Lynn Shelton: Making It Personal

May 18, 2020
On the sad, sad passing of 54-year-old writer/director Lynn Shelton, we look back on this fine filmmaker's fascinating career and body of work.

“While my life may sound pretty conventional on paper – I have a mortgage, a husband, and a kid – I’m still living the life of an artist,” Lynn Shelton told FilmInk in 2014. “My husband is the primary carer of our child. I don’t live in Los Angeles, even though it’s expected of filmmakers; I’ve remained in Seattle. I’ve been able to determine my own life. I came to filmmaking late, but I needed all those years and needed all the different things that I did – I went to theatre school, I studied a graduate degree in photography, and I was an editor for many years. All those things added up. It was a twenty-year film school.”

Along with an acting stint that has seen her occasionally feature on screen in small parts (Lucky Them, Safety Not Guaranteed), the Ohio-born Lynn Shelton also dabbled with experimental filmmaking during that formative period of her career. “I did start to make films in my late twenties, but they were very small, hand-crafted, experimental and personal films,” she explained to FilmInk. “They were great because I didn’t have to work with anyone else and I could figure out my own aesthetic. I wasn’t trying to make commercial work; I was purely expressing myself in solo artist territory. I was exploring the medium, but also figuring out who I was as an artist and where my interests lay. It was a matter of gaining a sense of maturity and life experience; I don’t think that I would have had that much to say otherwise. But it was a confidence thing as well. I don’t get intimidated by the idea that there’s this army of people that are essentially following me now, but that used to scare the daylights out of me when I was younger. Seeing a young director who’s able to step up to that mantle, and do it at an age that I couldn’t, makes me so happy.”

Lynn Shelton on the set of Laggies.

Having spent those years studying in New York, Shelton returned to Seattle and was embraced by a small but burgeoning film community. In 2004, she was given half a million dollars by a non-profit studio called The Film Company to write and direct her first feature, We Go Way Back, about a young actress confronted by her thirteen-year-old self. It was largely well-received, but the film was more important in many ways for defining Shelton’s approach as a filmmaker, or more accurately, the approach that she didn’t want to take. Although she loved collaborating, Shelton found that the crowded film set inhibited what was truly crucial for her: authentic and touching performances. “I hated how stultifying a traditional film set was to the acting process. It drove me nuts,” Shelton told Parallax View. “For me, naturalistic acting is what sets successful films apart from unsuccessful ones, especially ones made on a shoestring budget. I was determined that my next project would be centered on performance. I figured that I’d make the actors as comfy as possible with elements like a small, unobtrusive crew, 360˚ lighting, characters based on the actors, and dialogue that came straight out of the actors’ brains.”

In the period between her debut feature and sophomore effort, a crucial encounter also occurred. Shelton met a then-24-year-old Joe Swanberg, whose earliest films – which include Drinking Buddies, Hannah Takes The Stairs and LOL – exemplified the DIY filmmaking movement known as “mumblecore.” The two hit it off and became fast friends. “I was already scheming to make a low budget, cinema verite project for my next film,” Shelton told Parallax View. “What was great about meeting Joe and seeing LOL at that moment in time was that I now saw that the style of filmmaking that I’d been dreaming about could be done in reality. Not that my method is his method precisely, but certain elements are definitely shared: a ridiculously low budget, a teensy crew, shooting on video, and improvised lines.”

Lynn Shelton on the set of Little Fires Everywhere.

These shared elements saw a number of filmmakers, including The Duplass Brothers (The Puffy Chair, Cyrus) and Andrew Bujalski (Funny Ha Ha), lumped together under the aforementioned label of “mumblecore”, an umbrella term which soon became empty as these directors further differentiated themselves as storytellers. It did, however, stand for a group of filmmakers who weren’t relying on anyone else other than themselves to get films made. “It was just a handy little label that got thrown on us all at a certain point, and I got added in later,” Shelton told FilmInk in 2012. “Originally, it was supposed to be these twentysomething slacker guys, but I was forty when my first film came out. I was like, ‘Really? You’re going to throw me in there too?’ People can’t really decide how to categorise us. The one thing that I will say that we have in common is that we’re not waiting for permission to make our work. That’s the thing with these smaller movies: you can pick up a camera, get some friends, and make a movie with a sense of naturalism about credible, real-seeming people.”

That’s the formula upon which Shelton built her career. She pulled her first few films together with casts and crews that doubled as friends, and raised her budgets via grant applications and fundraisers that she would host. As she intended, Shelton largely dispensed with a screenplay and crew for her second film, 2008’s My Effortless Brilliance, a darkly funny exploration of male friendship, which follows a novelist trying to reconnect with his oldest friend. “I’ve had three dramatic breakups with platonic girlfriends, and they were all more devastating than any romantic breakup that I’ve ever had,” Shelton told Film Threat about the subject matter. “It’s fascinating how platonic friendships can be as passionate and co-dependent and fucked up as any other kind of relationship. I’d never seen that topic dealt with on screen to my satisfaction.”

A scene from Lynn Shelton’s We Go Way Back.

Conversation sparked by Shelton’s sophomore effort centred on the topic of why she was interested in delving into male relationships. “People were just obsessed that I was a woman and why would I want to make this movie about men?” Shelton recalled to Parallax View. “But I realised that throughout my filmmaking career and up to We Go Way Back, I was always writing about what I knew. I was always writing from a very internal place, from the inside out. And this movie was so fun to make because it was the exact opposite – it was from the outside in. I was starting with a topic and a male friendship and men in general, and I was investigating from this outside perspective. It’s a fabulous way to work.”

It was territory that Shelton returned to with her third film, 2009’s Humpday. Another deft exploration of a fractured male friendship, the quietly daring film was actually inspired by Joe Swanberg. “He had come to stay with me. He saw some gay porn for the first time in this festival, and it had a real effect on him. It was sweet – here was a straight guy talking about the gay porn that he’d seen,” Shelton recalled to Vulture. “It got me thinking about the relationship between straight men and gayness, and why that’s such a giggly thing. Even for the most progressive and open-minded straight guy, there’s this residual anxiety when it comes to his own personal relationship to homosexuality. So that got my brain going. I loved the idea of two guys who were so straight that they had boxed themselves into this corner, to be gay for a day.”

Lynn Shelton on the set of Humpday.

The resulting film tells the story of two straight friends (Mark Duplass and Joshua Leonard) who reunite after years apart, and fall back into their habit of competing in outrageous dares, which ends with the pair challenging each other to have sex together for a local porn festival. While it may sound like an outrageous premise on paper, under Shelton’s direction, it’s a sharply funny and perceptive study of the male ego, which ends on a deeply poignant note. It’s all the more remarkable when one considers that the film had no scripted dialogue, and that the crucial final scene – which answers the question of whether the two friends will make good on their sex pact – was completely improvised. “Our outline ended at the hotel room door,” Shelton told Vulture. “We shot the film in sequence, and by the time that we got to that hotel room, I said, ‘You guys really know your characters well by now. We’re going for total honesty here. I trust you to live out this scene as these characters.’ We totally dove in. It was exciting and exhausting.”

Humpday would prove to be Shelton’s breakthrough film, garnering rave reviews on the festival circuit and even the remake treatment in France. “Oh my god, I can’t even tell you the half of it,” Shelton laughed when we queried the filmmaker as to how bizarre it was to have Humpday remade in a foreign language. “I went to visit the set. It was so surreal. Yvan Attal [the French director, who also co-starred in the remake] was so lovely, and he just wanted me to be a part of it and to feel like nothing was happening in the dark behind my back. He’s had films that were optioned to be remade in English in America, and he felt nervous about it. So he got in touch and invited me to France. He didn’t put me in the film as he’d originally planned though because it ended up just being the guys in a hotel room. But I got to hang out and it was very interesting – they took the transcript of this completely improvised film and turned it into a script!”

A scene from Humpday.

As well as a French remake, Humpday also won Shelton admirers in important places. “Getting into Sundance and being the darling of the festival that year didn’t give me commercial success, but it won me a lot of fans and I suddenly had representation,” Shelton told FilmInk. “I’d been making movies for three years and I never had an agent or manager. A year later, I was directing an episode of Mad Men! Humpday enabled me to have a lot of conversations with different actors. I’m a bit of an actor geek. That’s where my inspiration comes from; creatively, it comes from the actors that I want to work with, and creating roles for them and with them.”

This actor geek’s next film, Your Sister’s Sister, would see Shelton working with her most high profile cast up to that point in Emily Blunt, Rosemarie DeWitt, and her Humpday star, Mark Duplass (one half of the Duplass Brothers writing/directing duo). Like all of Shelton’s films, the premise is deceptively simple – a young man unintentionally causes a rift between two sisters while staying at a holiday cabin – but evolves into a rich and bittersweet exploration of grief, identity, and family. “Mark had the original idea for the story, which was this mother-daughter twisted love triangle,” Shelton told FilmInk upon the movie’s release. “But within a day or two, I’d made them sisters. I liked the idea that this guy comes between these sisters, and is then the medium for healing between them as well. I like the bare-bones chamber piece paradigm where you’re dealing with a small number of characters in a condensed timeline and physical area. It creates an opportunity for the audience to really get to know the characters and turn the microscope on their emotional dynamics.”

A scene from Your Sister’s Sister.

While Shelton may have been working with more experienced and technically trained actors this time round in Blunt and Dewitt, they were less versed in improvisation. How did this affect Shelton’s approach as a filmmaker? “Improvisation opens a whole new can of worms because people have different skill sets,” Shelton told FilmInk. “Mark is an actual screenwriter. Most actors are not writers, which is fine. They’re just actors, and they’re used to having some kind of text to use as the spine of their performance. The most essential thing with improvisation is developing backstory. With my last three films, every few weeks I’d get on the phone with the actors and piece together who their characters were. When you do that, when somebody lobs an unexpected line at you, what you say in response is going to be second nature. My shooting process can feel a little fuzzy around the edges, but that’s okay because the editing room is where it sharpens up. That’s where the final draft of the script is written.”

Rosemarie DeWitt enjoyed the process so much that she signed up to work with Shelton again on 2013’s Touchy Feely, alongside Josh Pais and Ellen Page. DeWitt plays a massage therapist stricken with a sudden aversion to bodily contact, while Pais plays her uptight brother who concurrently discovers that he has a healing touch when it comes to his dental patients. Amusing, offbeat, and quietly painful in places, the film was actually the most scripted effort of Shelton’s so far. “After making three films in a row that were highly collaborative, working very closely with actors to find the characters, where much of the dialogue was improvised, I felt the urge to make something that expanded beyond three characters and one key location and one weekend,” Shelton told Indiewire. “I also wanted to be more of a control freak and just write a script.”

A scene from Laggies.

Shelton veered even closer toward the “conventional” with Laggies. A belated coming of age story that Shelton helped to shape after boarding the project, Laggies stars Keira Knightley as 28-year-old Megan, who finds herself at an impasse in terms of her love life and career. She’s overeducated and underemployed, she hangs out with the same group of girlfriends that she had in high school (all of whom are now busy ticking off life priorities), and resides with her high school boyfriend, Anthony. When Anthony startles her with a marriage proposal, the overwhelmed Megan feigns enrollment in an out of town self-help seminar and spends a week hiding out at the home of young teen, Annika (Chloe Grace Moretz), who she casually befriends, and the girl’s father, Craig (Sam Rockwell).

The role of Megan was originally to be played by Anne Hathaway, before she dropped out, only to be replaced by an equal star in Keira Knightley. “It’s so unimaginable that anyone else would play the part now because Keira completely made it her own,” Shelton told FilmInk. “Keira was so American as well; it just blew me away the way that she sunk into that. Anne had to drop out because of Interstellar, and she was so apologetic. She loved the script, and we’d had a lot of intensive conversations, but it was one of those unavoidable things. She called me first and was wondering why I was being so calm about it, but I’d been through that before [Rachel Weisz dropped out of Your Sister’s Sister three days before production began] and it had turned out to be fine. That was a good lesson for me.”

A scene from Laggies.

There’s no doubting that Laggies feels like a Lynn Shelton film with its shaggy charm and nuanced characters, but it does come with its edges a little more softened and its template a little more familiar. Was the filmmaker intentionally attempting to tackle a mainstream film? “I was,” Shelton replies. “I was worried about it. I have this group of hardcore fans who love Humpday and Your Sister’s Sister – and I’m very grateful for them – but they were appalled by Laggies! They were like, ‘What is this? And it’s in the multiplex?!’ But I wanted to see if I could make a more accessible film that still retained a sense of the things that I value as a filmmaker – the feeling that these are flesh and blood people on the screen. I want them to feel as though they’re sharing the same air that we breathe. I want them to be relatable and recognisable. I wanted to work on a broader canvas and still retain that core of emotional truth.”

Like Shelton, all of her contemporaries – those who fell under the mumblecore moniker – eventually worked on a broader canvas too. The Duplass Brothers made the studio comedy, Cyrus, with Jonah Hill, and wrapped the acclaimed HBO series, Togetherness; Joe Swanberg teamed up with Anna Kendrick for Happy Christmas and Drinking Buddies; and Andrew Bujalski made his version of a romantic comedy with Results, starring Guy Pearce and Cobie Smulders. When we asked Shelton about this breakthrough, she replied that it was a natural development. “I’m yet to work with a studio; it’s still been independent,” she said in . “Laggies was the first time that I ever had enough of a budget that I had to take notes from the investors and actually address their issues. That was a brand new process for me. But it’s a natural evolution. It’s an organic thing. The size of a movie like [The Duplass Brothers’] The Puffy Chair and Joe’s first movies and my first movie – which was literally made for pennies – you can’t work that way forever. Well, that’s a lie. You could, but it’s natural to want to play with more toys and a wider range of actors.”

Lynn Shelton on the set of Little Fires Everywhere.

Shelton’s also flexed her skill set by stepping into the world of television, with the filmmaker directing episodes of Mad Men, New Girl, GLOW, Fresh Off The Boat, The Good Place, Shameless, Santa Clarita Diet and The Mindy Project between her own films. “I love it,” she audibly grinned. “I’ve been very lucky because I’ve only been working on television shows that I really admire. If I was just to work on my own projects, I’d only be on set every fourteen months at most, which is just too long to wait. We have a television series here called Chopped, and I’m obsessed with it. It follows four amateur chefs who are given the exact same ingredients and time to make three different courses. I recently had a revelation that television is like that – you’re given a set of tools and circumstances, and you just have to roll up your sleeves, jump in, and do the best that you can. You’re not ultimately the one responsible for the overall creative vision, which is a relief in some ways. It’s nice just to feel like one of the team…and it’s a great way to pay my mortgage!”

Shelton’s real gifts, however, were always best glimpsed in her own feature films. She united with her contemporary Jay Duplass, for 2017’s Outside In, working with him on the script about an ex-con (Duplass) struggling to re-start his life in his small home town who forms a powerful bond with his former high school teacher (Edie Falco). The film was Shelton’s first true drama, and also her first after a long stint working in television. “I realised that I’m a completely different filmmaker than I was,” Shelton told Indiewire. “I felt so at ease, and so confident. I didn’t have the same angst. I don’t want to diss my other films, but the process of making them was much more anxiety producing because I hadn’t put in the hours. I’ve been on set constantly and I’ve learned so much every time. With every television show, I’ve always learned something new.”

A scene from Sword Of Trust.

Alongside her continuing work on quality television (Shelton’s most recent credits include The Morning Show, Dickinson and Little Fires Everywhere, starring Reese Witherspoon), Lynn Shelton’s final big screen effort will now stand as 2019’s Sword Of Trust, which starred her boyfriend, actor/comedian Marc Maron (with whom she had regularly collaborated on his TV series and various specials), along with Jon Bass, Jillian Bell and Michaela Watkins. A quirky comedy about a family divided by the curious inheritance left by their grandfather: an antique sword that he believed was proof that that the South won the Civil War. “I want my movies to feel like you’re paratrooping into somebody’s life,” Shelton told Slant Magazine of Sword Of Trust. “We’re taking a little journey down the river of their life for a while, and then we leave again. I don’t like to tie things up too neatly at the end because I want you to get the sense that they’re continuing to live their lives, and who knows what’s going to happen in the future. But you just sort of paratrooped in a little bit later!”

Funny, bittersweet, unconventional and emotionally honest…it’s the perfect final film for Lynn Shelton, who tragically passed away at the age of just 54 due to a previously unidentified blood disorder. “She was a beautiful, kind, loving, charismatic artist,” Marc Maron has said in an official statement. “Her spirit was pure joy. She made me happy. I made her happy. We were happy. I made her laugh all the time. We laughed a lot. We were starting a life together. I really can’t believe what is happening. This is a horrendous, sad loss.”

Click here for more on Sword Of Trust.

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