By P.H.I.Berroll
Sitting in his neatly furnished Upper West Side apartment, Gary Winick does not seem like a man whom one would expect to find in the sleazy, violent world of crack addicts and their suppliers. But for several years, he was immersed in that world.

Winick, 34, is the director of Sweet Nothing, a raw, grim, uncompromising drama about drug abuse as seen from the addict’s point of view. The film chronicles the crack-fueled tragedy of a working-class Bronxite who loses his job, neglects his family, and steadily degrades himself in the single-minded pursuit of his next fix. It opens March 27 at Film Forum on West Houston Street for a limited run.

Any film about addiction is also about obsession. The same word aptly describes Winick’s experience in making this movie. He speaks of his four-year struggle — first to finish Sweet Nothing, then to get it released — with a mixture of pride and burned-out weariness. “I have called this experience, at times, the worst thing I’ve ever done in my life,” says Winick, a thin, shag-haired man who resembles the actor Treat Williams. “But it has profoundly affected me.”

Winick began his career on a more conventional path. A native New Yorker (Winick’s father is co-partner in a midtown law firm), he graduated from Tufts University in Boston in 1984, then earned a graduate degree in film at the University of Texas at Austin. He spent three years at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles, collaborating on a short film with fellow student Carl Franklin (One False Move, Devil in a Blue Dress) and making two no-budget thrillers of his own. Neither was released to theaters, but both made money on the foreign and videocassette markets.

But Winick’s experience on the second film — Out of the Rain (1990), a revenge melodrama which starred a then-unknown Bridget Fonda — left him soured on the industry, and unsure of his place in it.

“That’s my disaster,” Winick says bluntly. “I was influenced a lot by agents, and I didn’t cast the best people (except for Ms. Fonda) for the roles, but the people they wanted. I knew from the first day that I had a bad movie, but I thought I could finesse it somehow — that this is what you do in Hollywood in order to get to the next level. I made that mistake, and I suffered dearly.”

So Winick returned to his native New York, vowing, “I wouldn’t make another film until I found something that I just had to make.” He spent several months directing stage productions at the Julliard theater school. Then a friend who managed an apartment complex in the Bronx told him of a discovery: a woman and her children had been evicted from an apartment, leaving behind a diary kept by the woman’s estranged husband. In clear, unsparing prose, the journal recounted the husband’s losing battle with crack.

“It was fascinating,” says Winick. He tracked the man down, obtained his consent to use the diary, and got him a job and temporary housing. Winick continued to sponsor him for the next eight months, even though “he just kept screwing up.”

Winick hired a scriptwriter, Lee Drysdale, to develop a screenplay. (Much of the film’s voiceover narration is based on entries in the diary.) The two men did extensive research, plunging into the world of addicts, dealers, and narcotics cops. For a man of Winick’s upper-middle class background, it was like traveling to Mars, or Bosnia.

“I have footage of unbelievable stuff, going into crack houses,” says Winick. “The police hooked us up with a pimp and a prostitute who worked underneath the Terminal Market, who were their informers — they’re actually in the film. And I would sit around with recovering addicts at the Phoenix House (drug-treatment center), who’d talk about dealers who would rip an addict’s nipple off with a pair of pliers if he had no money.”

Meanwhile, Winick was continuing to help the diary writer, to whom he refers only by the man’s nickname, “Angel.” This brought him no end of grief. “I was enabling him, but I wanted to get him to stop. I’d give him money, but then I’d have to go shopping with him, because I didn’t want him to spend it on drugs. One time, he stole from his neighbor, and his wife calls me, hysterical, crying… I had to come up at two in the morning to pay the neighbor, who was threatening to beat the guy’s kids up.”

Eventually, Winick was able to get Angel into a drug treatment program. But his own struggles continued. Just before he was to begin shooting in November 1992, his lead actor breached his contract “to do a bigger movie.” He hired a second actor — who also walked. “It was like Kim Basinger in Boxing Helena,” says Winick. “I wanted to sue them, probably could have made some money. But my agent told me, ‘At this point in your career, it’s not what you do.'”

Instead, Winick hired Michael Imperioli, best known as the teenage waiter gunned down by Joe Pesci in GoodFellas. Winick wound up feeling that Imperioli should have been his first choice. “Michael was the best actor I found in New York,” he says, adding that he could see them having a director-star relationship like that of Federico Fellini and Marcello Mastroianni: “He’s my Marcello.” As Imperioli’s wife, Winick cast Mira Sorvino, before her role in Mighty Aphrodite had brought her acclaim.

Unfortunately, both of Winick’s earlier male leads had been part of a package — several film companies had promised him money only if those actors were in the cast, he says, “because a ‘name’ helps video sales.” When the actors departed, so did the backers. Winick had to get financial help from his family, as did his executive producer, Mark Ross. “There were times when it seemed from my family’s perspective,” he acknowledges, “that I was just wasting my life, and this was never going to get done.”

But he finally did complete Sweet Nothing, for less than $500,000. Among other cost-cutting measures, he cast members of Imperioli’s and Sorvino’s families in the film, as well as several recovering addicts from Phoenix House. Post-production was expensive — Winick hired the distinguished film editor Bill Pankow (Scarface, The Untouchables) to cut the film — but the total cost was still under $1 million, a bargain by Hollywood standards.

Then came another year of pain.

Winick, Ross, and co-producer Rick Bowman took the film on the festival circuit from the Hamptons to Seattle, showing it to movie companies large and small. “Every distributor saw it,” says Winick, “and wouldn’t buy the film. Everyone gave us the same answer: ‘You made a great film. Once they’re in the theater, they’ll stay… but we can’t get them in the theater.'” Even officials at Film Forum, who loved the movie, had their caveats. “It deals with what is an unsavory topic to a lot of people,” says press spokesman Michael Maggiore, “and it doesn’t wallow in sentimentality. It’s different from any addiction film we’ve seen.”

Winick agrees — and he’s seen them all, from The Man with the Golden Arm to Drugstore Cowboy. Although he admires those films, he feels that Sweet Nothing is different, both in its utter lack of embellishment and it’s addict’s-eye-view of the situation.

The film depicts the horror of substance abuse through small, snapshot-like details rather than Hollywood sturm und drang. There is one exception, a sequence in which a dealer suspects a colleague of stealing from him and orders Imperioli to chop off the man’s fingers. But for Winick, the most affecting scene is more low-key: when Imperioli waits to meet another dealer for whom he holds a large package of crack. He wants to unload the package both to settle a debt and to get the drug out of his life. But the dealer isn’t coming until 7 o’clock, and the addict is an hour and a half early. Can he hold out without sampling the product?

“So he puts the crack on the table,” says Winick, “and sits down, and sits there sucking lollipops. And the scene of just him watching a minute go by, or two minutes go by, to me is one of the best depictions of addiction — when they say ‘one day at a time,’ it’s more like one minute at a time. This is a guy for whom every minute is the most painful minute of his life.”

Winick has strong opinions about the current debate over American drug laws. While he opposes legalizing aggression-fueling drugs like crack and cocaine — “You’ll have people killing themselves, and killing others” — he is most fervent about the need for more money for treatment programs. “When I got Angel into Phoenix House,” he says, “if I hadn’t pulled some strings, he would have been waiting. And here’s a guy who’s not hitting bottom on Park Avenue, but on the streets, and he’s got to steal to get high, as opposed to just writing a check. So he’s a lot more dangerous. And he was wait-listed.”

But Winick is primarily an artist, not an advocate. He hopes the Film Forum run will finally bring Sweet Nothing a distributor. And if Sorvino wins an Oscar for her Mighty Aphrodite role — Sweet Nothing opens two days after the Academy Awards ceremony — it could bring his film some much-needed publicity.

Whatever happens, he is already looking ahead to his next film, a comedy-drama — loosely based on his own experiences — about coming of age in the disco-polyester era of the late ’70s. Once again, he would be happy to get financing from one of the majors; once again, he is prepared to do without it. “If the studio won’t allow me to have my voice,” he says, “I’ve learned one thing: I can’t make a good film unless it’s personal to me.”

Still, despite all his bucking of the system to make Sweet Nothing, Winick is something of a traditionalist at heart. He has trouble relating to independent films “where I don’t know what the character wants, and I don’t feel anything. You’ve got to think that people will hopefully get tired of seeing that kind of thing over and over again. But I don’t think they will ever get tired of seeing a love story, or a story about greed, or jealousy, or something that’s basically driven by emotion.”

Note: Winick went on to direct such films as The Tic Code, 13 Going on 30, Tadpole and Charlotte’s Web before his untimely death in 2011.

Originally published in Manhattan Spirit weekly newspaper, 1996 .

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