Cecilia Miniucchi, Expired
After observing and learning from some of the best directors around, writer-director Cecilia Miniucchi has put all her acquired wisdom to use in a distinctive and promising debut. Born in Rome, the multi-talented Miniucchi is notable for the number of mediums she has worked in: a prolific maker of documentaries and music videos, she has also written poetry, songs, plays and short stories, and is an accomplished photographer. While in Italy, Miniucchi worked with Federico Fellini and the Taviani brothers, and went on to serve an apprenticeship with Lina Wertmuller. She moved to the U.S. to study at Harvard and the American Film Institute, and then interned with Francis Ford Coppola at American Zoetrope. Miniucchi made a name for herself making arts-related documentaries (her subjects include Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese and Paul Verhoeven), and has complemented her non-fiction career with more lucrative stints as a music video director, helming promos for such artists as Devo, White Zombie and Gloria Estefan.
Given that Miniucchi made the 60-minute film Normality back in 1990 and has also directed a handful of shorts, her debut feature, Expired, is a long time coming. The film is an unlikely and often unromantic love story: meek meter maid (Samantha Morton) attracts the attention of brutish traffic officer Jay (Jason Patric) and a relationship awkwardly develops between them. Jay is an emotionally crippled loner and good-hearted Claire lives with her ailing mother (Teri Garr), but despite their wildly different personalities, these opposites attract and there seems a small chance they could be happy together. Against the backdrop of a depressing and alienating Los Angeles, Miniucchi presents the dysfunctional central relationship in a blackly comic manner redolent of Neil LaBute. Indeed, Patric plays Jay like he’s the half-brother of Cary, his pathologically unfeeling character in LaBute’s Your Friends and Neighbors, delivering his barbed dialogue with obvious relish. The interactions between Jay and Claire are often excruciating and Expired is intentionally uncomfortable viewing, however the strength of Miniucchi’s writing and even-handed direction and the performances from the ever-excellent Morton and Patric (who has seldom been better) make this a compelling viewing experience.
Filmmaker spoke to Miniucchi about her own experiences with parking attendants, the illustrious directors she has worked with, and fleeing a location after it was trashed by gang bangers.
Filmmaker: You present Los Angeles very differently than most films, as you make it seem a very boring, alienating place. Did the way you paint it come from the perspective of the characters or from how you yourself see the city?
Miniucchi: It’s a very interesting question because I think it’s a bit of both. Some is a bit of personal experience – the alienating factor, the loneliness. I think a lot of us experience these things in this town. On the other hand, the characters are everyday people and so the environment that they live in is certainly not a glamorous L.A. It’s working class, everyday life in a big city where at times you have to even take the bus and not drive your own car. There’s a lot of people like this in this town.
Filmmaker: Tell me about the research that you did for the film, and what your experiences meeting meter maids and traffic officers have been like.
Miniucchi: Maybe I should have done more research. I didn’t do much research, I just witnessed a couple of incidents. I lived one myself and then I just started writing the story. When I finished the script, I did go to the parking attendants’ office, spoke to a supervisor and asked him, “Look, I put down these couple of incidents – are they realistic?” He said, “Oh, my God, yes!” It happens to these [traffic officers] all the time that these guys abuse them and he was saying that people spit at them, throw ice creams, drinks, all kinds of stuff at them. So I had reason to pretty much keep it the way it was.
Filmmaker: What was the initial incident that prompted you to start writing the script?
Miniucchi: I witnessed a woman who was not too slim and she was giving a ticket. This driver, this guy, really reacted in such an impolite and abusive way and called her “fatso” and went off [at her]. She was so hurt. I guess that’s what stayed with me. They’re supposed not to talk back. It was so touching. I lived one experience that was kind of the opposite: I was being kind of normal and kind and this guy was so abrupt and impolite and really abusive of his authority. I thought, “Wow, what happens if these guys meet and fall in love at work?” So the story just unfolded that way.
Filmmaker: Those two people were presumably the inspirations for Claire and Jay, but how did you turn them into fully fleshed out characters?
Miniucchi: They did it themselves, I think. I believe when one writes something, one listens to what one starts off with – it kind of directs you and tells you what to write and what is appropriate that would come out of that person’s mouth. So it took shape slowly. I just had in mind a very gentle, wallflower kind of person and another one [who was] angry, abrupt and frustrated, snappier. I just fictionalized it, pushed it a bit to the extreme. I guess reality when it’s too real becomes funny, so it also became quite comedic. People seem to laugh a lot through the movie, so that humor [came through].
Filmmaker: There seems to be a parallel with the work of Neil LaBute in this. Was he an influence?
Miniucchi: You know, it’s very strange because I’ve never seen his films, and it’s not the first time [somebody has made the comparison]. One of my producers, Fred Roos, said when he saw the film for the first time, “My God, you are a female LaBute.” I saw Nurse Betty years ago, and then I saw a piece of Jason [Patric]’s film he did with him [Your Friends and Neighbors], just to check out Jason. But I swear I never thought of him.
Filmmaker: Let’s talk about that vision for the film. So much of the film’s distinctiveness comes from the dialogue and the contrast in exchanges between the meek Claire and the callous, emotionally stunted Jay. How easy was it to write their conversations?
Miniucchi: [laughs] I don’t know, I just pushed it a little bit. I thought, “What would happen if I went in this direction?” and I started to like it. Then I needed to be consistent and the characters kept telling me what they would say, so it just unfolded itself that way. Then I read the script with Jason, and Jason changed a couple of lines here and there. One of my favorites lines that he changed was when he says, by the door after having dinner at her place, “I might call you.” In the script originally it was “I will call you,” so it gave it an extra [kick]. English is not my first language after all so there were a couple of incidents where, very kindly, he came up with a couple of new lines here and there.
Filmmaker: How much did you actually like your characters and enjoy writing them? They both have very obvious flaws and I would imagine that Jay is extremely unlikable to a lot of people who watch the film.
Miniucchi: My experience with the film is that people would probably not like to be in a relationship with somebody like him. But people actually enjoy and laugh mostly at his performance. He’s the one who creates the most humor – absurd humor, I would say – in the picture. A lot of young guys identify with him. There are guys that are a little bit undependable and scared of contact and a little bit more abrupt. I saw a lot of people relating to him, saying “Oh, I’ve been like that, ha ha ha ha ha!” or “I’ve been Jay!” A lot of guys.
Filmmaker: When you were writing the script or shooting the film, were you ever worried that he was too unlikable?
Miniucchi: Yes, I did, and I thought that if he was not performed properly it would have been a disaster. So I got Jason to bring out the humor in him and moments of compassion, because the guy is supposed to be pathetic, a person you feel sorry for not just feel put off by. He’s a man that has jeopardized his own life, has made mistakes. It’s hard to turn back, now he’s angry and he’s lonely and he’s hurt and he has difficulties in finding love and keeping love and managing love. He’s a sad person.
Filmmaker: This is one of the bleakest and most unusual romances I’ve seen in a long time, so I have to ask you whether this is a reflection of your personal perception of romance?
Miniucchi: I’m interested in human nature, I’m interested in the depths of human nature. I think it’s such a mysterious world, the world of relationships and it can take you in so many different directions. In this one, they’re this way; in another script, they [might be] much more romantic or funnier. If you portray something on the screen that’s not been portrayed every day, it might be interesting because it opens up to a different kind of thing that hasn’t been seen as much or as often. So that’s interesting to a writer-director, and the characters and the story are loaded with pathos, with emotions, with psychological depths.
Filmmaker: You’ve had a lot of experience working on music videos and documentaries, but how much had you worked with actors before?
Miniucchi: Well, I had made about nine fictional films of different lengths. My first film was Normality and was almost 70 minutes long. It was a comedy – fun, dark at times – and it was about loneliness too. [laughs] And then I made another six different shorts of strange lengths – 25, 35, 40 minutes. Then I was making my first feature film some years ago, with Harvey Keitel, Judy Davis, Matthew McConaughey and Jeremy Piven, and unfortunately in the middle of shooting it fell apart due to the embezzlement of funds by one of the executive producers. That created such a shock, and it ruined my life for many years. I said, “Enough of this for a while,” and went into documentaries. The music videos I did all along because I needed to make a living. Unfortunately. [laughs]
Filmmaker: Looking at your résumé, you’ve written poetry, short stories and songs, you’re a photographer, you’ve directed music videos, documentaries and now a fiction feature. Which one of those do you view as your primary mode of creative expression? Or are they all essential to you?
Miniucchi: Writing and making a film is the thing – it’s when I feel I’m in the right place doing what I want to do and what I know how to do and what I feel like doing the most. But, in between, your creativity sometimes has to be expressed no matter what, so writing or taking a picture are much more immediate. It’s between you and the medium itself and doesn’t have to go through so many other people waiting around for the funding. So I guess a lot of artists do have these other [modes of] expression on the side to help them through, to find an outlet for their creativity while they wait around to have a film put together, which is not an easy task.
Filmmaker: You’ve worked with or made documentaries about an incredible list of people: Lina Wertmuller, the Taviani brothers, Fellini, Coppola, Scorsese, Verhoeven and Altman. Out of all of those great directors, who influenced the most?
Miniucchi: I admire a lot of those people and I am sure that they live within me somewhat. The most incredible piece of advice that really changed my life was from Bob Altman who said to me, “Never take any advice.” [laughs] It carried a lot of weight because it was basically encouraging me to just go ahead and do what I was born to do and believed in, and not let anybody stop me. A piece of advice like that goes a long way and I was enormously influenced by that. All [those directors] shared an incredible, honest passion for their work and for their creative expression that went beyond the [money]. None of them cared about money, fame or any of that, it was really about the work and what they wanted to say. Stylistically and content-wise, it’s hard to tell who is the one that influenced me the most because I think that the beauty of each one of us as artists is to express oneself in a very honest way so that the real self comes through, and there being only one of us that will automatically be original. So if you listen to your honest voice, you will be setting yourself apart.
Filmmaker: What was the first film you ever saw?
Miniucchi: Fantasia. But the first films I ever saw as a grown-up were Ingmar Bergman’s films, aged 12 or 13, and I think that’s what put the film bug in me. My mum has always been a huge film buff and would take us to see movies a lot, and my father’s an artist so it’s hard to tell where the real first thing comes, but certainly seeing Bergman’s films at such an early age [had an impact].
Filmmaker: Finally, what’s the strangest thing you’ve experienced during your time in the film industry?
Miniucchi: We had found a little house that was perfect [for Expired’s Aunt Tilda character]. There was a man in his mid-fifties living with his mom and it was a cute little house that you could tell had been around for a while, and in the back it had an extra guest house which we thought would be perfect for Jason’s apartment. My art director started painting the room there, Jason picked out what [colors he wanted for the walls], and so I went there to check the colors of the paint and all of a sudden we found the house turned upside down. Mattresses had been scattered and slashed, bottles of beer everywhere, everybody gone and [there were] a huge amount of gang bangers outside the house with huge muscle cars, waiting around. We just never went back. We fled. I took my production designer and drove as fast as I could. To this day, she and I never really discovered what really happened. It was a very strange experience. [laughs]