Lynn Shelton in 2013.
Lynn Shelton in 2013. Photograph: Jeff Vespa/WireImage

Lynn Shelton remembered by Mark Duplass

Lynn Shelton in 2013. Photograph: Jeff Vespa/WireImage

27 August 1965 – 16 May 2020

The actor, writer and director on a film-maker with a generosity of spirit and love for her performers that elevated indie movies and big-budget TV alike

by Mark Duplass

Last modified on Mon 14 Dec 2020 08.27 EST

I met Lynn Shelton in 2007, on the set of a small Seattle independent film I was acting in called True Adolescents. At that point in her career, she had already directed two feature films but, true to Lynn’s deep sense of community, she was volunteering her time as an on-set photographer because the film’s tiny budget could not afford one.

We struck up an immediate friendship. We talked about film-making. About our different processes. She was very open about what she liked about her previous films and what she didn’t like. I was introduced to her signature high-pitched cackle. The one that said: “All of this is hard but that hard is also funny and there is also a ton of light in the hard so I am going to laugh, laugh, laugh.” Needless to say, I, like everyone who was lucky enough to meet her, was taken by her life force and indomitable spirit.

At one point, she told me about the opening scene to her then-latest film, My Effortless Brilliance. It was made with a budget of maybe two nickels, along with two of her male friends as the lead actors. In my experience, when an indie film-maker talks about their micro-budget film that didn’t set the world on fire, they either apologise for its faults or grumble about the lack of resources that limited its ability to shine. But it was different with Lynn. The way she talked about the film… there was so much love, in particular for the actors. The pure adoration of everything they did. Without an ounce of “and just you wait until I get Joaquin Phoenix in there”.

A few weeks after we wrapped, I got a call from Lynn. She had an idea for a film about two straight male friends who dare each other to make a pornographic film for a local film festival. I loved the premise. I loved Lynn. I immediately offered to help connect her with whatever “name actor” contacts I had made in my recent sojourn in Los Angeles. Then she asked me to star in it. She said she didn’t want to wait around looking for a movie star who may or may not be willing to do this movie. She didn’t want to wait for financiers who may or may not give us the money. She wanted to work with me. And our talented cast and crew of friends.

And so Lynn Shelton, at age 42, embarked on her third feature. Again with a cast of unknown actors and again with two nickels (maybe three this time). The film was called Humpday and this time it did set the world on fire. Or, at least, the independent film world. It was accepted into the Sundance film festival, where Lynn ignored the festival rules and brought her entire cast and crew on stage for the post-screening Q&A session. She always insisted that everyone get their proper credit.

Lynn Shelton and Mark Duplass in 2012.
Lynn Shelton and Mark Duplass in 2012. Photograph: Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

We made a few more small films in this way together and then our careers took us in different directions for a spell. Luckily enough, our paths crossed last year on the set of The Morning Show where I was acting and she was directing. I hadn’t seen her for a while. When I saw her on set we shared a deep, knowing smile. One that expressed the irony of our micro-budget roots somehow landing us at the centre of this multimillion-dollar production. And then she gave me that cackle.

Later that day, I was able to watch her direct for a bit from the sidelines, to see that her love of the process, if anything, had only increased through the years. She took as much joy directing our leading movie stars as she did the performers of the bit-part roles, enveloping them all equally in her little cocoon of love, adoration and support. And that is how I remember her most. So many great qualities, endless, really. But as a film-maker who just loved her actors. Delighted in them. Made them feel absolutely certain that they were perfect exactly as they are.