Everyone has family secrets. But when Lisa Ohlin agreed to direct the film Simon & the Oaks, opening in limited release Friday, October 12, she brought along one of her own that closely echoed the story of the film (and the best-selling Swedish novel upon which it is based).
The 1985 novel, by Marianne Frederiksson, told the story of Simon Larsson, a pre-teen living outside Gotheburg, Sweden, in 1940, as World War II begins. The lives of his family become intertwined with those of the family of his best friend, Isak, who is Jewish. It is only after the war, when he is getting ready to go to college, that Simon discovers that, in fact, his parents took him in as a baby from his mother's sister, who had him out of wedlock -- with a visiting German musician who was Jewish.
"I read it a few years after it came out," says Ohlin, 51, sitting in a Greenwich Village tea shop. "And I thought the author must have heard about my life. But I was also drawn to it because it talks about family secrets. That's the way a lot of people related to it."
Ohlin was born in New York, but moved to Sweden with her Swedish father as a very young child, after her parents divorced. Her mother died shortly afterward -- and it wasn't until she was in high school that she discovered that, in fact, her mother was Jewish.
"And I suddenly understood why I felt different from other people in Sweden," she says. "I found my place in history."
She also had a realization about a moment that had always stuck with her: a vacation trip to Switzerland with her maternal American grandmother, who she only saw for a week each year. Her grandmother had said something particularly harsh about the German people and the young Ohlin asked her, "Why do you hate Germany so much?"
"She gave me this amazingly sharp look -- I didn't understand," Ohlin says. "She didn't say anything but just glared at me."
Simon & the Oaks was a best seller as a novel in Sweden. But the movie version kicked around for decades, with various writers attempting to crack the code and distill a sprawling historical novel into a comprehensible screenplay.
"Many tried to write a script but none succeeded," Ohlin says. "It was an epic book and people had a hard time boiling it down to its essentials."
The current script was finished five years ago -- but, just as it was about to begin production, the director left for another project. It eventually came to Ohlin, a filmmaker who was serving on Sweden's film commission at the time, and she took over.
"Like most Swedish films, it had about 30 financiers, with seven producers from five countries," she says. The film cost roughly $4.5 million, making it the fourth-most-expensive Swedish film ever made.
This interview continues on my website.