By Moira Macdonald / The Seattle Times
SEATTLE — Lynn Shelton, who died unexpectedly last month at the age of 54, left behind a rich legacy: our home, captured on film.
In feature films taking place in our own backyards — a quiet house in Phinney Ridge; a rain-soaked street in Granite Falls; a cozy vacation home, surrounded by trees, in the San Juans; a midcentury split-level in Olympic Manor — Shelton told naturalistic stories of people we might have known. Though much of the last few years of her career was spent in Los Angeles, where she worked extensively in television as a director (most recently the Hulu miniseries “Little Fires Everywhere”), she left her heart — and her art — here. “I’m so in love with the local film scene” she once enthused, in a 2012 interview; that love, expressed by friends and colleagues in recent weeks, was mutual.
And her legacy wasn’t just the films that survive her, but an era in Seattle filmmaking in which she was an inspirational leader. From her earliest short films 20 years ago to her last made-in-the-Northwest feature, the 2017 drama “Outside In,” Shelton was at the center of a local film community — “everybody’s cool sister, everybody’s hip aunt, everybody’s den mother,” said cinematographer Ben Kasulke, whose career began with Shelton’s first film. She was a talented and nationally recognized filmmaker who drew others to her by her collaborative style of directing and working, her championing of local talent, and her unfailing support of Seattle as a rich and beautiful place to make art.
“It’s hard to imagine the notion of the Seattle film community without her piece of it, because it really is at the core of it,” said production designer John Lavin, who knew Shelton in her prefilmmaker days and worked on many of her films. In local film, he said, “All roads lead to Lynn Shelton.”
Shelton, who grew up in Seattle and graduated from Garfield High School and the University of Washington, famously came to moviemaking a bit late: She was in her 30s when she began making short experimental films, while living in New York and attending the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. Returning to Seattle in 1999, she received a grant from former local nonprofit 911 Media Arts to complete her short film “The Clouds That Touch Us Out of Clear Skies,” a delicate, haunting collage of images set over the voices of Shelton and other women, discussing their experiences of miscarriage. The film screened at numerous film festivals, and established Shelton as an up-and-coming talent.
Inspired by a speech by French filmmaker Claire Denis at Northwest Film Forum — where Shelton was a regular moviegoer and presence — she began making feature films. (Denis, whose masterful work includes “Beau Travail,” was in her 40s when she made her feature debut.) At the time, the Seattle film industry was quiet; business from Hollywood films, plentiful here in the ’80s and ’90s, had largely decamped to Vancouver, B.C., due to more favorable filming incentives. But when Shelton’s debut “We Go Way Back,” about a young woman haunted by her teenage self, won the Grand Jury Prize at the Slamdance Film Festival in 2006, it put Seattle independent filmmaking on the map.
“Getting ‘We Go Way Back’ into Slamdance felt like such a big deal,” remembered Seattle filmmaker Megan Griffiths, who met Shelton when she was hired to be first assistant director on the film. The two became close friends and collaborators. Rewatching the movie recently, Griffiths said she was reminded “of how much of Lynn’s vision was present in her very first feature.”
But Shelton, in a 2009 interview, said she wasn’t happy with the process of “We Go Way Back,” which was made in the traditional manner: 35 mm cameras, a big crew, a set script. For her second feature, “My Effortless Brilliance,” she significantly reduced the size of the crew, used natural lighting and digital cameras, and wrote an outline rather than a script, inviting the actors to help her create the characters through improvisation. It was, she said, “an experiment to see if I could make a completely actor-centered set, and make it as easy as possible.”
“If you have that few people on set, not a lot of lighting setups, you can reduce the number of days you’re shooting, you don’t have as many people to feed,” Shelton said in 2009. “So, all of a sudden, you think, ‘Oh, I can write some grants, do some fundraising parties, get some donations and make it happen,’ instead of waiting around for someone to tell you that you can make art.”
The experiment worked — “My Effortless Brilliance” screened at South by Southwest and brought Shelton the Someone to Watch Award at the Independent Spirit Awards in 2009. And it made her part of a national film movement, loosely labeled “mumblecore,” in which regional independent filmmakers created naturalistic, low-budget films about human relationships.
James Keblas, who headed Seattle’s Office of Film and Music during much of Shelton’s career, described mumblecore as “a style of filmmaking that was organic, often told in a linear way. … Lynn was one of the most iconic people of that movement. That was Seattle’s voice, and it felt like us.”
More locally filmed features followed from Shelton: “Humpday,” a Sundance Film Festival award winner that screened at the Cannes Film Festival and was acquired for national distribution; “Your Sister’s Sister,” which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival; “Touchy Feely”; “Laggies”; “Outside In.” Though not all were improvisational (“Laggies” was based on a screenplay by Andrea Seigel), all were made with the collaborative style and joyous camaraderie that had become Shelton’s trademark.
“She had a way of making it feel like you were the absolute linchpin of the project,” said Lavin. “I felt like that as the production designer, but I could see that so did the production assistants, and the lead actor, and the person at the crafts table — everyone felt like they were the integral part to making this thing work.”
Mel Eslyn, who worked as producer on several of Shelton’s films and as production manager for her MTV music series “$5 Cover,” described a Shelton set as “this beautiful magical family party that never ended. … Lynn was an artist, but I think first and foremost she wanted to have fun, and she wanted to have a family.” Long days on the set would melt into evening dance parties and karaoke — “you would kind of forget the rest of the world.”
Just as Denis inspired Shelton, Shelton inspired numerous other filmmakers. “I don’t think I would have stayed in Seattle and made movies, if she hadn’t started blazing a trail,” said local film producer/director Lacey Leavitt. Shelton, she said, showed that “you could make really good films with essentially just your story and your actors and your dedication, and without Hollywood money being behind you. To have that be considered worthy cinema, cinema that could play at Cannes, that just hadn’t been modeled in Seattle for anyone before Lynn did it.”
And as Shelton’s name got bigger and her films became more star-studded, she continued to make her films in Seattle. For “Laggies,” a 2014 coming-of-age comedy starring Keira Knightley, producers originally planned to shoot in California, but Shelton said in an interview that “I somehow managed to convince them and the stars aligned for us to bring it here.”
“She was a fantastic champion of Seattle, and trying to make films here and grow the industry here,” said Keblas, remembering how the two of them would carpool to Olympia to talk to state representatives. “She was a big part of why we were able to get incentives, why we were able to extend them and grow them … When it came time to make her films, rarely did the bean counters want to make them in Seattle. She fought, I meant she would fight hard, she would lose films if she couldn’t make them in Seattle. She stayed true to her community and the people who helped bring her up.”
Griffiths described how Shelton “was sort of methodically shining a national spotlight on Seattle, and I felt like I was lucky enough to be illuminated a little bit by that spotlight as well.” Shelton was an avid supporter of Griffiths’ films (she was a consulting producer and played a small role in Griffiths’ 2011 feature, “The Off Hours”) and of many others, particularly aspiring female filmmakers.
“She was someone who led a career that was very inspiring to me, and sort of felt like a path I could take,” Griffiths said. “I can only imagine how many other women in this community felt that way, and were inspired to push harder and try to climb highest because of what Lynn was able to do.”
Courtney Sheehan, who directed Northwest Film Forum from 2013 to 2018 — a time when Shelton was already a national name — remembered that when she would book screenings of “scrappy independent films” from female filmmakers, often only a couple of people would turn out. “Lynn would be one of them,” she said, “always championing that work.”
There are, it seems, bits of Shelton in so many Northwest films: somebody she recommended, somebody she taught, somebody who learned a new skill on her crew, somebody who looked at her and thought, “maybe I can do that too.” Everyone who speaks of Shelton, it seems, has an example of how she encouraged others: by hiring her former students or recommending them for jobs; by giving cast and crew the space and freedom to experiment and bring out their best work; by providing glowing references for those who did even the smallest jobs on her crew; by demonstrating that collaboration, creativity and leadership can warmly coexist.
“She’s been incredibly instrumental and key to Seattle, to our filmmaking community,” said Leavitt, “but I think she had a far-reaching legacy of modeling this other way of filmmaking for people all across the world.”
After Shelton’s death, her survivors suggested two charities for memorial donations. One was the Northwest School for Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Children (the school her son had attended); the other was Northwest Film Forum, where her career first began to take wing long ago.
“My soul resides in Seattle,” Shelton said, in a video made in Los Angeles for The Stranger in March as the pandemic began. “And it always shall.”