After the success of 2009's Humpday, which went to Sundance and Cannes (and told the story of two straight guys who set out to make a gay porn flick for HUMP!, The Stranger's amateur porn festival), Shelton landed her first TV directing job, and it was a big one. She flew to LA to direct an episode of Mad Men.
"Right out of the gate, that was her first episode of television, and it was such a great episode of that show," says Megan Griffiths, who worked as the assistant director on Shelton's first feature film We Go Way Back before becoming a director herself. "And it was such a giant leap to take after doing Humpday, to go from a tiny five-person crew to a show of that size. It still blows my mind that she was able to walk onto that set and direct Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss—that's a strong start."
Shelton went on to direct a ton of other TV shows, and won all kinds of awards for her film work (including a Stranger Genius Award), but one recognition she never earned was an Emmy nomination. After her untimely death in May, there's a lot of buzz around Shelton being nominated posthumously for her work on Little Fires Everywhere, the Hulu show starring Kerry Washington and Reese Witherspoon.
That epic quality involved not just scope and storytelling, but also fire and special effects.
"She made the moments feel so internal and intimate—so, whether it was because of a camera lens or performance from the actors, that's what she was able to do," Tigelaar goes on.
"I really remember a shot she was so excited about getting, and I remember her saying 'I have this crazy idea, I want to put the camera between the three kids about to burn the house down and they're making the decision, and I want it to be so the camera is spinning around in the center going from kid to kid to kid—a wordless scene where they decide silently they're going to burn the house down.' That just felt like Lynn to me. Of course that would be the shot. It was almost like in that moment we went inside of them. We were inside of them, and then we were really inside of the fire in some ways, looking out at the kids. Looking at what they'd done."
A week ago, Variety published Shelton's "look book" for the show, which helped her land the directing gig. It contained her earliest ideas for what she wanted Little Fires to look and feel like. Seeing the evolution of her visual concepts has been a big part of the Emmy buzz.
"I just saw the look book for the first time when it went out into Variety. I hadn't seen that before," says Griffiths. "I definitely see a through-line between that document and what was in the show."
Like what? "I recognize ideas from the look book. Specifically in the Kerry Washington character, her photography. Some of the photography Lynn included in the book was her own, from her days in New York."
After getting her bachelor's degree at the University of Washington in theater, Shelton moved to New York City, where she got a master's degree in photography and worked as a theater actor, before returning to Seattle.
Tigelaar adds that Shelton also demonstrated her brilliance on set in the way she related to actors: "We had five kids on set and a lot of them were very new and these were their first big acting jobs. Where Lynn was especially tender was knowing what to say to the kids, how to relate, knowing how to pull those performances out. They had to be brave and they were working with very well known stars. So that took a lot. Lynn made it a space for them to thrive."
Previously, Tigelaar and Shelton worked together on the show Casual, which got a Golden Globe nomination. But neither have ever gotten an Emmy nod.
"I'm so hoping the show gets recognized, and I would love for Lynn to be recognized," Tigelaar says.
"It was such a team of women and mothers," she goes on, "and it was a show very much about motherhood and race and class. Really everybody involved was a mother or in the process of becoming a mother soon after. Everybody in those high-level positions of power were moms—and that's what in some ways felt so special. A show where motherhood is the focus, not an accessory or a thing on the side you're supposed to overcome."
Griffiths describes the feel of Little Fires Everywhere as "high melodrama," but not in a bad way.
"It took an opportunity with a lot of excellent actors to have a conversation about race, but within the context of a mystery show, to make it a little more like something middle America might be interested in watching," Griffiths says. "It had to navigate a line, and I think it was successful—I think that was something everyone on the show was working on."
Shelton's career in TV was brief but prolific. She also directed the pilot of Fresh Off The Boat and episodes of numerous other shows including GLOW, Master of None, Santa Clarita Diet, Shameless, New Girl, The Mindy Project, Casual, Dickinson, and that other recent show Reese Witherspoon was on, The Morning Show.
"Not only would an Emmy honor her work on Little Fires," says Adam Kersh, Shelton's longtime publicist, "but it would also acknowledge her contributions to so many other important TV shows in the last decade."
The Emmy nomination process is already underway, in whatever secret process the Emmy Awards use. Those nominations will be announced on July 28.