Lost Face begins in the midst of a compromise. It’s mid-1800’s America where we find Subienkow, a fur-trader, bound and held captive by the very people he once enslaved. In hopes of being spared from the grisly deaths that befell his comrades at the hands of his captors, Subienkow attempts to bargain for his life.
With a runtime under 15 minutes, director, Sean Meehan has deftly adapted this vibrant and haunting story from its original source material. It is perfectly ambiguous, darkly humorous, and completely unexpected, perhaps the most surprising of which being that Lost Face is one of the most beautifully composed films I have seen in the past year.
In this stunning short film adaptation of Jack London‘s story by the same name, Lost Face unravels the weight of knowledge, power, and what it means to be victorious.
Below is my email interview with the director, Sean Meehan.
Laura Birnbaum for Film Inquiry: What was it about Jack London’s story that spoke to you and inspired you to create this film?
Sean Meehan: I’ve always been a Jack London fan. His writing is so clean, yet so evocative and atmospheric. Lost Face 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. I 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 offers a little glimpse of the far-flung, frozen mid-1800’s Russian-America that Jack London knew.
I’m particularly drawn to the visual style you have curated in Lost Face. Everything from the cinematography to the makeup and costume design captivated me right alongside the story and its characters. Can you please go through your decision-making process as it applies to the visual aspects of the film?
Sean Meehan: My primary motivation was to keep everything real and that in turn was born of a desire to respect Jack London’s writing, and even more importantly, to respect the indigenous elements of the film. I didn’t want to make a film that felt derivative, dismissive or cheap (which is a little tricky when money is so tight), so I worked hard with my heads of department, going through historical photos and drawings from the mid 1800s and leaning on their collective experience of shooting period work – which they do quite a lot of up there in Calgary.
My Production Designer had worked on The Revenant and researched the time period comprehensively, which was fantastic for me. Our indigenous actors were also very knowledgeable about their cultural history – especially Morris Birdyellowhead – so I asked them all a lot of questions. I guess the look comes from that desire to be as accurate as possible. I wasn’t particularly trying to impose a look onto the film, instead I tried to be receptive to how the story wanted to look – if that makes sense?
From whom (or what) do you draw artistic inspiration? What films did you grow up watching?
Sean Meehan: I was a kid during the late seventies and eighties, and for this short I suspect I was subconsciously drawing on films like The Mission, which had a profound influence on me at the time, and filmmakers like David Lean, who had an amazing gift for making even intimate scenes feel epic. I also love Clint Eastwood westerns, like The Outlaw Josey Wales, Pale Rider, High Plains Drifter and especially Unforgiven.
The skillful balance between the confronting violence and the relatable, if often ugly, humanity in those films is very powerful, so I suspect there was probably some influence there. But really, when I was putting the film together I was intently focused on telling Jack London’s story well, I was never trying to ape the look and feel of other filmmakers. I hope to establish my own voice, not to be an imitator.
This is a riveting film and I’m sure people will be eager to know what’s on the horizon for you. Are there any projects that you’re working on that we should be looking out for?
Sean Meehan: I adapted a feature length film and I’m trying to get that off the ground, as well as writing a new one and doing time period research for a third. I’m really hoping I can get one of those scripts off the ground. I also wrote a graphic novel, which is currently being illustrated by Peter Pound, an amazingly talented artist who did a lot of concept work for Fury Road and many other big Australian films. I’m really excited about that. I hope it can be turned into a TV series one day. Peter and I created a big, messy, fun universe for that one.
In the film, Subienkow recites an incantation over the elixir. What does he say?
Sean Meehan: In the original short story Jack London describes Subienkow singing an old French love song, so I dug around and found three or four of these to send to Martin Dubreuil, who plays Subienkow, to see what he thought. We settled on a love ballad called “La Belle Françoise”, which I hope won’t mind me saying, he sung very badly. Which was perfect! Then he breaks into La Marseillaise, the French national anthem, and being Canadian, he had to learn it from scratch.
Lost Face is a rare film. It encompasses the depth, darkness, humor, and surprise that a film of this stature needs to stand out. Like nature itself, the beauty of the imagery juxtaposed with the violence of the circumstances coexist with one another to create this unforgettable film from a director who holds great things in store.
Lost Face was initially released in September 2016 and can be found in limited formats.
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