Mourning Lynn Shelton

On Film / The Daily — May 18, 2020
Lynn Shelton

The shock of losing Lynn Shelton so suddenly, so unexpectedly—not to the virus, but to a previously undiagnosed blood disorder—has hit everyone who knew her and her work hard. She was only fifty-four, and a little over a week ago, she was sitting next to her partner, comedian Marc Maron, telling IndieWire’s Eric Kohn in an Instagram Live interview about the “domestic dramedy” they were working on together and throwing her head back in vibrant laughter at Maron’s endearingly grumpy wisecracks. “She was a beautiful, kind, loving, charismatic artist,” wrote Maron in a statement released on Saturday just a few hours after she was gone. “Her spirit was pure joy . . . 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.”

Shelton and Maron met in August 2015 when she was a guest on his popular WTF Podcast. They hit it off and she then directed him in two of his comedy specials, two episodes of the sitcom Maron, the Netflix series GLOW, and in what was never planned to be her final feature, Sword of Trust (2019). Late last night, Maron unlocked and reposted the WTF episode with a new, wrenching introduction that essentially boils down to this: “I loved her. A lot.”

So did many. While she was born in Ohio and studied at Oberlin College and the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, where her thesis advisor was the renowned experimental filmmaker and video artist Peggy Ahwesh, Shelton made Seattle her home. Talking to Christopher Frizzelle in the Stranger, Carl Spence, the former artistic director of the Seattle International Film Festival, calls Shelton “the guiding light of the Seattle filmmaking scene.” Musician Tomo Nakayama, who appeared in Shelton’s Touchy Feely (2013), tells Frizzelle that “when I think of anyone in the arts world in Seattle, there's some sort of connection to Lynn Shelton. She was the sun that we all orbited around.”

By her late thirties, Shelton had spent most of her adult life shooting photographs, writing poetry, acting in other people’s movies, and making short experimental films. Producer and filmmaker Adam Sekuler was the program director at Northwest Film Forum in Seattle at the time, and he recently recalled catching up with Shelton’s The Clouds That Touch Us Out of Clear Skies (2000), “now likely an obscure object in Lynn’s rather expansive catalog. But make no mistake, it’s important and dare I say essential cinema. With that film, Lynn created a deep and profound piece of poetic beauty. In it she explores her experience of miscarriage with haunting visuals that won me over as a lifelong devotee.”

Shelton was at Northwest Film Forum in 2003 when Claire Denis brought her film Friday Night and mentioned in the Q&A that she was forty when she made her first feature. It suddenly dawned on Shelton, then thirty-seven, that it wasn’t too late to make her own. We Go Way Back is a portrait of an actress in her early twenties who lands her first leading role and finds her thirteen-year-old self tagging along beside her. When the film premiered at Slamdance in 2006, it won the grand jury award for best narrative and another for best cinematography.

The making of My Effortless Brilliance (2008), which premiered at SXSW and won Shelton a Someone to Watch Award at the Film Independent Spirit Awards, set a pattern for the features that followed. “I’d had three really dramatic breakups with platonic girlfriends in my life that were just devastating,” Shelton told Sean Axmaker when the film opened in Seattle. “Even more devastating than a romance since boyfriends come and go but your girlfriend is supposed to be there for life.” She sketched out a story of such a breakup—between men rather than women—and brought her cast (Basil Harris, Calvin Reeder, and former Harvey Danger frontman Sean Nelson) to her father’s cabin by the Methow River. Together, they developed the characters and fleshed out the story, and when the Stranger presented a Genius Award to Shelton in 2008, Annie Wagner wrote that My Effortless Brilliance “has a sense of humor about the choices people make and the ways they define themselves in relation to abstract notions of nature and the city. In the end, the cougar-huntin’ wild man is no more or less absurd—and certainly no more masculine—than the citified aesthete.”

Shelton wandered deeper into the labyrinth of masculinity in Humpday (2009), which won the special jury prize at Sundance, screened in the Directors’ Fortnight program in Cannes, and then won the Independent Spirit John Cassavetes Award. Humpday stars Mark Duplass and Joshua Leonard as two straight guys who, on a dare, commit to having sex with each other on camera. In 2012, Shelton told Jason Guerrasio and Ilana Emer at the A.V. Club that she was drawn to “the challenge of taking something that looks a bit unbelievable on paper, and then making a movie that tells the story in a totally credible way, that makes you every step of the way go, ‘Yeah, I believe this.’” Writing for Mel Magazine, Tim Grierson finds it “wonderfully fitting that one of the best films ever made about masculinity and male friendship was dreamt up by a woman.” Humpday, remade in French as Do Not Disturb (2012) by Yvan Attal, was Shelton’s breakthrough. She began landing directing gigs on such high-profile television shows as Mad Men, New Girl, The Mindy Project, and Little Fires Everywhere.

Hollywood came calling. Marvel floated the idea of Shelton-directed Black Widow movie. But Shelton returned over and again to the scruffy low-budget projects she so clearly loved to make. Your Sister’s Sister (2011), starring Duplass, Emily Blunt, and Rosemarie DeWitt, is a “keenly observed romance whose apparent rough-edged naturalism masks a considerable degree of craft,” wrote Slate’s Dana Stevens. When Laggies was released in 2014, star Keira Knightley told Rebecca Keegan in the Los Angeles Times that “most directors are like generals or dictators.” But on the set of Laggies, “there was no hierarchy. Lynn didn’t just know everybody’s name, she knew their partner’s name, their kid’s name, their kid’s school. It was so chill.” Outside In (2017) stars Edie Falco as Carol, a former high school teacher who feels herself being drawn into an affair with a former student, Chris (Jay Duplass), who has just been released from prison. It’s “a love story that prioritizes patience and pragmatism over passion,” wrote Jeannette Catsoulis in the New York Times.

In all nine of her features, Shelton gave us “characters whose thoughts and feelings came pouring out in restless, alternately delightful and infuriating waves,” writes Justin Chang in the Los Angeles Times. “She was a master of the tetchy and the loquacious, a deft orchestrator of blurted revelations and frayed nerve endings, which is all the more remarkable considering how often she encouraged her actors to improvise. Her less obvious talent was for teasing out the unexpressed feeling behind all those words: Again and again she found the resonance in what her characters weren’t saying, in what they were trying to hide.”

In the run-up to the premiere of Your Sister’s Sister at Sundance, Shelton sent a dispatch from Park City to Filmmaker. “Cinema, as Andrei Tarkovsky pointed out, is the art form that most closely approximates the human experience,” she wrote. “It has the capability of mesmerizing the viewer and pulling them hook, line, and sinker into an entirely different world by enticing two senses (sight and sound) so voluptuously, so rapturously, as to ignite the remaining senses to join in.”

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