Kerry Washington Recalls the Joy and Vision of 'Little Fires Everywhere' Director Lynn Shelton

John P. Fleenor/Hulu
From left: Lauren Levy Neustadter, Liz Tigelaar, Pilar Savone, Lynn Shelton and Kerry Washington on the set of 'Little Fires Everywhere' in 2019. Shelton died May 16 of a blood disorder at age 54.

The star and executive producer remembers the independent filmmaker behind 'Humpday,' 'Your Sister’s Sister' and the Hulu miniseries — who died May 16 of a blood disorder at age 54 — as a kind and commanding collaborator.

When we set out to adapt Little Fires Everywhere, we had some creative hurdles to overcome. The show embodies a multitude of themes and explores several disparate points of view. Finding a director who could help tie it all together and communicate it — visually, emotionally and cinematically — posed a genuine challenge. Then we met Lynn Shelton.

When Lynn took her seat at the table to pitch her vision of the show, she came armed with a gorgeous lookbook. In it, she'd pulled pictures from films she loved, works from visual artists and images from popular culture. She'd assembled an aesthetic language for the entire series. As Lynn walked us through it, she generously told us intimate stories about her journey through life and how each of these adventures gave her a deep understanding of the characters and themes of our show. Her vision embodied our best hopes and imaginings. Her lookbook became our template, and her searching, compassionate understanding became our guiding force.

I can't say that filming was Lynn's most happy place — she found joy in so much of life. I think fondly of the joy we shared talking about our kids and our passion for motherhood. But on set, bringing a shared vision to life, she was certainly in her element. She thrived behind the camera, at the monitor, with her headphones on.

Lynn loved to find the beautiful truth of a scene. And whenever that magical alchemy was achieved, the enthusiasm and pride that she expressed instilled a confidence in everyone around her. She loved reaching for excellence. She looked for it in herself, and she looked for it in her cast and her crew. Lynn created an environment where each of us felt safe enough to bravely explore the deeply emotional terrain of our series. From our youngest actors to our most seasoned crewmembers, we were all invited into Lynn's joy and encouraged to outshine even our own expectations.

In our business, there is so much focus on the work, the challenges and the pressure. But Lynn always had fun. Even with long hours, tight budgets and the scheduling drama of shooting with minors, she always held on to gratitude for the opportunity to do what she loved. This attitude didn't just motivate us, it kept us inspired and strong.

Filmmaking is always a collaborative process. Lynn truly understood this. During filming, there were so many nuances to capture, so many perspectives to honor. Lynn would listen to feedback from us, her fellow producers and storytellers. She would metabolize notes and refine the work while holding space for her own artistic vision. This was one of the qualities that amazed me most about her — the ability to hold space for everybody to feel that they have an important voice in the process while still shouldering the responsibilities of a leader. It's no simple task, but she did it beautifully and generously.

Lynn's lookbook stayed in my trailer the whole time we filmed as a reminder of the glorious vision we were pursuing. Since the news of her passing, it sits on my desk and I look at it every single day. The loss of Lynn is devastating. She was a beautiful human being and a courageously independent filmmaker. Lynn said no to a lot of things that didn't feed her soul. To honor her legacy, we need to make sure that we are encouraging more voices like hers — female voices, voices committed to authenticity and independence. Her sense of authorship and confidence in her own vision is something I will carry with me for the rest of my career.

To be clear that the story you're telling is the one that you want to tell and then to tell it with joy, those are the marching orders that Lynn's legacy will always whisper into my heart. 

This story first appeared in the July 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.