Like many female directors, Adrienne Shelly was starting to hit her stride as she turned 40. Starting out as an actress in the New York indie scene during the 90s, Shelly soon found her way behind the camera, writing and directing.
Shelly, was born Adrienne Levine to Sheldon Levine and Elaine Langbaum of Queens. She grew up mostly on Long Island, graduating from high school in Jericho, New York. She enrolled in Boston University to study film production but dropped out her junior year and moved back to New York.
Shelly lost her father at age 12, and said his death made her “go through life with this feeling that life could end at any moment.” In a Guardian article, she quoted Kierkegaard on the subject: “Don’t make plans for the future without the phrase, ‘However, I might be dead in the next 10 minutes in which case I shall not attend to it.'” Shelly said she was as optimistic as someone who is mainly Russian can be. She adopted her professional surname from her father’s first name.
Landing her first film role was certainly serendipitous, if not a reason to be downright optimistic. Director Hal Hartley was casting for his new film, The Unbelievable Truth, which had a budget of $75,000. Someone else in his office was casting for a music video and held up Shelly’s headshot. “What about her?”
Shelly is often referred to as Hal Hartley’s muse since she worked with him both on The Unbelievable Truth and Trust. For Trust, his directions were so minimalistic, Shelly later said she sometimes wanted to kill him. Hartley said he cast her at 22 because “she immediately caught on to the rhythm and irony in my movies.”
In 1996, Shelly set up a theater company called Missing Children, had written several plays and began to work on her directorial debut in which she also acted, Sudden Manhattan. It was a comedy of errors in the vein of Woody Allen and a film where everyone seemed to be in love with her quirky character Donna.
Continuing to act through the 90s, Shelly directed her second film in 1999, I’ll Take You There, which starred Ally Sheedy.
Shortly after 9/11, a friend set Shelly up on a date and she met Andy Ostroy. “I didn’t really know what to make of her at first,” Ostroy recalls. “She was like no one I’d ever met. But I knew right away that she was special. There are very few people in this world who are really unique, and she touched you in a way that meant you could never forget her. It’s hard to explain. She had a big smile and a genius IQ.”
By 2003, Shelly was expecting a child with Ostroy. During this time, she wrote the script that would become Waitress. Jenna (Keri Russell) works in a remote Southern town at the local diner but whose true love is creating new pies with clever names such as ‘Earl Murders Me Because I’m Having an Affair Pie’. In an abusive relationship with her husband, Earl (Jeremy Sisto), Jenna is trying to save up money to run away and enter a pie baking contest when she finds out she’s pregnant. Even as she feels ambivalent about her pregnancy, her homemade baked goods she brings to her gynecologist, Dr. Pomatter (Nathan Fillion), lead to a romantic affair. Her friends and fellow waitresses at the diner, Becky (Cheryl Hines) and Dawn (Shelly), offer moral support, but it’s ultimately Jenna who has to make the decision to change her life.
Shelly’s producer on Waitress, Michael Roiff, remembers a particular day on set. Shelly’s character Dawn is getting married and Shelly, in costume in her wedding dress, stepped behind the camera to direct. “Why is everyone staring at me?” she asked as the others laughed at the image. “That was who she was in a nutshell,” Roiff says. “She could wear a wedding dress in the middle of a movie set, get behind the camera and think nothing of it.”
Shelly’s friend, Sasha Eden, says Shelly was proud of being a mom to her daughter, Sophie, but also being able to have a career. “No one questions Woody Allen or Christopher Guest, but when you’re a woman it’s much more challenging,” Eden says.
Roiff remembers when they were in the process of editing, they had just watched a cut of the film and Shelly turned around and said, “Look, you can do it. Society wants to tell you that you have to choose, but you don’t have to choose.”
Shelly would never find out that her film made it into Sundance. On November 1, 2006, she was found hanging in her Greenwich Village work studio. Her death was assumed to be a suicide, but her husband refused to believe it. Over the next few days, after a more thorough investigation of the crime scene, NYPD found a muddy footprint left on the toilet. It was from a Reebok shoe and police were able to match it to footprints in the apartment below, which was under construction. They belonged to a construction worker, Diego Pillco, who confessed to Shelly’s murder.
That day, Shelly had come down to the apartment to complain about the construction noise. Pillco did not speak much English, but he understood her threat to call the police. He feared he would be deported if the police were called and threw a tool at Shelly and followed her back up to her apartment, where she hit him, and he knocked her hard enough that she fell back and hit her head on a desk. Pillco assumed she was dead and tried to cover up his crime by making it look like a suicide.
In 2008, Pillco was sentenced to 25 years in prison and will be deported back to Ecaudor after her serves his sentence.
Nancy Utley, chief operating officer at Fox Searchlight Pictures at the time, said watching Waitress at Sundance was a tough experience. “The typical format for the festival is that the director is introduced to say a few words before the film begins. It was painful from the beginning to see that there was no director to introduce the film, since Adrienne had passed away. So the producer and Adrienne’s husband Andy talked about how it had been Adrienne’s dream to have a film at Sundance. It was very poignant,” Utley said. “The movie played like gangbusters. The audience was laughing and crying, and sometimes both at the same time. There was a standing ovation at the end.”
Shelly’s own daughter, Sophie, plays Jenna’s daughter in the last scene of the movie.
Within a few weeks of the film’s release, it had made $17 million, receiving critical acclaim and success at the box office just like the previous year, Little Miss Sunshine had done.
“The role she plays in Waitress is more true to who she really was than anything she’s ever done,” Ostroy said of his wife. “She’s always known for dark, mysterious ingenues, but deep down she was just a clown. I’m sorry that the filmgoing audience never got to see who she really was. She was more comfortable with that part of herself much later on. She was the funniest woman I ever met in my life.”
“I always said to her, “Your forties are going to be amazing.” I knew this film was going to put her in another league,” Ostroy added. “She’d been toiling for 20 years, but through Waitress it was almost like she was an overnight success again. And, you know, that’s the tragedy of it – that she’s not around to experience the success.”
The Adrienne Shelly Foundation, which Ostroy set up in his wife’s honor, encourages young women to make films. It offers college scholarships, production grants, and living stipends.