The 405 caught up with writer / director Sean Meehan to talk influences, respectful and effective film-making, Jack London, and the art of the short.

Meehan's first short is the cinematic telling of Jack London's short story "Lost Face" (read it free by clicking its title). In mid-1800's Russian America, Subienkow (Martin Dubreuil) finds himself the second-to-last survivor of a group of Russian fur-thieves who have just been defeated by liberators from the local tribe they have enslaved as forced labour. Now Subienkow faces a long, protracted and painful death unless he can come up with a plan for escape. Subienkow calls over the tribe's chief, Makamuk (Gerald Auger), and he begins to bargain…

Lost Face is an incredible exercise in naturalistic tension, very much in the vein of films like The Revenant. I highly recommend catching it. You won't be disappointed. Find the film online here and keep your eyes open for more from this talented, conscientious film-maker, especially now that Lost Face has made the Oscar short-list for Best Live Action Short Film.

Welcome to The 405 Sean!  I'd like to start, if I may, by inquiring a bit about your history for our readers.  What got you into film-making?

As cheesy as it sounds I saw Star Wars when I was a little kid and knew then that I wanted to be a director.  My entire career to date – from beginning at the bottom of the camera department and working my way up through the ranks to DP, to becoming a TV commercials director, which I've been doing for around sixteen years now – has been about one day directing films.  I made Lost Face in an effort to transition across into long form directing.

Favorite films?  Directors?  Which have been most influential on you as an artist?

That's a really difficult question to answer.  There's no definitive film or director because my interests are so broad.  I equally love sitting down to watch a little independent film as I do a huge, fluffy blockbuster.  I also really love a whole bunch of films from the 70's – Marathon Man, The French Connection, The Deer Hunter, Mad Max.  There are some films I’ve loved because I know I'm incapable of making them.  Whiplash is one that readily springs to mind – I don't have a musical bone in my body.  

What makes a great film?

A story that sweeps you up and takes you on a journey you wouldn't have otherwise taken.  Characters who have you hanging off their every word and gesture.  A feeling that you've been through something significant, maybe even transformative, as the credits are rolling.

Greatest challenges as a film-maker?  Greatest triumphs?

My greatest challenge to date has been getting a feature film off the ground.  That's something I’m still trying to do.  The film industry is a difficult one to break in to.  The continuing success of Lost Face has probably been my greatest professional triumph.  We've screened so far at 121 international festivals and won 46 awards.  The mantelpiece is looking pretty crowded now.  The attention Lost Face has received has totally exceeded the hopes I had for it when we set out to make the film.

Getting into Lost Face, what attracts you most about London’s short?  Were there other inspirations for the film?

Jack London’s story is outwardly a very simple narrative, but there’s actually a huge amount going on in terms of the power play between the three main characters – Subienkow, Makamuk and Yakaga.  At various times in the story each of them gains the upper hand as they work toward their individual goals.  In the power play between Makamuk and Yakaga they actually both want the same thing, which is to pursue the best course of action for their embattled people, but they have different ideas about what that is.  It’s also a perfectly contained story for a short film adaptation, and that’s a more difficult thing to find than you might expect.  Jack London really was an incredible storyteller.

In terms of other inspirations, I guess I am subconsciously influenced by the more cinematic work I’ve seen over the years – pretty much anything by David Lean, The Mission, The Last of the Mohicans, Unforgiven, There Will be Blood and so on – I really love that expansive photography and how those films genuinely embrace the importance of the subject matter.  But when it came to actually making the film I just wanted to tell Jack London’s story in the most respectful and accurate way I could.  I wasn’t thinking about how someone else might make it.


I think what made me sit up and take notice the most about the film was not just the brutality of the whole encounter, and the very naturalistic lighting (that really reminded me of how The Revenant was lit – very reliant on natural light – a fantastic aesthetic and one I greatly appreciate as a photographer myself), but also how Subienkow spins his wild story to try and escape his captors. It's really a tight-rope that makes you wonder: does this guy have something up his sleeve or are things going to end very badly? Which leads to me wondering if we could get some insight into your decision-making process in deciding how to treat the indigenous element with great respect while also not losing the essence of London's story – a feat I think you've accomplished masterfully with the film.

I love shooting in available light, which is lucky, because we couldn't afford lights anyway!  In terms of the indigenous element, that's something I deliberated over a lot.  Once I had a draft of the short I sent it to a couple of the Aboriginal Centres in Alberta to see if they had any immediate concerns, and as we got further into production I discussed the cultural sensitivities with our First Nations cast members.  I was very relieved to hear that they agreed that telling this story was important in terms of the historical narrative of whites deceiving aboriginal populations (globally) and even in terms of accurately depicting costume and language.  I really tried to read between the lines of Jack London's story and consider it from all perspectives, not just Subienkow's.  I saw the torture exacted on the fur-thieves as a warning to other would-be captors as much as it was about pure revenge and I slightly built that relationship between Makamuk and Subienkow to hopefully better reflect that power struggle between them over the future of their people.  My primary motivation was to come from a position of empathy and respect and hopefully the film reflects that.

Last, where can our readers catch the film and what is next for you?

The film has just been picked up by Shorts TV (who do the Oscars short film package), and they'll be distributing it in a few months.  In terms of what's next, I've written a feature that is ready to go and I'm working on a couple more scripts that will be ready in the next couple of months.  I'm hoping I can get at least one of them into production.  I also wrote a graphic novel that is in the process of being illustrated and there's a story that is tenuously related to Lost Face that I'm researching in order to turn it into a novella.  And while all that is happening I still have my career shooting and directing television commercials to maintain.  I'm not too good at just sitting still.