by director Lisa Ohlin
Have you ever spoken to an oak tree? You should.
Passing an old oak, you sense the whispers of the ancient men and women who planted the tree. They knew that it would grow slowly, give shelter and beauty to many generations to come and finally, one day become the hardest, most durable wood you can find. The old oak has much to tell, having stood in its place for many hundreds of years.
When Marianne Fredriksson wrote Simon and the Oaks, she let the young Simon find solace, friendship and wisdom in the big old oak he loves. Placing the story on the West Coast of Sweden where she grew up, she let him sit in the tree, on the coast overlooking the North Sea. What a great image!
As we prepared for the shooting of Simon, we worried about our locations. How would we be able to find houses, shipyards and streets that could pass as the 1930s? The oak, we assumed, would be the easy part—we all knew of pretty trees. Late in the process we started looking. We went to the east, to the west, to parks and forests, around islands in boats. We found nothing. I became obsessed with oaks. I found many that I disregarded, some that I had fleeting passions with, one that I seriously fell in love with. My laptop soon filled up with pictures of oaks. But none were right. None had all the elements we looked for. Big, old and by the sea. And then we learned one day, oaks almost never stand by the water. If they have to, they grow up thin and gnarly, protesting the salty skies, the constant wind and the lack of company, before they die a premature death. The image Marianne Fredriksson had planted in her book and spread to millions of readers was an invention of her mind. It did not exist. And we did not have the Hollywood budget to create it.
It was a true moment of despair. I was to make a film about a boy and his tree and I had no tree. Kind of like James Bond not having a fast car. Being pragmatic and poor filmmakers we had to make a decision, and forced ourselves to choose an area of many small oaks—after all, the book was called "Simon and the Oaks." How Simon was to sit in a crooked little thin tree was a question I hoped the Art Department would solve for me.
On the first day of shooting, we were to film the boys bicycling past the oaks, by the water. The technical crew had problems, we were delayed, I was frustrated and decided to take a walk. As I headed out in the fields following the water line, I noticed a turn around a hillside that I hadn’t seen before. When I came around the hill I found a little island in a calm and protected bay, no more than 400 meters in diameter. A tiny wooden bridge led me over to the island. I followed the shoreline, passed a bunch of sheep grazing calmly, and suddenly stood in front of the most magnificent oak tree I had seen, securely resting by the shore.
The earth didn’t shake, the sun didn’t break out and there were no angels singing, but I am sure Marianne Fredriksson looked down and smiled at me from above.