Lynn Shelton (1965-2020)
by: Neil Fox , October 5, 2020
by: Neil Fox , October 5, 2020
When I interviewed Lynn Shelton for MAI in early 2019 the only film of hers I hadn’t seen was her 2006 debut We Go Way Back. It wasn’t readily available on streaming services at the time, but I promised I would track it down and let her know my thoughts. I got it when it appeared on iTunes some time later, but didn’t watch it. Even though we talked over email about securing the UK Premiere of her final film Sword of Trust (2019) for my film festival, Filmstock, I held off watching as I told her I was planning a trip to Los Angeles in late 2020 and we’d agreed to meet up for dinner, schedule permitting. Like most people who were fans of her work, or knew her even a little bit, I thought there would be much more time for me to see all the work and talk to her about it, and I thought there would be much more work to see. The news of her death at the tender age of 54 in May, following a short illness, is truly devastating, and I’ve being trying to unpack specifically why this should be.
The first reason is one that has accompanied all the tributes to her that I’ve seen, and that is her kindness and generosity as a person. She was interested and interesting. She listened and was empathetic, and this was easy to glean even in a few, mostly short encounters. She was genuinely nice, positive and supportive. It always smarts when you know the world is losing a truly good person, particularly so early. She didn’t have to talk to me for MAI, she didn’t have to give up 3 hours on a Saturday to do so, she didn’t have to champion my off-the-radar indie festival as the place for the UK premiere of her highest profile feature film to date, but she did. She did it willingly, and with grace and commitment.
The other reasons her death has been so hard to shake are because of what she represented, albeit quietly, in both the current and historical climate of film and television production. Her most recent film works, Outside In (2017) and Sword of Trust (2019), are testament to the security of being a successful television director benefitting from progressive show-runners, and executive approaches to diverse staff and writing rooms, and to being able to be freer and more individual and personal in independent film projects. Similarly, it’s evident from those films that Lynn had learned so much in practical and creative terms from her decade working in high-end American television, which enabled her to work effectively in the time and resource restricted realm of indie film, as well, of course, as being able to attract increasingly high profile and talented casts to her films. The internal voice that screamed inside my head on news of her death was “No, no, no, no! She was just getting started.”
She knew it, too. She knew that her recent film work, aligned with much more crucial directorial roles on the acclaimed Netflix series Glow and, the (sadly posthumously-released) Amazon show, Little Fires Everywhere, was a maturation of a long-sought and hard-fought-for confidence in her ability as both a creative practitioner and meaningful storyteller. Her body of work is not only varied and fascinating, but also a document of serious hard work. She started late, making her first feature in 2006 before shifting approach and embracing the low-key improvisational mode that would later become known as ‘mumblecore,’ having a major breakthrough with Humpday (2009), which led to work on Mad Men and the start of a truly impressive catalogue of TV directing work. Looking back at the films made in the 14-year period since her debut (in tandem with her TV work), it’s startling to note how much she achieved in an amount of time that, increasingly, would not seem odd being the time between a filmmaker’s first and second films. Not for Lynn. In 14 years, she directed 8 feature films, and 2 stand-up specials for her collaborator, and partner at the time of her death, Marc Maron. On top of this, in addition to the shows mentioned above she worked on The Good Place, Master of None, New Girl, The Mindy Project and many more. A veritable roll call of recent ‘golden age’ television content. It’s easy to see why she was such an inspirational figure in the indie film community. She didn’t simply talk a good talk, look at the path she walked! Re-reading my interview with Lynn in MAI, released almost a year to the day before her death, I was overwhelmed by how her life and creative legacy has been cut short at the height of its powers.
Another reason for mourning her loss is that we have lost a political filmmaker of real empathy, something that still feels alarmingly rare and increasingly vital in mainstream audio-visual culture. Her work was interested in the interactions and co-existence of people, and her characters, through their existence and messy and vibrant lives, raised and addressed questions of gender, race and racism, sexuality and class, that resonated quietly but powerfully. She embedded real, lived lives in increasingly ambitious and varied genre settings in a way that serves as a benchmark for how it should be done for indie filmmakers seeking to create more empathetic work that serves to represent a diversity of viewpoints. Re-reading the interview, her feminism and drive to create work that is feminist in content and practice were clearly at the forefront of her creative life. This bursts from her answers alongside the clear hope and positivity she had for what was next, at a point in her life when she had earned that right through long, hard work.
Lynn Shelton was a wonderfully reflective filmmaker. She was connected to what she had done and how it served her development as a human and an artist, as well as how it served the world. Her first feature film We Go Way Back, was unfulfilling for her in many ways, but she turned the negatives into positives, learning how she didn’t want to make work, understanding how the assumed protocols and approaches of film practice didn’t serve her as an artist. When she saw the potential of shooting digitally with a small crew and cast, improvising work in limited locations, she seized upon it and never looked back. Yet, even in her first feature, her imprint as an artist is present and bursting through the traditional approach and its stunting effect on her as a director. Yes, I finally watched it. For the purpose of writing this. I put it off again after hearing of her death, for a different reason this time. I knew it would be the last time I would see a Lynn Shelton film for the first time, and that, frankly, sucked. That ritual had become one of my favourite cinephile activities and the sadness that there won’t be another Outside In, or Sword of Trust is a lot to take in.
We Go Way Back looks and feels like so many indie movies of its early 2000s era, complete with Laura Veirs soundtrack and its inspection of the life of a struggling theatre actor/administrator in a hipster-adjacent Seattle. It’s hamstrung by its adherence to indie cinema sensibilities and, according to its maker, production contexts. And yet, it also points the way to one of the most interesting indie film careers of this century. The film shows what we have come to understand as part of the Lynn Shelton arsenal of themes, ideas and approaches. Beneath the seemingly placid surface there is a rupture and an unease that must be reckoned with and reconciled. She understands the trudging dissatisfaction of knowing you’re on the wrong path but not knowing how to right it. As with her later work she knows how to find the slow impetus, how to swim through treacle, to get her characters to a place where they can see a light ahead, even if they can’t quite feel its warmth as the story closes out. She has great instincts. At its core, We Go Way Back contains a narrative device that, in lesser hands, could derail the whole enterprise. Yet Lynn knows just how, and crucially when, to deploy it for maximum impact. It’s a film with moments of the warmth and humanity that sit at the core of her later work. The pivotal moment that triggers the actualization of the narrative device is one of technical prowess in the filming of an uncomfortable sexual encounter, one that verges on assault, that transforms the moment into something unbearably sad. It also struck me as amazing, but not surprising, that she translated the text of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler (that the actors in the play within the film struggle to grapple with) from the original Norwegian herself. She does. She did. She has. She had. I can’t commit her work and life to the past completely yet. I can’t let go of the has and consign it all to had. It’s a devastating and profound loss to cinema as both a textual space and a creative practice. I only hope that her work will now be found and (re)valued as it deserves to be, even if it’s too late for her to enjoy and build on it. It’s just so devastating. She will be missed.
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