LAIFF INTERVIEW: Sudden Success? Adrienne Shelly Waits to "Take You There" With Sophomore Feature
by Anthony Kaufman
(indieWIRE/4.12.2000) — Adrienne Shelly, the petite blond actress from Hal Hartley‘s “Trust” and “The Unbelievable Truth,” has been trying to sell her second directorial effort “I’ll Take You There” to a U.S. distributor since its world premiere in Telluride last September. Produced by Jim Stark (“Cold Fever,” “In the Soup,” “Mystery Train“), the crowd-pleasing quirky comedy follows Bill (Reg Rogers), recently rejected by his beautiful, seemingly perfect wife (Lara Harris), and the ensuing journey to get her back. Ally Sheedy co-stars as a whacked-out unlikely love interest that forms along the way.
Judging from the gushing audience reactions at film festival screenings (following Telluride, there was the Hamptons and Aspen Comedy Fest), it seems like only a matter of time before Shelly will see her next movie in theaters. Her first, 1997’s “Sudden Manhattan,” was distributed by Phaedra, but didn’t exactly win over critics or audiences. But with “I’ll Take You There,” Shelly has sharpened her craft and made a movie for the twenty-something romantic set that is sure to please.
Still, as the waiting persists, the frustrations mount and Shelly is counting on her screenings at the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival (beginning tonight) and GenArt Film Festival (starting April 26) to score a deal. “There are companies that are interested,” she recently told indieWIRE by e-mail. Still, the whole experience appears to be confounding. “I’m quite a nice mixture of amusedly bitter and rapturously zen about the whole thing,” she added.
In the mean time, Shelly has been working as an actress: You can see her in an upcoming episode of “Law and Order” where she plays an ex-stripper/porn star and she’ll be starring in Tim McCann‘s independent film, “Revolution #9.” She is also currently working on her next writer-directorial effort “The Other World,” “a nifty science fiction genre film” and researching a documentary tentatively titled “Ode to Joy.”
In Telluride, indieWIRE’s Anthony Kaufman spoke to Shelly about overcoming writer’s block, test screenings, Hal Hartley and wearing silly animal hats.
“I’ll Take You There” screens at the LAIFF on Saturday, April 15 at 1pm
indieWIRE: What kind of things did you learn on your first feature “Sudden Manhattan” that helped you make this one?
Adrienne Shelly: I think it was the kind of story that I was telling in “Sudden Manhattan” — I really didn’t think about the audience. I didn’t think, is this something that people are going to relate to or want to see. I just did a film that I thought I might like. (Laughs) And it’s a difficult film in a certain way because it’s about one woman’s existential journey — it doesn’t have audience written all over it. When I went to make my second film, it was very important to me that people be able to relate to the characters and that appealed to all age ranges. My first film, you were most likely to enjoy it if you were a woman around 30. (Laughs)
iW: So you said at the screening that the film came after a period of writer’s block, was that true?
Shelly: It was very true. I was having terrible writer’s block at the time. I just had to say to myself, okay, stop even trying, just go and do some other things. It’s funny how often when you stop trying really hard, it comes back to you.
iW: So you wrote the script rather quickly?
Shelly: I wrote the very first draft of the script in about two weeks — and then it took me several months to rewrite the script, so I got it to a place that I liked it. The original ending was very different. It was surreal. Jim [Stark] hated it. I sent him the script, and he said, “I like these characters, but the ending is terrible; if you ever want to rework it, send it to me afterwards.” So I sat on the script for about six months, as stubborn as Hell, but nobody understood the ending.
“When I went to make my second film, it was very important to me that people be able to relate to the characters and that appealed to all age ranges.”
iW: How surreal was it?
Shelly: It was very surreal. You didn’t quite know if any of this even happened. I don’t know what I was thinking. But anyway, I had this experience where I was having this very tough period where I was trying to work as an actor a lot, and I nearly got my own series on television. And then I was hired and fired off of an episode of “Spin City,” which was a particularly humiliating role, that I didn’t really want to do anyway where I played this magician who tries to seduce Michael J. Fox, wearing five inch spiked heals, a halter, and hot pants and walking a live tiger through a live studio audience. And I tried really hard to be more than the bimbo and I was fired that night for being too funny. It was really humiliating. So I went home, went out, had a stiff drink, called my Mom, and then took that script out, and dusted it off and rewrote the ending the next day and sent it back to Jim. This was in 1998. And he read it and called me immediately and said, “This is a movie I’ll make.”
iW: Did you have a prior relationship with him?
Shelly: No, I had met him about 10 years ago at Sundance, and then I’d see him once in awhile over the years, but I had been at a festival with him in Athens. My first feature was showing there and he had “Cold Fever.” And he really liked “Sudden” a lot. And said to send him whatever I was doing next.
iW: Can you go into some of the sheer challenges of shooting on a low budget?
Shelly: Necessity is the mother of invention. There was a scene that we shot all in video. That wasn’t supposed to be shot that way; the day before, the line producer came up to me and said we can’t light four people in a car. We can’t have the right equipment; it’s too expensive. You have to cut the scene or do one shot from the hood of four people. So I sort of paced around a bit and said, “Bill’s got a video camera!”
iW: And it works for the scene. Was the flashback structure always part of the film?
Shelly: The flashbacks were always there. But it was definitely cut down from how it was scripted. I went into a lot more detail on how the relationship ended. I just finally thought you didn’t really need to know. You wanted to get back to the story. In the rough cut screening process, that’s what I discovered. That’s the other thing that changed from my first film to this film. When I did rough cut screenings for “Sudden Manhattan,” to me, they were a place where people would come and see the screening and say, ‘this is perfect, do nothing to it.’ That’s all I really wanted. And this time for me, I saw that there is a reason why things work for people and don’t work for people.
iW: So what changed through the rough cut screening process?
Shelly: It was extremely valuable. I would say, “What did you hate? What didn’t you understand? What was confusing? Who do you want to see less of? What’s annoying?” I found it very useful. I know there are some people that don’t screen at all, but I can’t imagine it, because you’re so close to it, you get blind.
“I have one [hat] that’s like a big bear head and I’d go up to someone and say, ‘we have to stay a couple extra hours tonight’ — I’m wearing the big bear head, how are they going to say no to me?
iW: So what did you learn from Hal Hartley?
Shelly: What Hal taught me more than anything else is to not be timid about going after what it is that you want, what it is that you are trying to achieve. And to really listen to yourself. Hal is such a specific artist; he knows everything that he wants. He was very strict to work with. He was very unapologetic about wanting what he wanted. I had a lot of respect for him, being that way, but it wasn’t always easy. And I knew when we were making those films that they were very special. Hal is a quiet person. He’s very soft-spoken, but when he’s on set, it’s his set. Nothing is an accident. I’ve worked with a lot of directors who really don’t have a sense of what the Hell they want.
iW: What about acting and directing? In “Sudden Manhattan,” you were the protagonist. Was there a decision with “I’ll Take You There,” to be less involved, so you’d have a little more perspective? How is directing yourself?
Shelly: It’s really easy. It’s so much easier than everything else that goes into making a film. You step in and you do what you saw in your head when you wrote it.
iW: Because of your acting ability, do you feel you are able to work with your actors more intimately?
Shelly: I think that the actors that I work with feel safer with me. Because they know I understand what they go through and I don’t see them as chess pieces.
iW: It also seems like you were having a good time. It helps, right?
Shelly: It’s very important to me to have a good time. It’s the only thing I can actually offer, when you’re going to make a film and you’ve no money to pay anybody. I like to create an environment on set where people feel good about being there and really appreciated for their work and where they know it’s important to me and that they feel that I need them. And I tell them. I was also lucky because the crew and the cast were lovely. There wasn’t an unpleasant actor to work with in the bunch. They gave very generously.
People would work very hard for me — and not complain. I think it’s because they knew that I couldn’t do it without them. There are some hard things about being a woman director, but there are other ways where it’s an advantage. There are things that I get away with that men could never get away with. Like, I would wear these silly animal hats on set. (Laughs.) I have one that’s like a big bear head — it looks like a bear is eating my head — and I’d go up to someone and say, ‘we have to stay a couple extra hours tonight’ — I’m wearing the big bear head, how are they going to say no to me?
iW: I don’t know if that’s a gender thing, I think maybe a more personality thing.
Shelly: Maybe you’re right. But I would kiss everybody ‘Hello.’ And tell them it’s good to see them and here we go. . . . It’s the most fun I have in the world. When I’m on set. I feel like, pinch me, I’m dreaming, when is someone going to come around and notice that I’ve been allowed to do this thing. I have a strange mix of real, viable confidence and utter — I don’t know if the word is insecurity — certainly there’s fear.