in memoriam

A Wake for Lynn Shelton

The late indie director’s closest friends and collaborators mourn the loss of a beloved experimental artist.

Photo: IFC Films
Photo: IFC Films

“No one’s got anything bad to say about Lynn Shelton,” Marc Maron said in the heartbreaking introduction to his Monday WTF episode honoring his creative collaborator and romantic partner, Lynn Shelton. The film and television director died early Saturday morning of a previously undiagnosed blood disorder, sending a shock wave through the indie-film community — where she made eight sensitive, funny, and moving features (including Humpday, Your Sister’s Sister, Laggies, and Sword of Trust) — and the world of television — where her impressive résumé included episodes of Mad Men, New Girl, Fresh Off the Boat, Master of None, GLOW, Casual, Dickinson, and Little Fires Everywhere.

In the days after her death, with the help of her publicist Adam Kersh, Vulture reached out to over a dozen friends, collaborators, and colleagues for their thoughts on and memories of this special artist. Some wrote their own tributes, others shared them during phone conversations. Ultimately, Maron was right; everyone Lynn Shelton encountered, it seems, was enchanted by her spirit, her laugh, and her curiosity.

Her Early Days

Madeleine Olnek (playwright and friend): Lynn was in four of my plays when she lived in NYC in her 20s. Her partner, the comedian and then MTV star Kevin Seal, was in them too. The three of us had a writing group at my house; they lived a block and a half away and frequently came over. She was a luminous stage actress in her 20s — not something a lot of people know about. My plays were edgy comedies done in downtown performance spaces in the East Village: Dixon Place, The WOW Cafe, etc. (Lynn was in the stage version of Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same which later premiered as a film at Sundance.) Lynn was also in a four-woman performance group called Denise.

Cynthia Kaplan (friend and Denise collaborator): For months, the four of us met every few days at the beautiful apartment of a much more successful actor who was working out of town, and wrote sketches and monologues and songs. I don’t know what convinced us that whatever we were creating was going to be seen by the public, particularly our dance parodies, but it was. “Hey, It’s Denise” went up at Naked Angels and “Denise Goes Down the Aisle” at the Atlantic Theater Company, with us actually sashaying in unison down the aisles of the theater and up onto the stage for a big opening song and dance number. It’s hard to imagine what the audience thought of us.

Lynn was always laughing, always totally game. Everyone will talk about her laugh and it was really all that. She was brave. I don’t know anyone else who started her film career with a short about body hair. She dove so deep, always looking to uncover the thing that was most true, most honest. She had the fiercest emotional intelligence. It was like that to talk to her, too. She wanted to hear your truest feelings and express hers. We lived on opposite coasts, so when we spoke she always went straight to the big stuff. That was Lynn. Straight to the big stuff.

Mel Eslyn (producer, Outside In, Touchy Feely): Lynn stands at the intersections of so many pivotal relationships and paths in my life. Lynn introduced me to my life partner of ten years, and led me to my long-term creative partner Mark Duplass … the list goes on and on. I don’t know what my life would look like had I not stumbled upon the same path as Lynn. We were creative collaborators for over ten years, but she was also a friend. Like any human relationship, we had ups and downs … but put on Pat Benatar’s “Heartbreaker” and we’d both instantly fall into a singing and dancing duet of energy and spirit that could cut through anything.

Her Movies

Alex Ross Perry (filmmaker and friend): If someone said, “What’s the one movie I should watch first?” I would say Your Sister’s Sister, which probably is my favorite. The best way I’ve always found, with friends and peers, to hear the voice, is to see how strong the voice is when they get a little bit more money and maybe some well-known actors. Because it’s one thing to hear the voice loud and clear in a movie that was made with just friends who all know you, but then to see professionals stepping in — Emily Blunt, it’s like, Oh, we know her from Devil Wears Prada. It’s doing the thing that filmmaker made with $20,000 and their friends a year or two before, but now they’re doing it with an actress that we’ve seen in a Hollywood movie.

That’s always what we hoped for — when you would see anybody getting their first swing at any resources or money or cast. I just remember being pretty excited by the lack of vanity in the entire operation, of just this simple, small movie that felt like a bigger deal than it probably was in the world.

Emily Blunt (actor, Your Sister’s Sister): It was a tiny movie. It was a two-week shoot. We were in Orcas Island [Washington] in the middle of nowhere in a cabin and we would work all day and then everyone would take turns to cook. It was a very limited crew, probably ten of us. It was just magical, and I didn’t know what to make of the film or what it was going to be like.
I learned so much about what was interesting in a human way from Lynn, when she crafted [the film] together. There’s no cobbling it together. She’s very strategic. I think a lot of improv can be a bit like watching paint dry — people are mumbling their way through scenes and it can be a bit self-serving. It’s about one actor stealing the show and she just … she pays things off in such a clever way. It’s how she crafts it after you’ve done your work — like true, true human intimacy and awkwardness. Truly what it is to feel those things in a moment. I think that’s what I really love about her films and that’s what she loves about life — those intimate, awkward, human moments that we’ve all had.

One thing that I will never ever forget from shooting Your Sister’s Sister: We were doing a dinner table scene with me and Mark [Duplass] and Rosemarie [DeWitt]. [Lynn] whispered something to Rose. I didn’t know what she had said but I found out later: “Really embarrass her in this scene. You need to really embarrass your sister in front of Mark.”

We were doing the scene and Rosemarie said — [laughs] it still embarrasses me so much — “Remember when you didn’t shave your pubes and you were on the beach and you’re wearing white underwear and you had that little poof.” And I was like, “Oh my God.” I honestly started hysterically laughing. I blushed. This is like the beauty of Lynn. Rosemarie had made up this terrible story — that actually happened to her sister, I think — and she just threw that in the mix and it was like gold. My vein was popping out of my forehead. I was so mortified. I’ve never had an experience like that. You can only get that working with Lynn.

Kaitlyn Dever (actor, Laggies, Outside In): She was so collaborative and so giving toward everyone on set. When you were on her set, you weren’t on a different level than her. Everyone was on the same level. When you were with Lynn Shelton, you are cool. You are one of the cool kids. You feel loved. You feel like the smartest person in the room because that’s how she made you feel.

It’s funny because everyone says that about her. There’s not one person who thinks differently. It’s incredible how much impact she had on every person down to craft service. She was always just so collaborative with everyone.

Josh Pais (actor, Touchy Feely): It was so collaborative. She just created a bubble of joy and creativity around her that just allowed everybody to bring forth their vulnerability, their creativity — not forcing, not feeling a sense of pressure. It’s a level of mastery for a director to create such a sense of collaboration, and everyone feels like they’re just creating this as much as she is. But of course she had a vision and was always the director and always would mold things after a take, even if they were very improvised.

She had an amazing ability to almost energetically, on set, create an environment where everybody could experiment and create and be bold and be vulnerable. And years later, she cast me in a CBS pilot, as her career had moved more mainstream. And a lot of directors, as they fit more into a mold of television or higher-budget films, there’ll be a loss of those initial elements that generated the success. But with her it was just the same. There was just better craft service.

Her Television

Lynn Shelton on the set of GLOW with Alison Brie. Photo: Ali Goldstein/Netflix

Alena Smith (creator, Dickinson): She was recognized for having this uniquely open approach to television directing. She was one of the first directors with her own name and her own reputation in the field of filmmaking who was like, “Yeah, I love TV. I love being able to come into these worlds and play.” To start with, that’s very cool, because there’s a sense of egolessness about it, and just curiosity and enthusiasm. I was talking with Anna Baryshnikov who plays Lavinia Dickinson, and she was remembering Lynn and saying that Lynn would always be so excited on set, and be like, “I just love coming to work. Isn’t it fun that we get to do this for a job?” She knew that and she embodied that. She wasn’t just phoning it in. She was fully, passionately bringing her spirit to [these shows].

It’s funny because from a theater perspective, Lynn fit in with my understanding of what makes a great director of new plays. The great director of new plays is not someone who’s obsessed with putting their own stamp on it. It’s someone who has a huge amount of respect for the script, a huge amount of willingness to engage with the actors and let them play and enjoy the performances that they’re crafting, and maybe there is a maternal quality to it, in a way. I don’t want to be super gendered, but I think that it’s about not always putting yourself first and knowing how to be part of a team, but still having such strength.

I remember being on set and the sound of Lynn calling Action! It was quite strong. You wouldn’t have expected it because she’s sort of delicate as a person. And then she would call, “Action!” and it would be so loud and really awesome, like she really was the captain of the ship. I’m saying all this because I want to be very careful not to say that it was like, “Oh, she was just this woman who let other people dictate the terms …” No, that’s not the point. I think it’s like a team spirit. That’s the ideal thing. Beautiful work came out of that.

Alison Brie (actor, GLOW, Mad Men): I’ve always admired Lynn as a filmmaker. I first met her about ten years ago when she directed an episode of Mad Men. But it was a couple years later, after developing a small obsession with her films Humpday and Your Sister’s Sister, that our paths crossed again. High on the prospect of indie filmmaking, I drunkenly pitched her a movie idea at some Sundance after-party. She couldn’t have been more gracious, laughing generously, and thankfully never bringing it up to me again.

Years after that, when I found out she’d be directing episodes of GLOW, it felt like a dream come true, to get the opportunity to work with her again. Lynn would walk on set in a wide-brim hat, with a couple braided pigtails and a huge smile on her face, undoubtedly the coolest person in the room. Everyone on the crew loved her. She made everyone feel singular and special. After every episode of GLOW she shot, she would send me a text with the most wonderfully detailed compliments about my work the previous week. It made me feel singular and special.

I think just seeing the assured way she moved through the world, and through our world, gave me the confidence to do the same.

Kevin Seal (husband and collaborator): While Lynn was always eager to work with, or even just meet, big-name stars, the thing that seemed to give her the most pride and satisfaction was when someone on the crew of one her TV gigs would say that they always look forward to seeing Lynn on the schedule, because they know it’s going to be a happy set, and they are going to make their days [finish on time]. She would glow recounting such compliments.

Nahnatchka Khan (creator and showrunner, Fresh Off the Boat): She was fun. She was funny. She was goofy. You could hear her laugh. She had that super distinct laugh. She had these foods that she would make. She had this enormous bag of homemade food and pastes that she would bring … like these different pastes that she ate. She would make them in the morning, like chia-seed spread? I don’t know what, I truly don’t know! And she would just be eating … we’d all be talking and then she’d take out a little Tupperware of green paste and just start eating it, and you’re like, “What is that?”

She was one of a kind. I mean, there is no other person like her. Even if someone’s like, Give me a Lynn Shelton type. There is no … you know, there’s Lynn Shelton. And that’s it.

Her Not So Secret Dream

Chloë Grace Moretz in Lynn Shelton’s Laggies. Photo: A24

Megan Griffiths (filmmaker and collaborator): Four years or so ago, when Lynn turned 50, she threw herself what she called her “Make-A-Wish” party. She had gathered all of her favorite musicians at her favorite venue in Seattle, the Fremont Abbey, to put on a concert. The make-a-wish part was that she would be on stage with them, singing, both their songs and more well-known covers, living out her not-so-secret dream of being a rock star.

Lynn had a magnificent voice — deep and resonant, soulful and harmonious. She loved to sing and would do it in the car, in the bathtub, on walks, in the editing room, and, most notably, on karaoke stages. Occasionally she would get invited up on stage with one of her favorite Seattle bands, The Moondoggies, and she would join lead singer Kevin Murphy on the mic, a look of absolute bliss on her face.

At her 50th-birthday party, after many beautiful performances by Lynn and company, things devolved into a sing-along with the whole party. This was fitting because a typical birthday for Lynn had generally involved gathering people around her backyard firepit and singing songs together into the night. The whole crowd sang “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” by Neutral Milk Hotel, and Lynn looked out over the crowd as she sang too, joyful, fulfilled, alive.

Lynn and I had planned to attempt a Zoom sing-along with our friends Lacey Leavitt and Celia Beasley, but she was taken from us before we would get that pleasure. What was going to be a four-person Zoom ultimately became 50-plus people gathering in person at Gasworks Park in Seattle (with masks and more distance than we would have liked) and many more via Zoom from all over the world, to sing in Lynn’s honor, and raise our voices to grieve the loss of one of the world’s great believers in the healing powers of song.

Seal:  Lynn loved, LOVED, with a passion that inflamed my jealousy, LOVED singing along to Radiohead at the top of her lungs while in the bath. Loved it. It was spiritual for her, I suspect.

Her Whole Heart

Michaela Watkins and Marc Maron in Lynn Shelton’s Sword of Trust. Photo: IFC Films

Michaela Watkins (actor, Sword of Trust, Casual): One time we got on the horn to talk about some sex scenes that were coming up. No director ever took that time. We talked about the sexual dynamics, and that parlayed into how us actors would be positioned and shoot the scene. On the day, it was some of the raciest stuff I’ve ever done and yet — the most comfortable I’ve ever been. She never mentioned until a few years later that she had chosen to act in a film a long time ago with a lot of sexual intimacy for the sole reason of knowing how to direct them. She would never ask an actor to do something she wasn’t willing to do herself.

There was no line between director/actor or work/friendship. We would go on to be close friends and collaborators. Again, I don’t really know where the line is. We sold a show to Hulu together and then went on to do the film Sword of Trust. She didn’t act again until — God, this is so hard to type — her final film and she is sublime. She was so terrified to act, because Lynn does nothing without bringing her whole heart to it.

The thing I keep saying to my husband this week is that you always felt completely seen by Lynn and I feel like it’s because she always allowed herself to be totally seen in her art and in her relationships. She was wholly herself and when she loved you, she made sure you knew it every single day.

Kaitlyn Dever: I think the moment that’s been just kind of circling in my mind recently is the last time I saw her. It was at the Independent Spirit Awards and we were both nominated. I was sitting at my table, [and] I just get a random text from her that just says, You look so beautiful, honey.

I didn’t know she was even there. I didn’t know she was going to be there. It was just so incredible to look at my phone and see that she’s somewhere in the room seeing me and I can’t see her. I said, Where are you? Where are you? Everything was so hectic. I’m just thinking now I’m so glad I went and found her and gave her a big hug. I wish I could have given her an even bigger hug.

Kris Rey (filmmaker and friend): I went through divorce last year and she was also going through divorce. And I found myself single the very first time in my life and also trying to navigate my career on my own for the first time, and really trying to reinsert myself into the industry. Lynn functioned — I only have just realized — not only as my friend, but almost like a big sister to me, and gave me so much emotional support and advice. We haven’t worked together since 15 years ago, but there are so many things [she helped me with].

She recently was appalled that I didn’t have, like, a proper nighttime skin-care routine. And so she left me an entire video detailing exactly what creams she put on her face and in what order, and sent me links of which ones I should buy. I talked to her almost every single day. We sent each other video messages. I mean, the day before she died, she sent me this video, where she was telling me how sick she felt and while it was going on, Marc [Maron] had been helping her, trying to get her fever down and all this stuff.

But you know, she was still giving me advice up to the last minute. I had met some random guy on Tinder, and I was like, “I’m not going to talk to this guy anymore.” And she was still there, being the best friend that she could be to me. I just thought what a gift that we all had her until the very, very end. We just really got every ounce of her that we could, you know?

As an art student, Shelton made a film about women and body hair (“Women have a lot to say about this topic!” she told the Seattle Times). In a tribute to Shelton in Variety, Mark Duplass wrote: “It’s hard to say what makes people connect with art, but when you look at the qualities of Lynn and her work, you can see she was obsessed with people and interpersonal dynamics. She’d look at the darkness of life, but in a way where you could still throw back your head and have a cackle. There was a lot of love and beauty to her films.” DeWitt plays Blunt’s sister in the film. Shelton and Seal were in the process of divorcing. Shelton had been in a relationship with Marc Maron for the last year.
A Wake for Lynn Shelton