The Indie Film Community Remembers Lynn Shelton, a Pioneer Gone Too Soon
Art and Experience: The unexpected loss of Lynn Shelton is a devastating blow to the independent film community, where the multi-hyphenate filmmaker cut her teeth before blossoming beyond her roots to become a voice who helped shape the Golden Age of TV. The news of her death, caused by an undiagnosed blood disorder, was shared by her creative and romantic partner Marc Maron, and, at the age of 54, Shelton was still very much in her prime. Her most recent project was directing four episodes of Hulu’s “Little Fires Everywhere,” and as revealed in an IndieWire interview earlier in May, the “Humpday” and “Your Sister’s Sister” director was at work on a new film project with Maron while in quarantine.
IndieWire has reached out to members of the independent film community asking for their thoughts on why Shelton and her work meant so much to them. Those responses are shared below as they come in, with this list continually updating as the indie film world grapples with this sudden loss, and the legacy Shelton leaves behind. Also below, IndieWire has rounded up tweets from the film and TV community offering tribute to Shelton over the weekend.
Writer/director/actor; former assistant to Lynn Shelton
I have only met one person in my life like Lynn, and that was Lynn. To describe anyone else as “like Lynn” wouldn’t make sense — she was the only one. The time I was given with her was not enough, and never could have been, but it was profound and totally singular in my life.
I’ll never forget the first time I really met Lynn. I was in Seattle assisting Megan Griffiths on “Lucky Them,” an experience that gladly does not need to be described on this exact day but which changed my life entirely (I love you, Megan). I “met” Lynn when Megan introduced me to her at karaoke before we started shooting, but I was nervous around her, and everyone, being the new kid. Then one day on set, when I’d done something dumb in my quest to get less dumb, I stumbled onto Lynn while shakily exiting the scene of the crime. She was there doing some BTS, sitting one table over, and she looked up at me and smiled her smile. She somehow sensed my duress, and she asked me if I’d like to sit down with her, and we chatted for a couple minutes about nothing much. She gave me space — literally. The embodiment of “you can sit with me” energy. And then she hired me, bringing me on for a pilot and for “Laggies” back to back, and she continued to give me space.
I spent three months with Lynn, across three cities, learning so much; mostly how much kindness could be part of creativity and how much creativity is itself kindness — how much one’s job as a director is to dump out everything they have and share it with abandon. I was wide-eyed and desperately seeking validation and the belief that things could be good, and she gave it to me in so many forms. She also actively taught me — quizzing me on crew positions, pressing her own film books into my hands to read, forwarding me scripts to discuss. I knew when I drove away from that summer, sobbing in my car, sure nothing could ever surpass what I’d just experienced, that someday I would write out what it was to be there. I of course hoped that I’d be able to share those words with her, not about her.
Lynn always knew everyone’s names. She always had a hug. A smile. A new song or film or book she had fallen in love with that you had to know about – recounting the lyrics or the lines with glee, like a story someone had made just for her. Talking film with her was like being on the best drug that has never been made. She exercised by jumping on a small trampoline that she took from place to place — every single thing she did, she did with joy. She seemed too wonderful to exist, but I never saw a crack. It was all real. She was one of the most real people.
Working for her, and being her friend since was like being part of a solar system with a bright, gentle sun that would never burn you, only light you up. She was infectious – her curiosity and desire to know more, share more, see more in the world made me excited to live in it, and to keep living in it. Really living. Digging forever to the bottom of what is, and then digging more. She gave everything away. She supported artists. She supported women. She supported me. She generously inspired, mentored, and loved me and so many others into becoming ourselves.
She was a brilliant artist in ways that are impossible to quantify — her work and the way she worked changed everything. She was hilarious and laughed with her whole body. She was a human love song — one full of adventure and every beautiful chord in consciousness. She was a beautiful singer. My favorite memories are driving to and from set with her, singing at the top of our lungs – sometimes just listening to her sing, in awe of how one person could have so much talent and be so casual about it. There was no part of her that was not beautiful. She was mythic. Fearless, kind, and vulnerable in ways so far ahead of her time — out of time — timeless. Time will miss her. I will miss her. She had so much more to do, to give, and to be. I miss thinking of her out there plainly living. I love her very much.
My whole soul goes out to the Seattle film community, and everyone who loved her. Lynn family. It also goes to everyone who wasn’t lucky enough to know her – watch her movies. To watch Lynn’s films is to know her — like Lynn, they never look away from tragedy except to let in the laugh that gets you through it.
Lynn was like a sunburst in a Seattle cloudbank. A people pleaser whose Slamdance-smashing debut “We Go Way Back” concerns the down side of her (and others’) people-pleasing in what she called “the geisha years,” like 13 to 20, when girls can take a self-deprecating ambition nap. Lynn’s ambition snapped awake like a Sleeping Beauty who realizes she don’t need no stinking princes. Her ascent amazed me (then a Seattle critic) as much as the baristas I bought lattes from who became Pearl Jam. They hit young, but she trained for decades before she dared grab for greatness, and her long, winding studies made her a cinema original. She studied acting in a top drama town, from Seattle Children’s Theater (as serious as Seattle Rep) at age 11 to U. Washington, which also spawned Kyle McLachlan and Rainn Wilson. Wilson said she was “a hairsbreadth” from getting into NYU acting school like him; acting gave her rare rapport with actors and a talent for collaboration, and studying photography at NYU (under big-deal, out-there video artist Peggy Ahwesh) gave her a trade.
Editing films was her film school, and punk as Satyajit Ray, she just started making them, rousing Seattle’s indie film community like pioneers at a barn-raising. Bam, bam, bam — every time she plucked a film out of nowhere with pizza money, she conquered another fest, copped another award, won like-minded fans who won power. I talked to her for IndieWire after she’d gotten a Spirit Award and a “Mad Men” gig the same day. This would have turned many Seattle people I could name into intolerable egomaniacs, but it only made other-oriented Lynn nicer. She told me, “I went around for two entire months with a gigantic goofy smile on my face, hugging anyone who would let me.”
I was inspired by her insistence that 40 isn’t too late to start a film career, even if, like the Coens before “Blood Simple,” you’d never set foot on a film set. Not even 15 years later, she was on the verge of her biggest splash. She told my old boss, critic Brian Miller, words we can all live by: “I can’t wait around for years for a movie to get developed. At the age of 40, I had a very clear sense that I had a certain number of years left on the planet that I did not have at the age of 20 or 25. You’re fully grateful and fully aware that you are blessed to discover something that makes you so happy and so fulfilled. You don’t want to waste a second. I want to make as many movies as I can. I don’t want to be sitting around.”
Artistic Director, Seattle International Film Festival
It is really devastating, she truly was one of the good ones. Her collaborative spirit, and genuine-ness, made her a great artist and friend. SIFF was honored to have supported her films over the decades, opening the festival twice — “Your Sister’s Sister” in 2011, and then just last year with “Sword of Trust.” The Seattle film community is reeling, and she will be missed. Taken far, far, far too soon.
Actor; star of Shelton’s “Your Sister’s Sister”
I fell in love first with her utterly infectious laugh and then her deeply empathetic soul that was infused into all of her films. Working with her was like working with family… so, so intimate, at times so exposing as we threw everything against the wall to see what would stick. But such a sense of love and joy surrounded us that you’d go to the ends for Lynn because she was just so damn talented and cool and light. I’m shocked and deeply saddened to hear of this luminously brilliant lady being taken much too soon.
Director Emeritus, Sundance Film Festival
Lynn was pure joy to be around. She gave herself freely and lovingly to her work, her family and other artists. I just looked back at all the email exchanges I had with her over the years. Hers all began with “Dear Coop.” It really brought her passing into a very real place for me. I remember calling her to tell her Humpday was in Sundance. She was so excited and lovely. We both cried a little. She was feeding her kid and he was making lots of noise and she had to call me back. I don’t know why but that simple moment sums it up. She was human and real like her films. I aspire to have the capacity for empathy she shared….it seemed…with everyone. A true independent spirit in every way.
Senior Programmer, Sundance Film Festival
We premiered so many of Lynn’s films at Sundance, from “Humpday,” “Your Sister’s Sister,” “Touchy Feely,” and “Laggies.” I adored Lynn as an artist and as a person. We had such a special time together when she and I went to Chicago years ago to present Touchy Feely at the Music Box Theatre as part of Sundance Film Festival USA. We hugged a lot back then when it was okay to be touchy feely. I will miss her.
Actor, star of Shelton’s “Your Sister’s Sister,” “Touchy Feely,” and “Little Fires Everywhere”
I’m gutted. To know Lynn was to fall madly in love with her. She had an enormous capacity for empathy and as a result, you felt completely “seen” by her and by extension, the camera. She caught lightning in a bottle and then shared it gleefully and unabashedly with the world, making us all the better for it. Her film sets felt like a feast at a long table with great friends — family really. And oh man, that laugh. I’m so grateful to have spent a decade in her creative orbit. She was a fairy godmother to me. I’m missing her already.
Writer/director/actor; star of Shelton’s “Humpday” and “Your Sister’s Sister”
I met Lynn on the set of a tiny movie in Seattle in 2007. I was an actor and she was the volunteer set photographer. We became instant friends. Her infectious spirit and boundless creative energy were unrivaled. She called me a few months later and I sat in a crowded airport for 30 minutes while she pitched me an idea for a film called “Humpday.” I knew immediately we would make this. I called my friend Josh Leonard. She gathered her loyal Seattle friends, and we improvised the film together over 10 days with less then $15,000. The film premiered at Sundance, went to Cannes, travelled the world, won her awards, spawned remakes and plays. We couldn’t wait to make another one.
So I pitched her a basic idea about a love triangle. She improved it and encouraged us again to make the film in Washington state, always loyal to her home and people. Emily Blunt and Rosemarie DeWitt joined us. Again, we had no money. 10 days. That film became “Your Sister’s Sister” and her career skyrocketed in the best way. Over the years we made more movies and even some tv shows together. Her job often required her to spend time in Los Angeles. Sometimes she would stay with me and my family and we would talk about all kinds of movie ideas that I now wish we had made. She taught me a lot, especially about how to tell stories with female leads. We gelled, we butted heads, we made up… and we always pushed each other to be better. Like family. I will miss her spirit. I will miss her stories. And I will miss that big, joyous laugh.
Writer/director; first assistant director on Shelton’s “We Go Way Back”
Lynn Shelton was. I expected more words to follow in that sentence, but those first three words stopped me. She was. She is no longer. It’s impossible to process.
We were texting Thursday. We were planning a Zoom sing-a-long for tomorrow. Her belated wedding gift to me had just arrived in the mail Friday as she was rushed to the hospital.
She is. How is it that she now isn’t?
I have known Lynn for fifteen years. We met when I was hired to be her 1st AD on her first feature film, “We Go Way Back.” It was a recurring joke, because as the years progressed and our friendship lasted and grew and became one of the most important relationships in both of our lives, we did go way back.
We collaborated frequently because we held so many shared philosophies about filmmaking and our creative community. We wrote together, a feature script and a television show that were never made but provided us an avenue to spend many treasured hours in the same place once we were both working as directors and weren’t sharing as many sets. We were present in all of each other’s work. We sought one another’s feedback on every project. She was my biggest fan, and I was hers.
The qualities that made Lynn a great filmmaker — empathy, compassion, humor, intelligence, sincerity — were the same ones that made her an irreplaceable friend. She had a big laugh that would burst out unabashedly, and she would also weep easily at both happy and sad moments. She was one of the world’s best audience members. She sang with abandon.
She found joy in a great many things. Only days ago she was encouraging me to revisit Sydney Lumet’s “Making Movies” because she was re-reading it and finding so much delight on every page. She sent me a picture of one of those pages with the following words underlined: “I’m in charge of a community that I need desperately and that needs me just as badly.” Those words break my heart today.
I am overcome with grief at losing my friend Lynn. I am devastated for all of those who loved her — her two sets of wonderful parents, her siblings, her husband of many years, her beloved son, her newfound partner, her innumerable friends, and any who found connection or comfort in her creative endeavors.
She lived with love, with passion, and with joy. She was and is no more. There is a toast someone offered me when I lost my mother a few years ago: “With, without, within.” I offer that toast to Lynn and to a world that deeply mourns her loss.
Publicist and friend of Lynn Shelton
The independent film community lost one of its shining stars today with the sad and untimely death of Lynn Shelton, my longtime collaborator and friend. In fact, I really owe a great deal of my career to Lynn. She took a chance on me when I was a fledgling publicist and hired me to represent “Humpday” at Sundance in 2009, even though I’d never even been to a film festival before. I pretended to know what I was doing and with a little bit of luck, sheer force of will and, of course, a great fucking film we managed to capture lightning in a bottle to become the talk of the festival. It was a real turning point for me professionally. When I think about the artists, filmmakers, and actors I’ve worked with over the years almost all roads seem to lead back to Lynn and “Humpday.” When I started Brigade in 2010 Lynn was the first client to say, without hesitation, she was coming with me. And it’s been an incredible ride ever since. Everything we worked on together seemed to turn to gold: the movie magic that is “Your Sister’s Sister,” the madcap adventure of “Sword of Trust,” the under-appreciated “Touchy Feely.” And now an Emmys push for “Little Fires Everywhere,” which has ended prematurely. Lynn had only been making films for about 15 years and I think the best was yet to come. In fact, one week ago today I sent Lynn a photo of Dan Savage being interviewed by Bill Maher from his home office. Behind Dan were posters of Hump Fest, the porn festival in Seattle which was the genesis for “Humpday.” “Look,” I wrote. “It’s a sign from god: time to finally make a ‘Humpday’ sequel.” But she demurred, always wanting to challenge herself to do something new. It’s devastating that her career has been cut short when she was just hitting her stride.
But beyond all of Lynn’s amazing work as a filmmaker, and the things she did to inspire and help the next generation of filmmakers like Ava DuVernay and Eliza Hittman, the thing I will miss the most about Lynn is her “can-do” energy which seemingly knew no bounds. An infectious kind of camp counselor spirit. Life to her was a sort of ongoing party and everyone was invited. Like in 2009, when seemingly half of the city of Seattle showed up stay at her Park City condo which became a sort of commune affectionally dubbed Casa Hump. I was tasked with figuring out free transportation to get 100-plus people to the Eccles for the “Humpday” premiere. But somehow I managed. Thank you to Lynn for believing in me and teaching me the power of positivity. I love you and miss you.
Actor, star of “Humpday”
Lynn Shelton was one of the greatest forces of nature I’ve ever encountered — a brilliant enthusiast to her core. She defined herself by the things that she loved, by the things that inspired her, by the people who meant the most to her and by her deep and boundless pride in her son. Her joy and her passion radiated like the fucking sun. I am forever grateful to Mark Duplass for introducing me to her over a decade ago. Lynn and I had fallen out of touch for a while, but had just started chatting again recently. Wilder and I FaceTimed with her last week. Lynn was sitting on her porch, showing Wilder all the birds… they came up with names for each one. We all laughed — Lynn biggest of all. Jesus, could could that woman laugh. She was one for the ages. Rest in peace, dear friend.
Executive Director, Washington Filmworks
Stunned in this moment, we reflect on the incredible creative force of Lynn Shelton and all that she contributed to our lives and our community. Authentic in her convictions and passionate about her craft, Lynn will be remembered not only as a talented filmmaker but also as a friend. We celebrate her generous spirit and her gift for collaboration and we thank her for broadcasting to the world that Seattle and Washington State will always be a place where independent film thrives. Thank you for everything, Lynn. You are loved and will be deeply missed.
I knew Lynn intermittently, but she had a way of making intermittence feel constant through sheer enthusiasm. I looked back through our correspondence this morning; an exchange of rough cuts here, a bit of production advice there, a random hello from time to time; she was the sort of friend who would always write excitedly when she saw the trailer for something you’d make, in the same way that she would instantly give you the best hug upon emerging from a screening. I was just talking with another friend a few weeks ago about how she was the first of our peers to have a film play at Sundance, the first to turn directing into not just a passion but a career, and also the first to demonstrate to us that those benchmarks we were obsessed with at the time really didn’t matter that much at all. What mattered was staying warm, friendly, supportive and inspiring, which she always was, and always will be.
Founding Director, Sundance Institute Feature Film Program
Simply heartbroken with the news of Lynn’s passing. I will always remember Lynn’s exuberance, generosity and compassion as a Creative Advisor at the Sundance Labs. She found a way to get inside the heart and intentions of filmmakers, listen carefully, and help them honor and strengthen their unique voice, while giving them support in building their skills and developing their scripts, ensuring that their stories were complex, honest and found humor in the painful moments. Lynn brought such kindness, joy and passion for the creative process to everyone she touched. It was beautiful and moving to watch!
Senior Film Editor, IMDb
My favorite memory of Lynn was the world premiere of “Your Sister’s Sister” at the Ryerson Theater in Toronto on 9/11/11. Lynn was beaming and gorgeous, wearing this beautiful grey dress with what I can only describe as an equally gorgeous shawl made of scrunchies (I’m not a fashion guy). We all settled in and the film started. There was picture. There was no sound. Lynn shot out of her reserved seat heading for the projection booth like a greyhound. She forgot that she was still semi-girdled with the scrunchy shawl. It caught on the arm of her chair and yanked her back viciously. But only for a second as she shed that thing without a thought and with a fluidity that was a sight to behold. She sprinted up the aisle leaving, sadly discarded for about three rows’ length, the scrunchy shawl. Lynn was always dressed impeccably but it was an afterthought for her.
The movie stopped and then restarted a few minutes later, introducing so many to this truly gifted artist. She will be missed.
Former head of the Seattle International Film Festival
Such a sad way to start out my Saturday. Very Very sad today. I’m struggling to come up with words to express how I feel today.
It is unimaginable that Lynn is gone. She was the shining light of the Seattle filmmaking scene and transcended it by not only working here and supporting others trying to make films in Seattle but also becoming a force of her own right in the national film and TV scene. She was always humble and grounded but also never afraid to advocate for herself.
While we weren’t close friends, whenever we were together it felt like we were besties — whether running into each other at the Spirit Awards to unexpectedly finding each other at a festival or sitting together at the Palm Springs International Film Festival awards gala or when she opened the Seattle International Film Festival with “Your Sister’s Sister.”
I can’t image the words Seattle and film without thinking of Lynn Shelton.