Sean Meehan is an Australian filmmaker now based in Los Angeles. His recent short film Lost Face recently won the audience award at the 2017 Palm Springs Shortfest, in addition to a host of awards this season, including nods at the Calgary International Film Festival, Canberra Film Festival and New Filmmakers Los Angeles, where it was awarded Best Foreign Short Film.
Sean went to film school in Western Australia and has been directing commercials for 15 years. Lost Face is his first film, which is based on the Jack London short story: In the mid 1800’s a fur thief must think fast to escape the terrible, protracted torture that awaits him at the hands of the native tribe he had helped enslave.
Sean spoke to New Machine Magazine as part of the Next Wave Q&A series.
Tell us a little bit about your background and how you came to be a filmmaker?
After high school I went to university in Western Australia (where I lived at the time) and studied film. Once I graduated I hung around on the set of a locally filmed TV show called Sweat until finally the clapper loader got sick and they asked me to fill in for him for a few weeks. That gave me a start, but then the TV work in Western Australia dried up so I moved over into pretty much the only thing locally available, which was commercials. After a couple of years I moved interstate to Sydney (where there were more opportunities), doing more commercials, some feature work and more TV as I moved up from focus puller to camera operator and, for a very brief time, DP. But I’d always wanted to direct so I took essentially every dollar I had, begged everyone I knew for short ends and almost-expired rolls of 35mm film, rented a tiny camera package, called in every favor I had and shot a spec commercial. I showed this around town and got picked up by a production company. I literally had $11 in the bank when my first TVC directing opportunity came through. Luckily, that spot won a few local awards and my directing career grew from there. I’ve been directing ads coming up 16 years now. But making films was always my goal (it’s very easy to get distracted by commercials) so I wrote a film script, hoping to get that into production. Then I wrote another script. We actually came close with that second one but there was always a lingering question about whether I could handle a longer narrative or direct actors for more than 30 seconds at a time, so I decided to take another chunk of my money and make Lost Face – to hopefully put those concerns to bed.
Tell us about how you came to make Lost Face. Why tell this story?
I was at the pub with a friend of mine and we were (drunkenly) talking about short stories. He reminded me of Lost Face, which I’d read when I was a teenager and loved. I went home and found my old Jack London book, re-read the story and was delighted to find that it was in the public domain. The story is a perfect fit for my sensibilities. It has a beautiful balance of emotion and intellect and even now, every time I re-read it, I find it thrilling. I love the way the power shifts from character to character throughout the story and I love the way Subienkow (the trapper) faces down certain death and responds in a way very few of us would think to respond. But what I really love in the story are the characters of Makamuk and Yakaga (the chief and the freed slave). I feel for both of them because they’re both trying to do what’s best for their people but they have different ideas about what the best course of action is. Subienkow places Makamuk in an impossible situation – every bit as dire as the one he himself faces – and Yakaga reads the situation beautifully and is eventually able to turn it to his advantage. It’s outwardly a very simple story, but it has so much going on.
Filmmaking is not an easy path. What drives you? What keeps you persistent, focused?
To be honest I’m not entirely sure. The failures definitely outnumber the victories and sometimes I feel like a stubborn fighter who keeps getting kicked in the teeth only to get back up for another beating, but I absolutely love film and TV and the process of telling stories. I guess I have faith that I’ll have the chance to make a film some day – hopefully soon – and that keeps me going. In the meantime I’m still writing and honing my skills directing commercials and trying to come up with that project producers won’t be able to say no to.
How has winning awards on the film festival circuit been beneficial so far?
I was able to find representation through the short, although that was before most of the awards happened (I’m very grateful for my managers’ continued faith in me). Aside from the fact that winning awards is very validating I now also feel I’m part of a totally driven and extremely passionate community that exists to tell stories. TV Commercial production is more cynical and financially motivated I guess, but being part of the short film circuit has definitely fanned the flames of my desire to make films. If anything, I’m more committed and optimistic than ever. I’m hoping more opportunities come with the exposure of having made an award winning short. To be honest, Lost Face has done more for me than I ever imagined it would.
What is your philosophy about getting work as a filmmaker today. Do you create your own opportunities?
I know a few TVC directors whose first feature was a studio film and I can’t think of any of them who enjoyed it overly much. Then there are others who have started off making little independent films and built from there (often eventually moving into studio films). Those filmmakers seem to have a little more currency (and success) so I’m trying to emulate that approach. I also love/hate writing screenplays, so I’m bashing my head against that wall. With luck and perseverance I’ll soon generate something that someone wants to throw millions of dollars at…
Tell me about a hard moment. What did you do to keep moving forward?
When we came close to getting the second screenplay made and it all fell over (as quickly as it seemed to come together) I found myself feeling quite depressed for several months (even though I’d strenuously tried to avoid getting my hopes up – knowing it would only be real the first day I stepped on to the set). I had to remind myself that no one ever just gives you what you want and that if I did nothing, then nothing would happen. That’s actually a little personal mantra. I find it to be quite a strong motivator.
Who/what are your influences as filmmaker generally?
Honestly, and I don’t mean to sound trite, but anyone who manages to get a film shot and distributed is an inspiration. It’s a steady reminder that hard work and a little talent can produce tangible results.
Can you describe your directing and/or visual style?
Visually, I try and get out of the way. It’s not about me and the incredibly fancy, complicated shots I can accomplish. My goal is to immerse the audience in the world of the story and in the lives of the characters. I’m hoping that the camera essentially disappears. It’s about invisibly creating mood and atmosphere. Emotion arrived at honestly is more rewarding than manufactured emotion.
On set I also try and stay out of the way. The trick is to hire the best people, believe in them and give them room to be creative and to contribute their voice to the project. Tyrants cut themselves off to potentially amazing ideas. I’ve seen it many times. I also like to be over-prepared. Having been a member of the crew for years I know how frustrating it is when the director doesn’t have it together. And directing commercials has taught me the value of balancing the creative and fiscal elements of film production. I paid for Lost Face myself and during the entire process I could hear the meter running. Of course, that didn’t prevent me from trying to get the best result I could possibly manage, but there is a level of responsibility there that can’t be ignored.
What’s next for you?
I continue to pay the bills with TVC work and that’s pretty great because I consistently get to be on set, but hopefully a feature is not too far away. I’m working on two screenplays at the moment. One is fairly low budget and the other one is even cheaper. I hope to get one, or better, both of them into production in the foreseeable future.