Of the half-dozen scripts that actress/writer/director Adrienne Shelly completed before her tragic death in 2006, “Serious Moonlight” isn’t the obvious choice for first posthumous film to be made from her work. Produced by her husband Andy Ostroy, who’s committed to making all of her scripts into films, it’s a dissection of how a marriage can go wrong between a long-wedded couple (Meg Ryan and Timothy Hutton). After her breakthrough film as a director, the sweet-natured “Waitress,” “Serious Moonlight” is decidedly sour: Ryan’s long-suffering Louise takes her husband hostage by duct-taping him to a toilet; while a subplot involving home invasion might feel too close for comfort to those who know the details of Shelly’s murder. Yet in spite of those peculiarities, there is something all too perfect about “Serious Moonlight” as a showcase for Shelly’s idiosyncratic and wistful point of view. Its director, Cheryl Hines, took on the unenviable task of stepping in for her late friend and “Waitress” co-star to make her feature directorial debut. Shortly before the film premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, Hines talked about making “Moonlight” her own and how she finally gets why the pies got so much attention in “Waitress.”
After you finished “Waitress,” had you kept in touch with Adrienne?
Adrienne and I had kept in touch since “Waitress.” We had talked and e-mailed each other back and forth, but I didn’t know anything about the project until [producers] Andy Ostroy and Michael Roiff called me and asked if I was interested in directing.
Did it sound like a fun opportunity or did panic immediately set in?
A little of both. First I thought, “Why me?” And then when I read the script, I understood it, because Adrienne had a specific way of writing and she had a specific tone to her voice with a balance with comedy and drama. I really appreciate that, so that’s why I think Andy and Michael came to me and that’s certainly what drew me to it.
When you’re brought into a situation like this where you want to honor her and at the same time make your own directorial debut, how much do you want to make the film your own?
I think as a director you have to make it your own. It’d be a mistake to approach a project with the idea of “I’m going to do this the way I think somebody else would,” because then you’d never be clear on your idea. So I approached the project with the idea that I’m going to tell the story the best way I know how to tell it. I think that’s what Adrienne would want.
There’s one scene online between Meg Ryan and Kristen Bell, and there does seem to be that unusual tone where it’s funny, but it’s also like “am I supposed to be laughing at this?” Was it tricky to nail that tone down as a director?
For me, it wasn’t hard finding the right tone. That’s why I wanted to do this project — like you’re saying, it’s not a traditional comedy. Everything isn’t funny in this film. [laughs] There’re some really dramatic moments, and it’s not a broad comedy. The comedy that’s there is nuanced and it’s subtle.
As an actress, you’ve worked with so many directors with a distinctive style over the years. Did you find some of those influences creeping into your work?
Absolutely. When I was working with Barry Sonnenfeld, I’d watch him set up a shot and talk to him about what he was seeing and what it was to shoot comedy. He told me that a lot of times with comedy, it’s not just about getting the joke, but getting a reaction to the joke. That’s the laugh — it’s somebody’s else’s reaction to the joke. So there have been little pearls of wisdom along my path that I’ve been keeping with me.
I figure you might say to yourself making this, “Oh, that’s why Adrienne was spending so much time shooting those pies in ‘Waitress.'”
That’s so true. It is so true! I was thinking that the other day, about those pies and the different colors, and at the time, I thought, “This is insane. Why do these pies look like this?” [laughs] Pies in real life don’t look this color! And then when you see the film, you realize it’s all intentional. I understand it now.
“Serious Moonlight” does not yet have distribution, but will play once more on April 30th during the Tribeca Film Festival.