Seattle filmmaker Lynn Shelton, whose naturalistic films of delicate human comedy included “Your Sister’s Sister,” “Humpday” and “Laggies,” died Saturday in Los Angeles at the age of 54, of acute myeloid leukemia.
Her creative and romantic partner Marc Maron, who appeared in her most recent film “Sword of Trust,” and whom she directed for two TV comedy specials, gave more details about her death in a statement, quoted in Indiewire: “I have some awful news. Lynn passed away last night. She collapsed yesterday morning after having been ill for a week.” He stated that her death was not due to COVID-19, but “a previously unknown, underlying condition … The doctors could not save her. They tried. Hard.” Maron described Ms. Shelton as a “beautiful, kind, loving, charismatic artist. Her spirit was pure joy.”
Beloved in her hometown, Ms. Shelton was the first local filmmaker to have her work open the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF), in 2012, and did it again a second time in 2019. Beth Barrett, artistic director of SIFF, said Saturday that every one of Ms. Shelton’s films played in the festival at some point. “Her spirit of collaborativeness and her genuine joy at making films was part of the reason that the last 15 years of filmmaking in Seattle has been so powerful — and frankly has been headed up by so many women,” said Barrett, describing Ms. Shelton as an inspirational figure and mentor. “She believed in the power of film. She believed that it cost you nothing to be nice to people you worked with, and that spirit should carry through into whatever you did.”
In recent years, Ms. Shelton had moved into television work as well as feature filmmaking, including directing episodes of “Mad Men,” “Fresh off the Boat,” “GLOW,” “The Mindy Project,” “The Morning Show” and many others. Most recently, she was executive producer of the Hulu series “Little Fires Everywhere,” directing four of the eight episodes.
For the Seattle film community, Ms. Shelton was “a hero,” said local filmmaker Megan Griffiths (“Lucky Them,” “Eden,” “The Off Hours”), a close friend and collaborator since she was hired to work on Ms. Shelton’s first film, “We Go Way Back,” in 2006. “She had a breakout with ‘Humpday’ and was able to step out of being a regional filmmaker onto a national stage,” said Griffiths. “She transitioned to larger projects and more renown without losing who she was at her core, which was a beautiful human being.”
On the set, said Griffiths, Ms. Shelton “fostered a collaborative atmosphere that made everyone feel like they could bring their best to the table.” And as a friend, she was “endlessly supportive and unquestioning, always there in my corner.” Ms. Shelton loved to sing, and Griffiths spoke fondly of karaoke evenings with a group of mutual friends, at which Ms. Shelton particularly loved to sing Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart.”
Tributes to Ms. Shelton from those with whom she worked filled Twitter on Saturday. “Lynn Shelton loved actors and we loved her back. She was a dream on set. Her lovely, sunny energy was infectious,” wrote Mindy Kaling. Frequent collaborator Mark Duplass wrote, “We made so many things together. I wish we had made more. Her boundless creative energy and infectious spirit were unrivaled. She made me better. We butted heads, made up, laughed, pushed each other. Like family. What a deep loss.”
“I was lucky enough to play a small role in a Lynn Shelton film & she treated her cast & crew like a family,” wrote actor/filmmaker Mike Birbiglia. “I learned about directing from watching her. The kindness with which she treated people. The room she left for spontaneity. We’ve lost a great one.”
A graduate of the University of Washington School of Drama and later the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, Ms. Shelton was a director, screenwriter, producer, editor and actor. “We Go Way Back” won the Grand Jury Award at the Slamdance Film Festival in 2006, beginning a string of distinctive made-in-Seattle work. Though the national distribution of “Humpday” in 2009 brought her a wider audience and more opportunity, Ms. Shelton remained loyal to her roots, keeping many of her “We Go Way Back” collaborators throughout her career, such as cinematographer Benjamin Kasulke and production designer/set decorator Tania Kupczak. An avid supporter of the Seattle film scene, she frequently made appearances in other locally made films; watch for her in small roles in “Safety Not Guaranteed,” “The Off Hours,” “The Catechism Cataclysm” and “Lucky Them.”
Even when the films and the names got bigger, she retained that sense of community. Keira Knightley, interviewed at the Toronto International Film Festival for Shelton’s 2014 film “Laggies,” said, “[Ms. Shelton’s] crew are so unbelievably loyal to her, and she’s unbelievably loyal to them … It’s very intoxicating when you walk into that. There’s a huge air of respect and love between all these people. You instantly feel like you’re part of the family … You have to feel like you’re in a very safe environment in order to try different things, and it’s something that not a lot of film directors are very good at creating. She’s sensational at creating it.”
Ms. Shelton seemed to have boundless energy and positive spirit. Over the years, in interviews, she talked about how she fought hard to make “Laggies” in Seattle (producers were planning on California), of being nervous before stepping into the director’s chair for a “Mad Men” episode, of the excitement of opening SIFF for the first time. “Obviously it’s a huge honor for me and my film,” she said then, “but it also feels like just an enormous acknowledgment of the whole local [film] community. … It’s really come into its own.”
Ms. Shelton 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, Robert Rynd and sister Tanya Rynd, as well as Maron, with whom she spent the last year of her life. No announcement has been made regarding memorial services, but Ms. Shelton’s publicist said that memorial donations may be directed to Northwest Film Forum or the Northwest School for Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Children.
This story was updated to reflect more precisely when Shelton died and the cause of death. The original story reported that she died Friday, May 15; a statement from her publicist gave the cause of death as a blood disorder. Her family later clarified that Shelton died at 12:45 a.m. Saturday, May 16, and that she had acute myeloid leukemia.