Looking for Solace in a Slice of Pie

From: The New York Times, 4/18/2007
by: Julia Moskin

THOSE who knew Adrienne Shelly, the late filmmaker, say that she was not much of a baker. But her new film, “Waitress,” proves that Ms. Shelly had a deep and true love of pie — the loft of a filling, the flake of a crust, the waves of a fluted rim.

“If she had made pies, I would happily have eaten them,” said Andrew Ostroy, who was married to Ms. Shelly. “She didn’t, but she had an idea that baking would be a way for this woman to extricate herself from a miserable situation.”

The major preoccupations of “Waitress” are pies and pregnancy, and the redemptive potential of each for a young woman stuck with a dead-end job and a singularly nasty husband.

The film, which Ms. Shelly wrote, directed and acts in, is the last piece of work she completed before she was slain in Greenwich Village on Nov. 1. The authorities said a 19-year-old construction worker, Diego Pillco, killed her in an argument after she complained about noise from renovation in the building where she worked. Mr. Pillco is in jail awaiting trial, the Manhattan district attorney’s office said.

A few days after Ms. Shelly’s death, the film’s producers found out it had been accepted to the Sundance Film Festival; it opens nationally on May 2.

“It’s just impossible that she’s not here for the release,” said Laura Donnelly, the former pastry chef at the Laundry restaurant in East Hampton, N.Y., who made up to 30 pies a day for the film shoot. “Because she was everywhere on the set — soothing her baby, checking the shot, adding more marshmallows to the pie for the next scene, getting into character.”

Ms. Shelly, Keri Russell and Cheryl Hines play the three waitresses at Joe’s Pie Diner, located in a dusty, imaginary Southern nowhere. Jenna, the film’s main character (Ms. Russell) also bakes all the pies — 27 kinds each day. Her dream-ticket out is the $25,000 prize money she plans to win in a statewide pie contest; her nightmare is being trapped with her abusive husband, Earl, by the baby she’s carrying.

Although the film is shadowed by her husband’s menacing presence and Jenna’s financial worries, “Waitress” is a comic feminist fairy tale about self-reliance. The only man in the film who sees Jenna clearly is the diner’s curmudgeonly, pie-loving owner, played by Andy Griffith.

“What you do with food is unearthly,” he says, meditating on a weekly special of chocolate cream pie with fresh strawberries. “How the ingredients open up, one after another…I wake up every Wednesday thinking about it.”

Not all of the pies in the film are so appetizing. When Ms. Shelly wrote the script in 2003, she was pregnant with her daughter, Sophie, now 4: her husband says that anxiety, along with anticipation, drove her work. “It was important to Adrienne to be honest about her ambivalence and fear of becoming a mother — when do you ever see that on screen?” he said. As Jenna broods about the future (she refers to the fetus at one point as “an alien and a parasite”) her escape fantasies and her pies become increasingly wild.

She invents an I Hate My Husband Pie (bitter chocolate drowned in caramel), then Baby Screaming Its Head Off in the Middle of the Night and Ruining My Life Pie (cheesecake, brandied pecans, nutmeg), and finally Earl Murders Me Because I’m Having an Affair Pie (juicy crushed berries in a dark chocolate crust). (Jenna’s improbable response to prenatal anxiety is to start an affair with her married obstetrician.)

After labor and delivery, Jenna’s fairy tale ending kicks in. Fluffy pies of all kinds dance through the refurbished diner in a Technicolor Busby Berkeley fantasy sequence.

“I thought of those as Dr. Seuss pies and just went crazy with the vanilla pudding and the food coloring,” Ms. Donnelly, the pastry chef, said. All the pies on the set were edible, she said, even the luridly lime green and hot-pink-with-orange-swirl specimens.

The fantasy pies were all invented by Ms. Shelly, said Michael Roiff, the film’s producer. “She had a very specific and singular vision about those pies,” he said. “There are even some that only she would have been able to describe, like Lonely Chicago Pie and Car Radio Pie. And now we’ll never know what they were.”

Because Ms. Shelly’s life may have ended in a way that her protagonist both fears and escapes — at the hands of a violent young man — parts of “Waitress” are more painful to watch than Ms. Shelly could have intended. But the film always finds solace in the kitchen, where picturesque clouds of flour drift in warm light, where custards never boil over, where crusts never burn.

“Jenna is happiest when she’s alone in the kitchen, working with her hands,” said Keri Russell, who mixes quite convincingly (though a hand double was used in the tricky opening sequence). “And as an actress, Adrienne knew that it is a gift to have something to do with your hands instead of having to stand there and talk.”

Ms. Russell, who has been working as an actress since childhood, said that she had never made a pie before working on the film. Ms Donnelly tutored her in pastry arcana. “I didn’t even know about kneading or — what do you call it? — crimping, or keeping pie crust cold,” Ms. Russell said.

Mr. Roiff said that making a pie and making a film had clear parallels for Ms. Shelly. “Being alone with your creative materials was a powerful image for Adrienne,” he said. “You can see in the scenes where Jenna is baking that she is at peace and in control.”

That control was hard won for Ms. Shelly, as for many women in the film business. She was established as an actress in the early 1990s, starring in dark comedies by the director Hal Hartley, including “The Unbelievable Truth” and “Trust.”

But making the transition to producing her own work was a battle. “She worked so hard to do the work she wanted as a writer and a director as well as an actor,” Mr. Ostroy said. “But as a woman, even in ‘independent’ film, there are still a lot of roadblocks.” This year at Sundance, he said, only a small fraction of the feature films were directed by women.

Since her death, Mr. Ostroy has established a foundation in her name that is giving scholarships to film schools and grants to get work by women produced. New York University, Columbia and the American Film Institute are among those participating. (More information is at adrienneshellyfoundation.org)

At the end of “Waitress,” Jenna sings her daughter (played by Sophie Ostroy) a lullaby written by Ms. Shelly. She may not have been a baker, but she understood a great deal about pie.

Baby don’t be blue

Gonna make for you

Gonna make a pie with a heart in the middle

Gonna be a pie from heaven above

Gonna be filled with strawberry love

Baby don’t you cry

Gonna make a pie

Hold you forever in the middle of my heart.