I didn’t know indie icon Adrienne Shelly all that well, but my brief brushes with her over the years made the news of her untimely death all the more upsetting. When someone in the independent film community dies suddenly and unexpectedly, when someone who moved us through their art (whether Sarah Jacobson or Katrin Cartlidge or Garrett Scott), I remember how small and close-knit our little film family is. I think about all the people I know who must be devastated by her demise, and how shocking it feels to have someone so talented no longer with us.
I followed Shelly’s second directorial effort I’ll Take You There on the festival circuit, reporting on its Telluride premiere, then publishing an interview I did with her as the film was playing at the Los Angeles Film Festival in 2000; she talked of a new project called “The Other World,” “a nifty science fiction genre film,” she said — I wonder what happened to that film. And finally when the movie got picked up for distribution by the Sundance Channel.
I rarely follow a filmmaker’s journey so closely. But it probably had to do with the fact that those were different times for all of us, when we could afford to attend to the films that we liked, when Hal Hartley, Shelly’s frequent collaborator, was still a filmmaking god in many cineaste’s eyes. But also because I was probably smitten by the petite actress. After my last exchange with Shelly, I remember we had a little spat about the Sundance Channel article. I can’t remember what exactly it was about, but I remember she showed the angry, powerful side of her personality. Shelly may have been little, but she was a force: a firecracker, a charmer, a comedian, and an articulate intellectual. After the tiff, I developed even more respect for her. And I’m pretty sure, in the end, we resolved whatever issues had irked her.
When we talked extensively in the fall of 1999, she spoke about the way she worked on set. It’s an exchange about the nature of indie filmmaking and about Shelly herself that still delights me…
Shelly: 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.