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Norman Film Fest: Q&A with Oklahoma director Al Mertens, creator of 'Lord Finn'

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The third annual Norman Film Fest returns to downtown Norman Sept. 13–14 with free screenings, panels, workshops and more. 

Oklahoma director Al Mertens wrote and produced “Lord Finn,” a story addressing mental illness and contemporary Native American culture in Oklahoma. 

The film premiered for the first time in the United States at the Norman Film Fest, a two-day event Sept. 13–14 at the Sooner Theatre. 

In July 2019, "Lord Finn" first premiered in the Asia Pacific International Filmmaker Festival in Jakarta, Indonesia. Mertens describes his film as the “ultimate in-your-face indie feature.” 

Mertens works as an Oklahoma City stockbroker by day and a writer in his free time. He said he plans to continue writing screenplays with complex themes inspired by his experiences. 

Q: Mental illness and Native American culture are two strong themes in your film "Lord Finn." What makes these themes important to you? 

A: Things that I’m interested in, people I’ve known, experiences that I’ve had. The Native component has always been very compelling to me. The (indigenous) culture in Oklahoma is very prevalent. (I’m inspired by) the iconic film, “Smoke Signals.” The screenplay is by Sherman Alexie, and I read one of his interviews. (He said) most of the stories of (indigenous) culture are fine, but (he’s) interested in (his current) people, who wear jeans and what they’re up to now. In other words, contemporary issues, especially in the Native American world, feature the proverbial foot in two worlds. 

As far as the mental illness aspect, I thought it would be interesting to combine that with a contemporary Native story. Those are the two dominant themes: foot in two worlds and the Native theme. The other component is that what comes out, comes out. If you write from the heart, which I try to do, you aren’t necessarily able to predict or dictate what kind of story you create. 

Q: You say that everything you may know about love is contained in this story. How did you encapsulate that? 

A: As those who have close loved ones with mental illness know, there is such a thing as unconditional love when it comes to one inflicted with behaviors extremely hard to live with. In the story of “Lord Finn,” two of the main characters are Daniel Finley, the namesake of Lord Finn, and his sister, Sissie. The unconditional love she has for him, no matter his behavior, no matter what he puts his family through for so many years, is pretty amazing to me. I hope that comes across in the movie.

When I wrote it, my feeling was, (the audience) knows Sissie Finley loves her Daniel no matter what he does. She still sees him as her brother, and she loves him. That doesn’t change no matter what, (which is) easier said than done. There isn’t necessarily a love story contained in "Lord Finn," although his parents managed to stay together for so many years presumably because they truly love each other. They have had some hard times in their marriage, mostly self-inflicted, but there is a lot to be said for family dynamics and not giving up on people. 

(This film is about) really believing that in each one of us, there is a seed of something truly good, and maybe it takes some time for it to come out and show itself, but it doesn’t mean it isn’t there. 

Q: Because there is such a strong Native American theme in your film and filming wrapped in 2016, was the story affected by the pipelines in Dakota? 

A: Oh, without a doubt. It was much more prevalent in the screenplay. Unfortunately, not a lot of it made it into the film we see. Ecological issues and environmental issues are definitely important to the Native culture, and very important to the characters in the film. There is one line that managed to survive in the film. (Daniel) says to his sister, “I saw the sun go down behind the windmills, they even managed to cage the wind.” It so happens that the actress, Mary Buss, who plays Mrs. Finley, Daniel’s mother, has once or twice gone up to the Dakotas, to the pipeline, since filming wrapped. 

Q: Are your actors Native American who are portraying Native Americans? 

A: A great deal of the cast was, absolutely. As far as authenticity, it helped tremendously. It wasn’t just something that we did to exploit anything at all. It’s a rainbow coalition as far as the cast of "Lord Finn" (is concerned). 

Q: Your film went from Indonesia to Norman — how and why? 

A: It’s a very interesting world, the world of film festivals. Whenever you make a film, you have to decide: Where do I want this to be shown? There is an entire process online where you submit, and it’s a matter of where you get accepted. The first major film festival "Lord Finn" was accepted was the Asia Pacific International Filmmaker Festival. That one is so big that it’s done over three months in three major cities. So that’s where we had our premiere, in July, in Jakarta. Next stop was Norman. Who knows where we will show next? (It feels good) to have our premiere here in the metro area of our home state. 

Q: Do you think this story is an Oklahoma story, a Native American story or a love story?

A: I write a lot of screenplays, and every single one of them could be based (in Oklahoma.) They are written in a way that someone who doesn’t live here can relate to them. Something resonated with the film community in Asia for them to accept it. When it’s all said and done, as a writer, I try to write emotional themes that resonate across the board. I think a good story will do that. Indonesia is exactly on the other side of the world. The world’s biggest film studios in Asia got the first film premiere. So we were just thrilled with that, that it translated so well to show on the opposite side of the globe. 

Editor’s note: This interview was edited for brevity. 

Correction: This story was updated at 8:30 a.m. Sept. 15 to reflect the correct name of a screenwriter. This story was updated again at 1:51 p.m. Sept. 15 to reflect the correct spelling of Sherman Alexie. 

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