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:: Spotlight :: Interview with Sean Meehan about his award-winning short film Lost Face

By: Carmine Pascuzzi

Sean Meehan’s Lost Face has been making a mark around the world, having won at many prestigious film festivals including Edmonton International Film Festival, Calgary International Film Festival and Palm Springs International Shortfest. This award-winning short is based on Jack London’s short story and stars Gerald Auger (Hell on Wheels), Martin Dubreuil (Felix Et Meira) and Morris Birdyellowhead (Apocalypto).

In mid-1800’s Russian America, Subienkow 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, and he begins to bargain…

Writer and Director Sean Meehan fell in love with Jack London’s short story Lost Face as a teenager and as an adult, adapted it into a screen play. He hopes this wonderful story may spark some conversations about current indigenous issues. Sean is an award winning commercial director, having worked with many high profile clients for over a decade, he created the cinematography and this exciting drama is his first short film.

I spent a few moments with Sean discussing Lost Face.

Q. Congratulations for the success of this short film and your previous commercial work. You must be very pleased with the nominations and awards already received. Does it now give you a stronger identity in the quest for future endeavours?

A. I’d have to say that we’re beyond pleased with how the film has performed. As of right now we’ve been accepted into 121 festivals globally and won 46 awards, which totally exceeds any hopes I had for the short. One of the reasons for making Lost face was to establish a tone of voice outside of commercials, where you need to be a bit of a chameleon. Hopefully the film, and its success, proves that I have a voice people are interested in. I’m excited and ready to do more and hoping that someone with an interesting project is looking for a capable, experienced and passionate director.

Q. What attracted you into an adaptation of this old Jack London classic?

A. It has everything I love in a story, it’s layered, clever and fundamentally human and it takes you to a time and place you wouldn’t otherwise have the chance to visit and makes you feel like you’re right there amongst the action. There’s an immediacy to the short story we worked really hard to capture in the film. I wanted to try and make the viewer feel almost like they were standing in that icy grove at the far edge of the world watching the action unfold. Jack London is such an incredible writer in that he can take what is outwardly a very simple narrative and pack so much into it – there’s revenge, desperation, hope, betrayal, fear and even a little magic – he has you invested in the story and the characters so quickly and effortlessly. Talk about standing on the shoulders of giants…

Q. Were there any difficulties in making the film, i.e. location, casting, etc?

A. I’ve been directing commercials now for something like sixteen years and Lost Face was easily the most challenging thing I’ve made. A lot of that came from the fact that it was self-funded, so there was a lot riding on the success of the short for me personally and we were relying largely on the good will and charity of strangers. We went up to Calgary literally knowing no one except the friend of a friend (who was incredibly helpful), so my producer and I had to go around, hat in hand, begging for favours and resources. I rode around in the car for a few days with my incredible casting director, Wendy Green, who is a long-time collaborator and friend from commercials and we did long casting sessions in various places around Calgary looking for indigenous actors. I have to say, I feel we were very successful in that. I also drove around with the art director and production designer collecting props and wardrobe from various generous (and sometimes not so generous) sources. I was even bitten by a German Shepherd (luckily, he didn’t break the skin because of my heavy jacket) on one farm where the owner had a shipping container full of period clothing – but it was totally worth it.

Q. I noticed that the film was self-funded. Is it still the case that Government funding is difficult to obtain unless you have a strong identity?

A. I’d gone for Government funding several times in the past and had zero luck or interest from various Government funding bodies, so I didn’t even consider it this time around – I’m pretty sure I would have been rejected given that the film is set in a foreign country with foreign characters, which I think is a real shame.

Q. You also did the cinematography. Was that hard to achieve?

A. I started out in the camera department over twenty years ago, before I became a director, and I’ve shot pretty much all my commercial work myself, so cinematography is really second nature to me. We shot the first two days with one camera and I had an operator so I could focus more on the performances, but our cast had trouble with some of the bigger chunks of Cree dialogue on day two (we had only two native speakers on set – tragically, Cree is a dying language) so we got quite behind and day three was looking a little precarious. With so few hours of daylight remaining and no ability to light my way out of trouble we were forced to bring in a second camera, which my amazing producer, Sam McGarry, was able to get for us, and I operated it. I have to say, I almost felt more at home behind the camera than I did standing at a monitor, unable to pan or tilt the camera during a take – and there was, I felt, no negative impact on the performances. In fact, being a little closer to the actors on set probably made communication a little easier.

Q. Did you have a hard time meeting shooting deadlines and was it hard with the extreme weather and other circumstances?

A. We shot right around the winter solstice at the base of the Canadian Rockies and we only had around seven hours of daylight per day (with just enough money to shoot for three days). That’s twenty-one hours to shoot a fourteen-minute short, minus an hour each day for lunch, which was necessary because it was so cold and everyone needed to warm back up in the middle of the day – especially the cast, who were in period costume. Every day we began rolling the minute there was enough light for an exposure and we didn’t stop until it was too dark to see. Added into that was the fact that we’d been “Chinooked” two days prior to shooting and most of our snow had melted due to this hot wind that blows over the Rockies from the west. We managed to scrounge a truckload of snow from under the trees of a nearby forest and we spent literally hours of our shooting time blowing, raking and shovelling snow into shot. It got so tight for time that I had to make a choice between doing another take or dropping a shot altogether. Somehow, we managed to shoot the board, and literally every shot is in the edit, but when I looked up from the camera on the last shot of day three (which is the first shot of the film) it was pretty much completely dark. The thing that saved me was having so much experience on set through commercials and being ridiculously prepped. If I’d been at all indecisive or gotten rattled, we wouldn’t have a film. So, yeah, it was a little challenging.

Q. Are you working on other projects at the moment – short or long form films?

A. I have a completed feature script that I adapted from a short story by Australian novelist Morris Lurie, I’m also pretty far through another film script, which is only a month or two away from done and I’m just getting started on a third, smaller project. I also wrote a graphic novel, which is being illustrated by Peter Pound, a brilliant Australian storyboard artist and concept designer who I have been working with for years (who also helped me out on the boards for the short). I have hopes that the graphic novel might one day be a TV series. I’ve also been developing a different series with a writer friend for TV. I’m trying to put as many irons in the fire as possible…