FILM ‘Lost Face’ Director Sean Meehan “We don’t see enough indigenous stories on film”

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.

Producer Sam McGarry is an industry veteran, having been in the business for almost thirty years. She started out at Great Southern Films and transitioned from Production Assistant to Producer. Commercials Sam has produced have won every award worth winning, from Cannes Lions to LIA trophies to One Show pencils.

Gerald Auger is of Woodland Cree descent, his work includes Il mio West, Dreamkeeper and Into the West. Morris Birdyellowhead is a direct descendant of the hereditary Chief David Bird Yellowhead. His credits include ElijahHell on Wheels and DiabloMartin Dubreuil’s work includes 15 février 1839 and Tout est parfait and the music was created by Elliott Wheeler.

For those who haven’t seen Lost Face, please tell us about the film.

Lost Face is adapted from a short story by Jack London.  It’s begins with Subienkow, a fur-thief in mid 1800’s Russian America, who has been captured by an indigenous tribe he had previously helped to enslave.  As the tribe exacts its revenge, Subienkow, the second to last survivor, is forced to come up with a plan to avoid a protracted and painful death.  He calls over Makumuk, the chief, and begins to bargain

You fell in love with Jack London’s short story and decided to make it into a film, what attracted you to the story?

It’s 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.  I also love stories that take me to a different place and time and allow me to experience a world I would never have otherwise known and Lost Face offered a little glimpse of the far-flung, frozen mid-1800’s Russian-America that Jack London knew.

You have a talented cast, even an actor who is related to Chief David Bird Yellowhead. Did you know some already or find them through the auditioning process?

I didn’t know any of the cast beforehand.  I have a very good friend who is also my long-time casting agent for TV commercials.  I shared the script with her and she loved it.  Her theory was to approach the best actors for each role and see if perhaps they’d be interested.  We both felt that it couldn’t hurt to ask – the worst thing they could say was no.  Luckily, it didn’t turn out that way.  I think we first approached Gerald Auger and Martin Dubreuil (who I’d loved in Felix et Meira) and they both expressed interest right away.  Once we had those guys attached we found that brilliant people just kept jumping on board – including Morris Birdyellowhead, who was in Apocalypto, which was another film I loved.  We didn’t audition any of our leads because they all had such strong bodies of work behind them.  Gerald spoke to Michelle Thrush for us and she came on board, and the weight of all these names even secured us Wilma Pelly, who generously appears in a small role at the end.

You mention you would like the film to encourage others to talk about current indigenous issues, for those who may not know, please can you share some of these issues.

Well, one of the most fundamental issues is visibility.  We don’t see enough indigenous stories on film, even tragic stories like Lost Face.  The indigenous cast members we very keen to have indigenous language spoken in the film and the women in particular were very enthusiastic about torturing Big Ivan.  When we asked Michelle Thrush to be part of the film she told me how refreshing it was that the women in Lost Face were active and that they weren’t just relegated to sitting around a tepee weaving baskets.  Putting indigenous stories out there stimulates conversations about indigenous rights and the ongoing mistreatment and outright injustice indigenous people face.  Appalling outcomes like Standing Rock illustrate that very little has changed since way back before Jack London’s time.  We can absolutely do better as a society.

As an award winning commercial director, how do you find this differs from the world of film?

I really enjoy what I do but Lost Face was a labour of love.  When you make a commercial you’re part of a big machine with a specific corporate message.  When I made Lost Face I was also self-funding the film so I had complete freedom (apart from the significant financial constraints) and I found that totally liberating, but also daunting.  If the film failed there was no one else to blame!  I did, however, love not having to run every little decision past a client and agency for approval.  If, on set, I thought a take was good we could move on immediately, if an actor had an idea we all liked, or the production designer, or the editor, or the camera assistant, then we could discuss it briefly and incorporate it on the spot – it didn’t have to be kicked up the chain or “sold” to anyone else.  Lost Face was totally born of a collective passion for filmmaking.  I’m not saying that passion doesn’t exist in commercials, because it totally does, but it manifests differently.  And I guess it goes without saying that with a film there is more screen time to play with.  I still firmly believe that every narrative second must earn its keep or be cut, but it was terrific to have more than 30  seconds to play with.

Could Lost Face be made into a feature?

It’s funny, I have been asked that several times now – one person all but insisted I adapt it into a feature – but I haven’t been able to see how that might be done until very recently.  I feel like the story of Subienkow is told in its entirety in the short story (and in our film), but there might be a way to tell the story of Yakaga or Makamuk, or even some of the women we see exacting their impassioned revenge at the beginning of the film.  The wheels in my head are starting to turn…

What is next for you?

I’m still making commercials to put food on the table but I’m also writing a couple of screenplays and have a third one completed and ready to go.  I’m very keen to get into a feature but I’d also be very happy to shoot another short in the meantime.  Lost Face attracted a management company and they’re working with us to get our projects going.  I’m very excited for the future.

Your film has won lots of prestigious film festivals, which was your favorite and why?

Calgary was a lovely win for us because it was one of our first and we shot the film there at the base of the Canadian Rockies – and several key crew members were able to attend the screening and awards ceremony.  The Edmonton win qualified us for the Oscars next year, so that was pretty special too.  To be honest, every win has been totally gratifying.  We’ve had additional wins for Make Up, Costume, Production Design, Cinematography, Script and Performance and I’ve really enjoyed seeing our creative collaborators being recognised for their excellent work, dedication and passion.  No one makes a film on their own and we couldn’t have done any of it without the enthusiasm and tireless efforts of dozens of people – across two countries no less (Australia and Canada).

How do our readers keep up with your work?

I still make commercials with some regularity, so there’s that.  We have a Vimeo channel through our production company, SOMA films, and our work is up there.  Lost Face has a Facebook page and hopefully in the next couple of years there will be a feature to go see at the cinema.

What advice would you like to give to young directors?

Persevere.  You’ll hear the word no far more often than you’ll hear yes.  Everyone out there will tell you that the odds are stacked against you and cite all the reasons why you probably won’t make it, but if you stick with it and keep trying to generate that property people connect with then I honestly believe you’ll find a way to tell the stories that resonate with you.  For those of us who truly believe that this is what we were born to do, there’s no other option…

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