Michael Roiff is an independent film producer – WAITRESS is his first feature film. His next films are AMERICAN SON and BALL DON’T LIE. He sat down for the following interview in New York to discuss the movie that is so close to his heart and the woman who made it.
By Elaine Lipworth
What is the appeal of this story from your point of view?
It is of course about a waitress, but it is really being about the idea that it is never too late to start afresh and make different choices in life. It shows that you can do what you want, you can be happy, but you never need to be trapped. It is really about a waitress who is seemingly trapped in a life that is terrible and she does not know how to get out of it, but she finds that maybe getting out isn’t going to be as hard as it seemed.
Can you talk about the role of pies – the food in this film, which is really an integral theme isn’t it?
There is a quality about cooking, about being alone in a kitchen with your ingredients that is very escapist, it takes you away from everything else that is going on. That is what Jenna enjoys. The kitchen is one place where her husband is not there and she is just alone with her ingredients, she does not have to think of her awful situation. It is similar for a painter or an avid crossword puzzle enthusiast. Whatever it is you do, that allows you to get away, that passion can be very powerful. That is what cooking is for Jenna. I think Adrienne’s goal was to convey that. I also think that there is something about pie, about dessert, that brings back the little kid in us. We all remember when dessert was the most important treat of the day. It brings back the child in everyone. That was one of the themes that Adrienne wanted to express. The opening sequence definitely has that feel of magical food, the chocolate being poured and the bananas and the sugar and candy added to the mix. That was by design and then later on you see multi colored pies all over the place. The film was designed to be a fairy tale and a fable and something that will take you away to a different world.
Did Adrienne herself love baking?
Adrienne was a really good eater! We both used to joke that we were only in it for the food. That was the only reason we made the movie! I think she was a good recreational baker, but not a master chef like Jenna in the film.
Do you see WAITRESS as an inspiring film?
I think it is inspiring. There is a good message about starting again, but it is not delivered in that Hollywood saccharine way, that you often find in films, I think there is nothing clichéd about the film and that was important to Adrienne. She wanted to speak to the reality of life more than anything else and that reality is not neat and clean. Happiness and sadness can happen at the exact same moment.
Can you discuss Keri’s portrayal of Jenna, the main character?
It is absolutely brilliant especially in the sense that Keri herself is definitely not a baker. But Keri is just fantastic and I think she is wonderful in the film. We used to sit at the monitor looking at her and just say ‘gosh’, maybe we should find someone pretty .. That was a joke and we were being sarcastic obviously, because Keri is just radiant, she is breathtaking, not just in terms of how she looks, but in terms of the persona that comes across on screen and off screen too. She is someone whom you want to watch, she embodies this role and she has amazing range that I think people may not have realized prior to this film. She had done some wonderful work in the TV series FELIICITY, but she also has tremendous comedic timing and depth in her emotions.
What impact will this film have on her career do you think?
I think she is a star, the epitome of a movie star, yet she is so wonderful as a person, so down to earth, she used to run from her trailer to the set, she is just great.
Why did you cast Nathan Fillion as the doctor?
Nathan Fillion is the coolest guy in the world, he is a ‘space ship captain’, the kind of guy every guy wants to be in a way. He is very talented and to me he epitomizes a leading man. He is a very good-looking guy and he’s just smooth and cool, without being unapproachable and he is very real. Off set he is a delight to work with.
What about Cheryl Hines?
Cheryl Hines is even funnier off set than she is on screen. She is just fantastic and so committed and passionate about the project. She has a young daughter too, so she knew a lot about the themes running through the film, they meant a lot to her.
Jeremy Sisto plays a mean spirited guy but he’s not one-dimensional is he?
No, Jeremy has such a lot of depth, he somehow makes this abhorrent character slightly redeemable in a couple of places. There are times when you feel for him and you see what he is going through, which is an amazing thing to achieve, because essentially he really is a bad guy, but Jeremy was able to give him a three dimensional quality which is partly what makes the film so interesting.
What about Adrienne as Dawn?
Dawn is supposed to the nerdy regular girl who is struggling to find someone to love and like everyone else finds love in the strangest of places. She was not always going to play that role, but as the process evolved, it became clear that there was no one better on the planet for that part than the person sitting next to me. So she did it. She loved acting and it was actually fun for all of us. She would be shooting a scene in a wedding dress and then run around to the monitor and look at it and start handing out orders dressed in her gown. And the humor of that was not lost on her, that there she was, a rather small person in a huge wedding dress, telling everyone what to do, but it did not affect her at all. She was a very dynamic person.
The film doesn’t seem to be set anywhere specific?
It isn’t specific either in place or time, because Adrienne really wanted to be able to transport the audience, it is supposed to be a general southern rural town.
Was Adrienne destined for great things would you say?
She was tremendously talented, she was hitting her stride and was quite amazing. I used to say that she was going to be a huge filmmaker and there were a lot of future scripts and projects that we were talking about. She has written other things, she was very prolific and actually wrote this very quickly. I don’t know yet what will happen to her other scripts.
The film has become Adrienne Shelly’s legacy, what can you say about her as a filmmaker?
Adrienne was exceptional in a lot of different ways and she had a very strong and specific vision at all times. She knew exactly what she wanted in this film, every single frame has her stamp of approval on it. But what she was able to do, which was striking to me and all of us, was also be delightful as a person. Often you find that when people have a really strong vision, they are not easy to get along with. Adrienne was so loving and caring and nice, she made everyone feel welcome. She was collaborative and yet was still able to do exactly what she wanted. That was great. Obviously everything that has happened is so hard on a lot of different levels. Personally I miss her as a friend. We met when I read her script and fell in love with it and then it was a two-year journey making the film. We finished it over the summer and had a few months before it was showing at the Sundance Film Festival, so we had months and months talking on the phone, we would say ‘I wonder what they think at Sundance?’
How much was this Adrienne’s project?
The script was her baby. She felt very strongly about it. I went back and read the script and it is mind boggling that everything on that script is on the screen – there is no deviation, which is really amazing. But she also did welcome the opinions of everyone else. When she took the role of Dawn, she was very open to working with me about developing that role. She had a wonderful collaborative process with our cinematographer and production designer. Every step of the way she wanted to get the best out of everybody.
Did she have any idea that it was going to be such an extraordinary film?
By the time we finished the film, we knew it was what we wanted and we were very proud of it and we hoped it would be what audiences wanted to see too. But there was no way to really know, we had no idea really. We had heard that people liked it at Sundance; we certainly had no idea that it would get the response that it has received. I do think that she would be thrilled and that somewhere she has got her hand in the mix right now and knows what is happening.
As producer, how involved were you?
It was a small team so I was very involved, Adrienne and I worked hand in hand the whole time. She was acting for a portion of the film so I had a big role.
When you attended the premiere it must have been so sad not to have her with you all?
That was a strange day, not to have her standing outside in the snow with me at Sundance. We premiered for 1300 people, which was awesome, there is no other way to describe it. It was actually awe inspiring. People were laughing at things that I don’t think we even realized would be funny and I found myself looking up a lot saying: ‘Alright Adrienne you got that one!’ She would have been absolutely ecstatic at the response that we got. It was so much fun. When you make a film like this, you sit on it for a little while and you do not want anyone to see it. You want it to premiere in the right setting. So it was strange for us to show it to the world without her. That was the part that she was waiting for and that she never got a chance to participate in at all. We had most of the cast there, there was a great support team and I think we were all going through a similar process of grieving and being excited for the film, but not having her to share that excitement was definitely difficult.
Can you say anything about the Foundation that has been set up in her name?
It has been set up by Adrienne’s husband, Andrew Ostroy, and many friends. I think he is fairly amazing considering what has happened. He has been a real rock for all of us and of course his daughter and the rest of the family. And it is wonderful that he has set up this foundation that is exactly the kind of thing that Adrienne would want to see, it supports women in film and that was something that was really important to Adrienne. She would love more women to have the opportunity to work in films.