When Christopher Winterbauer was 9 years old, he had to come to terms with the notion that he wasn’t going to fulfill his career ambition.
“I remember my mom telling me that I wasn’t going to be able to play in the NBA,” Winterbauer recalled.
Luckily, he had a backup option, as his love of movies and storytelling had already started to blossom. Even though becoming a Hollywood director is nearly as difficult as becoming a professional basketball player, Winterbauer managed to achieve this dream. In fact, April marked the release of “Moonshot,” Winterbauer’s second effort as a feature film director.
A hybrid sci-fi romantic comedy that’s set in a future where Mars is terraformed (modified to host human life), “Moonshot” revolves around students Sophie and Walt, played by Lana Candor and Cole Sprouse, sneaking aboard a space shuttle to the Red Planet so they can see their partners.
Originally raised in Bellevue, Winterbauer moved to Mercer Island as a child, where his dad introduced him to the action movies of the 1980s and 1990s.
When he was in middle school, Winterbauer started to make really “terrible little goofy” movies with his friends using a mini DV camcorder. He continued throughout high school, which is when he decided that he wanted to be a director. Winterbauer is the first to admit that he probably didn’t even know what a director was at the time; instead, it was “just the name that he saw at the end of the credits.”
Still, he had done enough to earn acceptance into the prestigious film school at the University of Southern California. But rather than actually attending, Winterbauer “totally chickened out at the last second,” and went to Stanford to study economics instead, so he could get a “normal degree.”
After college, Winterbauer initially worked for Intel in Portland, Oregon. But his love for filmmaking kept gnawing at him, so much so that when he was in his early 20s, Winterbauer returned to USC, after his then-girlfriend (and now wife) told him, “If you ever want to do this film thing, do it now. Because when we’re 35 I’m not going to be as supportive.”
To graduate, Winterbauer made the short film “Wyrm,” which got him a manager, and he later adapted it into a 2019 feature film of the same name. Impressed by “Wyrm,” Moonshot producers Greg Berlanti, Sarah Schechter and Mike McGrath asked Winterbauer to pitch on “Moonshot.”
“I liked the script. It was cute. And it was such a great opportunity,” said Winterbauer, who didn’t think he’d actually get the job. But producers were charmed by his “weirder” take on the story, as he wanted to use a retro-futurist aesthetic to reduce the special-effects budget.
“I wanted to make it very, very colorful and use a lot of tricks that would make the world feel a little more heightened, less realistic. I wanted the humor to be like a screwball comedy. I wanted the film to be feel-good, not sterile and dry,” said Winterbauer, who cites Spike Jonze’s and Michel Gondry’s films, as well as “When Harry Met Sally …,” “Thor: Ragnarok” and even “The Jetsons,” as influences on his latest film.
It also helped that, after making his first film for such little money, Winterbauer knew how to stretch the budget. With Sprouse already attached, Winterbauer set out to cast his love interest. “To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before” star Condor was his first choice, and Winterbauer was overjoyed when she quickly signed up. He was even more ecstatic when he immediately saw how delightful the stars’ on-screen chemistry was.
“Cole just likes to make people laugh and Lana’s very much someone that likes to giggle. So that was just their natural dynamic,” Winterbauer said. The most surreal aspect of directing “Moonshot” was working with Zach Braff, though, as Winterbauer is a huge fan of Braff’s directorial debut, “Garden State.”
“He just steals the movie as this Elon Musk type,” Winterbauer said of the “Scrubs” and “Cheaper by the Dozen” star. “Him and Cole play off of each other so well.”
With “Moonshot” out on HBO Max, Winterbauer is hard at work on his next project. This time around, he is hoping to shoot a little closer to home, either in Seattle or Washington state.
“I’m often frustrated that Washington doesn’t really have much of a tax credit incentive for films because I think it would be such a perfect place to shoot,” said Winterbauer, who filmed “Moonshot” in Atlanta.
“Seattle is just very beautiful. It’s got a great art history. But not a huge film history. Which is weird,” the director said. “This new movie I’m writing right now is set in Yakima, Washington. Who knows where we’ll be able to shoot that.”
There’s a good chance we’ll see more of the Evergreen State in future Winterbauer projects.
“Going forward,” he said, “I definitely want to try and shoot stuff in places where things aren’t filmed that often.”
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