AUSTIN—As the Emmy-winning star of HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, Cheryl Hines knows a thing or two about funny. But she was at the Austin Film Festival to talk about a more serious role: first-time director. Hines was about to premiere her directorial debut, Serious Moonlight (written by the late Adrienne Shelley) and before the show she told her rapt audience how the movie got made.
Although Hines had directed for television before (Oxygen’s short-lived Campus Ladies), she wasn’t necessarily looking to become a movie director. But she was approached by Adrienne Shelley’s widower, Andy Ostroy, who was looking for someone to direct the last film Shelley had written before her tragic death.
It was very important to Ostroy to keep the script exactly as his late wife had written it, but other directors were not willing to accept this “as is” project. In Hines, Ostroy found someone who was. As an additional bonus, Hines already knew and liked Shelley’s work, having starred as Becky in Waitress (which Shelley both wrote and directed).
Hines first met Shelley while auditioning for Waitress. As Hines recalled, the two clicked immediately, bonding over their children and Shelley’s offbeat sense of humor—something that also drew Hines to the Serious Moonlight script.
While Hines was thrilled to helm the project, coming from all-improv productions (first the Groundlings, then Curb) to this movie was a major change of pace. As Hines recalled, rewriting even the smallest phrase required serious debate between herself, Ostroy and producer Michael Roiff (who had also worked with Shelley on Waitress). Hines described the experience as “challenging but rewarding.”
Still, she clarifies, there was no sense in approaching every scene with the thought of, “How would Adrienne have done this?” In Hines’ view, that would have been an impossible goal. The finished movie, then, is true to the spirit of Shelley’s writing but also reflects Hines’ own comic sensibilities.
Hines walked her audience through her experience as first-time director, from pitching the script to Tim Hutton over the phone while her children played nearby, to convincing Meg Ryan that she had to read the script (“Why?” said the skeptical Ryan). When the two leads finally said yes, Hines recalled literally jumping for joy.
Hines also answered audience questions. When asked about being a female director in a male-dominated business, she admitted that she might have worried more than a male director would. For example, her husband poked fun at her tendency to fret about the crew members’ ability to drive safely home after their long days.
Although female screenwriters and directors are still quite rare these days, especially in comedy, Hines downplayed the film’s distinctively female voice. When I asked her if she thought this was “woman’s comedy” (I was trying not to use the work ‘chick flick’, but that’s what early –and undeserved— negative buzz paints it as) she shrugged and said, “Comedy is comedy.”
Throughout the panel, Hines spoke with enthusiasm and (as one might expect) humor.
Some of her more unusual directorial duties included hunting down annoyingly loud frogs (one was ruining a scene) and being responsible for pulling Timothy Hutton’s pants down all the way (he’s tied to a toilet for the majority of the movie, and the wardrobe manager just wasn’t comfortable with that job).
As for what viewers should expect, she warned that Serious Moonlight has a “different vibe” than Waitress did. As a dark comedy, Hines felt there was less ‘wiggle room’ to get the appropriate message across. She described how she, Ryan and Hutton painstakingly read through the script to define, “exactly what’s funny and what’s not,” in order make sure the right emotion came through at the right time. For similar reasons, the ending was edited and re-edited to guarantee the audience understood what was intended.
Having seen the finished movie, I can confirm that it worked. The audience laughed enthusiastically and gave Hines a warm round of applause after the film. Though Hines is a funny lady, it’s clear that she takes her role as director seriously, which bodes well for any future projects she chooses to pursue.