“I never expected to make a living doing my art,” Lynn Shelton said during the press tour for her latest film, Laggies (2014). The Seattle-based filmmaker didn’t feel a burning desire to become a director until her late 30s.
She worked in theater, moved to New York to study photography, and worked as a film editor on friends’ movies. “I just did not have the confidence to do it,” Shelton said in a 2009 interview with The New York Times. “And then I had to find a backdoor way in. I couldn’t even go to film school, I had to start making my little movies and learning about editing.”
When she moved back to Seattle in 1999, she was embraced by a small but burgeoning film community and in 2004, was given a half million dollars to write and direct her first feature, We Go Way Back, which is about a young actress who is confronted by her 13-year-old self. Shelton prided herself on having an all Seattle crew and actors. The film went on to win the Jury Prize at Slamdance Film Festival in 2006.
“I was getting a few gigs in L.A.,” Shelton said in an interview with Anne Thompson. “But I wasn’t getting reps coming to me, asking to work with me, and I didn’t want to leave Seattle. So I thought, ‘Well, I’ll just keep doing what I want to be doing.’”
In 2006 at the Maryland Film Festival, she became friends with director Joe Swanberg, whose films are part of the Mumblecore film movement. Shelton had not found the invasive equipment and large crew on her first film conducive to creativity, so on her next project, she wanted to apply two of Mumblecore’s qualities to the filmmaking process: a pared down production and improvised dialogue. She self-produced her next film, My Effortless Brilliance.
Shelton said she was teaching a filmmaking course at the time and on her summer break, she borrowed a camera and would go out and make a film with her friends. “I enjoy teaching and I thought it would just sort of supplement my films, in that way.”
She cites her third film, Humpday, as changing everything. The film, which stars the now popular Mark Duplass, got into Sundance and was quickly bought and offered a distribution deal through Magnolia Pictures. “I got people from agents and managers wanting to represent me, sending me scripts, and then suddenly, I had a way to get into television, which is something I had always been interested in, to make a little extra cash, because there’s so much good television,” Shelton said.
Shelton’s first TV directing gig was on Mad Men and since then, she’s directed several episodes of New Girl and The Mindy Project. Most recently, she directed her first pilot, that of the new ABC sitcom, Fresh Off the Boat.
Her early films were often labeled by critics and viewers alike as being “male” or “female”. We Go Way Back centers on a young woman, but My Effortless Brilliance and Humpday are both about men or male friendships. Shelton dismisses the categorization, although in a 2008 interview, she said that on the film festival circuit for My Effortless Brilliance, people would be at the screenings, so curious to know why a woman would want to make this movie about men. “Men make movies about women all the time,” Shelton stated.
Although Humpday was Shelton’s breakthrough moment, the jewel in her crown may be Your Sister’s Sister, the 2011 film that stars Duplass, Emily Blunt, and Rosemarie DeWitt.
Even though the title has a female relationship in the name, the film actually starts out with another familial relationship: brothers. Jack (Duplass) is still mourning the death of his brother Tom after nearly a year. His best friend, Iris (Emily Blunt)–who incidentally used to date Jack’s brother Tom– serves him some tough-love about getting his shit together. She offers up her dad’s lake house as a place he can crash and work through some things.
After biking out to the island, Jack shows up at the house only to discover Iris’s sister Hannah (DeWitt) had the same idea. She’s mourning the recent break-up of a several years long relationship from her partner Pam. Tequila is drunk. Hannah and Jack end up in bed together. And then Iris shows up at the lake house the next day.
Hannah and Jack agree to keep their dalliance under wraps, especially after Iris confesses to Hannah that she has feelings for Jack, but is afraid of screwing up their friendship.
Exploring and observing the Washington scenery and wilderness plays a big part in Your Sister’s Sister, but also truly suits the mood of the piece. Jack is supposed to be mourning and rediscovering himself in these beautiful surroundings and the visual montages allow viewers to truly immerse themselves in the setting.
Shelton—who is known for her improvised films—gives scenes room to breathe, not only in the dialogue, but in the cinematography and composition, and the long silences and quiet moments are true to real life. The performances prick an emotional vain, especially for those who have a close brotherly or sisterly bond in their own lives.
As Duplass describes it, “It’s a dramatic Shakespearean bed-switching comedy with a certain emotional gravity behind it.”
He gets it exactly right. Even with the goofy hijinxs which make the film entertaining and the characters endearing, Shelton isn’t afraid to explore deeper universal feelings of love, loss, and grief.