BY DENNIS KING
NEW YORK – Gary Winick has made his name primarily as a producer of smart, low-budget independent movies with such indie icons as Richard Linklater, Rebecca Miller and Steve Buscemi. But as a director, the New York native said he often feels lightly typecast as “the romantic comedy guy.”
Two of his most recent films, 2009’s “Bride Wars” and 2004’s “13 Going on 30,” have fallen squarely in rom-com territory, and his latest, the hyper-romantic “Letters to Juliet,” will likely do nothing to disprove Winick’s attraction to scripts leaning heavily toward light love and whimsy.
But to hear the director tell it during a recent round of press interviews hosted by Summit Entertainment, “Letters to Juliet” in pre-production had an entirely different tone from the film that finally made it to the screen.
“Originally, this concept had a ’50s romantic comedy feel – you know, like one of those Katharine Hepburn-Cary Grant stories. It had the repartee,” said Winick. “But then the script drafts never really seemed to duplicate that. And part of that was because maybe we’ve just outgrown those ’50s type of films.
“Because of the success of ’13 Going on 30’ I now seem to be this romantic comedy guy,” he said. “And what we had in mind was something like ‘Notting Hill,’ which seems to me one of the best romantic comedies of the last 20 years, in my opinion. It’s interesting when I look back at that film they had that repartee, but it was in a different milieu. I mean we were locked in this kind of timeless warp of Italy and Vanessa (Redgrave) coming back and looking for her old love and going to beautiful places.
“And its funny because ‘Letters to Juliet’ turned into more romance than comedy,” he said. “If Amanda (Seyfried’s) audience is our audience then I think they expect something like that movie I did last year (“Bride Wars”) which Entertainment Weekly, if you look it up in the 2009 year-end issue, put on their 10 worst list.
“Anyway,” he continued with a rueful laugh, “I only make a movie if it has a story worth telling, and for me that movie was all about friendship. And I’ll always make a movie about friendship because that’s the most important thing in my life.”
Does he feel hemmed in by the “romantic comedy guy” label?
“I know what I’m not good at and I believe my strength, if I have a strength, is that I’m pretty truthful and honest in my moments and can get the comedy out of situations without getting too broad and get the emotional stuff from being truthful and honest,” Winick replied. “So if that is able to elevate a romantic comedy, I’ll give it a shot. Unfortunately, I don’t read that many romantic comedy scripts that do that, so usually you have to get a good screenwriter to come in and elevate the material so that you have a shot at making something that audiences will really respond to.
“But would I like to make other kinds of moves? Yeah, maybe some dramas and stuff like that,” he said. “But when I look back, I’m very grateful to have done the work I’ve done.”
But getting any modestly budgeted romantic comedy made these days is an uphill battle, the veteran producer-director said.
“It’s funny because there are two films that we’d wanted to make for years,” he said. “and one of them was ‘Letters to Juliet.’ And there’s another that hopefully I’ll get to make one day, and it’s called ‘Rat Bastard.’ It was written after ‘Tadpole’ and it’s my ‘Tootsie,’ and it was written for Ewan McGregor and Kate Winslett, but for some reason I can’t get that made.”
But getting the right cast, with bankable actors such as Amanda Seyfried and Vanessa Redgrave, does go a long way toward getting a green light.
“I think I’ve been very fortunate that I get actors who are just wonderful people and we all go in wanting to make the same movie,” he said. “There are so many great directors working today. And you know what, I may not be as talented as a lot of them – I’ve accepted that – but I think I have a way that I make people feel comfortable and trust me, and that goes a huge way with the actors.”
One thrill of working on “Letters to Juliet,” Winick said, was overseeing a romantic, on-screen reunion between Vanessa Redgrave and Franco Nero, whose lifelong love affair began when they co-starred as Guenevere and Lancelot in 1967 screen musical “Camelot.”
“They’re married but they don’t live together,” Winick said of the pair. “I’m not telling you anything that you can’t find out on the internet. One lives in London and the other lives in Italy. But they spend all this time together and they were so romantic on set. It was wonderful to have them on set together. The last third of the movie is when they’re at the vineyard and stuff. The whole atmosphere was magical – we all joked more and you could just tell that they’re in love.
“Vanessa was the one who said, ‘I want to cast Franco,’ when there were so many actors, more famous actors, in Italy that wanted to be in the movie,” he said with a wry chuckle. “I do have to say this, and I say it in a very loving, fun way, but you know – I guess part of it is being an actor, part of it’s being Italian, part of it’s being Franco – I mean, he has a big ego. And he said, ‘I’ve been in 157 movies and I’m doing this only because of Vanessa, but, come on Gary, I’m in only four scenes.’”