January 19, 2007
Sundance Dream Most Notable for an Absence
By DAVID CARR
PARK CITY, Utah
MICHAEL ROIFF could be forgiven for seeming a little discombobulated on Tuesday night. A first-time producer with “Waitress,” one of the higher-profile movies at the Sundance Film Festival here, he had just arrived and was knocking around a rented condominium, trying to figure out where everything was and how to get a flat-screen television to behave for another look at the film.
But something more profound had him at loose ends. Adrienne Shelly, the writer, director and one of the stars of the film, was not there, and she was not coming.
Ms. Shelly was murdered on Nov. 1 in her Greenwich Village office. Although it was initially thought that her death was a suicide because she was found hanging from a shower rod, a construction worker has been charged with murder, accused of staging the scene after an altercation with Ms. Shelly.
Mr. Roiff, who worked with Ms. Shelly for two years on “Waitress” and was continuing to work with her on other projects, talked to her the night before her death.
“We talked about what we always talked about, which was the movie, Sundance and whether it would get in,” he said, idly tapping the remote control.
And it did, although Ms. Shelly, 40, did not know that before she was killed — the selections had already been made, but notifications had not been sent out. She leaves behind a husband, Andrew Ostroy, and a 3-year-old daughter, Sophie, along with a film that offers a tender-hearted rumination on a woman who is trying to find her place as she faces impending motherhood and the constant threat of violence from her brutish husband. The movie evinces sunniness amid all sorts of gloom, a prism on life that should come in handy in the next few days, as friends and family members fly in for its premiere on Sunday.
“She likes to juxtapose comedy and tragedy, in part because real life doesn’t get compartmentalized,” Mr. Roiff said, letting the allusion to the present cir***stance speak for itself. He apologized for still referring to Ms. Shelly in the present tense, but said it was all still very raw.
“It is unbelievable to me that I am in Park City, and she is not,” he said. “She so much wanted this film to get in here, to be seen, and that’s why all of us knew that there was no way that she committed suicide. This movie is a huge turning point in her career.”
All films arrive at Sundance with a back story, but none have the poignancy of “Waitress.” At a festival where films frantically vie for attention in a crush that lasts 11 days and is dappled with parties and events, “Waitress” hits a very different note.
“It is bizarre coming there under these cir***stances,” said Keri Russell, the star of the movie, who is best known for her role as television’s “Felicity” and for playing the love interest of Tom Cruise’s character in “Mission: Impossible III.” “Sundance is a raging, nonstop party, a huge celebration, and you feel so lucky to be there. This will be very different for all of us, but I have huge affection for her family, and I think all of us believe that this movie deserves every bit of attention it can get.”
Even for someone who did not know Ms. Shelly, watching the movie might prove to be a bittersweet experience. What seems like a joke-filled riff on expressing yourself through domestic arts — Ms. Russell’s character, a waitress named Jenna, has a penchant for baking and advances pies as plot points, including “Kick in the Pants Pie” and “Pregnant Self-Pitying Loser Pie” — takes on dramatic weight and portent as the movie proceeds. Written by Ms. Shelly when she was in the end stage of her pregnancy, it is a frank examination of the fears of impending motherhood, particularly when it occurs within the confines of a disastrous marriage.
What could have been another indie confection takes on additional heft by virtue of a strong cast — including Nathan Fillion, Jeremy Sisto, Cheryl Hines and, of course, Ms. Shelly herself, who stepped aside as the lead and cast Ms. Russell instead.
Ms. Shelly plays Dawn, one of three waitresses working at a pie shop. Ms. Shelly recently appeared in “Factotum,” the Charles Bukowski-inspired film starring Matt Dillon, and came to prominence as a muse for Hal Hartley, whose films “Trust” and “The Unbelievable Truth” were Sundance hits.
Mr. Hartley, who will be here Monday for the showing of his latest film, “Fay Grim,” said Ms. Shelly had a rather complicated relationship with the profession of acting.
“She had a funny attitude about her ambitions to be an actress — she was skeptical of her own motives — and I think that came through in her work, to good effect,” he said. Mr. Hartley, who will be attending a Monday pie-eating contest here on behalf of the film, said Ms. Shelly had no such conflicts about her work as a writer and director.
“She had so many different things going, I had trouble keeping track,” he said. “She knew completely what she wanted, and I think her confidence was growing with each film that she made.”
Her work as an actress in her own movie is less affecting than the sensibility that drives the film. A tragicomic mash-up with a high/low music score, it ends in a very significant hug, one that in light of subsequent events could be easily mined for allegorical meaning.
Her friends and collaborators, who were initially trying to diagram how somebody who was in full stride as a mother and filmmaker could commit suicide, at least found a place to put her death, once it was revealed to be a murder. Ms. Shelly was in the midst of writing other projects in her office and argued about construction noise with Diego Pillco, a 19-year-old immigrant from Ecuador. Notes made by investigators who interviewed him say he admitted that he punched her, then pushed her, causing her to hit her head on a table. There were reports that Mr. Pillco was worried that he would be deported and staged the suicide; he was questioned after police found a footprint that did not belong to Ms. Shelly.
“Hearing the news was one of the strangest feelings I have encountered,” Mr. Roiff said of the arrest. “A huge burden was lifted by this horrible news, because it was so much better than the horrible news that came before it.”
Because Ms. Shelly had such a clear idea of what she wanted and was not shy about making it happen — Mr. Roiff, Ms. Russell and Mr. Hartley all spoke of her single-mindedness — her absence here as the film makes the rounds is all the more acute. The other people involved in the film, which had a budget in the low millions, retain significant commercial hopes for it. Mr. Roiff said he believed that “Waitress” had a bright future on its own merits, something that people used to say about its director as well.
Ms. Shelly had strong feelings about the objectification of women on camera and had a belief that she and other women belonged behind the camera as well. With that in mind, her husband has created a foundation in her name that will provide money to women interested in making the transition from acting to directing, a path that currently seems far more open to men.
“Waitress” could be seen as something of a curio here, the movie by that director, a possibility that her friends and colleagues cannot abide.
The premiere, Mr. Hartley said gravely, “is a chance to get on with it.”
“It is gratifying that a friend’s work is being shown and getting attention,” he added. “The movie deserves it.”
Whatever the motivation, a crowd will gather, one that is predisposed to dwell on the film’s message of redemption and hope, as opposed to the calamity of last November. In the production notes, the only place that the director is now able to speak in support of her film, she sounds as if she saw that coming.
“I feel like there are a hundred people around me all the time,” she writes, “all rooting for this thing to go well.”