Lynn Shelton, Acclaimed Indie Director, Dead at 54

“Everyone she worked with loved her.”

Lynn Shelton, an early star of the mumblecore genre of movies, who wrote and directed films like Humpday and Sword of Trust, died Friday of a blood disorder. She was 54.

After the news broke of her death, social media lit up with tributes to Shelton from a wide variety of stars. Actors like Reese Witherspoon, Kerry Washington and Allison Janney, and directors like Edgar Wright and Ava DuVernay all posted beautiful remembrances. DuVernay noted that Shelton handed the future When They See Us director the 2012 Sundance Directing Award, which changed DuVernay’s life.

“Handed it to me with love. Rooted for me long after,” DuVernay wrote. “Thank you for your films. And for your kindness.”

Many talked about how wonderful she was to actors, how kind she was, how smart she was, her fierce independence, and her enthusiasm for life. But it was Hair Love director Matthew A. Cherry whose comment hit at the heart of this tragedy:

“Lynn Shelton passing away is so messed up. You could tell she was just getting started and everyone she worked with loved her,” Cherry tweeted.

Shelton only started making movies 14 years ago. The story goes that while in her mid-30s, she saw a talk with director Claire Denis, who revealed that she made her first feature at 40. Shelton, at the time a photographer, made We Go Way Back in 2006 with unknown actors and a small budget, in Washington State, an area not known for its film scene.

That tiny independent film lead Shelton to direct two more features, the third being Humpday, a $15,000-budget film about two friends making an amateur gay porn. It starred a then-unknown Mark Duplass. The film earned Shelton an Independent Spirit John Cassavetes Award in 2010 and opened up a world of opportunity. Shelton went on to direct four more features, and work on popular television shows like Mad Men, The New Girl, and most recently, Little Fires Everywhere.

In her work, Shelton excelled at handling complex emotions. Those who worked with her praised Shelton’s empathy, for both the actors and their character’s stories. Her skills truly shined when the script called for something massive to be revealed about a character. A prime example of this is her episode of Mad Men, Hands and Knees, in which we learn that Lane, the British financial officer, is having marital problems because he’s in love with a black Playboy bunny who doesn’t love him back.

Along with her deep understanding of humans, Lynn Shelton had a clear love for her home of Washington State. She made all but one of her films there, and not just in the heavily-wooded settings known for housing vampires and Laura Palmer. In Laggies” and “Outside In, Shelton captured the gray, wet setting of a Seattle suburb perfectly, highlighting its ‘60s-style ranch homes, the moldy concrete, the looming mountainscapes, and the pops of sunshine that make the place sparkle.

Shelton’s films had a strong point of view but she wasn’t precious with them. She had her actors improvise frequently. Director Calvin Lee Reeder saw this first hand when he worked with Shelton while she was starting out in Seattle. He played a significant part in her second feature, 2008’s My Effortless Brilliance, a movie he initially didn’t think would work, as the extent of Shelton’s script was a 4-5 page treatment. Yet with Shelton’s guidance over a lot of improvisation, the film came together and she won the Someone To Watch Award Independent Spirit Award in 2009.

“Through that, I learned control isn’t always the way. You can relinquish the reins if you trust the people you work with,” Reeder said. “Lynn was selective, but she put a lot of faith in us. She also knew what she wanted and how to make it happen.”

Like Shelton, Reeder left the Seattle film scene for bigger projects and acclaim. He went on to make several films that premiered at Sundance, and so did other Seattle filmmakers from that same scene, like Megan Griffiths and David Russo. During Sundance 2009, Seattle filmmakers had the biggest regional presence, with Shelton leading the way. That year, she premiered Humpday.

Lynn Shelton
A scene from ‘Humpday,’ directed by Lynn Shelton.

“We traveled well as a regional scene and even though our films couldn’t be more different, it felt like family,” Reeder said.

Lynn Shelton became an in-demand, award-winning director in Seattle despite being 20 years older than her contemporaries and without having bonafides like a degree from USC film school or a family member already in the business.

She also implored others to do the same.

“Any one of you who are out there thinking that you can’t make a movie because nobody is stepping up to the plate and giving you money and permission to do it. You can. You can do it,” Shelton said during her acceptance speech for the Someone To Watch Award at the 2009 Independent Spirit Awards.

“You can empower yourself. You can pick up a camera. The technology is there. You can get your friends together and you can make a movie. You should do it. Now.”

 

(Lynn Shelton photo credit: Philip Faraone, Getty Images)

Kevin L. Jones

Kevin L. Jones is a freelance writer and audio producer living in the San Francisco Bay Area. You can see more of his work at kevinljones.com.

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