Expiration Date, which debuted at the Seattle International Film Festival, is a black comedy about Charlie Silvercloud, a young man who has lived his life under the shadow of a family curse: His father and grandfather were both killed -- by milk trucks -- on their 25th birthdays. Expiration Date shows us Charlie's life and decisions in the week leading up to his cursed birthday. Director Rick Stevenson and lead actor Robert Guthrie were kind enough to sit down with Cinematical at SIFF and talk about their film.
Cinematical: Where did the idea for the film – this cursed young man and murderous milk trucks -- come from?
Rick: My cowriter (Hamish Gunn) and I kept meeting people who had fathers and grandfathers who had died at 35 of heart attacks. And from there it became a screenplay about fate, about how we would live our lives if we knew we were going to die. And when it became black comedy is when we decided that the character has actually accepted death and is going around planning his funeral. And it just absolutely opened up some wonderful doors to discuss fate and the power we have as individuals to shape our lives, to determine how we're going to live them.
Cinematical: How did the milk trucks come in?
Rick: That was my writing partner, and he left it to me to figure it out as the director. (laughs)
Cinematical: Robert, how did you get involved in the film?
Rick: I had done fairly extensive casting, which can be done fairly quickly when you're looking for Native actors, but hadn't found anyone who was just right for the part. Then I was having lunch with Michelle Satter, who runs the Sundance Institute, and she said, "Rick, I have the perfect guy for you, he was in our acting troupe this summer." She gave me his number and I called him up; he came in and – bingo! – he was the guy.
Cinematical: So you knew as soon as you saw Robert?
Rick: Oh, yeah, that was six weeks before we started.
Robert: Well, he didn't tell my agent that ...
Rick: No, I kept him on a string. (laughs)
Cinematical: Was he the last person you cast? Had you cast your female lead already?
Rick: No, in fact I couldn't cast anybody until I found the lead. And I was willing not to make the film until I found the right actor -- that's how important it was.
Cinematical: How did you know Robert was your Charlie?
Rick: Rob just has this wonderful sense of humor, the ability to pull off a black comedy. He's also one of the hardest-working actors around. His skills are extraordinary. You meet him in person and he's Johnny Depp; you see him on screen and he's this introverted nerd, and he pulls it off so beautifully and blossoms during the film in just subtle ways. I think it's quite an extraordinary acting job that he did.
Cinematical: (to Robert) Meeting you in person, you don't seem much like Charlie Silvercloud at all.
Robert: It was long way from home, this character. It made me stretch way outside my circle. Rick said it best at one point, that he (Charlie) kind of resembles an action figure at first. You see me as this caterpillar-like character who's an introvert, unconfident. All I had to do was look at the polar opposite of who I really am and magnify the small parts of me that were already there. I've been -- I think everybody's been -- where Charlie Silverstone is at some point in their lives, so all I had to do was take a magnifying glass to that and try real hard to keep it subtle. That was Rick's job.
Cinematical: To keep it subtle?
Robert: The tone of the film is so absurd that we walked a fine line to keep it from just being silly. It was a pretty hard job. There were times when we really had to hold back for timing purposes. We had a great mantra during the whole film: It was "cocoon-mode". He (Charlie) was in his cocoon, his safety net., his little bubble. There was a time for him to come out and -- "it's not NOW, Robert!" (laughs)
Rick: You shoot most films out of order. So Rob would go "Okay, Charlie's done this, but he hasn't done this," and it's almost like his (Charlie's) arc is from 1 to 50, and Robert would realize that -- it was interesting to watch his process. He'd take a moment, he'd fold into ... literally into this caterpillar, and then he'd start to walk and he would just be in this sort of little box moving down the road.
Cinematical: So is that a challenge to you as an actor, Robert, to have to pick up the character arc wherever you are in filming?
Robert: There were times when I didn't know which way was up or down. It really helped to have an experienced director like Rick, because he always knew where we were within the film and where I was supposed to be. We were't just shooting the film out of order, we were shooting scenes out of order, starting with the end, then back to the beginning, then the middle. So it was real simple. It was: "Rick, where the hell are we, what am I doing, and where's Charlie?"
Rick: We always did rehearse the whole scene as one, but when it comes to shooting, it takes a lot of discipline. If someone asked me to describe Robert beyond "talent," it would be "hard-working." That's just so refreshing.
Cinematical: So you cast Robert first. How did you come to cast Sascha (Knopf) opposite him? Did Robert read with other actresses?
Rick: Absolutely, he had to read with a lot of other actresses. It was sort of a chemistry question. Her role is really demanding too, because we had to find someone who could be both annoying and likeable at the same time. What was funny about Sascha is when I complimented her on being able to do that she was like, "I didn't know I was annoying." But she is! It's true!
Cinematical: So how much of Bessie is Sascha's personality?
Rick: A great deal of it, I think. Not too far off. I mean, I had never met her before we wrote the character. But there's part of her that's very grating and annoying and part of her that's very loveable. She's just a whole mixed bag, she's life, she's Bessie. She kicks Charlie in the butt.
Cinematical: Robert, did you influence who was cast in the role of Bessie?
Robert: Yes, I was very honored to be involved with that. When it comes down to chemistry. Sascha really floored me. We went through like 20 other girls that day, then came back again and I worked with all of them again. Her call-back was extremely different, and she came through with that quirkiness and that chemistry that we're talking about. The range of interpretation to the character of Bessie was just outrageous. We had everything from Seattle grunge to chip-on-her-shoulder bitch, to --
Rick: I remember the one you're talking about! Really, this just really gorgeous actress, very talented and funny -- and there was absolutely zero chemistry. She wasn't connecting with him, it was all about her.
Cinematical: Whereas with Sascha, she connected with you?
Robert: It really came down to us eating off the same plate in the creative process during auditions. When you have a great creative moment you're feasting. Everyone who's been a starving artist knows, it's worth it to starve when you finally get to do work like this.
Cinematical: Getting back to Charlie, when you decided that Charlie was going to know he was dying and that fate was going to be the focus of the film -- how did that impact the development of the character of Charlie, that he had grown up under the weight of this knowledge? This sense of having a finite amount of time?
Rick: Charlie started to die at age five. He started to gain that awareness, and it was just, "let me do things right until the end." He never took any of the freedoms his mother gave him. In a way I think giving in to something is easier and more comfortable because at least you are aware of the outcome, whereas fighting for life, fighting against that force of fate is a lot harder and takes a lot more courage. And so I don't see Charlie as courageous or daring; Charlie accepted his fate, and was prepared to live it out, and it was the interjection of this girl into his final days that woke him up and gave him the desire to live, a reason to live. I think it's a good metaphor -- all of us are at one stage of that arc, between living life to the fullest and having already died. As the line at the end of the film says: "This is the story of Charlie Silvercloud, who spent most of his life waiting for the earth to swallow him up."
The element in the story which Charlie embodies was a part of ... was the need to be courageous, the need to move if you're going to live, dance as a metaphor for life, and the question: You can't really live until you are yourself and you own yourself fully. Which in his case, was getting in touch with his native roots which had been ignored.
Cinematical: I want to get back to that issue of his Native roots in a minute, but first I want to hear Robert's take on the impact on Charlie of knowing he was going to die.
Robert: That was the backbone of it – that's what every other question came down to. He always came back to it no matter what. Everything about him. Is Charlie a virgin? He was enslaved by time.
Rick: In some ways he's a coward, in some ways he has this intense need to do the right thing. But in this very central way he's extremely honorable. He tries to do everything right, and most of all that comes down to the love of his mother.
Cinematical: How did you come to cast Dee Wallace Stone in that part?
Rick: We saw a lot of people, we actually had some pretty major actresses interested in the part, but when Dee looked the script and responded as strongly as she did -- I'd seen enough to know she can do anything; I actually think she's one of the great underrated actresses. Then she walks on set and she brings the experience of 100 movies with her, and she's such a great force, a positive force on set.
Cinematical: Rob, did you have that chemistry right from the start?
Robert: Well. She walked on the set and – I'm a mama's boy. You can say anything you want about me, but you say anything about my mama and we're gonna have to step outside, you know what I'm saying? And if I look at a woman and see my mother -- a mother -- in their eyes ... it's really great to have a connection like that. She walked in, Rick was like, do you want to rehearse? And we just looked at each other and were like, no, let's just go for it. It was that strong.
Rick: The entire heart of the movie is wrapped up in her last scene. That's where emotionally it comes together. Their relationship up until then is largely comedic, and you don't realize how much you've invested in it emotionally until that last scene when he calls her, and she reacts the way she does. It's really a great exercise in restraint on the part of the actors, not blowing it to soon, and carefully putting together all the elements so that at the right moment it becomes a complex whole.
Cinematical: Let's talk about the Native aspect of the film. You bookend the film with the Native dancing and the old man and the boy; Charlie is half-Native but has pushed that life aside. Can you speak to that directorial choice?
Rick: Well, we did 17 drafts of the script, and then we got to the point of making it, and on the 18th draft I was thinking about the main character, and then I thought to myself -- we have all these indie investors, and I will never have an opportunity like this to work with some Native actors. The film didn't require that, but it paid off.
Cinematical: Why do you think Charlie rejected that side of his heritage?
Rick: Well his grandfather did, his father did, and his mother is white. So it's never really been a context for his life.
Cinematical: Last question: How on earth did you manage to get Smith Brothers (a local dairy) involved in a film about murdering milk trucks?
Rick: They were great, had a great sense of humor about the whole thing. They're even going to be advertising the movie on their milk cartons. If they hadn't seen the humor, hadn't agreed, I don't know what we would've done. (laughs) We'd have had to paint a whole lot of delivery trucks, that's for sure.
Note: If you missed Expiration Date during SIFF, the film begins its theatrical run in Seattle on June 21 at the Egpytian.