I remember November 2006. I had just started university and was on my first month of Film Studies, going through my first self-doubt crisis of choosing to pursue filmmaking. A friend called me up and told me that Adrienne Shelly was no longer alive. It was initially reported that she had committed suicide, a fact which we later learnt was untrue: she had been murdered. It caught me so off-guard that it took me a few minutes to even understand what she was talking about. Later on, I also learnt that she was working on her film at the time. At that point I had already seen so much of Adrienne Shelly as an actress, but I had never seen anything she had directed.
After her death, I started asking myself why that was. How could it be that this incredible actress that I admire so much, had just died suddenly while working on her own feature film, and yet I had never even been aware of the fact that she was also a screenwriter and filmmaker, already on her third feature film? How could it be that I felt so connected to her work, and yet had never been presented to this side of her, as the brilliant filmmaker she was? The answer is, of course, that through many years of film studies, and in general, I was rarely ever introduced to any women directors, but that is a topic for another time.
At first I was shocked, then the shock became sadness, and then the sadness became anger. I thought that maybe it was a sign. Maybe it was a sign that I shouldn’t be studying filmmaking, that there is no good scenario in which you can be fully appreciated the way you deserve. But then I decided to do something about it, to change it: I decided I had to watch all of her films and make rights to this wrong.
A year later Waitress came out and I went to watch it in this massive cinema complex in Israel, in a city not far from mine. Before it had come out, there was some advertisement describing it as “a new romantic comedy starring Keri Russell”. I remember how mad that made me. Now, just to clarify, I love Keri Russell. And while we’re at it, I also absolutely love Cheryl Hines, Nathan Fillion, Jeremy Sisto and Andy Griffith: in fact, the ensemble cast in Waitress might be one of my favourites, with so many great actors that I absolutely adore.
However, it was not about that for me. It was about going to that cinema, knowing that I would get to see an Adrienne Shelly film for the last time. And that made me angry. It made me angry knowing that this would be the last time I got to watch something she made, that it would be her final film, that she had had a horrible and unfair death, and that in such gigantic cinema complex in the middle of Israel chances were that the friend who came with me and I —the same one who had called me a year earlier to tell me the awful news— would be the only ones who were aware of these facts. And mostly, what made me really sad was knowing that she hadn’t been able to finish making her last film or see it come to life as “a new romantic comedy starring Keri Russell”.
Waitress is a great film by itself, but it’s only when you know Adrienne Shelly and her previous works that you can fully understand and appreciate just how smart, witty, and sensitive it is.
Like a lot of people before me, I was first introduced to her as an actress. I am a huge Hal Hartley fan (and in due time will try to write about him as well), and after watching her in Trust —another film with one of the best actors ensemble, including Martin Donovan and Edie Falco—, I just had to continue watching everything Hartley directed and Shelly starred in, adding the The Unbelievable Truth and the beautiful short Opera No. 1 to my all-time favourite films list.
At that point, she had already become one of my best-liked actresses, but it wasn’t until I saw her work as a director that I truly realized just how talented and unique she is. Sudden Manhattan is to date one of the films that influenced me the most as a writer and a director, and if there is one advice I would like anyone reading this column to take is this: watch it. It is one of the smartest, funniest and saddest films I’ve ever seen, and Shelly does such an incredible work putting her brilliant script to life with her charming on-screen character.
In her second feature film, I’ll Take You There, her unique and witty texts come to life as the amazing Ally Sheedy does what she does best and makes you fall in love with her quirky and fabulous character. Both of these films are a must for any indie cinema lover, and to anyone who can appreciate how delicate and insightful they are.
And then came Waitress, her third and final feature film as a writer-director, in which she also portrays Dawn, one of the secondary characters, but without a doubt one of the most lovable characters ever seen on screen. The one that both wins and breaks your heart the most. And while sitting in that cinema, with everyone in the audience constantly laughing during the film —and rightfully so—, every time I laughed I also cried a bit, knowing that with every minute I got closer to never seeing anything of her again.
A few years later, just before the Netflix and VOD days took over, I remember sitting in front of my TV, switching channels and looking for something to watch. I came across a film that was about to start, called Serious Moonlight. I had never heard of it before, but there was something about it that immediately captivated me. The further the film progressed, I realized it was the script. I remember the first thing I did after it ended was calling a friend and actually saying that I had just seen this film, and was still gathering my thoughts on it, but that I found the script behind it to be some of the best writing I’ve ever seen. The second thing I did was, of course, going to have a look on IMDB (in hindsight, maybe that should have been the first), only to find out that the script was written by Adrienne Shelly. As surprised as I was, I also wasn’t surprised at all. Shelly never got to direct it herself, but the wonderful Cheryl Hines did.
Adrienne Shelly was and still is one of the best things that happened to indie cinema. We can’t ever know what would have happened if Adrienne hadn’t been taken away so early, but I can most definitely assume she would have continued making some of the most unique and beautiful films ever made, and I am personally heartbroken that I will never get to see them. When I made my own first film —in which I also play one of the characters— I felt that I had to honour her, so I chose to wear a similar jacket to the one she wears in Trust. It might have not been much, but I felt it was the least I could do to pay my tiny personal tribute to Adrienne Shelly and Hal Hartley —who initially brought her into my life. And maybe writing this column is another way for me to pay a small tribute to one of my favourite filmmakers, who deserved much, much more⚫
Autora: Karni Haneman.
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