Divine inspiration struck Lynn Shelton at a pawn shop. She didn’t actually go in the pawn shop, but she was passing it by it and it hit her: Marc Maron was going to play a pawn shop owner.
The celebrated indie film director (Humpday, Your Sister’s Sister), director of pretty much all of your favorite TV shows (even if you didn’t notice that it’s her name in the credits), and helmer of the upcoming limited series Little Fires Everywhere (starring little-known actresses Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington) had been wanting to work with her friend. She tends to do that, find ways to work with her friends, and this time it was Maron, the prolific podcaster and comedian whom Shelton worked with on GLOW, she struggled to come up with a concept for.
Then she passed the pawn shop and had a vision of Maron, his chevron mustache, and general “beleaguered weariness” vibe behind the counter. It’s a funny thing to be said about a person, that you can see them perfectly as a pawn shop owner.
“It is,” Shelton says, throwing her head back into a sort of musical laugh, as if, through all the times she’s told this story, she hadn’t considered that before. “It’s so true with Marc, though. Curmudgeonly pawn shop owner. Why didn’t someone think of this before me?”
Maron does indeed play Mel, a pawn shop owner and curmudgeon in Shelton’s latest film, Sword of Trust, which opened in limited release last week after a well-received debut at SXSW this spring and a strong festival run. It’s Shelton’s eighth film, one that finds her both thriving in her wheelhouse—the film is largely improvised—and exploring a bit of a departure: It is her first out-and-out comedy. It’s also more topical, and maybe even political, than fans of her work may be used to.
Co-starring Jillian Bell, Michaela Watkins, and Jon Bass, Sword of Trust centers on Cynthia (Bell) and Mary (Watkins), a couple who, after Cynthia inherits an antique sword from her grandfather, takes the heirloom to the pawn shop run by Maron’s Mel. While trying to appraise it, Mel discovers a community of online conspiracy theorists who collect Confederacy artifacts and believe the sword provides them further proof that the South won the Civil War.
Joined by Mel’s pawn shop minion, played by Bass, the four characters then plunge into a rabbit hole of racism, conspiracy theories, post-truth, and white nationalists as they attempt to get top dollar for grandpappy’s sword.
“I wanted to make a movie that felt culturally relevant without making you want to slit your wrists,” Shelton says when we meet on a rainy afternoon in New York. (The longtime Seattle resident is unbothered.)
The idea of alternative facts and people’s impulses to “just make up shit” that fit conveniently into their own agendas had been weighing heavily on her, especially as the “conspiracy-theorist-in-chief” took office. But she reiterates again, should you be confused about the tone of Sword of Trust, “I wanted to make a satire. I wanted to make something you could laugh at as opposed to something that would just, like, grip you with terror.”
Sword of Trust is arriving at something of a pivotal moment in Shelton’s career. Well, another pivotal moment.
She’s talked at length about that first one, back in 2003. Then, exasperated with her career as a professional juggler of sorts—an actress, freelance film editor, and experimental filmmaker—she attended a Film Forum Q&A with director Claire Denis. Shelton was 37 at the time, and struck by the fact that Denis made her first feature film when she was 40. She was no longer shy about being a late bloomer, and set to work on her own 2006 micro-budget directorial debut, We Go Way Back.
Her big breakout came with 2009’s Humpday, about two straight best friends who decide to make a gay porn together as part of an art film project. It’s a film that, for its absurd and eye-catching log line, was rooted in a particular emotional realism and intimacy that would become the hallmark of Shelton’s future projects. (It also proved her theory that she was more adept at directing films that were largely improvised than fully scripted.)
Humpday won a Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, helped spark the “mumblecore” film movement, and catapulted Shelton to the top of any list of hot indie directors. Everyone from Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner to actors like Emily Blunt and Rachel Weisz called wanting to work with her, setting in motion a fruitful career in both TV and film.
It’s now 10 years since that Humpday breakout, a decade in which Shelton has directed more than 40 episodes of the decade’s best TV series (Mad Men, Master of None, The Good Place, GLOW, Casual, New Girl) while continuing to make the kinds indie of movies she loves to make, on her terms.
“My original plan when I first started working in television did sort of pan out, actually,” she says. “The idea was that I would be able to pay my bills through television and then go back to film and have my babies where I keep creative control. And I have really been able to do that.”
She laughs remembering that Mad Men, of all things, was her very first TV job, and it happened because Weiner saw and loved Humpday. “I mean you can see why, because they’re exactly alike,” she jokes. But the kind of schedule she had to keep to finish that film in 10 days, not to mention her background as an editor, made her perfectly suited for a job directing for television, in which there’s never enough time to film what you need.
To that end, Little Fires Everywhere, the Hulu limited series based on Celeste Ng’s best-selling novel, will be Shelton’s highest-profile project yet—she’s on board to executive produce as well as direct Witherspoon and Washington in four of the eight episodes—and she knows what that could mean for her career. “It’s going to reach a wider audience than probably any of the movies I’ve ever made,” she says. “I don’t know if my movies will ever do that.” She grins: “But I can’t worry about that. I just have to keep making them.”
She’s been under a lot of pressure to develop her own television series for that very reason. Not to mention that, at the moment, it’s where much of Hollywood’s financial and creative capital is being funneled. “My brain just doesn’t think that way,” she says. “I like to drop into a group of characters’ lives, live with them for a little while, and then just pull out again knowing that they’re going to keep going forward.”
With each film Shelton makes, her profile grows, with bigger stars wanting to work with her, festivals desperate to host screenings, and more media calling to feature her in profiles and interviews. Little Fires Everywhere will escalate that even more.
I ask her what she wants to make of that opportunity. So often we hear about a (typically male) indie filmmaker who is drafted to direct superhero movies and major blockbusters off the success of one splashy film and a sudden spike in notoriety. Should such opportunities ever truly be gender-equal—ha!—Shelton says she’s not closed off to the idea, “except probably a horror movie.”
She likes superhero films, and thinks that if she ever felt a strong personal connection to a major project, she’d love the chance to work within that budget. That’s part of why she pitched herself so hard for Little Fires Everywhere, a production with a crew size nearly 50 times that of Humpday. The story resonated with her deeply.
“I think about Brokeback Mountain,” she says. “Or The Ice Storm, or The Descendants. There’s a certain scale of movie that’s not those giant tent pole movies, but not micro-budget—the adult drama. That’s what I really want to make. It would be seen enough that it could get Oscar recognition, you know? Enough people would actually see it to know it exists.”
Last month, the American Cinematheque in Los Angeles hosted a retrospective on her career, screening her entire filmography. Shelton sat through the whole thing, which was at once exhausting, humbling, and validating. “It was really fun to realize that I have a body of work, you know? And if I never made another movie, I would leave behind a body of work that I’m really proud of.”
It’s not every filmmaker whose career really starts to take off because of a movie about two best friends who think about screwing each other in an amateur porno. But at the same time, it couldn’t be more fitting.
“I have a friend who was in a band, and that band had a hit song,” she says. It was a huge hit, and it drove him crazy. The song didn’t represent who they were as artists. He came to resent that it was what they became known for.
“I always feel grateful that I made a film that really felt like it was me at my best as a filmmaker, that is who I am, that represents me,” she says. “It’s a great calling card, you know? Because that doesn’t happen to everybody.”