So Much More Than Enough

My favorite director, Lynn Shelton, died suddenly this month at the age of 54. Did the spirit of indie filmmaking go with her?

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | May 2020 | 10 minutes (2,564 words)

Lynn Shelton was the kind of artist no one asked for, but the only one you really wanted. The kind of person who was so good — so empathetic, so altruistic, so honorable — her work couldn’t help but be good in all the same ways. But in the face of what film became — a monstrous inequitable monopoly — she played too kind, too female, too independent, too old. When Shelton died suddenly on May 15 at only 54, from a blood disorder no one knew she had, artists more famous than her surfaced one after the other to remember her flawless reputation and critic after critic emerged to fawn over her career. It was so familiar, all those people so quick to praise in private but almost never in public, until, you know, it kind of doesn’t matter anymore. The reality was that Shelton had made eight films, directed countless television series, and still had to audition for jobs even when she knew the people giving them. The reality was that she had to work in TV to pay for the work she really wanted to do. The reality was that people in the industry knew her name, but no one outside of it did. “The main reason women make inroads in independent film is that no one has to say, ‘I pick you,’” she told The Los Angeles Times in 2014. “I’m not pounding on anybody’s door. I’m just making my own way.” 

As existence increasingly became exhibitionism, Shelton made being a private success — being a good person making good work — more valuable than being a public one. Which is why I loved her more than any other artist around. Because it wasn’t just about loving her films, it was about loving her as a filmmaker, as a woman. Because, somehow, over two decades, she was always pure independence — fervent, uncompromising, relentless and humble, humble, humble — despite the constant pressure to be otherwise. Because, to me, she was the only kind of artist to be.

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If I met Lynn Shelton, I don’t remember it. I probably saw her and would have undoubtedly come across her name more than a decade ago, in the summer of 2009, when I interviewed actor Joshua Leonard about her third film, Humpday. It irritates me that I can’t remember. She was at the very least on the fringes of mumblecore, a no-budget indie film movement which really got going in 2005 with The Puffy Chair, Mark and Jay Duplass’ $15,000 parent-funded road trip movie. These films were hipster-style verité, with mix-and-match personnel and, according to Film Journal International, a “highly naturalistic feel, a fascination with male/female relationships and low-fi production values.” Originated by writer-director Andrew Bujalski (Support the Girls), the movement also established the Duplasses, triple-threat bros with their fingers in every indie pie — from Jeff, Who Lives at Home to Amazon’s panegyrized series Transparent — and Joe Swanberg, the guy behind Netflix’s Easy. It was less of a vehicle for women. Even the It Girl.

In 2008, about a decade before she became GRETA GERWIG, I profiled Greta Gerwig for a now-defunct magazine called Geek Monthly. She and Swanberg had co-everything’ed the long-distance relationship drama Nights and Weekends. (As it happens, Shelton, who started out as an actor before it began to feel like “an exercise in narcissism,” appears briefly on screen though I don’t mention her in the interview.) I somehow addressed mumblecore’s gender divide while missing Shelton’s two features, We Go Way Back (2006) and My Effortless Brilliance (2008). “It can really feel like boys[’] town,” Gerwig confirmed at the time. She mentioned being broke, despite her omnipresence on the mumblecore scene: “There have been nights where I sit and stare at the wall and say, ‘What am I doing? What’s going to become of me?’” She was 24. 

Shelton was 43. Maybe that’s why I missed her, along with the rest of the world. Even the oldest mumblers, the Duplasses, were several years younger than her. Shelton had taken a while to get into film, the same way it took me a while to get into writing. She started acting in theatre, then studied photography before moving into experimental film, editing, and documentary. “I just did not have the confidence to do it,” she told The New York Times in 2009. “And then I had to find a backdoor way in.” Shelton was intimidated, just like I would be intimidated, but the pull landed her there anyway, as it did for me. She joked that her version of film school took two decades. It sounded familiar, that long way around. The way she finally gave herself permission also sounded familiar — through a female artist, Claire Denis, who was almost two decades older than her (I was more promiscuous about my idols). “I thought: ‘Oh, my God. She was 40 when she made her first film,” Shelton told the Times in 2012. “I thought it was too late for me, so in my head was, ‘Oh, I still have three more years.’” I’ve had this exact thought about writing: that it took me too long to get here, that I’m past the point of it being worth it. You may find that many artists — many women artists, who, if they weren’t actively discouraged from pursuing art, weren’t actively encouraged, either — have had this exact thought.

Shelton beat Denis by a year. Her first movie, We Go Way Back, is probably her most autobiographical, perhaps because she had just come from the world of documentary. It follows a 23-year-old woman (Amber Hubert) as she floats through life, acting in a theatre production she doesn’t really feel and doing men she doesn’t either, until she unearths a series of letters to her disconnected adult self from her confident 13-year-old self (Maggie Brown). This specter, her own past, helps her find her way back (so to speak). Shelton has said she herself had a similar trajectory, a trajectory familiar to so many women, where she started out with all this bravado and, slowly, bit by bit — as she became a woman, as her body changed, as society encroached — she lost it. It reminds me of all those typewriters I got as a child, all the writing I knew I would do, until I suddenly felt not good enough to write, not smart enough, not allowed enough. When Shelton got some semblance of her confidence back, she was already 39. And it showed. Though she was skirting the edge of mumblecore, her films just felt more baked than the others on every level, from screenplay to soundtrack: more considered, less flip (less male?). They weren’t sentimental romances; the relationships were more complicated, the dialogue funnier. Her films weren’t self-serious, they were mature. They were about people making messes and then cleaning them up.

It makes sense that in an industry that prefers men, Shelton’s third film, Humpday, about “two straight dudes, straight balling,” would be the one to get attention — it won the Special Jury Prize for Spirit of Independence at Sundance in 2009. As she herself says exasperatedly in the film, in which she plays a polyamorous boho den mother-type, “Boys. Fucking boys.” By that point, three years into the career she took so long to get to, Shelton had already settled on the formula that served her best, one that reflected the realism of life through the realism of her characters. She molded the movies to her muses, most of them men, from Mark Duplass (Humpday) to Josh Pais (Touchy Feely) to Jay Duplass (Outside, In). She limited the set to a small crew, cut down the takes, and shot with many of the same people (including musicians — do yourself a favor and listen to Tomo Nakayama’s “Horses” from Touchy Feely) in her drizzly home state of Washington, before sculpting it all in the editing suite. 

That she worked so organically, so modestly, from the place she grew up — not New York, not L.A., not some soundstage — was part of the whole thing. It wasn’t about careerism (repulsive), it was about her doing her best work. As for the money, if Shelton wasn’t funding her films through her own television work (she has said she only really felt like a pro after she directed Mad Men in 2010, while being named executive producer on Hulu’s Little Fires Everywhere last year was a whole new level of arrival) it was through grants and fundraisers, with the crew paid through a profit-sharing system. When no one was getting money, at the very least they were getting warm meals. As Shelton told Anthem magazine two years ago: “I want to create this emotionally safe environment as much as possible for [the actors] to take the risk of opening up their hearts and their faces and their eyes.” 

This is the opposite of how art is made now, where everything is about money — huge studios, huge budgets, huge concepts, huge stars. Mid-budget films, which thrived in the indie boom times of the nineties, the most formative films for me and for the last Gen-Xers, the ones that started to sputter in the aughts when Shelton came around, have virtually vanished. What passes for mid-budget now has no less than $10 million behind it and a marquee name slumming it for cred. The few earnest indie directors left, like The Rider’s Chloé  Zhao, are snapped up for superhero content — even Shelton was in early talks around Black Widow. I can’t imagine a Marvel movie by Shelton. I’m not sure I want to. But I would still see it. I would see it because she made it.

Shelton’s plots were not high concept; they were barely plots at all. Which is just how I like it. I like my movies with nothing going on: just people living their lives. Maybe it’s my processing speed — even the simplest plot can be hard for me to follow — or maybe it’s being the kid of psychiatrists. Shelton always said she wasn’t the smartest person in the world, but she was fairly sure she had pretty high emotional intelligence. She was the daughter of a psychologist. Her interest was in tangled relationships, often with multiple family members involved, and the discomfort that emerges from within them. “I’ve always been that close observer of human behavior,” she told Slant last year. “I feel like the thing that makes humans human are their flaws.” 

The scene that touched me most in a marathon re-watch of Shelton’s eight films was in Touchy Feely — neither my favorite of her films nor the one featuring an actor I particularly like, which proves how skilled she was with performers. Ellen Page, playing Jenny, a sheltered, existentially morose twenty-something, sits on on a couch opposite her aunt’s oblivious boyfriend (played by handsome indie regular Scoot McNairy), staring at his lips, laughing tightly, nervously, her eyes bigger than the whole room. With no music, and just the two of them, side by side, quietly talking late at night in a dingy apartment, Jenny’s lust is so powerful it’s practically a third character, and her words, as though overflowing from her loins, come out almost despite her: “Have you ever wanted to kiss someone so badly that it hurts your skin?” Yes. Right now. This isn’t cinema, it’s a conduit for intimacy. Which maybe says more about me than I want it to. But I have a feeling this approach — slow, humane, in no way prescriptive or showy —  is what led so many critics to dismiss Shelton. That scene, and Shelton’s movies as whole, remind me of a quote from Before Sunrise, a movie made by a man, but as collaborative in spirit: “I believe if there’s any kind of God it wouldn’t be in any of us, not you or me but just this little space in between.”

My favorite Lynn Shelton movie is Laggies. I’ve probably seen it ten times. It’s the story that gets me. Which is the same reason Shelton made it, the only movie she did not have a hand in writing (Andrea Seigel is the screenwriter). It’s about a 28-year-old woman (Keira Knightley) having a quarter-life crisis, a woman who in the end describes herself as a snake carrying around her dead skin — old life, old relationship, old friends. Until she can shed all of this (will she?) she is in “this weird in-between place,” eventually befriending a teenager (Chloë Grace Moretz) and falling for the kid’s dad (Sam Rockwell), who is not unlike her. “You know, I never anticipated still having to find a place where I fit in by the time I was an adult, either,” he says. “I thought you automatically got one once you had a job and a family. But it’s just you, alone.” God, yeah. You don’t see much of that on screen, the female midlife crisis, though you do see a lot of the male version. And that sucks. Shelton refers to it as floating, but to me, when I have experienced it, it feels more menacing — like you have no tether, like you’re one of those astronauts who becomes detached from that shuttle cord and disappears into the black.

Shelton questioned whether she was selling out by making a movie someone else wrote, a glossier movie than usual, one starring real life celebrities. But she couldn’t resist the story in the end, a story that essentially defined her. “She doesn’t know what she wants to do but she knows what she doesn’t want to do, which is to fall in lockstep with this conventional timeline of what quote-unquote adults are supposed to do and that all of her friends around her are doing,” Shelton told The Georgia Straight in 2014. “I’ve tried to do things on my own terms and it took me 20 years to get to doing what I’m doing so I really relate to that prolonged journey of self-discovery.”

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“I’m sorry,” one of my best friends said when I told him Lynn Shelton had died. I’ve never had someone I know respond that way when someone I don’t has died. “I wouldn’t normally say that,” he explained, “but I know how you feel about Lynn Shelton.” It’s true that I didn’t know her, but I knew her films, and the two were inextricable. Just like her and Marc Maron, her creative partner and her partner in life. Maron was Shelton’s last muse. She made Sword of Trust for him, a film in which he plays Mel, a pawn shop dealer, who is brought a sword by a couple that supposedly proves the south won the Civil War, which they collectively sell to a pair of loony right-wing conspiracy theorists. Shelton appears as Mel’s ex, a woman with whom he fell into drug addiction and whom it is clear he still loves but can’t trust. But it’s Maron you can’t take your eyes off, maybe because it’s him Shelton can’t take her eyes off.  As he said on his podcast, “I was better in Lynn Shelton’s gaze.” Everything was. When Shelton was walking around, it meant that, despite how bad it was, the world was still a place where a woman could be an artist, a woman could be a woman, on her own terms. What Denis did for Shelton, she continued to do for me. I don’t want to think of what her death means for film, but I know for me, as a woman, as an artist, it makes the world a whole lot harder to bear.

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Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.