THE INTERVIEW: Producer Andy Ostroy of the Adrienne Shelly Foundation
Despite the tragic loss of his wife, actress Adrienne Shelly, Andy Ostroy has set up the Adrienne Shelly Foundation, and tonight you can help celebrate her life by attending a gala event where a large collection of celebrities will be honoring her legacy, and yes, you can even afford to go.
In February 2006 accomplished actress, writer, and director Adrienne Shelly was tragically murdered when she walked in on a robbery in her office. Adrienne, best known for roles on television and in Hal Hartley’s films, had just finished directing and acting in the feature film Waitress, which was released to acclaim posthumously. Adrienne’s husband, Andy Ostroy, started the Adrienne Shelly Foundation in her honor to support female filmmakers. Tonight, the second gala will be held at N.Y.U.’s Jack H. Skirball Center for the Performing Arts and will feature performances from actors and singers such as Cheryl Hines, Mary Louise Parker, Keri Russell, Dana Parish, and Lili Taylor.
I wanted to start by asking you a little bit about your wife, Adrienne. I know you started the foundation in honor of her. Could you tell me a little bit about her and the kind of person she was? I wanted to know how she progressed in the industry from an actress to a writer to a director.
Well, her first love was writing and directing was always her goal. I think she came to New York and very quickly landed the starring role in Hal Hardly’s Unbelievable Truth and from that landed Trust (in which the part of Audrey was written for her by Hal based on their operation in Unbelievable Truth). Ever since that moment, Adrienne was writing plays and screenplays and quickly started her theater company called Missing Children down in the West Village. Her focus was always screenwriting and play writing with an eye to eventually direct film. She started with directing plays and moved into doing her three short films, which she wrote and directed and from there developed into features.
What about her philosophy?
Acting for her was always sort of a secondary priority- a means to an end. Which it is for most actors who eventually want to direct- it’s almost like being an employee verses the person who owns the company. Same mentality- it’s a matter of wanting to control your own destiny and get your own creativity out there, to exercise your own vision rather than being a piece of someone else’s vision. She always had a very strong vision and amazing creativity in terms of writing and concepts and how to make them happen. And then as a director, of course, directing is all vision. She knew early on what she wanted to do and in this pint-sized little woman- it was quite interesting to see her on a movie set directing 60 or 80 big, burly gaffers and grips- telling everyone what to do (laughs). She had a lot of vision and a lot of courage and a lot of determination packed into that little body of hers.
That’s funny. I always wonder why you don’t see more women in film but it sounds like Adrienne had a fairly smooth progression. Did she have any difficulty getting the directorial jobs or did it happen organically?
Well, I think the answer to the first question you just asked is that much of anything in this world, be it Hollywood films, independent films, Wall Street, or Madison Avenue, is that a lot of it is controlled by men. It’s a power thing and ego thing- they don’t want to give up the control or the glory and all that good stuff. This is why you don’t see a lot of women in the power seat in a lot of places. Yeah, she faced a lot of struggles because of that. Women in general, especially attractive women, they are objectified in many ways. Certain men like to look at women not as someone with a brilliant mind but a pretty face and sometimes the brilliant mind gets shot down when someone is just trying to keep you as a pretty face. I think being in an industry where pretty faces are in high demand, you know at some point she was taken very seriously as an actress but found it hard to be taken seriously as a writer and director. I think it’s all about the work. I think Waitress, which should have been her coming out party, and it was in a sense anyway, she just wasn’t around to experience it, but I think if you look around at the reviews of Waitress, and all the Top 10 lists it made over the year, that’s when she got her due as a filmmaker, as a director, as a writer and so her struggle was basically getting to that point. And even thought she got to make a few films before that, Sudden Manhattan and I’ll Take You There, they didn’t really achieve any kind of acclaim or notice. Some of them were not even theatrically released- so just as an artist, as a filmmaker, there were naturally struggles but being a woman in that maze made it that much harder, and being an attractive woman made it that much harder because certain places and certain people wanted to keep her in that little box that she was in- but she broke out of it. I always said she was 5’1” but stood tall in an industry that had mountains to climb for her. Had she lived, it would have been a much different story for her, she would have quote-unquote arrived even after a 20-year journey so Waitress was her, would have been her launch pad.
I remember reading about her death and aside from being tragic as an artist I just found it frustrating on a lot of levels. I wanted to ask you how you managed to deal with it and what lead you to create the foundation.
Well, I dealt with it on two levels. One was personal, which was horrific. With me, our daughter, our families, and friends- what they went through was unfathomable horror. On a professional level, I was always able to have a little piece of me that could step aside from my own pain and grief and say how tragic it was. To recognize the tragedy of this woman who finally did arrive and after I watched her struggle, and get to that point- that’s why all the success that she had at Sundance with Waitress was incredibly bittersweet- because she wasn’t there to experience it. It didn’t really matter at that point that anyone else saw it, it was heartbreaking that she couldn’t see it. Just as a human being, detaching myself from her as her husband, to accept that here’s this person who worked so hard and finally achieved greatness in an area where most people don’t get to skim the surface like she did and she was just cut down so early and tragically. So no matter how you look at it, it was just a horrible tragedy and terribly unfair, but legacies live on after people pass and part of that legacy will be the foundation in her name that we funded. We helped fund a film that won an Academy Award this past year.
Yeah, we will have the filmmaker at our gala tonight and she’s going to speak. You know she’s going to say that without the money from the Adrienne Shelly Foundation she couldn’t have finished her film and go on to win an Oscar. I mean that’s profoundly gratifying to hear, not just as someone who runs the foundation but more so as someone who runs the foundation named after a beautiful person who now can touch other people in some way similar to the way she touched people when she was alive. The organization was really formed after people said to me- how can we contribute money somewhere in her name? The circumstances of her death made me not want to just blurt out Save the Whales or The American Cancer Society because to me that cheapens everything, so I just asked people to be patient. Then I had a moment of clarity amongst the chaos about two weeks after she died and it just dawned on me that I need to help women filmmakers. I didn’t know about the existing organizations that help filmmakers, particularly women filmmakers. I had no idea that Women in Film existed, that IFP existed, that wasn’t my world. When I put together a board of directors and an advisory board, it quickly became my world because these people helped me navigate through that maze of organizations. We ended up partnering with these groups because it was easier for me to say let’s start a foundation. I didn’t know to tell people, why don’t you just send checks to Women in Film in Adrienne’s honor. It’s been great, it’s just been a great element to Adrienne’s legacy that hopefully will be for many years.
I really appreciate the mission of the foundation because I’ve been working as a film and media teacher for many years on the high school and college level. I’ve seen women who initially get interested in film then can’t make a successful jump into the industry. I’ve seen a bit of that changing in part due to new developments in technology. Filmmaking is now more accessible to everyone. Have you seen this effect at all in your experience with the foundation? What types of filmmaker’s have you helped thus far?
Well, our mission is to help women filmmakers and we don’t really have a template or a model of filmmaker other than they need to be very creative and stand out. They have to excel in what they are doing right now, which is easy for us to determine because they come from our partner organizations so we have a very efficient model. When we formed the foundation, there was a lot of conversation about picking people that look like and sound like Adrienne and that changed very quickly. I wasn’t looking to clone her or looking to help people that were very much like her. She had a very strong comedic sensibility. She also had a very genuine skill to have words come off her fingers that resonated on a very heartwarming level but there are other people who have a knack for producing great documentaries, you know, that showcase problems in the world which are very different than Adrienne, but relevant and just as important. We have a variety of filmmakers that we’ve helped, from New York type comedy oriented females doing films about relationships to documentarians who are showing us the genocide in Darfur to someone who made a film about a lesbian couple in New Jersey fighting for benefits, while one of the partners is dying of cancer. That film, Freeheld, went on to win an Oscar so it really runs the gamut. Out there are filmmakers of all sorts writing and trying to direct films of several different genres and I think there is no one area for us that seems to take priority or precedent over any other. It’s just where we find a quality and a sensibility that seems to work- that’s been the trigger for us.
That’s really nice to have that freedom. Could you tell me a little bit about the event you have happening tonight?
We are billing it as a celebration of Adrienne’s career and the work of the foundation. It’s going to include music, comedy and film as well as a stage reading of a short satire piece that Adrienne wrote called “The O letters.” We have a video montage of Adrienne’s work and the grant recipients’ work and some interviews with them. We also have a very fun spoof video paying tribute to our largest individual donor, a guy by the name of Brian Darcy, who came to us through our EBay auction last year (and he bid on and won two walk-ons: one in the film I produced called Serious Moonlight which Adrienne wrote after Waitress and one on the TV show Bones). To make a long story short, he’s been very generous with us and we decided we wanted to honor him. We have a bunch of celebrities on camera talking about him as if he’s a Hollywood Legend. We have sixteen or seventeen really well known actors: dramatic and comedic actors, and it came out really, really funny. We also have a couple of singers, Dana Parish, whose album, Uncrushed, came out two weeks ago and is rising in the charts. She’s been on Good Morning America and a lot of the morning shows recently. We also have Michael Cerveris, the Broadway stage signer and actor, who’s an all around talent. He’s going to sing a song as well. The “O letters” reading will feature: Cheryl Hines, Carrie Russell, Ally Sheedy, Lili Taylor, Maria Tucci, and the legendary Karen Black from Five Easy Pieces and Easy Rider fame. It’s going to be a really fun event and Adrienne will very much be in the room, throughout.
That’s a nice eclectic group you have.
Yeah, and then we have various presenters like Paul Rudd, Jeremy Sisto, and John Slattery from Madmen. It’s a good group of celebrities attending and it’s going to be a fun night. Our lowest priced ticket is $25, so all you have to do is give up 4 lattes at Starbucks and your there.
Where do you go for tickets?
People can go to www.adrienneshellyfoundation.org not just to buy tickets to the gala but to make a donation and read about the grant recipients. The website has information about our mission, what we do, and why it’s important to support us.