A Conversation with Adrienne Shelly

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By Sean Axmaker

Adrienne Shelly

Adrienne Shelly blossomed onto the indie film scene with her 1989 screen debut in Hal Hartley's debut feature The Unbelievable Truth. In the succeeding years, the diminutive, red-headed actress proved to be very picky about her screen roles, appearing largely in idiosyncratic indie films and guest-starring in East Coast-based TV shows like Homicide and Law and Order. She had come from the stage and continued writing, directing, and performing numerous stage productions in the independent theater scene in New York, and she was making a name for herself as a film director.

She was murdered in November 2006, the victim of a senseless homicide committed by a construction worker who attempted to make the death look like a suicide (leading to days of irresponsible items across the Internet that transformed speculation into fact before the investigation had even begun). She was 40 years young and left behind her husband, Andy Ostroy, and their three-year-old daughter. (Ostroy has since founded the Adrienne Shelly Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting and encouraging developing women filmmakers.)

Ms. Shelly was just finishing her third feature, Waitress [now out on DVD]. It debuted at Sundance less than three months after her death to glowing reviews. She had yet to give any interviews on the film, which has become something of a tribute to the actress turned director, but in 2000, I had the honor and pleasure of interviewing her when she accompanied I'll Take You There, her sophomore feature as a director, to the Seattle International Film Festival. It was her third appearance at the festival she called her favorite (at least she said so to me: "I just find it to be so friendly and really just about the filmmaking"). In 1996, she accompanied her debut directorial feature, Sudden Manhattan, and in 1999, she participated in the Fly Filmmaking program by shooting her third short film, a wordless satirical fantasy of middle class dreams and self repression called The Shadows of Bob and Zelda, with a unique set of constraints: She was handed 800 feet of raw film (about 22 minutes), equipment, a crew, and five days to cast, shoot, edit, score and present a finished short film.

We talked for almost an hour, mostly about the bittersweet romantic drama I'll Take You There. After the clever but mannered and unmistakably Hal Hartley-esque Sudden Manhattan, she was finding her own voice and it was worth hearing. A sweet meditation on love and accountability, it stars Ally Sheedy as Bernice, a vulnerable young woman who teeters over of the edge when a self-pitying blind date, Bill (Reg Rogers), lays into her with a callous stream of insults, and she hijacks his life at gun point, turning his desperate road trip (to "win back" the flighty wife who dumped him with a phone call) into a strange courtship between two wounded souls. Shelly directs with a touching intimacy and a poignancy missing from her debut, and she explores the human truth behind the film's defining line, "We're all responsible for each other."

Listening to the interview for the first time since 2000 brought back memories of the young artist over whom I had nursed a crush ever since seeing her in The Unbelievable Truth. She laughed easily and often while remembering details and describing events from the shoot, and seemed genuinely appreciative that someone had invested so much into her film. "Sometimes you write something and you know that there is another meaning behind it and you wonder if anyone is going to get it, is going to see it," she said near the end of our interview. "It's nice that you picked up on all this." I hope the release of Waitress will encourage others to reach back to I'll Take You There and see just where her talents as a director first blossomed.

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