When Cheryl Hines joined the cast of writer/director/star Adrienne Shelly’s 2007 indie-film surprise hit Waitress, she never could have expected that a mere two years later, she would be making her directorial debut in order to carry on Shelly’s posthumous legacy. Yet on Friday, when Serious Moonlight premieres in limited theatrical release and on Comcast On Demand, she’ll be doing just that.
Shelly was tragically killed in a botched robbery before the release of Waitress, so she never got to witness its success. Yet her work lives on with this oddball romantic comedy starring Meg Ryan as Louise, a headstrong, indomitable woman who refuses to let her husband Ian (Timothy Hutton) leave her for Sara (Kristen Bell) once she happens upon their affair, going so far as to duct-tape him to a toilet for the majority of the movie.
“I love that Serious Moonlight is both funny and dramatic and a little suspenseful,” Hines says about what drew her into the script once Shelly’s husband Andy Ostroy approached her to direct it. “I love that aspect of Adrienne Shelly’s writing. She could capture it all in one fell swoop. It’s an interesting tone that you don’t get to see very often. It really struck me.”
“I was very confused when I heard that Adrienne had died,” she admits. “I didn’t understand how she died, I didn’t understand what was going on. It was a bit of a mysterious call. All I knew was that she died. It was so sad, and it didn’t seem real. It just seemed like somebody called me to tell me some news from far away. It just didn’t add up for me. Then, as the story unfolded and more facts came out, it was so heartbreaking. It’s just heartbreaking. Sometimes I still have a hard time believing it. I didn’t even know Adrienne that well. I just had met her working on Waitress, but we connected in a way, both in a professional way and she has a daughter the same age as my daughter. So we connected as working moms, women on the set who have kids running around. It’s just a tragic story. When I was approached to direct this film, I didn’t accept the offer lightly, because I know how much it means Andy Ostroy to see her film come to life, and I know how much it means to her family, anybody that knew her, loved her, or anybody who goes and sees the film. I’m sure this project came with an extra layer of emotion that most films don’t come with.”
So how did being an actress compare with the challenge of directing? “As an actor, you’re responsible for your role and your character and what you bring to the project, and it’s exciting to have a director share his or her thoughts on the whole story,” Hines said. “As an actor, you don’t really get to see the whole picture. You do your thing for however many weeks or months and then you go home, and then a year and a half later, you watch it and you’re surprised. You had no idea that’s what you were shooting. As a director, you’re responsible for everything. So it’s exciting, because you get to pick and choose all of the pieces of the puzzle and put them together. For me, I really appreciate talented people. Even if your talent is sound and you’re great at it, I appreciate it. It’s very rewarding to put together these talented people and watch them do what they were put here to do, and then have a film to see after it’s all done. It’s really amazing.”
Of course, even though she had a whole crew of people at her beck and call, the job isn’t without its downside. “I found, in filmmaking, that it’s such an unpredictable process if you are the type of person that’s trying to control everything all the time, I think your head would explode. Although I thought my head was going to explode a few times. I never got my own coffee, so there’s that. Somebody drove me to the set, so there’s that. In theory, it sounds like it would be fun to have a lot of people under you, but what I learned the hard way was even though people are doing things that you sat down and talked to them about doing, until you see it for yourself…. the lampshade is blue, I need to see that blue lampshade. I don’t know what happens in the process, but you go to set and all the lampshades are green, and I thought my head would pop off. We had a whole discussion about blue lampshades! It’s nice to have people out there going out and getting the lampshades, but at the end of the day, you’re still responsible for the lampshades and you have to see them and doublecheck what people are doing. So, good and bad.”
Despite the headaches, head-pops and head-explosions, Hines hasn’t soured on captaining future film ships. “I would like to direct more, yes,” she confirmed. “I feel like I learned a lot, and I know I have a lot to learn, but it’s also one of those things where I don’t know how much you can learn by reading a book about it. You just have to do it. It’s like riding a bicycle. You can read about it, but until you’re on a bicycle trying it, falling over, you can’t understand it all, really.”
The story in Serious Moonlight is an interesting one, wherein Louise takes extreme measures to remind Ian why their marriage is stronger than any silly affair he might be having. Hines had to stop to ponder when asked if she would do the same things Louise does in the film. “Here’s what’s interesting about that question. I feel like, in this script, Louise knew 100% that Ian could be happy with her. She knew that, so she went to these great lengths. Now, if I was in a marriage and my husband had been cheating on me for a year, I’m not sure if I would know 100% that we would be happy together down the road. So it just depends. That being said, if it was a different circumstance and I knew that if I could just make this one thing happen, we would get to this place of happiness for the rest of our lives, then I would probably go to great lengths to manipulate a situation. This just in! But that’s what I love about this film! She did such horrible things, but they’re happy now, so was it so bad? He did bad things, she did bad things, but now they’re at a different place in their lives and moving forward, so does it matter what they did to each other? I don’t know!”
What makes the film different is that the young and pretty mistress is not played as a one-note caricature, but rather a real person you can’t help but sympathize with even if you think she’s being a fool. “I think Kristen Bell is so good in this film because she captures this character who is very young, very immature, yet we understand why she’s caught up in this drama,” Hines said in praise of her star.”Even though this 24-year-old who isn’t really old enough what she’s doing to this marriage, this guy, this woman, she captures that youthful moment that you have when you fall in love with someone and you feel like ‘I don’t understand why this isn’t working. You said you loved me, I love you, why isn’t that working?’ There’s a bit of a desperation and a sweetness to it that Adrienne captured and Kristen executed very well. We see the character of Sarah as a full person. She’s not just a dumb girl who doesn’t know better. She’s a naive girl who doesn’t know better who, I think one day when she’s 40, will look back and go ‘oh my god, I was such an asshole.’ At the time, she doesn’t know better. She’s just going with her gut feelings and acting on that. I think a lot of people who watch the film will remember that time when you were 24 and you were sure that the person you were in love with was the end-all be-all.”
Oh, and one last thing, just in case you’re expecting to hear “Let’s Dance” somewhere in the film thanks to the title, think again. “We didn’t try to get the David Bowie song,” Hines admitted. “I’m sure we probably couldn’t have afforded it, but Andy says that it didn’t have anything to do with that song. Adrienne probably heard that phrase in the song and liked it. I don’t know because she’s not here, but I don’t think it had anything specifically to do with the song.”