Boxoffice meter ticking for 'Expired'

Cecilia Miniucchi calls it her 'love story from hell'

Meter maids: Filmmakers find many of the stories they tell in novels, newspapers, television shows, magazine articles and comic books. Occasionally, however, ideas for movies turn up in much more unconventional ways.

A case in point is Cecilia Miniucchi's romantic comedy "Expired," opening via MCR Releasing today (20) in New York and June 27 in L.A. and expanding to other top markets in July. Miniucchi, an experienced documentarian and music video director, makes her feature directing debut with "Expired," whose story came to her while watching a meter maid hand out a parking ticket on a street in her Santa Monica neighborhood.

Written and directed by Miniucchi, whose documentaries have focused on filmmakers like Robert Altman, Francis Coppola and Martin Scorsese, "Expired" is produced by Jeffrey Coulter (who also composed its original score) and Oscar-winner Fred Roos ("The Godfather" trilogy, "Lost in Translation"). It was executive produced by Antoni Stutz, Alexander Shing and Lawrence Wang. Starring are Samantha Morton, Jason Patric, Teri Garr and Illeana Douglas.

After an enjoyable early look at "Expired," which was well received at its showings last year at Cannes and Sundance, I caught up with Miniucchi to ask her about finding its premise in the street and then coming up with the idea of looking into the personal life of a meter maid. "Expired" revolves around the difficult romantic relationship between two Santa Monica parking officers (Morton and Patric) who are distinct opposites in terms of how they approach their daily routine of ticketing illegally parked cars and dealing with their owners, who inevitably turn up just as the ticket's being written.

A native of Italy, Miniucchi's studies took her to Rome's Free University of International Social Sciences, the Sorbonne, Oxford and finally to Harvard, where she received a graduate degree in literature. She began her career in film as an apprentice to such filmmakers as Lina Wertmuller and Federico Fellini. From there she studied at AFI and then interned for Francis Coppola's Zoetrope Studios. Among the dozens of music videos she's made are those for Gloria Estefan, White Zombie, Ricky Martin, Devo and Andy Preboy. Her first video, for Jeffrey Coulter's group American Martyrs, received an MTV award.

"It all came just from simple observation around here where I live in Santa Monica," Miniucchi explained about "Expired." "The interaction of people has always been interesting to me. I felt sorry for this particular kind of (person) because they are not so much liked in general. So I just started observing and I thought it could be interesting to see how a story could develop, especially if you wrote about two opposite personalities within the same field.

"That came to me after witnessing a couple of incidents. There was a (meter maid) lady on Main Street in Santa Monica that got really abused by a driver and she was so reasonable and kind. And then there was another incident I witnessed where the traffic officer was an angry kind of guy abusing his own little power and I thought, 'Oh, my God, if these two people met, what would happen?' And the story just unfolded on its own and it became a love story from hell, of sorts."

Once she had the idea things went ahead quickly: "It doesn't take me too long to write usually. A couple of months (passed) and then I was having lunch with Jeffrey Coulter, who also produced a lot of my documentaries and music videos and commercials. I (told) it to him and he said, 'God, I really like this one.' And then I was having lunch with Fred and Fred said, 'What are you up to?' and I said, 'I just finished this little script' and he goes, 'Sounds intriguing. Send it to me.' Then Fred called me back and said, 'I think this is an excellent idea. I really love the script. You should pat yourself on the back.' I said, 'Okay.' And then we all met together and said let's make this. Jeffrey Coulter found some independent equity money and we started making the film. It came along really easily contrary to all the (other scripts) that are still in the drawer."

Miniucchi knew she would direct "Expired" as she was writing its screenplay. Is it different writing your own material than writing a script based on someone else's idea? "Yes, it is," she replied. "When you write something that comes from you it's about being honest with this thing that comes out of you that you have to be a catalyst for and do a passionate yet completely honest, detached job so that this thing can flow out of you and become what it was supposed to be when it first came to your mind. A writing job is more like doing a good service for somebody else's idea and doing it as well as you can, but it's not an visceral experience. It's really a different thing, at least for me."

With "Expired" Miniucchi was able to get into production quite quickly. "The moment that Jeffrey Coulter found the first money Fred suggested we should start casting," she told me. "We didn't have all the money together at that point but Fred with his legendary experience assured us, 'Money always comes somehow.' And he was right because money kept coming and we did finish the film."

Samantha Morton was the first actor to be cast and was a key part of the puzzle for Miniucchi, who confided, "I was obsessed with Samantha Morton. I thought that nobody else in that age group any place in the world could do as good a job as she could. You see, the characters were just regular people. They didn't have to be beautiful. They didn't have to be chiseled in their bodies. I felt that she had the range and capacity of transforming herself to the point where she could play a regular person as well as a glamorous one. I could not find an equivalent of that. I kind of wrote it thinking of her even if she was a little young and not as fat as I wanted (the character) to be, but she turned out to be perfect."

As for Jason Patric, who plays the angry traffic warden who becomes attracted to Morton's easygoing meter maid, Miniucchi noted, "Jason was actually more of a suggestion than a choice of mine at first. Fred thought that he might be too beautiful for the role, but when Jeffrey and I met him in person we thought, 'This is it.' I think he came (wearing) the same Bermuda shorts that we eventually used in the film. The way he looked and the way his temperament (is) seemed to be really suited for this kind of role. And he's extremely intelligent and he understood the tragedy of it and the comedy of it. I just thought that (having him) next to Samantha would be great."

Teri Garr, Miniucchi explained, "was a gift from Fred because Fred Roos and Teri Garr go way back to (Coppola's 1982 romantic drama) 'One From the Heart.' When I met Teri I thought it would be a good idea to have her play (the dual roles of Morton's mother and aunt) so I changed (the characters) to twin sisters. I thought that would give her a chance to also be the wacky Teri Garr, herself (as the aunt versus the mother who's suffered a stroke and is no longer able to speak).

"I wrote the part (of Morton's neighbor) for Illeana Douglas. She was cast by me for another film that didn't go so when I was writing this I felt that she would play the neighbor really well. I wrote it for her and she said yes. So the four (actors) went off with us and made this little film."

"Expired" was shot entirely in Santa Monica, where the story takes place, except for a few scenes in the neighboring communities of Brentwood and Venice. "We shot in February and March of 2006 for about four weeks," she said. "You know independent filmmaking -- hurry, hurry! Unfortunately that year was a very rainy season and so we lost a couple of days with the rain. We had little things happen like that, but nothing major."

Looking back at the biggest challenges she faced in production, Miniucchi told me, "It was really to coordinate all the street shooting for a low-budget (film) and Santa Monica being such an expensive place to shoot. It had to be (shot) around here because those little (parking enforcement) cars that we used, you only find them in Santa Monica or Beverly Hills or Manhattan Beach. Manhattan Beach would have been too far. Beverly Hills was even more expensive. So we just stuck to Santa Monica. It was hard to coordinate all that stuff. We had to stop the traffic at times (and do other) things that usually a tiny little production like this can hardly afford.

"And then for me as a director, (the big challenge) was working with such strong personality actors. They're great actors and strong minded people. It was great (but) it was an enormous challenge. As long as you never lose control and you can bring the film home it's a happy story. Right?"

Meanwhile, besides helping to launch "Expired," Miniucchi's busy working on several new projects. "I have two projects," she noted. "One that I've written myself that I'm pushing along. And then I have encountered for the first time in my life a script that I really fell in love with and I'm also pursuing that. That one, which I did not write, has a lovely background in terms of the world of literature that I also love so much in the '20s and '30s in this country. I'm a literature major from Harvard so I have that passion. I hope one of the two projects will take off really soon because I can't wait to make a new one."

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel