Interview: Director Sean Meehan Talks his Oscar shortlist Standout ‘Lost Face’

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Based on a short story by Jack London, “Lost Face” is a bleak tale of survival set in Russian-colonized America during the mid 1800s. It centers around a Russian fur thief named Subienkow, who must use all his wits to escape a slow, painful death at the hands of native tribesmen. Directed by Sean Meehan, this short film showcases terrific craftsmanship and is worthy of viewing on the biggest screen possible. Following its selection to the Oscar shortlist for Best Live Action short, I recently spoke with Meehan about the making of his surprising debut film.

Shane Slater: I was very impressed with the production values on this film, like the cinematography, costumes etc. How long was the process of developing “Lost Face”?

Sean Meehan: From the time it took me to adapt the screenplay, to being on set for the shoot, it was around five months. But pre-production didn’t really begin in earnest until around three weeks prior to filming. Being a self-funded short, we just didn’t have the money to spend on a drawn out, relaxed pre-production. I’d made a quick trip up to Calgary about six weeks before the shoot to scout the location and do some casting, but the majority of the details were put into place in those final three weeks. I was literally driving around with the costume designer picking up period clothing from people’s farms or visiting little warehouses people where people had various props stored away with our production designer. I didn’t want to be the guy who blew into town and wasted everyone’s time, so I felt it was important to be able to say yes or no in real time wherever I could.

SS: How did you shoot the film? Was it all natural light?

SM: I started out in the camera department before moving into directing commercials and I’ve always shot my own work. So I knew I needed to be over-prepared for this given the added demands of long-form performance. We shot very close to the winter solstice and we only had around seven hours of good light per day. So I chose a location nestled behind a hill, which blocked the direct light off our set for the entire day. We had a battery powered LED or two but nothing strong enough if we needed to light our way out of trouble, and I liked soft light for this story anyway. It somehow feels more desolate. So it was the right move for both creative and practical reasons. It turned out that the weather was really quite varied over the three shooting days. We had bright sunlight and even a snow storm, but because of that hill we had pretty much total consistency. Of course, no sun meant it was that bit colder.

SS: Were there any filmmakers who influenced your debut film?

SM: There have been plenty of filmmakers over the years who have influenced me, but none who directly influenced this short. When I was adapting it and thinking about the coverage, the production design, the wardrobe and so on, it was all about telling the story in the best way I knew how. I was very focused on showing the correct amount of respect to the source material and the subject matter. Particularly the indigenous element, which I wanted to get as correct as possible, so I was never consciously thinking about the influence anyone else had on me. I just wanted to be on the right side of real. Of course, there are inevitable comparisons to “The Revenant”, which was shot in the same area and set during the same time period, but I personally feel (for better or worse) that they’re very different films. If anything, I consciously moved away from what they did on that film.

SS: There’s an element of black comedy in the film. When you read the short story, did the comedy immediately jump out at you?

SM: There’s a line in the short story where Subienkow asks for Yakaga’s finger and Yakaga puts his hands behind his back. But aside from that, there’s nothing overtly funny in the original short story. That said, there’s a lightness to the way Jack London approaches the writing that I felt balanced out the more graphic and confronting elements and I really wanted to find that in our film. I tried to give Yakaga a couple more of these little moments and Morris Birdyellowhead was brilliant when it came to the understated black humor. He really nailed the balance between giving us those little laughs but not clowning it up so much that his character loses credibility. I love his earnest, deadpan delivery. Martin, who plays Subienkow, was brilliant at walking that fine line too. Gerald Auger, who plays Makamuk, was our straight guy.

SS: So much of the film’s suspense hinges on your lead actor’s ability to convince the audience. How did you choose the right actor for the role?

SM: I’ve been working with Wendy Green, a hugely talented casting agent, for well over ten years now on commercials. I sent her the script very early on and I was lucky that she was interested in helping out. We began batting ideas for Canadian actors back and forth and after a few weeks of doing this Wendy sent me a film called “Felix and Meira”. Before I’d even finished watching it, I knew we had to offer the role of Subienkow to Martin Dubreuil. We sent him the script the next morning and he responded within couple of hours. He was the first person we approached for the role and the only person who we felt was truly perfect for it. And we were delighted when he accepted. Both Martin and Gerald Auger have won several awards each for their respective parts in the film.

SS: The ending could come as a big surprise if you’re not familiar with the story. How have the responses been throughout your worldwide festival screenings?

SM: The first time I saw the film screened in public was at a well-known festival in LA and they jammed it in the middle of a whole bunch of broad comedy films. It totally tanked! When the credits rolled everyone seemed so down and flat. And when the next film came on, another broad comedy, they couldn’t wait to laugh again. That was pretty horrifying for the producer and I, and we scurried out of there as quickly as we could. We saw it again a few weeks later at a festival where it was part of a more serious block of films and the reaction was totally different. We actually won best film at that one. I’ve seen it several times at various festivals now and people seem to really get into it. There’s some turning away in shock from the violence and laughs during the right places and it seems that pretty much everyone is invested in the ending. I’d say overall the audience reaction has been really positive and gratifying.

SS: I’d imagine Lost “Face” will be playing together with the other Oscar-shortlisted films. What are your expectations for the Academy’s reaction?

SM: To be honest I’ll just be happy if they enjoy the film! Films that seem to do well at the Oscars tend to be more serious in nature so I don’t think we’ll have a repeat situation of that first screening. For us, the film was a huge roll of the dice – the producer and I paid for it entirely ourselves (we’re married) in the hope of transitioning across from commercials into long-form projects. So hopefully our leap off the cliff will have a gentle landing.

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MOTION PICTURE | DIRECTOR |
LEAD ACTOR | LEAD ACTRESS | SUPPORTING ACTOR | SUPPORTING ACTRESS | 
ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY | ADAPTED SCREENPLAY | ANIMATED FEATURE |
PRODUCTION DESIGN | CINEMATOGRAPHY | COSTUME DESIGN | FILM EDITING | MAKEUP & HAIRSTYLING | SOUND MIXING | SOUND EDITING | VISUAL EFFECTS |
ORIGINAL SCORE | ORIGINAL SONG |
FOREIGN LANGUAGE | DOCUMENTARY FEATURE |

ANIMATED SHORT | DOCUMENTARY SHORT | LIVE ACTION SHORT |