Unsung Auteurs: Lynn Shelton

October 20, 2022
FilmInk salutes the work of directors who have never truly received the credit that they deserve. In this installment: the late Lynn Shelton, who directed Humpday, Your Sister’s Sister and Laggies.

When Lynn Shelton tragically passed away in 2020 at the age of 54 from a previously unidentified blood disorder, the director was appropriately and respectfully paid tribute in the media, celebrated for her unusual and wonderfully idiosyncratic body of work. Despite the due attention received, the late Lynn Shelton remains a somewhat Unsung Auteur, not fully delivered the credit deserved for working so prolifically in a difficult industry and for skillfully navigating minimal budgets and production dilemmas. Lynn Shelton, however, should really be celebrated for her fascinating filmmaking voice, and her incredible ability to peel back the layers on unconventional human relationships with humour and deft precision.

Along with an acting stint that saw her occasionally feature on screen in small parts (Lucky Them, Safety Not Guaranteed), Lynn Shelton dabbled with experimental filmmaking in her formative period as a filmmaker. “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 in 2014. “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.”

Lynn Shelton

Having spent those years studying in New York, Shelton returned to her hometown of 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.”

Lynn Shelton

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 films – which include Drinking Buddies, Hannah Takes The Stairs, and LOL – have come to exemplify 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.”

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 label of “mumblecore”, an umbrella term which has become increasingly empty as these directors continue to further differentiate 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.

Lynn Shelton on the set of Humpday.

That’s the formula upon which Shelton has 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.

It was territory that Shelton returned to with her third film, 2009’s Humpday, which many deem to be her finest work. The resulting 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.  Humpday would prove to be Shelton’s breakthrough film, garnering rave reviews on the festival circuit and even the remake treatment in France.

A scene from Your Sister’s Sister.

Shelton’s next film, Your Sister’s Sister, saw the director working with her most high profile cast yet 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 in 2011. “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.”

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.”

Chloe Grace Moretz and Keira Knightley in Laggies.

Shelton gave up that control completely on her next film, 2014’s Laggies, which was written by Andrea Seigel. A belated coming of age story that Shelton helped to shape after boarding the project in pre-production, 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).

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 replied to FilmInk in 2014. “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.”

Lynn Shelton on the set of Little Fires Everywhere.

Shelton’s also been given a chance to stretch and flex her skill set by stepping into the world of television. The filmmaker has directed episodes of Mad Men, New Girl, and The Mindy Project between her own films. “I love it,” Shelton offered. “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. 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.”

Lynn Shelton on set.

Alongside her continuing work on quality television (Shelton’s most recent credits include The Morning ShowDickinson 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 in 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.

Though duly celebrated on her sad, sad passing, Lynn Shelton should continue to be celebrated in perpetuity for making so many truly original, insightful, funny, moving and deeply authentic films that mused so effectively on the often absurd complexity of the human condition. Lynn Shelton made movies that were truly her own, and it’s a tragedy that she didn’t get to make more…

Additional reporting by Erin Free

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