The quietly revolutionary work of 13 Going On 30’s director

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By the time Gary Winick was hired to direct 13 Going On 30, he’d already becoming something of a Hollywood groundbreaker on the quiet.

I’ve always had a soft spot for the movie 13 Going On 30, a take on the body swap comedy that sees Jennifer Garner – in her first movie lead role – playing a character who we meet at 13 at the start of the film. Courtesy of a wish and a bit of magic dust, 13 minutes into the film, she’s now her 30-year old self, and I’ll tell you no more about the plot. Not that you can’t piece most of it together.

What matters for me with the film is the mix of excellent performances, the commitment to small details, and just how upbeat and joyous it ultimately is.

But also, it turns out that the person who directed the movie was a quiet revolutionary in Hollywood. That man was Gary Winick, and he came to the project after making a mix of independent productions. But those independent films were important, and in 1998, he caught a screening of a film called The Celebration. Directed by Thomas Vinterberg, he saw the film in 1998 along with a soon-to-be cinematographer by the name of Wolfgang Held. The film changed Winick’s life.

The movie was the first film to come from the Dogme 95 idea in Denmark, whereby expense is stripped back to zero in on what’s deemed essential in a film: theme, story, acting. To cut right back on the thrills, and to take advantage of the-then emerging digital video technology to simply get on and make movies.

Winick was hugely inspired, and as Held told, “Gary came out of the theatre so excited… we could do that – a Dogme New York! … We could make $100,000 films with DV cameras and really small crews”.

Lots of people came out of Dogme 95 films inspired to do similar things. The difference was that Winick actually did it, and in doing so held the ladder out for a bunch of filmmakers to get a shot at making a feature. Leading all the way to the Academy Awards.

It was a few weeks after the screening that he found an investor willing to put in $1m, in return for ten feature films. A company was set up in the late 90s – this was a year or two before George Lucas would break blockbuster ground by shooting Star Wars Episode II: Attack Of The Clones entirely using digital cameras – and it went by the name of InDigEnt (standing for Independent Digital Entertainment).

The budgets for the films were strictly limited to $100,000-$200,000 apiece, and Winick and his team were in business.

What makes this story so different though is the success the InDigEnt enjoyed. As this Wired article attests, five of the film’s first six films were successful. Winick himself directed Tadpole (pictured above) with Sigourney Weaver headlining, and the film earned attention at the Sundance Film Festival before Miramax picked it up for distribution.

Richard Linklater made his single room drama Tape for InDigEnt (starring Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman and Robert Sean Leonard). Then there was the quietly acclaimed Personal Velocity, which afforded Rebecca Miller the chance to make her second feature as director, seven years after her first. The movie picked up prizes at Sundance too. InDigEnt’s profile was rising, and filmmakers in Hollywood were noticing what could be done with digital filming equipment.

Then there was The Anniversary Party, starring Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming, who also co-wrote and co-directed. The 2001 movie was the first low budget digital film was believed to be the first time movie stars had appeared in a DV film, and as Winick said, “I think audiences really didn’t distinguish between DV and 35mm”.

Perhaps best of all was Pieces Of April (above) a tiny film in the context of the movie universe perhaps, but the 2003 comedy drama – produced by Winick, directed by Peter Hedges – proved a breakout success. Granted, its box office totalled out at $3.3m, but the Katie Holmes-headlined film earned an Oscar nomination. That was for the brilliant Patricia Clarkson, who picked up a nod for Best Supporting Actress, although she’d lose out to Renee Zellweger for Cold Mountain.

By the time Pieces Of April came out, though, things were changing for Winick, and changing for InDigEnt too. Winick, by this stage, had been hired for 13 Going On 30, his star very much in the ascendancy. But the ecosystem for independent films was evolving fast as well. No longer was an indie hit in Hollywood a film that grossed a few million dollars off a budget of a few hundred thousand. By the mid-2000s, most majors had some form of boutique arm, dedicated to trying to find a hugely profitable breakout success.

That squeezed the market for what InDigEnt was trying to do. Films that followed such as November and Pizza didn’t break through, and whereas the company was breaking new ground in its infancy, digital filmmaking was far more commonplace just a few years after it started up. That said, Winick had promised that he’d make ten films at least when he set the company up, and he overdelivered. Along the way – in a forerunner of sorts for the Blumhouse model – the filmmakers would get creative control over their movies.

Still, with Winick becoming recruited for further Hollywood productions and the marketplace changing, it wasn’t a huge surprise when, on January 20th 2007, the announcement came that InDigEnt was to close its doors. Winick has completed the big screen take on the book Charlotte’s Web at the time, that had taken nearly three years of his life. And as he said of InDigEnt’s closure, “I couldn’t keep it together… we’re biting the dust after six years”.

As reported by Reuters, he said that “I kind of think we had our moment in time. Unfortunately there is no million-dollar film any more that actually gets in the market place and makes some money because the studios want the Capotes and the Sideways … they want the $8-million film to make a $100 million instead of the $1-million to make $10 (million). That’s the problem”.

And thus the company closed, with precious little recognition for the groundbreaking and pathfinding it’d done. That it had been a pioneer of digital filmmaking in Hollywood, but also in the way it used it as a gateway to bring people traditionally outside the Los Angeles movie ecosystem into the industry. The catalyst being Gary Winick.

Winick, after 13 Going On 30 – a film he told the studio was made for the price of over 100 of his indie films – was in demand. He directed Charlotte’s Web, Bride Wars and Letters To Juliet. But the last of those was made in particularly difficult times. Ahead of its production, Winick underwent surgery for the brain cancer he’d been diagnosed with. The prognosis wasn’t great: three to five years at best. He used his time in part to make another movie.

He was taken from the world cruelly early, at the age of just 49, in March 2011. But he left behind not just some fun studio movies, but also a legacy of breaking ground away from the glare of the spotlight. His drive got movies made, for others as well as himself.

And he very much deserves to be remembered.


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