Monday, May 30, 2011
During the year Adrienne and I worked together on I’ll Take You There, our professional relationship gradually evolved into a more personal one, one which deepened over the following years. Eventually, she became my best friend, more important than the women I dated at the time. Unlike anybody I’d ever known previously, she made it her business to transform my love life, and try to make me happier. I won’t claim that I was her best friend, because I believe she did the same thing for other people, and was equally precious to them.
Adrienne’s method for fixing my life involved setting me up on dates with her friends. These women were all remarkable—extraordinary in their beauty and accomplishments. She honored me by maintaining that I deserved women as impressive as that. The fact that none of these setups became an actual girlfriend (although one is a friend to this day) was beside the point. On the other hand, she never liked any of the women I found on my own. It was the opposite; she thought I was too good for them.
The odd thing about this was in her life, she went through what she considered a long string of unhappy experiences with men. As she wrote:
In my twenties I had every bad kind of relationship imaginable. I questioned just about every move I made and I failed an awful lot in a variety of ways--sometimes loud and noisily, and sometimes in small subtly painful ways. There was unrest, boredom, a feeling of hopelessness, powerlessness, and a garden variety angst. Mostly, (modest film career or no modest film career, depending on the month) there was a lot of wandering. I guess what I was really doing was searching, and trying to figure out who the hell I was. And being rather clumsy.
While she was so confident and upbeat about every other aspect of her life, this compartment of her personality could make her feel melancholy and lost. Adrienne turned this into material by dramatizing this side of herself in her movies, to comic effect. From her first short, Urban Legend, she began her films with the lead character desolate after a breakup, or worse, trapped in a smothering relationship, as in Waitress:
That was always her magic trick in her films and in her life. She could use laughter as judo. As she wrote:
Humor has been an important asset for me. It was an important part of my childhood. I never wanted to be a great actress--I admired Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett long before I knew who Marlon Brando was. Mel Brooks and Woody Allen were my heroes. And when bad (and rather strange) things happened during my childhood, like the sudden death of my father when I was 12, or the sudden paralysis of the left side of my face from Bell's Palsy when I was 15 (not a good age, by the way, for either of those things to happen), it was a saving grace that I could find the funny within the painful and the unheard of.
If you don’t know what Bell’s Palsy looks like, Sylvester Stallone has had it since childhood, and Fox reporter Greta Von Susteren has it now. I’m sure it was a devastating challenge for Adrienne to get through, but the only complaint she expressed to me about it was that people would look at her with this “oh, you poor thing” look on their face. Anyway, eventually her Bell’s Palsy went away.
I never found out if the men in her life were as bad as she said they were. There are two sides to every story and I only got to hear hers. As did anybody who saw her movies, particularly Earl in Waitress, who got on a list of the “10 Worst Movie Husbands.” Here are some others from her rogue’s gallery:
She also wrote a hilarious essay about Oprah Winfrey’s increasing frustration with her endless non-marriage to her fiancé, Stedman Graham. (It was read at Adrienne’s memorial by one of Adrienne’s closest friends, actress Pamela Gray.)
But some of Adrienne’s portraits of men weren’t humorous at all:
These characters stood for a world that was chaotic and precarious, where in a second a woman could be selfishly used or much worse. In her unproduced screenplay “The Morgan Stories,” there is a both a rape and an act of lethal violence.
On the other hand, Adrienne had a fondness for sweet, guileless men in her movies, who refuse to give up their courtship of the women they sincerely love. Waitress fans will fondly remember Ogie (Eddie Jemison), unstoppable in his wooing of Adrienne’s character Dawn, and Alan North plays a similar role in I’ll Take You There.
The open-heartedness of these men leads into the other side of Adrienne, which I mentioned before—her confident, ebullient, joyful side, overwhelmed with boundless love that she directed towards her art and to her friends. Some might call it presumptuous for me to attribute this aspect of her personality to her biography, but I feel certain that her joyful strength came from the boundless love her mother gave her. Adrienne never stopped saying that her mother made her feel that she could do anything. In her telling, her mother’s love was unconditional, grand, glorious--one colossal sun of love. Adrienne told me again and again about the depths of her appreciation for the gifts her mother gave her.
And it was this side of Adrienne that created a character that turns up again and again in her movies—a character I call “The Teacher.” Usually the Teacher is old and eccentric, or even outright crazy, although Ally Sheedy’s Bernice in I’ll Take You There is young and nuts. Sometimes there’s a little touch of magic in them like Jan Leslie Harding’s homeless woman in Urban Legend, Louise Lasser’s fortune teller in Sudden Manhattan, and Ben Vereen in I’ll Take You There. There’s not just one Teacher per film; I count four Teachers in I’ll Take You There. (Adrienne played one of them.) The Teacher Adrienne characters are the catalysts to get the mopey Adrienne characters to stop feeling sorry for themselves and get out of bed. Interestingly, the depressed Adrienne character can also serve up magical assistance to others, as Jenna in Waitress does with her makeover for Dawn and her magical pies for everybody.
In a nutshell, that’s my formula for Adrienne’s storytelling: a virtual conversation between the two parts of her personality, told with quirky humor and absurdity, and suffused with a love for people and their foibles. The fun is in the diverse ways that Adrienne worked this recipe out. Was she aware she was doing this?I doubt it. She wrote her scripts very quickly and these stories just came out of her without her bothering to analyze them.
I believe that the above clips fall within the requirements of Fair Use. My aim is to get more people to watch her films; I want to increase the profits of the copyright-holders. On the page where the clips are linked to, there is elaborate information on how you can purchase and rent the films, including Waitress. Sudden Manhattan, I’ll Take You There, and Serious Moonlight are all available on Netflix Instant Watch.
Saturday, May 14, 2011
Throughout college and my early years in New York, I had a very complicated relationship with my best friend. He was an amazing guy, brilliant, funny, and in a lot of ways true blue: I could always count on him to come through for me in a crisis. But when it came to women, he was trouble. He slept with my girlfriends. He went through elaborate measures to encourage me to court an attractive friend of his girlfriend, knowing all the while that she was hopelessly in love with him. He once worked as a bouncer at a massage parlor and he brought one of the masseuses over to my apartment, explaining that she considered me a "fine hunk of penis." (I should add that the masseuse was the girlfriend of his roommate, a judo black belt, and I sent her out the door). Old girlfriends of his came on to me, and as they often were quite hot, I sometimes took them up on their offers. We went on like this for a dozen years or more, with me enjoying his company too much to face up to the blatantly homoerotic and sick competition that was going on, and how hurtful it was to me. The truth is there was so much more I liked about him than I didn't like, and eventually he got a long-time girlfriend who kept him in line. But he would piss me off and I wouldn't talk to him for a year, until finally one those separations went on so long that we stopped seeing each other altogether.
After that I decided I was through with male friendship and started actively pursuing non-sexual relationships with women. The perfect setup was if they had a boyfriend or fiancé or husband that I really liked, but was living in another country or something. I could call one of these women up at a moment's notice and say, "do you want to go to this party?" and she'd be totally up for it. Most of these relationships have endured to this day, whereas I can't even remember the names of some of the women I dated.
I remember when I was working on High Art and I was squiring my client Ally Sheedy to one event after another that her then sister-in-law/agent Rachel Sheedy told her, "it's so great that you have a gay friend to go all those places with you." If you made movies about all these women's lives, I suppose you would cast me as the gay best friend who happened to be straight. In some cases I was the confidante; they could tell me everything, and I could do the same with them, and in others it wasn't so intimate, I was just around to escort them to movies and parties. The thing that fascinated me, because it happened every time, was that as I got to know them in the context of a friendship, I could see that a more conventional man/woman relationship would never have worked. They weren’t at all right for me in that way, but as friends they were perfect.
In almost all cases, I got the better side of these friendships as the women were so much smarter and wiser than I was. They were always there to provide insight on the female mind. I would try to provide the same about men, but they understood men pretty well. I suppose I mainly provided a shoulder to cry on, plus any entertainment value they could get out of our friendship. I always wanted to have a girlfriend, but I was desperate if I didn't have a few good female friends on the hook. After all, when the woman you are crazy about breaks up with you, who do you call?
In the early 90s I was working in New York as the VP of the New York office of the international movie PR firm Dennis Davidson Associates (DDA). My number one client, Sony Pictures Classics, hired me to work on Amateur, the newest film by Hal Hartley, whose The Unbelievable Truth, had so enchanted me in London years before, and who had now, with his subsequent films, become one of my very favorite filmmakers.
I set up a lot of press for Hal, and the male lead, Martin Donovan (still a friend), but mostly I worked with Elina Lowensohn. Once I spent some time with her, I knew that she was best friend material, and I was determined to woo her to be my non-girlfriend. She had it all. Her husband, painter Philippe Richard, lived mostly in Paris, but I really hit off with him when he was in New York. She was one of the most interesting people I had ever met. A Romanian refugee of the Ceausescu regime, she had suffered enormously in her life, and yet remained more upbeat than most people. She also had a unique and poetic way of speaking English that was irresistible. Although she looked like a bombshell with a Louise Brooks bob, inside she was the kindly old lady down the hall, who upon seeing you downhearted, insists that you come over for soup. The only problem with Elina was that because she was so wonderful, everybody in New York wanted as much time with her as they could get. Among the people on the waiting list was Adrienne Shelly, and Elina would mention seeing her now and then. I definitely could have met Adrienne through Elina, but as I was such a superfan of Adrienne, I didn't want to. Civilians dream of meeting their favorite actors, and even stand on the sidewalk for a glimpse, but professionals (who are also fans) have been burned too many times. When you really like somebody's work, you just don't want to be disappointed, and that can easily happen when you assume the role of an employee.
One of the few exceptions was Ally Sheedy. I got to know everybody in her life. She was on a roll with High Art, picking up prize after prize and, as her publicist, I wanted her career to keep soaring. I took a very close hand in everything she did. When she was cast in the lead role of I'll Take You There, Adrienne's second feature film as a writer/director, of course I set up a visit to the set. It was a long subway ride to some distant part of Brooklyn (or somewhere equally exotic). I had this little Sony Handicam, slightly bigger than a still camera (remember those?), that I took with me everywhere. While I was on set, I figured I could capture a little b-roll, material that could be used for the film's release.
So instead of trying to conjure up how exhausted Adrienne was one that day, here it is, video of the very first moments I encountered Adrienne Shelly.
The first thing I noticed was that one of the lenses on Adrienne's glasses was all scratched up. I was going to ask her about it but I realized that on the schedule she was on there could hardly be any time for her to get her glasses fixed. Adrienne told me that her first film didn't get much distribution and she was determined that this one would get seen. I said I wanted everything involving Ally to be a hit. This didn't exactly cheer her up. She looked really worried. She asked me if I'd be willing to come by the editing room after she finished shooting so we could talk more about it.
And that's how it began. I ended up working on I'll Take You There for an entire year without pay.
Sunday, May 08, 2011
Last week I began what will be a series of posts on my friendship with the late writer/director/actor Adrienne Shelly. After it appeared I heard from some people who wanted to know, “just where are you going with this?” Because it sounded like I was going in a very personal direction. Which I am. These friends wanted me to reflect on the savagery of her death, and whether that puts my memories of her in a special category. After all, she leaves a husband dealing day-to-day with unending grief over her loss, and there is a daughter who is growing up without a mother. I have a responsibility to be careful about what I reveal.
On the other hand, I have my own not unsubstantial grief to deal with about Adrienne. I was her publicist, which led to the two of us becoming friends, and over time, she became my best friend. Aside from my wife and family, she was the person I was closest to in my whole life. In a similar way to me writing about my mother’s recent passing, I was hoping that writing about Adrienne would help me get some closure about what happened to her. Still, considering the tenderness of the situation, it did make sense for me to stop and think about where I was going with this.
So I thought about it, and decided I wanted to write it the exact same way as I had planned to. Here is why:
I’d like people to start talking about Adrienne’s entire body of work as a writer and director. Not just Waitress, but her previous movies too. During the time I knew her, the central preoccupation of her life was her fierce desire to be respected as a writer/director. She didn’t feel that the arbiters of the independent film world got her. She felt that if she was truly respected, then it wouldn’t be such an ordeal for her to get her movies made, and seen. Neither her debut, Sudden Manhattan, or her second film, I’ll Take You There, received any significant distribution. This was heartbreaking for her.
For many years it was my task as her publicist to try to make people pay attention to her work. I don’t see why I should stop trying now. I want to celebrate what she did do during her all-too-brief time on the planet, rather than mourn what she never had the chance to do.
So those of you who fell in love with her when you saw Waitress…do yourself a favor and honor her dream by checking them out. They are both on Netflix Instant Watch. You can also find Serious Moonlight there, as well as my favorite film she did with Hal Hartley, Trust.
So what does this have to do with my desire to present a personal portrait of Adrienne as a human being? I want to do it because Adrienne was the ultimate autobiographical filmmaker. While most writers utilize their own life as material in one way or another, with Adrienne it was practically 100%. Like Larry David, many of the things her characters did in her stories were things she did herself in real life. In my opinion, you will enjoy the world of her films in a much deeper way if you know a little bit about who she was. I want to try to draw some lines between the person and the artist.
Next week I’ll pick up the thread from last week.
Sunday, May 01, 2011
Me directing Adrienne Shelly and Thomas Jay Ryan on the set of my short film Tiger: His Fall & Rise
I didn’t have a Royal Wedding when I lived in London, but I did fall in love.
I spent a few months in England in 1990 when I was working as the production publicist on the film Shining Through, starring Melanie Griffith and Michael Douglas. When shooting began on locations in Germany and Austria, I was living in hotels with the crew and I always had people to hang out with. But when the production moved to England for interiors at Pinewood Studios, everybody returned to their homes and families, I spent my weekends alone.
As I don’t enjoy living in hotels, I asked the production to help me rent a furnished flat in London. They got me a place in a super-posh area called Mayfair, in a neighborhood called Shepherd Market. When I told one of the female members of the crew I was going to live there, she burst out laughing. She explained to me that it was “so and so caught with his pants down” type of place, where numerous Members of Parliament and other upper class notables got caught with high-end call girls. And it was true. Every night when I went to the little grocery shop, all these hot women leaned out their windows making kissy noises at me when I walked by at night. “Hey baby…”
For a movie lover like me, an old studio with a history like Pinewood is a fascinating place to prowl around in. Out in the back lot was what remained of the Gotham City set built for Tim Burton’s Batman movie, but you couldn’t go in, you could only look through the fence. It was so sad; these amazing sets were slowly disintegrating in the British rain. I was able to go through the long tunnel of the Alien3 set that was built on Pinewood’s biggest stage, known as the Bond stage, as so many of the most spectacular scenes in James Bond movies were filmed there. I loved wandering the halls of the Pinewood offices, looking at the famous names on the office doors. The carpet was so moist it made squishy noises. That pretty much summed up my experience in England…damp.
On the weekends, I was super-lonely and bored. This was before cable TV and the internet, and there were only a few channels. I couldn’t believe I was in a country where people thought darts were worthy of being televised. It seemed to me that their coverage of the US leaned towards fringe Americana like Elvis impersonators, Burning Man types, and guys who made huge 20-foot high balls out of twine. They loved seeing us Yanks looking like weirdos and assholes.
My apartment was nice, but very cramped. To get out of there, I went to as many movies as I could. With the awful exchange rate it was $30 a ticket at nearby Leicester Square. It stopped me thinking about how unhappy I was working on Shining Through and how long it was going to be before I’d be going home.
One night I went to see a film called “The Unbelievable Truth.” I’d read good things about it in the Village Voice. The director, Hal Hartley, was supposed to be a major new talent.
Here’s a bit of what I saw:
This film was definitely not intended to be “realistic.” It was the kind of confused teen movie that Brecht, Godard, David Mamet, and Sylvia Plath might have teamed up to do after a week-long drunken binge in Rockville Centre. Hartley’s influences were easy enough to see, but he added enough to make something quite new and sparkly. He had created a vision that was so controlled it was trussed. He knew where the camera should go. He edited it himself. There was a weird affectless to the way the actors were delivering their lines, and a tightness to the way they moved (or didn’t move). The dialogue had a singular ping-pong rhythm: people either weren’t listening to each other, or avoiding listening each other, or generally residing in their Own Private Long Island. There was repetition, repetition, repetition, repetition, as in a well-known scene where a very young Edie Falco says the same five lines four times in a row to Robert John Burke who gives non-responsive responses that don’t hinder her from continuing in this Escher-like dialogue loop endlessly. The music was as hip and cool as the movie. It stuck with you in a kind of sad minimal beauty. A lot of it was written by a guy with the delicious name of Ned Rifle, who turned out to be Hartley too.
I liked The Unbelievable Truth a lot, but the thing that was really on my mind was: “Who the hell is that actress?”
Amid the distancing style of the film, which was always working to keep your emotional connection at bay, this girl was breaking my heart. She was whip-smart. She was capable of expressing a lot without saying anything. She was hysterically funny without seeming to be trying to be funny or letting you know for sure that she was trying to be funny, or was just weird enough to make you uncomfortable. She kept you off balance. How were you supposed to respond. I wasn’t sure how much of what she was doing was acting and how much was really her. No, it was impossible that it was all just acting, and only filling out her responsibilities to Hartley’s tightly woven vision. This woman was too young to understand a character like this unless she had lived through some pretty bad things herself. She knew what the end of the world was and could see it hurtling towards her on the L.I.E. You have to have lived depression to dig into that dark a cave.
She was broken somehow.
And that’s what I was, sitting in that theatre all by myself. Maybe that’s what I always have been since I was a teenager. It wasn’t about being far away from my home and alone. I have always been that way, even when I’ve been in a party teeming with people.
Her name was Adrienne Shelly.
More next week.