It’s very common when you first hear the news of someone passing on, the gut reaction, to remember the last time you saw or talked to them, as though placing that memory front and center in your brain will shed some light or comfort in this sudden moment of grief.
This feeling is slightly different when it’s the death of someone famous because in most cases, you’ve never actually met that person. But you didn’t need to because that person knows you on an unspoken, almost spiritual, untouchable level. Because they sang your wedding song, or wrote the book that made you want to be a writer, or they saved you from yourself. There is a strange but miraculous bond between fan and artist. Sometimes it gets a bad rap.
When I read the news on Twitter, I looked out my apartment window and, sure enough, the world was still spinning. Although that didn’t feel right. My neighbor’s dog was starting a new barking fit and the kids down the street had just finished their very intricate hopscotch chalk drawing. But the world was suddenly very different. We just learned we lost an artist who, like me, was from Seattle and moved to Los Angeles to follow her dreams. That woman was Lynn Shelton.
Growing up, I wanted nothing more than to make movies because if you want to live forever, one of the best ways is through cinema. My school’s very perceptive guidance counselor noticed and introduced me to REEL Grrls, non-profit filmmaking, and media literacy program for teenage girls. From the first day, I was hooked. How could I not be? Movies are magic.
A great film is a compact and intricate piece of art that, when done well, has the power to shape and help you navigate who you are. It can change the way you dress, the way you carry yourself, or even talk. My dear friend from Chicago grew up talking like a Valley Girl thanks to the movie Clueless.
At REEL Grrls, all the hard drives we used to store our short films we made were named after female directors. By fate, I got “The Lynn Shelton” hard drive. I didn’t know anything about her then but that same year, at the age of 40, she made her first feature film We Go Way Back. Although it’s probably annoying to mention Lynn’s age, it really does matter. She was being told by critics and “showbiz” people that she was past her prime, that it as too late for her to be taken seriously as a real director. I’m going to take a shot in the dark and guess not many up-and-coming male directors got that same piece of sage wisdom. Thankfully, Lynn didn’t listen. She continued to keep rolling, making several award-winning feature films and guest-directing for some of the best shows on television, including Mad Men, GLOW, The Mindy Project, and Little Fires Everywhere,which is currently airing now on HULU.
Lynn’s voice was heard above all the mainstream white noise because it was so different from a lot of what was around at that time. Her work was proof that we shouldn’t restrict all of our praise and attention to the directors who storm out of the doors of NYU or USC film school. We also need artists who are a little off-beat, who bring a unique zest to life. And that was Lynn Shelton’s wheelhouse. Her films were quirky, up in the air, unsuspecting treats. The scripts were usually improved by her and her actors, resulting in movies that felt like real life. In her movies, as in life, sometimes you have no idea where you’re going or what’s going on, but eventually, you land right where you needed to.
I admired Lynn because she had the courage to take a leap of faith, shift gears, and begin a second life as a filmmaker. Proving that there’s no better time than now. Thanks to her drive and incredibly strong work ethic, she created the movies that she wanted to see out in the world. She also created, collaborated with, and stayed loyal to a crew of talented and dedicated misfits who followed their fearless leader wherever her inspiration led them. Shelton is a true hometown hero who was able to master the difficult art of making Seattle movies while cashing Los Angeles paychecks. That’s a hustle that so many people I know are striving to accomplish. They could find no better person than Lynn Shelton to take notes from about how to pull it off so gracefully.
Her death came as a shock to many people, most especially her partner, the comedian, and actor Marc Maron. He recently opened up about how it happened on his podcast. If you want to learn more about her, it’s really worth listening to. He tells the story of her horribly sudden and unexpected death, pausing every so often to control a tremor of grief in his voice. He also notes how loved she was, what a wonderful mother she was, and how beautifully generous she was to her friends and fellow artists. As I listened to it, I realized how incredibly lucky anyone was to call her a friend.
Lynn Shelton was a storyteller through and through, and we are fortunate to know that her story doesn’t stop here.