Swedish/American director Lisa Ohlin talks from Stockholm about her very personal connection to her new film.
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5 Mar 2012 - 12:16 PM  UPDATED 5 Mar 2012 - 12:16 PM

Simon and the Oaks is an epic Swedish period drama that takes place over 25 years, from the onset of the World War II into the 1950s. It's the story of Simon Larsson, a Swedish boy who feels alienated from his working class parents and remote environs. Simon (played by Jonatan S. Wächter in his early life and Bill Skarsgård in his teenage years) envisions a different life for himself and convinces his parents to send him to a private school. There he meets Isak Lentov (played by Karl Martin Eriksson as a child and Karl Linnertorp as a teen), the Jewish son of a prosperous bookstore owner who fled Nazi Germany. Despite their differences, the two become close friends and Simon in particular bonds with Isak's father, Ruben (Jan Joseph Liefers), over music. After the war, Simon discovers the secret of his heritage and travels to Germany in search of his true cultural roots.

Like most Swedes, Ohlin had read Marianne Fredriksson's novel, Simon and the Oaks (Simon och ekarna, 1985), a book that's been translated into 25 languages and sold more than 4 million copies worldwide. Like Simon, Olin herself discovered a secret Jewish heritage and experienced first hand the very powerful search for identity that follows. It was an experience she could share with actor, Bill Skarsgard. “I could contribute with the idea of the need to search for your identity,” she says. “The experience when you look at a parent and realise we don't look alike. Bill came very strongly with the idea of needing to define yourself against your parents. Obviously that's a process he's close to, being so young.”

Ohlin says her own personal life story influenced the scripting process most of all. “Many people have tried to adapt this,” she explains of the beloved story. “The scriptwriter, Marnie Blok, is Dutch. I think it helped that she wasn't Swedish. She could really focus on the deep, personal emotions. She was the first person to make very clear choices to focus on Simon and his relationships. But it was still too long for a movie; episodes from a life [rather than] a whole arc about one man's journey of discovery. There were so many wonderful scenes that had to go. At one point, at version 13, we got help from the Australian script doctor, Linda Aronson. I sent it to her and she emailed back and said that it was still a book! So we worked with her and continued for five more versions until it actually became a story for the screen.”

Simon and the Oaks was nominated for a record 13 Guldbagge Awards, Sweden's equivalent to the Oscars, winning both Best Supporting actress (Cecilia Nilsson) and Best Supporting Actor (Jan Joseph Liefers). The strength of the acting is also reflected in the children cast to play a young Simon and Isak. During the process, Ohlin saw more than 1000 children across Sweden. “With children you have to find the soul of a character,” she reflects. “We first found Isak, the little Jewish boy, but I was very worried. He was such a prankster! I thought that he could never be serious. But it turned out he had a depth to him that you couldn't immediately see. I kept on saying we had to find the children first. I knew Bill was there but I knew that if I didn't find the small Simon it wouldn't work. Finally, this wonderful little guy, Jonatan, came in. I asked him as I always do, “What do you do in your spare time”? I would say 90% of all children tell me they play sports or video games. He said he played the piano. I asked him what music meant to him. He looked at me and said, “Music is like movement of the soul”. I just felt, here he is. This is Simon. Not only was he extremely talented, he also had a concentration that was absolutely amazing. As a bonus he looked so much like Bill Skarsgard.”

The sweeping, rich visuals of the film emerge from a strong professional and personal collaboration between Ohlin and the director of photography, Dan Laustsen. “He came to the script very early,” she says. “I read it aloud to him as we were driving. In the south west of Sweden the light is very different from Stockholm and Gothenburg. We talked about the blue light and the evenings there. The moods. He immediately said that every location had to be close to water. He's an avid sailor and he could appreciate Simon's family's love of the water. We agreed we wanted a classical style but we were afraid of making it old fashioned. We wanted to have a modern feel to the characters and the story. We looked at [Francis Ford Coppola's] The Godfather, [Bernardo Bertolucci's] 1900 and [Peter Weir's] Witness. We kept reminding ourselves: classical photography with a modern feeling.”

Ohlin says the audience reaction to the film in Sweden has opened a dialogue about the war that was previously silenced. “We don't have stories that deal with World War II nor specifically with the Jewish question,” she explains. “Seeing the film the audience suddenly understood the fear of not knowing if you would be able to protect your family. Not knowing if the Germans were going to come. Our government made choices that enabled us to not to become occupied but we were surrounded by occupied countries. The fear was very real.”