Lynn Shelton on Overcoming Her Darkest Moment on Set

I last spoke with my friend Lynn Shelton on March 17, just weeks before she passed away suddenly. She was simultaneously one of my role models as a director, one of my very favorite interview subjects, and a true friend in an industry famous for inauthentic ones.

I had asked her for a favor for a book I’m working on, “How I Got Through It,” interviews about self-care for creative types, and as always Lynn was eager to contribute. She called me from the home of her romantic and creative partner, Marc Maron, and we talked for nearly two hours. As befitted our friendship, she was open, unguarded, self-effacing and thoughtful as she discussed one of the hardest times in her life, when she was shooting her Sundance sensation “Your Sister’s Sister.”

Though she spoke about turning to therapy for other situations and getting more sleep as well, in this edited excerpt from our conversation, she talked about what happened and how she ultimately turned to meditation.

What was the toughest time, or one of the toughest times, of your adult life?

There was this period, I don’t remember when it started, but it really hit hard right before, and in the middle of, shooting a film. When I woke up to it and thought, Oh, this is a real thing.

“Your Sister’s Sister” was my third feature. And when I was filming those [first] two films, I had never been happier in my entire life. I felt like my whole being was lit on fire. I was so happy. And I was surrounded by people I loved; I was collaborating with them. I couldn’t wait to get on set again because I was just so high there.

[“Your Sister’s Sister” was filming] in one of the most beautiful places on earth [the San Juan Islands, in Washington]. We’d been able to lock down this perfect compound. We were all able to sleep and live on the same property. We marched every day on foot to the picture house. And we had friends make meals for us. It was this two-week-long beautiful retreat, this perfect little bubble of all my favorite people. Heaven. Right?

Credit…IFC Films

And I was just miserable every day. I would only get about four hours’ sleep a night. I would wake up in the morning and think, why are we doing this? What’s the purpose? What’s the point? It was so sad, and nobody knew I was going through it because I was honestly ashamed. Because I knew how privileged I was, and what a beautiful experience this should be. And it was so mysterious. I didn’t understand why I was so depressed. I didn’t share it with anybody because it was so embarrassing.

How did you deal with the issues that were brought up on set?

It took a couple of years. I remember hearing a piece on NPR, a woman doing a testimonial about her experience with postpartum depression. She said, I’m looking at this baby and I understand objectively what I should be feeling. And I felt nothing. That was exactly how I felt about the film in the edit room. Are people going to care about this? I just could not connect to the film.

I heard that [NPR] piece, and I was like, Oh my God, I’m going through postpartum depression. I’m feeling the exact same thing. By the time we actually turned it in to festivals, or maybe it wasn’t until the festival premiere, it finally hit me. I remember it like a fog lifting. Oh my God, I love my movie. Thank God. Thank God it exists.

It felt like it was so hormonal. I addressed my sleep issues and stuff like that. Now I have friends whose lives have been saved by drugs, by antidepressants. But I really wanted to explore every other option first. It just felt like I could probably deal with it in other ways.

Credit…Barbara Kinney/A24

What helped you get through it?

Meditation is a really important piece. I started by reading every book I could and trying out different practices. At the time there were no apps.

But somebody gave me “Catching the Big Fish” by David Lynch. I read that book [which discusses Transcendental Meditation] and I remember saying, Oh my God, I want that. He talks about how it affects his creativity, and I was really interested in that, too. I’ve always been interested in different states of consciousness, and I yearned to be in this other place that he described.

After directing “Laggies,” a studio film that brought her first decent paycheck, she tried Transcendental Meditation.

The very first time, I felt like I was on some sort of hallucinogenic drug trip. I got so high. It’s funny because I say high and deep at the same time, but it’s like flying in a deep way. I don’t even know how to explain it. It was so different than anything I’d ever experienced in any other form of meditation. That was it; I was hooked.

Shelton went on to practice twice daily for 20 minutes at a time, anywhere she could find a spot, even in a set trailer or a parked car.

And what does that time do for you?

It’s like this gigantic reset button. It’s like getting high twice a day with nothing but great side effects, no hangover. I will say it changes. Sometimes if I’m really stressed out and there’s a lot going on in my brain, I’ll go through the monkey mind thing, and I’ll gently have to return to the mantra.

I’m a pretty high-strung person, or I was. On the first shooting day, there’s fires to put out. It can get very stressful. And then you get that reset button. You’re just like, OK, I’m ready for the next part of the day.

Do you have an idea how it addressed what you were feeling at the time?

The way prisoners describe it, it is a freedom from this horrible situation you’re in. And even to this day, if I’m having a really bad day — I still have a blue day, where I don’t even know where it’s coming from — when I’m meditating, it feels like such a relief.

Credit…Geisha Years

Shelton went on to describe how meditating had changed her.

With my first feature film, I remember we were losing a location and we were going to have one less day [and were also] running out of film or something. We had a whole two more scenes to get through. So I had to snap into — it was a fight-or-flight kind of thing. My adrenaline went way up, my cortisol level went way up, and I was able to cut out about three quarters of the coverage I was going to get, and figure out how to address this issue.

But then I couldn’t return to a normal state again. I couldn’t come back down. And my second A.D. [assistant director] had to take me for a walk and be like, Lynn, pull it together. You’re OK. Everything’s cool. And I had to really work hard to go back down to base level. Having now meditated for a number of years, I can do that. I can appropriately respond to that situation, but then I can reset and be OK.

[When] my depression peaked during the production and editing phase of “Your Sister’s Sister,” I developed an eating disorder. I became a compulsive eater, just out of control, like what the hell is going on?

I had this idea that [meditation] was going to be a magic bullet. It’s going to solve my depression, it’s going to solve my eating disorder. I’m going to be a perfect person. Well obviously, that did not happen, but it still was a life changer. It really helped on every level of dealing with stress, with toxic work situations, with addictive behaviors, with all kinds of self-acceptance and self-forgiveness. When I go back and remember specific circumstances or experiences five years ago compared to now, it’s like, Oh yeah, I’m a different person.

Michael Dunaway, a filmmaker and editor at large of Paste Magazine, is at work on “How I Got Through It.”

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