Her excitement was palpable, contagious. Seattle filmmaker Lynn Shelton—a 20-year student of film, theater, and photography—even giggled a bit as she recounted her TV debut: directing Mad Men’s latest episode, “Hands and Knees,” which aired last night on AMC. Clearly, the self-described “superfan” of the show is still enjoying the moment, and she didn’t mind sharing it with us.
How did you get hooked up with Mad Men?
Scott Hornbacher, one of the executive producers, saw Humpday and really enjoyed it, and thought I would be an interesting fit. … Some time passed and nothing happened, and then I got a call that Matt Weiner wanted to meet with me. He’s obviously the creator and ultimate decision maker—and I was just beside myself to get a meeting with him, and the chance to sit with him for an hour and a half in his office where it all comes together. Because I was a total superfan of the show, so that was incredible. And I guess the meeting went well, because I got the gig.
And it was quite a gig! You got to direct an episode where Don Draper (Jon Hamm) flips out. That never happens.
Yeah, a lot of stuff goes down. [Laughing] When I read the script, I just couldn’t believe how lucky I was. The scripts are always amazing, but this particular one was so exciting—thrilling.
Can we talk about the scene where Don thinks he’s having a heart attack: How much of that was you, and how much of it was him?
Ohh, I’m a very collaborative director and I pride myself on trying to create an environment that will allow actors to bring out their best work. I try to keep my notes very spare and very specific. And that kind of direction works great for someone like Jon Hamm, who’s like a thoroughbred racehorse. You give him a little nudge and he’ll just—even if he initially bristles, he’ll just take it and … oh my god it’s the most amazing experience! [Giggles.] It’s all him, but I hope I was able to help him get there, in a subtle way.
How did you prep for this?
They let me shadow another director [Phil Abraham], thank god, because it was my first TV directing gig, so I went down to LA and was there for almost a month before my episode started. … The prep itself before shooting is this intensive, intensive script analysis, and meetings with every department and with Matt, because you’re channeling him on set. You’re trying to give him exactly what he envisions in his head. It’s all about his vision, his genius vision.
I can’t quite say why, but this one shot seemed like you: the close-up of Don hugging the toilet. Was it?
I loved that shot. No, that was really specifically written. Matt was very, very specific. It’s the shot that I felt most closely connected to. There aren’t a lot of close-ups in that show—there’s definitely an established vocabulary of shots, but that’s got to be one of the closest I’ve ever seen.
Did you watch the actual episode last night?
I did, I actually watched it twice. [Laughs.]
Think you have the TV bug now?
I would be happy to direct more episodes of shows like Mad Men that I really admire. Everything I do I have to feel pretty passionate about. Even jobs have to be passion projects for me. I don’t think I could do what I did and work as hard as I did on a show I didn’t think was awesome. When I’m fulfilling someone else’s vision, it has to be a vision I really believe in. I’m totally open to it. But if this ends up being my one and only TV experience [laughs] I will be perfectly satisfied. I’m a filmmaker, so my main thing is … steering the whole ship. But it was a wonderful, wonderful experience. I’d totally do it again.