Film students looking for inspiration from the heyday of independent film are likely to fixate on Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, Spike Lee, and Michael Moore, but the shining light they should not overlook or ever forget is the little train that could — and did — Gary Winick.
His later, most well-known films were not particularly groundbreaking — “Charlotte’s Web” was a live-action remake, “13 Going On 30” was an update of “Freaky Friday,” and “Tadpole” was something of a mash-up of “Rushmore” and “The Graduate” — but as far as indie street cred and “keeping it real” in the independent film world was concerned, Winick was both an innovator and a giant.
He was groundbreaking in codifying the long-promised but rarely realized business model of offering gross participation to production crew members and he taught at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts for seven years, to enlighten and inspire a generation of independent filmmakers.
However, what Winick should be most honored and remembered for — perhaps with a scholarship or filmmaking award at NYU or his alma mater the University of Texas — is his perseverance and determination to finally make it.
Quentin Tarantino didn’t have to somehow scrape up the financing and then direct five feature films before finally being accepted to Sundance with his sixth feature as Winick did.
“Tadpole” was also pioneering because it was a narrative feature with name stars shot in MiniDV, and because it was the toast of the 2002 festival with one of the biggest sales that year of $5 million.
Maintaining the force of will to believe in himself for 15 years of privation between 1988 and 2002, and emotional strength to stay relevant and succeed in New York’s indie film scene, and finally become a luminary of that milieu, was indeed an heroic achievement.
This is not to say that Winick never thought about giving up his dreams and finding another profession.
But doing so would have meant missing out on someday being the King of Park City and a go-to director for romantic comedies, later in his career. As he recalled in one of many candid interviews in my book, “The Reel Truth: Everything You Didn’t Know You Need to Know About Making an Independent Film.”
“Right after ‘The Tic Code’ I wanted to give up,” Winick said. “It was actually at the Hamptons Film Festival in 1998 and (‘Bridges of Madison County’ screenwriter) Richard LaGravenese was there when I said, ‘I’m done. . . I’m giving up.’ I wasn’t proud of ‘The Tic Code,’ it wasn’t coming out, I wasn’t able to get any more work, I was raising money by myself for all my other films, and I was just thinking, ‘You know, my life isn’t going so well.’ I didn’t have a girlfriend at the time—all the personal stuff wasn’t there — and I just thought: There’s got to be a simpler way or something else that I’d be happier doing. The thing about independent filmmaking is you have to love it so much because it’s so hard.”
Indeed, what many aspiring filmmakers who perused his brief obituary in the New York Times, Variety, or the Los Angeles Times may not know is that the $500,000 ‘Tadpole,’ which sold for $5 million at Sundance 2002, almost didn’t get finished.
It had been shot on now-ancient digital video three-chip MiniDV PD150 PAL camera long before digital cameras had 720p and 1080i options and there were problems with the footage.
As Winick told me for a section of my book “The Reel Truth”: “The hardest job on many first DV features is for the cinematographer because the cameras want to work without you,” he said. “Every time you turn on the camera you have to make sure that you have checked every switch and put every automated function into manual mode: the gain, the shutter speed, the exposure, focus — all of it. If you forget one of those things, when it gets blown up to 35mm you’re going to notice the result and be very unhappy.”
Winick explained that because “Tadpole’s” DP did not always abide by this doctrine, some of the footage that was shot, he said, was almost unusable.
“You have to really pay attention because you don’t want to end up with a ‘contrasty’ DV film,” he had explained. “The backgrounds tend to blow out really quickly, so you have to make sure that you don’t light the backgrounds if you’re shooting in MiniDV.”
This was only the first painful lesson on “Tadpole.”
“After our shoot I called Industrial Light & Magic in California and said, ‘You can have any amount of money — I’ll give you any amount of money to make this look really good. Can you make this film look beautiful?’” Winick recalled. “And they said, ‘If the information is not on the cassette, we can’t do anything for you,’ which I was shocked to hear because not only do people always say ‘Don’t worry, we’ll fix it in post,’ but there’s this assumption that since it’s digital they’ll be able to do anything with it.”
Ultimately Winick said Miramax spent more to enhance the look of “Tadpole” than the film cost to produce, a lifeline that few of today’s aspiring filmmakers are likely to receive given the glut of amazing-looking films being shot on today’s leading pro-grade digital cameras such as the RED Epic and Scarlet, Silicon Imaging SI-2K, Sony EX3, and Panasonic HPX170, none of which were available in Winick’s early days.
“DuArt did a really good job with what we had and I’m very grateful to Miramax, but now I tell film students: ‘When the information is not on the tape — when it’s not on that little HD or MiniDV or DV-CAM cassette — no matter what you do, you can’t fix it,” Winick said.
It’s no wonder after dozens of panic inducing close calls like this one, which often do quietly end people’s promising careers before they even start, and which are part of the daily routine of producing low-budget movies that Winick decided to take studio meetings and directing assignments.
Finally he would be able to breathe a lot easier knowing that his early budgets of $300,000 — or even triple that amount — would be allocated to ensuring that his shot footage wasn’t pixilated, dropped out, ruined by time-code bubbles, or otherwise compromised.
Despite Winick’s his work in Hollywood, he never stopped being a film instructor, and always attended film festival panels when he could.
I can recall Winick on more than a dozen occasions advising a gaggle of aspiring screenwriters, producers, and directors after a New York-centered filmmaking panel, like Gary Kasparov playing two dozen games of simultaneous chess in a show tournament with aspiring chess club presidents and other fans.
No matter how many projects he directed or how well-known he became, Winick was always approachable and a nice guy who never forgot your name.
In fact, he was always the first one to say hello and greet a fellow filmmaker, aspiring producer, or industry journalist by name at a screening, festival, panel discussion, or a reception.
In that way he never traded in his teacher persona and always had time for everyone. He felt the pain of aspiring filmmakers everywhere and had enough war stories from the gritty trenches of his home city to fill a History Channel special.
After eight years, InDigEnt closed its doors in January 2007 and had its final release, Andrew Wagner’s May-December love story “Starting out in the Evening,” distributed late in 2007 but Winick still loved to talk shop — as technical as you wanted to get — with anyone who had a question about digital film production.
Even though he now shot his studio projects in 35mm and often with more than one Panavision camera rolling at once, Winick more than just about anyone was the cheerleader for the cost-savings and storytelling that was achievable when shooting in the latest DV, HD, and higher-end digital formats.
“There’s the obvious benefits of not having to yell ‘Cut!’ anymore because now the ‘film’ is cheap. But what I was excited about and what I got other filmmakers excited about was working with the smaller digital cameras,” Winick told me for “The Reel Truth.” “When you work with the smaller digital cameras, you can do huge things creatively.
“My idea with InDigEnt was to give experienced filmmakers a chance to work with these little cameras and make stories in a very different way than they would when making a 35mm movie.
“Part of what they can do, which you can’t easily do in 35mm, is to rework scenes as you’re going, to have two or three cameras going simultaneously, to be able to sneak into subways and go wherever you want with the camera, and to have crews of only ten to twelve people.”
Indeed, during the InDigEnt era, Winick, was a veritable Johnny Appleseed of this type of production and was able to bring people into his vision with his passion, down-to-earth style, and a knowledge of the technology’s limitations.
“Once people started doing it, they got converted pretty easily,” Winick often said. “And in terms of the distribution side, I think this still stands true, a good film is a good film. If the film is working, then people are not really questioning the merits of the format. Of course, what’s great is that the quality is getting better as we speak, so from the blowups to the cameras to the facilities, everything is getting better on a level where it’s really exciting.
“With InDigEnt we weren’t trying to make the digital video look like film, we were trying to give it a new aesthetic. And the directors of photography, like Maryse Alberti and Tom Richmond and Ellen Kuras, have been interested in pushing that aesthetic, not to make it look like film but to make it fit the story. That’s really what we were trying to offer filmmakers, a new creative way of doing things.”
In the coming years following Winick’s untimely passing at 49, other independent filmmakers who are able to cross over into the Hollywood mainstream may get far more press and achieve greater heights — in the same way that Nikola Tesla was overshadowed by Thomas Edison — but the filmmakers lucky enough to have their digitally shot (and increasingly digitally projected) films premiere at Sundance, will have Winick to thank and fondly remember for paving the way for their moment in the sun.
And when manufacturers get around to adding professional grade SMPTE time code, standard stereo input jacks, and 24p capabilities to a new generation of Flip HD and VIXIA-grade cameras, from somewhere up on high Gary Winick will be smiling.