Prior to this week’s Emmy nominations announcement, SHOOT connected with various contenders going back to our Emmy Preview and then this ongoing The Road To Emmy series of features which started some two-and-a-half months ago. As it turns out, a good number of the artisans we covered ended up in this season’s circle of Emmy nominees but the one that stands out is Lynn Shelton whom we interviewed for our The Road To Emmy Preview story which broke on May 8. About a week later came the shocking news that Shelton had died at the age of 54 from a blood disorder.
Fast forward to this past Tuesday and Shelton was among the Emmy nominees--for Outstanding Directing for a Limited Series, Movie or Dramatic Special on the strength of her work on the “Find A Way” installment of Little Fires Everywhere (Hulu). Shelton, who was also an executive producer on the limited series, directed half of its episodes.
Her parents, Wendy Roedell and David “Mac” Shelton released a statement upon learning of Lynn’s Emmy nomination. It read, “That Lynn is honored by the Television Academy is not only a tribute to her accomplishments as a director but her style of directing. Always in control but kind-hearted. Making the final decisions but always soliciting input from her colleagues. Colleagues, yes, that is how she regarded everyone on the set, from grips and gaffers and set and costume designers to the director of photography and the actors. This is an honor for the ultimate collaborationist who knew that she would produce her best if she teased the best out of her teammates.”
A nominee’s reflections
Here are some insights that Lynn Shelton shared with SHOOT in our The Road To Emmy Preview feature story:
Shelton noted that directing an episode of The Morning Show starring Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon and Steve Carell proved fortuitous--not just because of the experience she enjoyed on that Apple TV+ series but also the opportunity it afforded her to get together with Witherspoon and her producing partner, Lauren Levy Neustadter.
Neustadter went on to send over a copy of Celeste Ng’s 2017 novel, “Little Fires Everywhere,” to gauge Shelton’s interest in the project. The book, of course, spawned the acclaimed Hulu series of the same title, featuring a cast which includes Witherspoon, Kerry Washington, Rosemarie DeWitt, Jade Pettyjohn, Jordan Elsass, Gavin Lewis, Megan Stott, Lexi Underwood and Huang Lu. Shelton wound up directing four of the eight episodes, as well as serving as an executive producer of the limited series, which was produced by Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine, Washington’s Simpson Street and ABC Signature Studios, a part of Disney Television Studios.
Little Fires Everywhere follows the intertwined fates of the picture-perfect Richardson family and an enigmatic mother and daughter who upend their lives. Witherspoon portrays Elena Richardson, a well-to-do mother of four, while Washington plays Mia Warren, a nomadic single mom.
Shelton was drawn to the story, recalling that Ng’s book “really resonated with me so hard and on so many different levels, in a very personal kind of way. I’m a mom--on paper I led Elena Richardson’s life but always wanted Mia’s life. As a kid, I dreamed of being a single artist mom. I went to the School of Visual Arts...As a kid I was a poet, just like Pearl (daughter Pearl Warren, portrayed by Underwood). I felt all these very intense parallels, very personal connections with these characters.”
Shelton pursued the project aggressively, creating a 99-page look book and doing multiple pitch presentations to get the gig. Her commitment ran deep as for the first time she served as a producing director on a television series. While she was accustomed to making her own movies as an indie filmmaker, she had subsequently diversified into TV as solely a director on episodic fare and several pilots. She jumped into the producing TV fray with Little Fires Everywhere and the experience whetted her appetite to take on the dual role again, as long as it’s for “the right project.” Unlike when making her own features, Shelton said a producing director in TV has you “in service to someone else’s vision,” which she embraced as “a truly collaborative role. You just have to make sure you are going in the same direction,” and have a belief in the vision. Little Fires Everywhere checked off all the boxes in terms of those prerequisites.
Assembling the team, of course, is key and Shelton turned to familiar and new collaborators. An example of the latter was cinematographer Trevor Forrest who lensed all four of the Little Fires Everywhere installments she directed. Shelton’s DP was one of the last roles to be filled, she recalled, noting that there were meetings with a lot of different lensers. “It was a long search process. He came in and simply blew us away with his presentation, his vision and his passion. He’s very meticulous.” Shelton had an extra measure of confidence going in relative to her DP selection, relating that director Patty Jenkins had previously worked with Forrest and gave him a strong thumbs-up. “Patty and I have a mutual admiration going, we’ve exchanged congratulatory emails,” said Shelton, explaining that her endorsement of Forrest meant a lot.
On the flip side, Shelton gravitated on the editing side to a colleague with whom she already had first-hand experience, Tyler L. Cook. “We originally met when he was the editor assigned to me for the first two seasons of GLOW. We cut three episodes of that show together. I really loved working with him,” recollected Shelton. “I have worked with fantastic editors in the television realm. He was something special--smart, good instincts, very well versed in cinema. He put me to shame with his encyclopedic knowledge of cinema. He’s incredibly ego-free. I then asked him to edit my last movie (the comedy-drama Sword of Trust). It was a small indie film which we edited in his house. I basically moved into this little den in his cottage. His family basically adopted me for a summer and we really bonded.” Cook wound up having an editorial hand in multiple episodes of Little Fires Everywhere, including the first as well as the finale.
Also in the editors’ mix on Little Fires Everywhere were two collaborators new to Shelton, Phyllis Housen and Amelia Allwarden. Housen cut a couple of episodes, including working directly with Shelton on “The Spider Web” (episode 4), bringing a feature film sensibility to the process. Housen’s body of work includes writer-director Chinonye Chukwu’s acclaimed film Clemency, starring Alfre Woodard and which won the Dramatic Grand Jury Prize at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, as well as earning three nominations, including Best Feature, at the 2020 Film Independent Spirit Awards. Shelton said that Housen has “a unique way of approaching material, almost poetic.” Coming from features, Housen has a brand of cutting that translates, assessed Shelton, into “a beautiful, languid experience,” which isn’t the norm in TV.
Allwarden cut multiple episodes, including “Duo” (episode 5) and also impressed Shelton. “I thought Amelia was spectacular...I was an editor for years and it’s where the artistry happens. It can make or break a story. It’s the final gateway. I’m not one of those who can walk away from the process. I have to be in the room if at all humanly possible.” However, scheduling didn’t allow Shelton to spend as much time as she would have liked in the editing room with Allwarden. Still, Shelton could see the final results. The producing director said of Allwarden, “I loved her work.”
Shelton described Little Fires Everywhere as being “the most collaborative experience I’ve ever had. I have always been collaborative but still I felt I learned a lot about collaboration, about finding the best way to tell the story, to be super respectful of the process that everybody is going through, that over-communication is better than under-communication even if it feels you’re being redundant at times. And you communicate in different ways--with still images, storyboarding, writing.”
The experience also proved to be a balancing act, being ambitious and thinking big yet within the parameters of not having an unlimited budget. “I never really had to tackle a job that had the kind of visual effects this one did,” related Shelton. “The big house fire was such a lesson in the amount of time we had, how it had to be carefully thought out, starting with research and ways to approach it, what we could afford in terms of budget, making it really look great and having the impact we needed. That was just one aspect. Throughout the entire series, we had to prioritize, doing justice to the vision, the beauty and emotion but staying efficient relative to the budget...You had to think big, not extravagant but with a sense of vision and scope. You had to be flexible enough to realize that if you can’t have the entire universe, how about just this galaxy--only these number of stars and this moon but not all of Saturn. You learn a lot. It was eye opening, challenging and inspiring.”
“Of A Certain Age” Grant
To honor the legacy of Shelton, Seattle’s Northwest Film Forum, alongside Duplass Brothers Productions, recently launched the Lynn Shelton “Of a Certain Age” Grant. The $25,000 unrestricted cash grant will be awarded each year to a U.S.-based woman or non-binary filmmaker, age 39 or older, who has yet to direct a narrative feature. Shelton often spoke of feeling inspired after seeing filmmaker Claire Denis speak at Northwest Film Forum and learning that Denis did not make her first feature until age 40. Shelton went on to make her own first feature film (We Go Way Back) at the age of 39.
In the years since, she built a prolific canon of feature and television work and made an indelible mark on the landscape of American cinema. The grant fund was spearheaded by Duplass Brothers Productions, which includes Mark Duplass, Jay Duplass and Mel Eslyn, and has since been bolstered by many others, including Washington-based production company COLOR, Tracy Rector, Eliza Flug, Marc Maron, Joshua Leonard & Alison Pill, Michaela Watkins & Fred Kramer, CB Shamah, Chris & Philip Wohlstetter, and Jennessa & Robert West. It will be stewarded by Northwest Film Forum, one of Shelton’s favorite non-profit organizations and a community film center that supported her in her early years and throughout her career.
“In an industry where women, non-binary, and trans individuals have historically had less success and visibility, hearing Lynn Shelton’s story of coming into film at an older age has been extremely inspiring,” said Vivian Hua, executive director of Northwest Film Forum. “The scope of this grant will ensure a positive impact on the lives of future recipients for years to come.”
Eslyn, president of Duplass Brothers Productions, added, “There was an appreciation and an immediacy to the way Lynn approached her film and TV career, which she openly credited to her ‘late start.’ Now finding myself approaching the same age Lynn got started, I find it comical to think we call 39 a ‘late start.’ But the reality is there is just not enough representation of women over a ‘certain age’ in media, in front of, but even more so, behind the camera. We hope that this grant can be a meaningful step towards helping to change that.”
Nominations for the Lynn Shelton “Of a Certain Age” Grant are being sought from a national Advisory Committee made up of film programmers, filmmakers, and arts leaders, demonstrating expertise on the current filmmaking landscape and knowledge of emerging filmmakers from around the country. Some of these names are: Beth Barrett (Seattle International Film Festival), Emily Best (Seed & Spark), Effie Brown (Gamechanger Films), Kat Candler (filmmaker), Amy Dotson (Northwest Film Center), Miranda July (filmmaker), Mynette Louie (producer), Leah Meyerhoff (Film Fatales), Lucy Mukerjee (Tribeca Film Festival), Janet Pierson (SXSW Film Festival), Mike Plante (Sundance Film Festival), Rishi Rajani (Hillman Grad), and Tracy Rector (filmmaker/activist), among others. An Award Selection Committee will determine the recipient of the grant. Northwest Film Forum will award the inaugural grant in 2020.
Shelton emerged from her hometown of Seattle to become a major force in American independent cinema and a prolific television director. She was a vibrant, kind, creative human being. Her work drew acclaim for its compassion, humor, unique voice and wonderful performances. Shelton directed eight features including Humpday (2009), Your Sister’s Sister (2011), Outside In (2018), and last year’s Sword Of Trust. Shelton also worked in television, directing memorable episodes of acclaimed series, including Mad Men, GLOW, The Mindy Project and Little Fires Everywhere. For those looking to give in her honor, donations to the Shelton/Seal Family Fund for the Northwest School for Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Children, or Seattle’s Northwest Film Forum are encouraged.
This is the 12th installment in SHOOT’s 16-part weekly series of The Road To Emmy feature stories. The features explore the field of Emmy contenders, and then nominees spanning such disciplines as directing, writing, producing, showrunning, cinematography, editing, production design, music, sound and visual effects. The Road To Emmy series will then be followed by coverage of the Creative Arts Emmy winners in September, and the Primetime Emmy Awards later that month (9/20).