Expiration Date is about a young man cursed to die by being hit by a milk truck on his 25th birthday. And it's funnier than hell. The black comedy by Seattle filmmaker Rick Stevenson stars Robert Guthrie as the hapless victim-to-be, Charlie Silvercloud. The introduction of a Native lead character is seamless to the romance and sweet relationship between mother and son. And I'm not the only one to think so; in November, Expiration Date won both Best Picture and Best Actor honors (for Guthrie) at the annual American Indian Film Festival in San Francisco.
The buzz is on…
So, what is it anyway, that would make a seemingly normal, amiable guy like Rick Stevenson conceive of writing a story about a schlub who's doomed to be flattened by a milk truck? Is this man, well…???
Enter Misty Upham.
Why o why, do you ask? Because Misty is in Expiration Date. (Love the 50's style, girl…) She approached Rick late last year about doing an interview and the result is a terrific insight into Rick's film, the Native aspect, and maybe even a mention of our Misty-girl. Of course, being the control freak I am, I've thrown in a few questions of my own.
You're going to want to take a look at the trailer (see link below) and check out where and when you can see it. It's that good…CQL
You've said in interviews that Expiration Date was not written specifically to be about a Native. Yet, from the opening scene with the old man sharing the tale to the closing sequence showing the traditional dancer, it certainly seems to frame the story. How important is Charlie's Native background to his character?
His Native background became everything once I decided to make the character Native—which was late in the game. I first wrote him as simply a romantic lead—a character I could cast off a list of stars. However, once I found that we could finance the film locally, all of the pressure to cast a 'star' was off and I was given the gift of doing something original. I thought, why not a Native lead? That's interesting. Once I made the decision I was able to get specific. And I firmly believe that out of the specific comes the universal. When you portray a character honestly, with depth, you find that which we all have in common as human beings.
Did you do any research beforehand about Indian traditions?
I did quite a bit of research which was helpful in honoring the things that needed to be honored. But the most important thing I learned was that Natives tend to be much more welcoming and much less judgmental of people different from themselves. Hence, I felt absolutely no pressure to write a "politically correct" character—just an honest one. In Charlie Silvercloud III, I hoped to capture this originality as well as generosity.
When Expiration Date was nominated for Best Film at the 31st annual American Indian Film Festival, I thought that beyond the fact that the other films were terrific there was a legitimate reason not to give us the award and that was the fact that I wasn't Native. There is an argument to be made that perhaps the awards should be reserved exclusively for Native filmmakers. When we won, I realized that my race didn't seem to matter to the Native judges. That blew me away. It certainly confirmed the important lesson I had learned about Native culture—that everyone is welcomed as a human being first.
Since the movie was finished, a distant relative, a three year old girl who is half Hopi(though her father is not registered), has come into our lives as a foster child after her white mother had to give her up. Just a few months before, I had become friends with Nakotah LaRance and his family after shooting the bookends. His parents, Steve and Marion LaRance, are amazing people and have agreed to be her Hopi family connection. It's amazing how the universe works.
What did you change, if anything, about the character of Charlie when you decided to write him as a Native?
In a comedic sense, it was his droll character and almost chronic understatement. In a dramatic sense, it was his state of depression—a state I think oppressed people seem to share when they are robbed of their spiritual roots.
What has been the response to your movie from the Native community? What were their comments?
It's been really positive. I think that the reason is two-fold. First, it's an everyman role that just happens to have a Native in the lead. Second, the depiction of that character is reasonably original, not stereotypical. I mean, he didn't have to take off his shirt, ride a horse or look noble.
Non-Natives have responded to it because I think they find their own truth in it. All of us have some curse in our lives that stops us from living life to the fullest. For me it's my list (which is depicted in the movie). I have this great family with two young toddlers and yet my 'list' too often gets in the way of spontaneity. I'm just like Charlie—just farther out. I have to work on that one.
Do you think you'll do another Native film in the future?
In a second if I write or find the right script. Gil Silverbird said to me, how did you get the Native sense of humor so accurately? I told him that I had no idea—that what was there was simply my sense of humor. I think that the best things in life we stumble into are unplanned.
Although the romance between Bessie and Charlie is central, I found the relationship between Charlie and his mother to be the greater love story—his intense need to be an honorable guy and please her; his mom's understanding of how Charlie needed to appreciate his Native roots to finally break free and live. Explain the significance of the relationship between mother and son.
I think that when one parent dies or disappears for whatever reason, the bond between the remaining parent and child is powerful and it's beautiful to watch. It is the visualization of love whether it be through affection or conflict. The stakes are raised.
Which character was the most difficult to write? Why?
Charlie was most difficult and that had nothing to do with him being Native. It had to do with having a main character who had accepted his death was is preparing to die—not exactly your typical man of action. We're trained to like active characters. They're interesting to us. But becoming active, learning to live life, learning to dance again—that's Charlie's arc. Hence, he was a hard sell from the start. I think it was the stillness of Robert Guthrie's performance that sold it. He was marvelous especially since he's Johnny Depp in real life—he is an action figure. He had to dig deep to find the stillness within himself.
How long did it take you to write the script?
Seventeen drafts, eight years.
Did you cast actors that fit the role as you wrote it or did you cast actors who would bring their own interpretation to the characters?
If you're wise as a director, you do both. You get the characters as far along as you can then you get actors who can take it from there and give them even more life.
Was it difficult finding Native American actors?
Yes. Not that there aren't good choices. It just that there aren't a wide variety of choices. I wrote Charlie Silvercloud III so specifically that it was difficult to find the perfect actor. And Robert Guthrie wasn't even submitted. Luckily, Michelle Satter at the Sundance Institute told me about him.
What were the challenges in making a comedy about death that's at once funny but not tasteless, light-hearted but not treacly and silly? How did you know if and when you had crossed the line?
The challenge was one of tone: the film was constantly in risk of becoming silly or in bad taste. And once it became that, the suspension of disbelief goes out the window. It helped to have bookends which set the movie up as a fable. It told the audience not to take it too seriously. But I actually crossed the line a lot. It took seven months of editing, some test screenings and especially some real self-restraint on my part to cut some very funny parts because they were too broad. Some will be available on the DVD under deleted scenes to show people where I almost went wrong. Hopefully that will be instructive to young filmmakers.
You've commented in interviews on the value of making films in places outside of Los Angeles and New York. A good part of Expiration Date's authenticity is that it is Seattle—from the coffee shop to the Smith Brothers Dairy. In your view, why is the setting important to the story?
I meant to say that I think it's valuable to write and make movies about what you know—and that includes where you're from. It includes your background, who your family and friends are, where you hang out, where you first fell in love, etc. By tapping into that you'll write something very specific and honest that no one else can write. That's called finding your voice.
You've had a successful career in the film industry before you embarked on your latest endeavor of creating a more efficient business model for independent filmmakers. What advice would you give up-and-coming Native filmmakers trying to get their films funded and distributed?
Remember that the script is EVERYTHING so get it right. Expiration Date took 17 drafts. Shooting, editing, acting is all dependent on the script. The script is the cheapest thing to get right and the thing that will your life the easiest and your film the best. Get it right then you have a shot that funding and distribution will follow. Regarding the latter two, however, remember that the cheaper you can make your film, the more freedom you have. And with today's technology, it's more possible than ever.
Was there a moment, during production, that really made it all worthwhile?
Yes, the powwow scene. Robert and I had gone to a powwow and asked 12 people if they would come along with their friends to help us film a scene. Over 500 showed up. That night was a highlight because it was a big gift. Again. Unbelievable generosity. It helped of course to have a lot of free food!
Where is Expiration Date scheduled to be shown in the coming months? When will DVDs be made available?
The film is showing at numerous indie theatres and fundraisers around the country. The schedule can be found under 'Host A Screening' at www.expirationdatethemovie.com. Also, if anyone wants to use the film to raise money for their organization, it's a lot more fun and a lot easier than a car wash. As for the DVD, it won't be out until April but for your readers, I will welcome them to get it early on the site. They just need to use the code VUE to make it available—and at a discount. This is the special two-disc set that has all of the deleted scenes and a ton of extras including a 25 minute mini documentary on six time teen hoop dancer, Nakotah LaRance, who plays in the bookends of the film.
Now that it's showing, was there anything you would have liked to change?
Lots of things but mostly the Paint ball scene with Wild William. I only had three hours to film it and I could have made it so much better. Then again, the porch scene with Misty Upham was brilliant and good from the first take:))
Last question….Why death by milk truck? Any deep metaphor here?
No. None that I'll admit to.
For more info on the film, check the Expiration Date Official Site which includes the movie trailer and the option, for a small fee, of seeing the film online.