This Is Not The End: Remembering Lynn Shelton

This Is Not The End: Remembering Lynn Shelton

A pioneer of independent filmmaking, admired and cared for by so many, Lynn Shelton left her mark on the world when she left it far too soon. The director, of both sharp mumblecore movies and some of the finest television dramas, loved nothing more than an open ending. To honour her legacy, Stefania Sarrubba looks back on her singular career.

There is a common denominator across the movies by American filmmaker Lynn Shelton, an intimate quality to her directing style she was able to convey through her television endeavours as well. Shelton peppered her films with this everyday intimacy, like in the overhead shot of sisters Iris and Hannah, whispering in bed in Your Sister’s Sister, or in the tracking shot of Chris and Hildy as they walk their bikes in the middle of nowhere in Outside In, their conversation more important than their destination.

The filmmaker passed away at the age of 54 on 16th May, due to a previously undetected blood disorder. Her work fosters a sense of belonging and relatability—comedy even—in the weirdest, most unlikely circumstances. An awareness that, ultimately, you will be alright amidst the chaos of life, as Ben and Andrew know when they play the drums on their chests and stomachs in Humpday for a little longer than it is necessary, or enjoyable.

Raised in Seattle, Shelton thrived on the mumblecore movie scene alongside brothers Mark and Jay Duplass, her frequent collaborators and key figures in the subgenre. Mumblecore films portray bizarre yet ultimately, deeply human stories relying on naturalistic, improvised performances. To allow her actors to be comfortable with ad-libbing, Shelton involved her cast in the development of their own characters.

“My favourite thing about making movies is working with actors,” she told actor and comedian Marc Maron on his podcast, WTF with Marc Maron, in 2015. Their first meeting marked the beginning of a fruitful professional collaboration that evolved into a romantic relationship, with the two being life partners at the time of Shelton’s death. “I develop the script alongside the development of the characters,” the filmmaker continued, explaining how her script-to-screen process put a tender emphasis on the actors.

A polymath with an interest in psychology, Shelton was extremely fond of her fellow actors and knew that being behind the camera was the purest way to act on those feelings. Through her sensitive directing, she empowered her cast to dig the highly emotional from seemingly closed-off characters. The cooperative nature of Shelton’s filmmaking, which made her so popular among her peers, peaked with her 2011 movie Your Sister’s Sister. The on-set improvisation added a naturalistic flair to the protagonists’ humour and was the result of months of phone calls with actors Mark Duplass and Emily Blunt to flesh out their characters.

Your Sister’s Sister flips romcom norms by including lesbian character Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt) as part of an unconventional love triangle with her sister Iris (Blunt) and Duplass’s Jack. After Hannah and Jack sleep together, an unknowing Iris is left to decipher her own feelings for her friend. Her sister, on the other hand, has no romantic interest in Jack, with her desire for motherhood acting as her main motivation. 

By removing one of the characters from the romantic equation, Shelton avoided a stale replay of the trope of a straight man threatening to upend the bond between two women. Instead, she created an intelligent testament to how complicated even the most well-intentioned and non-romantic relationships can be, when dealing with the unexpected.

The film also shows Shelton’s penchant for open finales. She never enforced definitive, unrealistic happily ever afters, often opting for unresolved endings, trusting the audience to read additional layers of meaning into them. These last scenes act as a reminder that life continues after the credits have rolled, that what the audience sees is just a small part of characters’ ever-evolving reality.

Shelton’s 2017 drama Outside In ends with a bittersweet open finale, brimming with all the possibilities convict Chris had been denied by the legal system. After serving 20 years for a murder he didn’t commit, the 38-year-old has trouble adjusting to his new normal out of prison. His only guiding light is his former high school English professor Carol, who was his pen pal and helped with his release. With little dialogue and an insistence on close-ups, Shelton painted her characters’ fragility without having to spell out their trauma. 

In penning relatable female and male characters alike and not shying away from uncomfortable topics, such as the failings of the justice system or alt-right revisionist-history, in her last film Sword of Trust, Shelton embarked on an almost anthropological mission. Her films are not commercial, but they display a rawness only achievable when you’re free to create the art you want to make, outside of the constraints of the studio system.

By her own admission, Shelton was a little late to the directing party. She had constantly looked for a way to bring forth human connections through her art, beginning to act at age 11 in clown school and going around Seattle in stilts – a detail which returned in her first feature, We Go Way Back, where protagonist Kate is asked to wear stilts for a play. Shelton then studied photography in high school and at university, and took her first steps into the film industry as an editor in the early 2000s.

Shelton credited becoming a director to seeing French filmmaker Claire Denis speak at Seattle's Northwest Film Forum in 2003, where Denis revealed she was 40 when she made her first film. “I thought it was too late for me, so in my head was, ‘Oh, I still have three more years,’” Shelton told The New York Times. The Seattleite went on to start working on her first film not long before her own 40th birthday.


The idea that there isn’t a fixed time frame to grow into your own person permeates Shelton’s filmography. Laggies was a higher-budget production than those Shelton was used to, and one that secured her an invitation to join the Director’s branch of the Academy in 2015. This was also the filmmaker’s only movie she hadn’t written. And yet, the script by Andrea Seigel seamlessly fits in with the ideas of alienation and aimlessness that Shelton had already explored in her mumblecore films. The story follows 28-year-old Megan, terrified by what growing up entails. A chance encounter with teenager Annika results in Megan moving in with her and the girl’s absent lawyer father Craig. There, Megan takes care of Annika’s pet tortoise Lynn, projecting her hopes and fears onto the animal in a not-so-subtle nod to the film’s core theme of failing to keep pace with others. Shelton framed protagonist Keira Knightley, hands and knees on the grass, as she feeds Lynn, juxtaposing close-ups of Megan and the animal as the woman realises the tortoise is more than just a pet — it might be her familiar.

Megan quietly accepts other people’s decisions until the breaking point, similarly to Kate in Shelton’s debut We Go Way Back. The 2006 film focuses on a struggling stage actress who finds a letter written by her 13-year-old self a decade prior. That message, playing out over and over in a dream-like inner monologue, forces the protagonist to examine her unrewarding professional choices and casual, meaningless relationships with men. Shelton presented the conversation between Kate-at-23 and her younger self without losing her naturalistic skill, even when introducing magical realism. She managed to do so by writing and directing younger Kate as if she was a present-day character tout court, making small talk with strangers and participating in mundane yet symbolic activities with her older self, like sharing a car ride.

The director also brought her love of imperfect people to television, attaching her name to shows such as Love, GLOW, Dickinson and, most recently, Hulu’s Little Fires Everywhere. On GLOW, Shelton helmed several episodes crucial to the development of the strained friendship between Ruth and Debbie. The conflicted bond between the two women might remind Shelton’s fans of her 2009 bromance Humpday, and specifically the film’s protagonists, Ben and Andrew. Unable to show their affection for one another, both pairs engage in exhausting back and forths. Shelton directed Ruth and Debbie’s last bitter exchange at an airport in the season three finale, communicating the urgency of their conversation. Following a nearly farcical chase to the gate, the two friends pant as they voice their irreconcilable differences. An actress-turned-producer, power-hungry Debbie offers Ruth to direct her new wrestling TV programme, but she prefers pursuing an acting career. After Ruth leaves, Shelton stays on Debbie, framed by the gate doors, motionless.

More than just a glittery show about spandex-wrapped bodies body-slamming one another, GLOW is a series about women looking for their big break in a tough, male-dominated industry. Which is what protagonist Ruth has been attempting to achieve throughout, refusing to settle down. And it’s what Shelton achieved, directing the movies that mattered to her and presenting us with rapid, loving glimpses into her endearingly flawed characters’ existences, and her own.

Stefania Sarrubba (@freckledvixen) is a freelance film writer based in London. Her thoughts on movies and TV shows have appeared on Little White Lies, The Skinny and The Mary Sue, among others.

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