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Older Statesman

With its timely tale of a young man and a not-so-young woman, Tadpole could make director Gary Winick an overnight sensation -- after more than a decade in the movie business.

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The Chelsea offices of InDigEnt, a digital-filmmaking consortium, are small and homey, with wood floors and slatted blinds. Framed posters of movies produced by InDigEnt or directed by its co-founder, Gary Winick, hang on the walls, and so does this notice: TO ALL ACTORS: ALTHOUGH WE GREATLY APPRECIATE YOUR PROMPTNESS, PLEASE UNDERSTAND THAT IF YOU ARE HERE EARLY, YOU WILL MOST LIKELY NOT BE SEEN UNTIL YOUR ALLOTTED APPOINTMENT TIME.

It could be the subtext to Winick's career. Although his promptness was greatly appreciated -- graduate film school at the University of Texas and the American Film Institute, five features (Curfew, Out of the Rain, Sweet Nothing, The Tic Code, Sam the Man) directed between 1989 and 2000 -- he was, alas, early, and his films were mostly not seen. His appointment time turned out to be January 2002, when his sixth effort, Tadpole, became a crowd pleaser at Sundance, and he walked off with the Dramatic Directing Award and a $5 million distribution deal from Miramax. Now he's preparing to shoot a big-budget romantic comedy for Disney. Meet Gary Winick, 41-year-old phenom.

Tadpole, which just opened, is a sweet, funny, very New York film about a Voltaire-quoting prep-school aesthete who falls for an inappropriate older woman. An astoundingly inappropriate older woman. The issue of what constitutes age-appropriate dating for Oscar, the hero, is thoroughly explored, and -- well, you've seen the ads. Tadpole stars Sigourney Weaver, John Ritter, Bebe Neuwirth, and Aaron Stanford. It is, according to its director, not particularly well directed.

"It's an unbelievable script," Winick says. Athletic, easygoing, and with a reputation for generosity, he had been up till midnight remixing Tadpole's soundtrack, and he looks it: In T-shirt, jeans, and sneakers, he's unshaven, hair unkempt. "Unbelievable actors. The score's wonderful, the editing's wonderful. But there are so many mistakes, things I wasn't able to do. The audience award was something people were saying we might get, and I could easily see Aaron getting something, or the writing. But the directing? I'm not complaining; I'm just doubting."

The two-week shooting budget was $150,000, and it was done in digital video, "with little cameras about this big" -- Winick holds up a tiny water bottle. "They give an intimacy to the performances. I was able to get into Grand Central for free, restaurants for free, because the cameras were so small."

Winick started InDigEnt in 1999, with help from the Independent Film Channel and producer John Sloss. The idea was to make ten films for $1 million total. "I felt, let's pay everyone $100 a day, actors all scale, and everyone owns a piece of the film," he says. Among the company's projects are Richard Linklater's Tape, Ethan Hawke's Chelsea Walls, and Rebecca Miller's Personal Velocity.

Tadpole is the first film he's directed for InDigEnt, and with Miramax's resources and Harvey Weinstein's input, the director has upgraded it since Sundance. "Harvey said, 'You know, we can make this film better.' And I said, 'Absolutely, let's do it,' " says Winick. "And I went a little wild." He rearranged, added, and cut scenes, redid some of the music, improved the look and sound. "Harvey was really great with specific music things," he says. "He'd say, 'Well, you know, that's jazz, and I think we need more of a bossa nova thing.' " The director's cooperativeness was not lost on the studio executives. "We'd like him to give lessons to ten other directors," jokes Mark Gill, head of Miramax in Los Angeles.

Now an Upper West Sider, Winick was raised on East 63rd Street by parents who divorced when he was young. "I think growing up in New York, you have two tracks," he says. "You can be the cultural kid who goes to the museum and Trader Vic's, or you can be the club kid that gets into trouble with women and drugs and all of that. And I definitely wasn't in the Oscar camp." He attended Columbia Grammar after having been tossed out of Horace Mann. At Tufts University, he met his future screenwriter Niels Mueller (who co-wrote Tadpole with novelist Heather McGowan), and the two created episodes for a local cable show on TUTV. (Among the undergraduate actors who responded to their notice in the drama department were Oliver Platt and Hank Azaria.) Winick was on his way.

And, within twenty years or so, he'd arrived.

"They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results," Winick says. "I think that applies in life, but in Hollywood it doesn't. I've been at this for years and years, and -- finally -- I do make one movie that does get to Sundance, that does win an award. The nicest thing is that people say, 'You really deserve it.' Because I've worked hard."

PLUS:

  • Where the Boys Are!
    Inspired by Hollywood, increasing numbers of New York women are aiming younger -- and scoring higher.

  • Forever Younger
    When it comes to making older-women- younger-men relationships seem like business as usual, celebrities lead the way.

  • Boys on Film
    Recently, there's been an epidemic of older-women-younger-men films.


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