Late director's 'Waitress' found success

It’s a bittersweet notion for all of those who worked with and knew writer-director-actress Adrienne Shelly that her final feature film, “Waitress,” was also the work that finally introduced her talent to wider audiences.

Late last year, Shelly, was murdered in her New York apartment just before “Waitress” was accepted at Sundance. Warmly received in Park City, it was one of the larger acquisitions there, finding a home at Fox Searchlight.

Shelly, who turned 40 last year, spent her early career acting in indie films, most notably Hal Hartley’s “The Unbelievable Truth” and “Trust.”

“On set she was more observant than most people at that age,” says her husband Andy Ostroy of Shelly’s time working with Hartley.

“The biggest thing she learned from Hal was to never compromise who you are,” he adds. “He still makes movies exactly the way he wants, and she stayed with that, too. She made conscious decisions not to move to Hollywood.”

Shelly made several shorts and two features: “Sudden Manhattan,” in which she toplined, and Ally Sheedy starrer “I’ll Take You There.”

She wrote “Waitress” while pregnant with her daughter. The finished product — a frank, whimsical look at an unwanted pregnancy and the joy of cooking — revealed a unique style and a rueful humor that few filmmakers could pull off.

“She had a very singular vision for this film: from the writing to the costumes to the color palette to writing the film’s original song, ‘Baby Don’t You Cry,’ ” Ostroy says. “If you are a director, you need to do many things at once. She understood that, and it’s something that came naturally to her.”

Vocation: “She knew acting was a conduit to writing and directing,” husband Andy Ostroy says.

Recent breakthrough: “Waitress,” Fox Searchlight’s indie hit.

Role model: “She never really talked that much about idols or mentors,” Ostroy says. “She was a fan of many people. Woody Allen comes to mind — if anything, he was a major influence.”

Career mantra: “From her perspective, the work would approach her,” says Ostroy. “Nothing could happen for days and then she’d work for 12 hours straight and bang out 30 pages. She was rational enough to know creativity comes in waves.”

What’s next: Shelly’s spirit lives on through the Adrienne Shelly Foundation, a nonprofit organization that supports the artistic achievements of female actors, writers and directors through scholarships and grants.

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