The director of ‘Humpday’ and ‘Outside In’ shares her advice on making a career for yourself in the industry.
As a director, producer, writer, editor, and actor, Lynn Shelton is a multi-talented filmmaker. Starting out in the industry as a film editor, Shelton transitioned to directing with her first feature, We Go Way Back, which was released in 2006. Since then she’s made a handful of other films, including Your Sister’s Sister and Touchy Feely, and she’s helmed many episodes of major television shows including Mad Men, Fresh Off the Boat, and New Girl.
Because she’s been so successful in her career, interviewers regularly ask her how she does it and how others could learn from her. We’ve collected some of her lessons newcomers to the field of filmmaking below.
Make Your Movie
If you’re an aspiring filmmaker, first and foremost, you’ve got to be proactive. At the 2009 Film Independent Spirit Awards, during her acceptance speech for the “Someone to Watch” award, Shelton gave some motivational advice:
“Anyone of you who are out there thinking that you can’t make a movie because nobody is stepping up to the plate and giving you money and permission to do it. You can. You can do it. You can empower yourself. You can pick up a camera. The technology is there. You can get your friends together and you can make a movie. You should do it. Now.”
This is pretty much her one big tip that she shares in a lot of interviews and Q&As and speeches. She expressed the advice in an interview with The Atlantic in 2013:
“You don’t need to ask for permission from very powerful money people to make your work. You can just grab a camera and go make your film. The digital revolution has really empowered people.”
And again to Women and Hollywood in 2018:
“The same advice I have for all directors: Don’t wait for permission to tell your story. Just go out, and make it. You really have no excuse not to at this point.”
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times in 2014. Shelton further emphasized the point, noting how much easier it is to make a movie on your own today:
“The main reason women make inroads in independent film is that no one has to say, ‘I pick you.’ I’m not pounding on anybody’s door. I’m just making my own way. You can buy a camera for $1,500. It’s insane how easy it is to make a movie. You can make mistakes and throw it under the rug and keep going. You’re not dependent on other people allowing you to do it.”
Work in Television
Shelton hasn’t actually recommended other filmmakers try directing TV, as far as we can find, but she does emphasize how much it’s benefited her so much that it’s easy to read into these claims as suggestive to others as well. In a 2018 Anthem interview, she discusses how she started doing television to pay the bills and expected it to be an occasional thing. But it’s been more than something to fall on. It’s been something to also life her up as a director. She says:
“When I finally got on the set of ‘Outside In,’ I was really struck by what a different filmmaker I had become. I just felt more at ease and more confident. I realized it was because I had been on set constantly. Just getting your directing muscles exercised and being on set all the time when you do a lot of TV is incredible! With each episode of everything I do, there’s always some challenge, or five or 10, that I never would’ve set for myself. I would’ve been too chicken shit to do it. I did an episode of ‘Shameless’ and there’s so much stuff, including a car chase, a car crash, and a baby being born on a kitchen table. It’s insanity! It’s just one after another. I learn so much on every single show.”
And don’t worry about going from indie filmmaking to the big, fast productions of TV episodes. Back in 2014, Shelton told DGA Quarterly that it’s also beneficial to work in low-budget filmmaking if you plan on directing for television:
“I had this moment, driving to the set the first day, thinking, ‘What if I can’t do this?’ I’d never walked onto a soundstage before—never worked with a union crew. But it turned out that making micro-budget movies is a great boot camp for doing television because of the pace. You have to make decisions so quickly, and I realized it’s the exact same job. You’re shaping the scenes, tracking the performers’ arcs, collaborating with the DP and the costume designer—you just have more people and more toys to work with.”
Value Your Creative Collaborators
One of the most important parts of being a director is understanding that making a film is a team effort. You want everyone on set to feel valued and respected and happy and keep a positive and supportive vibe. She learned this especially when working on low-budget films and it was very important to carry it over to other work since. She told DGA Quarterly in 2013:
“If somebody is having a crappy day it can affect everything… One of the things I wanted to explore was: Could I keep the intimate feeling of my tiny, family-style film sets where everybody is really excited to be there and on the same page, and it’s a really positive experience for everybody?… People of all different stripes from different departments from high to low, were coming up to me and saying, ‘Usually by this time on a production someone is driving me out of my mind and I want to strangle them, I can’t wait to finish. But this? The weeks have flown by. People just had a great time and it made me really happy to hear that.”
In an interview with Paste magazine in 2017, Shelton shared more detail of how she achieves such a great vibe on her sets, emphasizing that respecting your creative relationships is a necessary and rewarding part of the process:
“I’m all about creating an emotionally safe space. And it’s not just for them either; it’s for everybody on set. Because I want everybody to be working with all of their creative pistons going 100 percent. That goes for my art department, and that goes for my DP, and that goes for everybody. They all should feel valued and respected. And that, if they have a suggestion, they’ll be heard.
“It’s all self-serving, because it’s all for the good of the movie. If everybody feels valued and respected, and like they’re having a really good time, it’s just going to bring the best out of everybody. Because it really is true that it’s our movie. I really do feel like I’m at my best as a director when I’m a curator of other people’s genius.”
It’s something she’s learned in particular by working on TV projects that aren’t her own “babies” and needing to be a collaborator. She adds to Paste:
“I’ve been questioning the last few months, like, ‘Maybe it’s OK to shift my idea of myself as a creator into that fold. Of being more of a collaborator, but one of many collaborators.’ I think of Reed Morano—she didn’t direct every episode of ‘Handmaid’s Tale,’ she wasn’t the writer of ‘Handmaid’s Tale’ or the creator, but she’s given so much credit, and well-deserved, for helping create that vision. I’m kind of getting into that idea, because of the level of projects that I’m attaching to. I get really invested. And I really do love that relationship-based work with other creatives that you really respect and value.”
— J. Brad Wilke (@jbwilke) September 27, 2015
In an After School Special Q&A with the School of Visual Arts in 2014, Shelton expressed the same point, while also adding that actually trusting your collaborators is necessary for fostering successful creative relationships.
“It’s all about who are your collaborators. That’s the most important thing. And then once you have the people that are the right people and that you can trust them, you need to actually trust them. You need to actually give them an opportunity to input, and not micromanage them. Not make it like you’re the only one doing it. If you can do that, if you can actually find collaborators you can trust, actually trust them, and make it our project instead of just your project, I find that kind of collaboration is going to bring the best out of you and everybody else and you’re going to have something that’s greater than the sum of its parts at the end of it. For me, it’s just the most exhilarating, most liberating, fantastic way to make work. My whole, everything I do now creatively, is all about relationship.”
Another essential part of encouraging good relationships with your collaborators involves being open to conversing with those funding your project about your creative choices as well as theirs. Shelton told Variety in 2014 that being inclusive in your creative process is key:
“It’s very easy to have creative freedom when you’re making movies for a very small amount of money. The more money involved, the more complicated it becomes because there are people involved who want to make sure they’re not throwing their cash down a big hole. As the director, you need to be ready to have conversations with those people and make sure everyone feels heard and feels part of the project.”
A Background in Editing Can Help
If being a director is your primary goal, understanding editing is an essential part of the job. Shelton expressed to MovieMaker magazine in 2015 how her editing background helps her on set, especially with improvised films:
“Another adage proclaims that the final script is written in the edit room. Once again, this is especially true with improvised films. I’ve often felt that one advantage I have in directing improvisation is my background as an editor. As the actors are finding their way through a scene, my editor brain is keeping track of whether or not we are gathering enough material to sew the scene together later. Sometimes the cameras will roll for 10, 20, 30 minutes on what will ultimately be sharpened into a five-minute scene. As long as the meat is in there somewhere, my editor and I will be able to hone in on it later. Make sure to have an excellent editor on board when you set out to make this kind of film. If they’ve had experience editing documentaries or other improvised performances, all the better.”
Acting and Directing are Different
While a background in acting can also be advantageous to an aspiring director, don’t get caught up in thinking knowing one means knowing the other. In an interview with IndieWire in 2015, Shelton recommended that actors study up on how to direct other actors:
“I wish someone had told me that acting is not the same thing as directing. Having experience working with actors as another actor does not automatically translate into being able to direct them. It gives you a great deal of empathy for the process (which is extremely useful) but directing actors requires a separate skill set and communication strategy than those used in acting.
“If you have an acting background, I recommend that you take a ‘Directing Actors’ class or at least read a book or two on the topic before taking on the challenge. Judith Weston’s ‘Directing Actors‘ was a helpful starting point for me. If I’d read it before directing my first feature instead of after, it would have made the process that much easier on both my cast and myself!”
Of course, she does see a benefit to having an acting background and says she continues to look for some acting work every now and then to remind herself of the experience. In the Paste interview, she says:
“It just keeps me empathetic. It reminds me of the fact that everybody is working their asses off on a film, but nobody has a harder job than the actor. And it is so easy to forget that! Especially if you keep working with higher and higher caliber actors. Because they are the ones that make it look so easy. They make it look like nothing. They make it look like breathing. But it’s not. It is freaking hard to be un-self-consciously, emotionally available in the most artificial situation. You’re doing scenes out of order. You have to do the scenes again and again and again…I think the thing I offer most as a fellow actor—or, really, a former actor—is empathy. For [the actor’s] experience. And the vulnerability. And what that costs you.”
When asked for some quick advice on Twitter in 2014 Shelton replied:
@Zach_Baum Remember to BREATHE!
— Lynn Shelton (@lynnsheltonfilm) November 5, 2014
What We Learned
If you want to be a filmmaker, you can’t wait around for someone to hand you the money or the resources to do it, because that may never happen. Instead, take it upon yourself to gather friends and affordable equipment and make your movie. Then try TV and return to film again. Remembering to respect and value those who work alongside you is necessary and will strengthen your project overall. Bringing other talents you may have to the director’s chair, such as editing or acting, can be beneficial to your project, but don’t kid yourself into thinking they’re the same things. Filmmaking can be a very rewarding job, but also a stressful one, so remember to also stop and take a breath every now and then.