Encountering Adrienne Shelly: Part One

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Reid Rosefelt, Adrienne Shelly and Thomas Jay Ryan - Tiger: His Fall & Rise

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.