On Nov. 1, 2006, the day actress/filmmaker Adrienne Shelly was found hanging by a bedsheet from a shower rod in the bathroom of her West Village office - the victim of an murder allegedly covered up as a suicide by construction worker Diego Pilico - she was within days (if not hours) of a professional milestone: Waitress, her third feature as a director, had been accepted into the 2007 Sundance Film Festival.
"We had already been chosen, although Adrienne didn't know that yet," producer Michael Roiff told The Reeler. "Adrienne would be ecstatic that we're premiering at Sundance; it's the one thing we were hoping for for the longest time."
Waitress' tragic real-life connotations threaten to drown out a film basically pitched as feminist fairy tale: the story of Jenna (Keri Russell), a small-town Southern waitress and pie-baking genius unhappily married to the domineering, abusive Earl (Jeremy Sisto). Planning to leave him, Jenna's plan is delayed by a combination of fear, poverty and, most worryingly, an unwanted pregnancy. Ambiguously helpful sources of support come from her fellow waitresses (Cheryl Hines and Shelly herself), the new gynecologist in town (cult favorite Nathan Fillion) who provides a potential love interest, and Old Joe (Andy Griffith), the owner of the diner that serves as Jenna's sole relief from her stifling personal life, or lack thereof.
Shelley's first two directorial features -- the tepidly received Sudden Manhattan and I'll Take You There -- were noted mainly by association for Shelly's acclaimed thespian work, particularly with writer/director Hal Hartley in The Unbelievable Truth and Trust. Roiff was unacquainted with Shelly before beginning work on the project. "I was reading lots of scripts, and lots of them were tragically bad," he explained. "Someone passed me Waitress, and it was wonderful. Adrienne and her husband and her then month-old baby were out here in L.A. for one more day. I met her the next morning."
Both Roiff and editor Annette Davey were only familiar with Shelly's directorial work by reputation -- as Roiff puts it, "I didn't know it per se at the time." Nevertheless, both noted her well-defined goals, which went well beyond the performance-focused tunnel vision attending some actors-turned-directors. "Adrienne had a very specific idea in her mind about she wanted the film to look, sound, the music that she wanted," Davey said. "When we were looking at performances and stuff, she could very easily deliver the line to me the way she wanted it to be, and then we would find a performance that matched that." The print was locked at the time of her death. "Everything that you saw is exactly as it was," Roiff said.
Ultimately Waitress is less an ode to self-reliance than to motherhood, and the autobiographical resonance with Shelly's life became increasingly obvious over production; without spoiling the film's ending, Shelly spoke in interviews several years ago about the film as a love letter to her then 18-month-old daughter -- something Roiff only realized in retrospect.
"I hadn't seen that interview until after she was gone," Roiff said. "And I had been saying for a couple of weeks, 'Really, this movie is a love letter to her daughter Sophie.' And when I read that, I said 'Oh my God. I guess that was something that was absolutely on her mind.' And if you knew Adrienne and the relationship she had with her daughter, you couldn't help but know that this was a very personal story. The immense happiness she had in having this wonderful, wonderful little girl -- that is the body of the film."
The film's whimsical vibe hardly matches the circumstances of its release (the press kit tactfully makes note of the Adrienne Shelly Foundation, a women's filmmaking non-profit launched by Shelly's husband two weeks after her death), but the film itself seems distanced from the tragedy. When asked if he would like people to view the film without consciousness of her death if at all possible, Roiff hesitated.
"If I had a magic wand, I'd bring Adrienne back," he said. "But yeah -- I want people to watch the film and enjoy it for what it is and not have that cloud hanging over them."
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