Lynn Shelton, one of the most accomplished and critically acclaimed filmmakers ever to emerge from Seattle, died last night in a hospital at University of Southern California. The cause of death was a previously unidentified blood disorder, according to her longtime publicist Adam Kersh.
"I'm in shock," says Carl Spence, the former artistic director of the Seattle International Film Festival. "I can't imagine that she is gone. That is unimaginable."
"It's so unbelievably tragic. I don't know what to say. I'm completely stunned," says Jennifer Roth, who produced Lynn's films Your Sister's Sister (starring Emily Blunt), Touchy Feely (starring Allison Janney and Ellen Page), and Laggies (starring Keira Knightley and Sam Rockwell, with a score by Ben Gibbard).
"If you'd tell a joke, she would just throw her head back and let out the most genuine, delightful laugh. It made you feel like a super interesting, hilarious person just by being around her. She was an incredible listener," says Tomo Nakayama, who appears (and sings) in the film Touchy Feely.
"She was the opposite of what people think as the auteur or the control-freak director that we romanticize as the model for a genius director," Nakayama adds. "Her genius was trusting her performers and knowing the right combination of people to realize her vision. As a friend, she was like that too. I met so many people through her, and she touched so many lives, especially in Seattle. 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. It's just mind-boggling. I can't wrap my brain around this."
Lynn's breakout was Humpday, which premiered at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, where it won a Special Jury Prize for Spirit of Independence. She went on to become the first Seattle filmmaker to open the Seattle International Film Festival (with Your Sister's Sister in 2012), and then the only local director to open the festival twice (Sword of Trust opened the festival in 2019). She was also the only woman director to open the festival twice.
"We never opened the Seattle International Film Festival with a Seattle filmmaker before Lynn," Spence confirms.
The success of Humpday led to Lynn directing an episode of Mad Men, which led to other TV gigs. Her directing credits also include episodes of GLOW, The Mindy Project, Zooey Deschanel's New Girl, Master of None, Fresh Off the Boat (the pilot of which she also directed), and The Morning Show (starring Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon). Lynn directed several episodes of the new Hulu show Little Fires Everywhere, starring Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington, and also served as executive producer.
She also directed Marc Maron's recent comedy special End Times Fun as well as his previous special, Too Real.
"She was the guiding light of the Seattle filmmaking scene. She transcended it by not only working here and supporting things here but also becoming a force of her own right in the national film and TV scene," says Spence, the former director of SIFF. "She was always just so humble and grounded."
As producer Roth put it, "She was our mom. She was our leader. She was our heart."
An aspiring actor and photographer in her 20s, Lynn didn't begin making films until her mid-30s. When she saw French director Claire Denis speak at Northwest Film Forum in 2003, Denis revealed she was 40 when she directed her first feature film.
As Lynn said later, this was the moment when she realized she still had plenty of time to become a director. She went on to write and direct eight feature films in the span of 14 years, including We Go Way Back, winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the Slamdance Film Festival in 2006, and My Effortless Brilliance, starring Sean Nelson and Basil Harris, which premiered at the SXSW Film Festival in 2008 and led to Lynn winning the Independent Spirit "Someone to Watch" Award.
"But everything changed for Lynn in 2009 when her third film Humpday premiered at the Sundance Film Festival," says publicist Kersh. Humpday is about two straight guys who set out to make a film of themselves having sex together to submit to The Stranger's amateur porn festival HUMP!
"Starring Joshua Leonard, Alycia Delmore, and Lynn's frequent collaborator Mark Duplass, the film was rapturously received and acquired by Magnolia Pictures for distribution," Kersh says. "The film, which also played Cannes Directors Fortnight, would go on to become something of a cultural touchstone for its depiction of male sexuality through a female lens."
A play adaptation and French remake would soon follow. Humpday received the Independent Spirit John Cassavetes Award in 2010.
The producer Jennifer Roth says she and Lynn first met in 2003 or 2004, when Roth was a producer for SIFF's Fly Filmmaking Challenge. There were 10 fly films, and Lynn was the director of one of them. The two became friends, and it was Roth who introduced Lynn to Rachel Weisz, through her husband Darren Aronofsky, whom Roth knew from a previous project.
Rachel Weisz was supposed to appear in Your Sister's Sister, and it was Weisz who got Emily Blunt attached to the project, although something came up right before shooting that prevented Weisz from being able to do the shoot, so Rosemary DeWitt took Weisz's place.
"Of all the people who took great care of themselves and were wonderful and delightful and you only want good things for, I can't think of anyone who's like that more than Lynn," says Roth, before joking: "She pooped rainbows."
Lynn was born August 27, 1965, in Oberlin, Ohio and she grew up in Seattle. After high school, she attended Oberlin College in Ohio and then the University of Washington School of Drama. She then moved to New York and followed the Master's of Fine Arts program in photography and related media at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan.
Annie Wagner profiled Lynn for The Stranger in 2008 when she won a Stranger Genius Award. "In a world with too few woman directors, it's especially painful to see to see Lynn Shelton—a generous spirit as well as a freakish talent—taken from us too soon," Wagner says. "Although her body of work over the last decade plus speaks for itself, on a personal level, she also seemed to be loved as much as she was admired. My heart goes out to her family and everyone she mentored in her far-too-short career."
Lynn is survived by her son Milo Seal, her husband of many years Kevin Seal, her parents Wendy and Alan Roedell and David "Mac" Shelton and Frauke Rynd. She is also survived by her brothers David Shelton and Robert Rynd, and sister Tanya Rynd, as well as Marc Maron, with whom she spent the last year of her life.
Lynn's twitter bio reads: "I make movies and direct tv shows and like to laugh. A lot."
She was also "an amazing karaoke singer," says Nakayama, who attended Lynn's birthday at the Waterwheel a few years ago.
"Man, when you were in her presence, you felt like you were the only person in the room," Nakayama adds. "And she treated everyone that she worked with with so much respect and awe, even though she was such an incredible artist herself. To the people around her, she was a champion, and it made you want to do your best. It made you want to make her laugh and to deliver to the faith that she had in you as an artist."
Roth agrees. "I'm fortunate to have done three of Lynn's films, and I can tell you no one's taught me more about how to love the team and to love your crew and how that love brings respect back to you. She makes every person on set feel worthy and valued, and in a collaborative art form that's the most important thing. You know, on top of being brilliantly talented and a wonderful person."
Roth adds, "We're all devastated. That's the main thing. We're all devastated. She was such a beacon of hope and love, I can't believe it. I'm so sad for film and television that she's not with us anymore."