Waitress: Adreinne Shelly’s Last Film

An audience hit at the Sundance Film Fest, “Waitress” serves up a sweet, sassy and delicious slice of life tale, revealing the power of friendship, motherhood and the willingness to take chances.
It’s the story of a small town woman who transforms her hopeless life into a hilarious and unexpected love story. This vibrantly different romantic comedy is the final film from writer-director Adrienne Shelly.

Starring in the title role, Keri Russell (MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE 3, THE UPSIDE OF ANGER, Felicity) leads a dynamic cast as a diner waitress stuck in a lousy marriage whose only solace is baking out-of-this-world pies. When the awkwardly charming new OB-GYN, Dr. Pomatter (Nathan Fillion, SERENITY), comes to town, shes inspired to mix-master her life into something far more satisfying. WAITRESS may do for pie making what SIDEWAYS did for Pinot Noir.

Bittersweet Triumph

When “Waitress” premiered at the Sundance Film Fest in January of 2007, the audience immediately responded to its mouth-watering, funny and ultimately uplifting story about a small-town Southern pie genius who finds herself caught between a husband who leaves a bad taste and a scrumptious but totally inappropriate affair–and beats her own path to a future she never imagined.

Yet the films success was also a bittersweet triumph for everyone involved in the production because the writer and director, Adrienne Shelly, wasnt there to share in the joy of the occasion. Tragically, Shelly died in November of 2006, before she even had been informed that her dream had come true and “Waitress” had been accepted to Sundance.

As producer Michael Roiff said during Sundance: It’s unbelievable to me that Im in Park City and shes not. She so much wanted this movie to get in here, to be seen . . . [it was] a huge turning point in her career.

True Labor of Love

For Shelly, “Waitress” had been a true labor of love, written while she was pregnant with her own daughter, and a breakthrough film that revealed the stylistic strength and charm of her vision and especially, her distinctive way of tapping into the magic and humor of ordinary working lives. Shelly had started her career as an acclaimed actress, garnering the spotlight with fiery performances in Hal Hartleys indie classics THE UNBELIEVABLE TRUTH and TRUST and had most recently starred in FACTOTUM with Matt Dillon and Lili Taylor. In 1996, Shelly made her feature film debut as a writer-director with SUDDEN MANHATTAN, a soul-searching New York comedy, following that with the award-winning, unconventional romantic comedy ILL TAKE YOU THERE, starring Ally Sheedy as a woman who kidnaps the man who rejected her.

WAITRESS is Shellys third and final film and the rare sparkling comedy that brings a fresh view to something that happens all the time: impending motherhood under less than ideal circumstances. Shelly said she set out to make a film that roots for people who do the right thing. I really like putting that sort of thing out into the world. She also stated: Ultimately, WAITRESS is a love letter to my baby, Sophie.

Inspiration for Film

Indeed, it was getting pregnant that inspired Shelly to dream up the indelible characters of “Waitress,” and to boldly create a predicament for her heroine, Jenna, shed never seen anyone really tackle before in a comedy: being scared out of her mind at the very thought of giving birth.

I wrote “Waitress” when I was about eight months pregnant, and I was really scared about the idea of having a baby, she explained. I couldnt imagine how my life was going to be, that it would change so drastically that I wasnt even going to recognize myself anymore. I was terrified and I really had never seen that reflected in anything, not in a book or in a movie.

Challenging Taboos

Thats when Shelly decided to undo the taboo. People dont talk about those kinds of fears, Shelly continued, but I know how large they loom. They arent spoken about, and its almost like a sacrilege to say that becoming a mother is scary. So I wanted to write a movie about those fears and give them a voice. But I also knew that when you actually have a child this other kind of love kicks in that you couldnt have ever imagined. Its a different kind of love than youve ever experienced in your life its a complete, utter, unconditional kind of love. Being a mother does change your life, in a beautiful way.

Shelly put Jenna in the middle of a potentially disastrous romantic triangle even in the midst of her pregnancy. While shes weathering her awful marriage to a slimy, self-absorbed husband so full of himself he has no idea who Jenna is, she discovers a wild passion for the new doctor in town, the same man who is supposed to be delivering her baby! But Shelly also gave to Jenna what she calls her saving grace: her brilliant flair for baking pies.

It was a passion to which Shelly could relate. I never met a pie I didnt like! Shelly remarked while making the movie. I also thought that was really important for the movie, that Jenna have a skill, something she was really, really good at and something that would be really fun and luscious for the audience to look at. Thats why there are so many pies in WAITRESS, so many darned pies
Between the pies, the performances and Shellys stylized spin on the film, WAITRESS won acclaim at Sundance, which only increased the heartbreaking hole of Shellys absence. Yet everyone who knew her agrees, she would be completely thrilled that her film is now bringing happiness to audiences. As Michael Roiff summed up at Sundance: Although this is a bittersweet and difficult time, I find myself focusing on that little voice in my head thats Adrienne speaking to me. Its saying come on, this is great!

Casting the Waitresses

Shelly knew that her small-town comedy would hinge on her sharply drawn, working-class characters coming vibrantly alive, and that casting the film would be key. The very first character she cast was the heroine at the heart of “Waitress”–Jenna, who is by turns funny, frightened, giddy, irreverent, in love, unraveled and ready to take a wild risk.

Kerri Russell

It wasnt a simple bill to fill yet one actress made it look, well, easy as pie. That was Keri Russell, who began her career as a youngster on the New Mickey Mouse Club variety show, then played the title character on the successful series Felicity and has gone on to become a rising young actress with roles ranging from the critically admired drama THE UPSIDE OF ANGER to Tom Cruises protg in MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III. Her natural beauty has also made her a CoverGirl spokesmodel but with WAITRESS came a chance to show off a grittier side and a spicy mix of vulnerability and comedy.
The second I sat down with her I knew that she was our Jenna, Adrienne Shelly said of Keri Russell on the set of the film. She just had exactly the right spirit and she really grabs your heart and I knew from the second I met her that she was our lead character.

For Russell, the whip-smart writing in the screenplay had been irresistible. Its a story about falling in love and the many forms love takes, Russell says. I thought it was funny and sad at the same time, and one of the best scripts Id read. It was also a chance for me to play the straight man while everyone around me is so funny. It was a challenge just not to laugh during the scenes.

On the set, Russell felt further inspired by the electric atmosphere that developed among the ensemble cast. Everyone was doing this movie for all the right reasons, Russell explains. It seemed that people were a little more excited and a little more involved than on other shoots Ive done.

At Sundance, despite so many mixed emotions, Russell remained excited about the film, especially when she saw its reception. Watching the film with an audience, you see that theres really a lot of hope and sweetness in this film and I think people want to feel that, she says.

While Russells character navigates the tricky territory of pregnancy in the middle of a bad marriage, she is buoyed along by the wit, support and equally impassioned yearnings for a better life of her fellow waitresses at Joes Diner: mousy Dawn, played by Adrienne Shelly herself with an affectionate, unabashed sense of female geekiness; and brassy Becky, played with spunk by Cheryl Hines, a two-time Emmy nominee for her role as Larry Davids wife on the hit HBO show Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Cheryl Hines

Im a big, big fan of Cheryl Hines, so I was really, really excited when she joined us, and shes just hilarious, Shelly said during production. The feeling was mutual for Hines, who was most recently seen on the big screen in the comedy RV with Robin Williams. I was drawn to this film because Adrienne wrote such a moving script, Hines recalls. I thought it was funny and thoughtful and a lot like life. As soon as I read it, I was passionate about doing this project.

Hines especially enjoyed the camaraderie that developed between herself, Russell and Shelly on the set. Everybody was so great and talented, it was a true privilege to work with the other actors in this movie, she says. We all became really good friends and it was a lot of fun just to come and live in this very different world of Joes Diner for awhile.

Shelly’s Real-Life Baby

In addition to Keri Russell, Adrienne Shelly and Cheryl Hines, there was another key female character that joined the cast towards the end of production. This was Shellys then 22 month-old daughter, Sophie, who plays Jennas infant in the climactic scenes of the film scenes that remain especially moving as a final reminder of the bonds between mother and child.

Casting the Men

With its themes about the power of female friendship, solidarity and maternal love, the drama and comedy of WAITRESS is often driven by its characters hilariously familiar conflicts with the men in their lives. Knowing this, Adrienne Shelly gave careful consideration to how she cast the male roles, aiming for multi-dimensional performances that would keep the characters funny, infuriating but also true.

Jeremy Sisto

To play Jennas louse of a selfish, jealous, controlling husband, Shelly always had in mind Jeremy Sisto, with whom she had first worked in 1999 on a small New York thriller entitled DEAD DOG. Since then, Sistos career has taken off, with his riveting roles on HBOs award-winning series Six Feet Under and the acclaimed feature film THIRTEEN opposite Holly Hunter. He most recently starred on the NBC drama Kidnapped and has become known for his indelible intensity.

I knew Jeremy would be really powerful as Jennas husband, and he is, Shelly told an interviewer during the production of WAITRESS. Sisto was impressed with how Adrienne Shelly flipped a typically bleak situation like a disastrously dysfunctional marriage on its head in her sunny, humor-laced screenplay. She allows the audience to laugh at certain characters that other films might make it hard to watch and yet, she doesnt sacrifice any of the poignancy, he comments.
It was Shellys script that convinced Sisto to do something he has avoided–try his hand at comedy. Sisto admits he isnt usually attracted to the genre, but the chance to work with Shelly compelled him to take on this rare satirical role. Id always admired Adriennes work as an actress and a director and I thought the script was really sweet and funny and quite different from the stuff Ive done, he says. This was real life comedy, so I could handle something like that. Its not about punch-lines. Its about character quirks and personalities.

To get inside the quirks of egocentric Earl, Sisto had to develop a bit of empathy for him no matter how egregious his behavior as a husband. I think Earls basically very insecure, observes Sisto, which makes him intent on keeping his woman close to him. He definitely has many layers and contradictory personality traits — which is what made me so interested in the character.

Nathan Fillion

Portraying the other leg of Jennas yin-yang love triangle is Nathan Fillion in the films most romantic role as the new and only OB-GYN in town, Dr. Pomatter. To play the good doctor who finds himself with an adulterous attraction to a pregnant patient, Adrienne Shelly said that she wanted to find the quintessential sort of handsome guy who has no idea that hes handsome.

For Shelly, Nathan Fillion, an up-and-coming star who gained a cult following in Joss Whedons fantasy television series Firefly and feature film SERENITY, was perfect in that regard. Hes really a big dork, she laughed on the set, but he looks like Harrison Ford or something. He was perfect for the role.

Fillion notes that his role was also a bit of a departure: Ive played space captains and chiefs of police, but this is the first time Ive played a gynecologist! Like his cast mates, it was the humor and poignancy of the story that drew him to the part. My favorite thing about the screenplay is that this isnt a story about presidents or spies its about real people in a real caf, he comments. Its a slice of life, a slice of life pie.

Andy Griffith

Rounding out the main cast, Shelly was able to recruit the legendary Andy Griffith to take on the role of Joe, the cantankerous owner of Joes Pie Diner, who has a secret sweet spot for Jenna and her plight even if he never quite lets it show.

Casting Andy was an exciting dream, one that came true, Shelly commented in 2005. When he came aboard we just kept pinching ourselves and constantly walked around whistling the theme from The Andy Griffith Show. He really does such a beautiful job in the film hes heartbreaking, really heartbreaking.

For the cast, having Andy Griffith on the set lent a unique aura. Explains Nathan Fillion: You hear his voice and its strangely calming. Its like listening to your uncle or you grandfather tell you something there something about him that makes you feel youve known him your entire life.
Like every other actor who became a part of the film, Griffith was lured in by Shellys way with characters, then further impressed by her confidence as a director. I really liked the script, Griffith says. Adrienne is a good writer, but shes also very creative in the way that she directs. She really got after me about playing Joe the way she heard my character in her head.

Ultimately, the entire cast would not only bring to life their individual characters but forge a tight ensemble working in synch a magical result that thrilled Adrienne Shelly. Sums up Michael Roiff: Everyone on this film was so hard-working and talented and wonderful, its impossible to pick out someone who wasnt vital to the film. It was simply a dream.