Interview with director Sean Meehan

  • Was there a particular event or time that you recognized that filmmaking is your way of telling stories?

As corny as it sounds, I’ve wanted to make films for as long as I can remember.  I saw the original Star Wars film when I was a kid and I was hooked from that moment on.  This is all I’ve ever wanted to do.

  • Do you think it is essential to go to a film institute in order to become a successful filmmaker?

To be honest I think everyone’s journey is different.  I studied film at university, and I learned the basics there, but my real education began when I started working in the industry.  I worked my way up through the camera department for the better part of a decade before I started directing. The hands-on education I received from being on set all day every day was invaluable for me.  But for some people I know film school is maybe a better way.  I wish there was a simple formula to follow, but I don’t think there is.

  • Is it harder to get started or to keep going? What was the particular thing that you had to conquer to do either?

To get my start in the film industry I went and hung out on the set of a TV series that was shooting near where I lived (a fairly remote part of Australia) for no pay for four months.  Luckily for me (and unluckily for him) the clapper loader got very sick and I filled in for him.  He was ill for around six weeks and by the time he got back I was entrenched enough in the series that they kept both of us on.  That was a lucky break for me because I was totally out of money when they hired me.

In terms of keeping going, that’s an ongoing concern.  I totally subscribe to the idea that you’re only as good as your last job and that if you slack off there are plenty of talented people waiting to take your place.  I find that thought a strong motivator, and to be honest, I’m very lucky because my passion for filmmaking has never even remotely subsided.  In fact, it just keeps getting stronger.

  • What was the most important lesson you had to learn that has had a positive effect on your film? How did that lesson happen?

I learned very early on to surround myself with the most talented people I could find (afford) and to let them do their thing.  When I was a camera assistant I saw some directors who would want to work only with their friends, so they were all learning at the same time (which is a totally legitimate way to approach the process, but can sometimes lead to clumsy work) and I saw other people who wanted to learn everything they could from the most experienced people around.  Most of the people I work with to this day are older and more experienced than I am, and I still listen to their opinions very carefully.  If you remain open to learning, your on the job film school education should never really end.  And the work is better for it.

  • What were the production realities from casting through editing that you had to accommodate? How did you navigate those compromises or surprises and still end up with a cohesive film?

Well, lack of money was the main obstacle!  I self-funded the film so I was relying heavily on favours and the good will of quite a few people I didn’t really know at all.  The cast we amazingly generous with their time and talents, as were the local crew in Calgary, where we filmed the short.  I was lucky though, in that I’d been directing commercials for quite a while and had built up many relationships and favours.  These are what really got me through.  That, and being consistently polite and genuinely grateful.  The rest just comes down to a bullish attention to detail.  Even though I was getting certain stuff for very cheap, or even for free in some instances, I never took it for granted.  I worked as hard as I could to make the process enjoyable and rewarding for the people who pitched in.  I very much feel like Lost Face is our film, not just mine.

  • What was the hardest artistic choice you made in the making of a film, at any stage in production?

Probably the most difficult thing we faced was the limited budget, which meant we had limited time and resources.  We only had three days to shoot and since we shot close to the winter solstice, we only had seven hours of light per day.  We also had to give an hour lunch each day because it was so cold, and everyone needed to thaw out a bit before tackling the afternoon’s work.  This lack of time had a huge effect on the artistic choices I was able to make.  I would have loved to work with a much grander location and adhere more strictly to historical accuracy.  It would also have been lovely to have a larger cast, but all these things were beyond our reach.  In the end though, I feel we managed to make a film that feels like it has some scale despite the many compromises we had to make.

  • You are a collaborator. How have you discovered members of your team and how do you keep the relationship with them strong?

I respect who each member of the team is, and I listen to them.  I think that’s fundamental.  Everyone wants to feel valued and listened to and when you have collaborators who feel like they’ve made a genuine contribution to the final film, they’re keen to work with you again.  Most of the people I worked with on the short I’d known already from directing commercials – or I met people they knew.  My producer, Sam McGarry, and I were also keen to give people an opportunity to step up on the short.  Our camera operator usually performed the role of 1st AC, our Production Designer had mostly been an Art Director (Lost Face helped her get into the union) and so on.  Everyone was keen to impress.  And they did!

  • What do audiences want? And is it the filmmaker’s role to worry about that?

I wish I knew!  I’m not sure audiences actually know what they want to be honest.  I know I don’t.  People just want to be entertained.  I think maybe that’s the main thing, just don’t be boring.  To not be boring gives us all plenty to worry about!

  • What role have film festivals played in your life so far? Why are they necessary? How do you get the most out of them?

Festivals have been very good to me so far.  Lost Face has played all over the world to incredibly diverse audiences and we’ve been lucky enough to win a whole bunch of awards.  We even made the shortlist of the top ten live action shorts for the 2018 Academy Awards (unfortunately, we missed out on a nomination).  For me, film festivals represent validation that you’re on the right path – that the types of stories you want to tell have a chance of being seen and enjoyed.  In terms of getting the most out of them, that’s a trickier question.  I see some people who are networking geniuses and they seem to build other projects off of their festival successes, but that hasn’t happened for me.  I’m really just grateful to have been selected at all.

  • Do you believe that a filmmaker should be original and fresh or he/she should stick to classic but safe cinema style?

For Lost Face, I went with a very classic look because the story was so strong and I didn’t want to get in the way of it.  I’m a strong believer in substance over style.  But I’ve seen some amazing experimental work too, which I usually appreciate because it’s not something that comes naturally to me.  As long as the story is being serviced in a way that is interesting and appropriate then I think the style of filmmaking up for grabs.