I was in a conversational mood today,” he says, noting that his therapist will probably hear about our outing.
“You don’t start making a movie unless you believe, deep down, that this movie could be something really fucking important,” he blurts out. “You can’t rationalize it otherwise. You’re running on pure ambition. So you make the movie, and you have these expectations. You want it to be, like, this Lawrence of Arabia–type thing, even if it’s some $3 love letter. So you’re shooting and you’re like, ‘Oh my God. This is actually going to be the best movie of all time.’ Then you watch the footage and you’re like, ‘Um, this is horrific. This is disgusting. I’m taking my name off this,’ ” he says. “And then you end up feeling somewhere in between.”