Review Fix chats with Omer Ben Shachar director of “Tree #3,” who details the creation process behind the film and more.
Review Fix: Why is the topic of this film important today?
Omer Ben Shachar: I believe the message of the film is relevant today, especially to newly immigrated children trying to find their place in a new country. For me, as a young Israeli boy growing up in Texas, I was very ashamed of everything that made me different – my accent, my background, my personality. Trying to fit in, I worked hard to shed all the things that made me stand out and blur my identity. But as I grew older, I learned, just like Itai learns in the movie, that so many times the things we’re ashamed of are the things that make us unique, special, and beautiful. We just can’t see it. When we begin to accept the things that make us stand out, we begin to love ourselves. That’s really the message I wanted to convey in our movie. One’s identity isn’t an obstacle, it’s their superpower.
Review Fix: What inspired this film?
Shachar: #3 is based on my experience growing up in Texas as a newly immigrated boy. But it wasn’t always clear to me that that was the story I wanted to tell. In fact, in the early stages of our film’s development, we were going to tell a completely different story. However, each time my co-writer and I met to work on the script, I found myself returning to my childhood in Houston, Texas, and the memory of how my accent prevented me from landing a speaking role in the school play. I remembered the devastation I felt each time I saw my name next to a background role and how, to make myself feel better, I would put on my own plays in my living room and cast myself in the lead.
It wasn’t the hardship, or even the comedy of the situation, that drew me to tell this story. It was the passion. I wanted to tell a story about a passionate kid who would go to extremes to make himself the star of his own show. I wanted to be close again to that 12-year-old boy, not to remind myself of how it felt to be rejected and excluded, but of how it felt to not surrender. That young boy never gave up. He was such a believer, so committed to his art and so passionate about trying to excite an audience. I wanted to be inspired again by his energy, and in making this film, inspire others. It became apparent to me that the story I needed to tell was my own.
Review Fix: How difficult was this film to put together?
Shachar: Besides finding the story, I believe the biggest difficulty was finding the right cast, especially the lead boy.
Review Fix: Tell me about the cast.
Shachar: Finding Lior Malka, who plays the lead boy Itai, was like a miracle. We discovered him through our casting directors, Carla Hool and Natalie Ballesteros. It took some time to find him since we were looking for a very specific kid. We needed someone who was not only great at “putting on a show,” but who was also authentic and genuine. We needed a kid that was very charismatic, energetic, and captivating as well as shy, sensitive and insecure. And on top of that, he needed to have an English accent, and speak Hebrew! Lior was all of that, and much more.
It was great working with the other two young actors as well, Alex Gonzalez and Eva Du. I love working with young actors because of how fearless they are. They’re not afraid of failing or making mistakes. On set, if I would ask them to put on a certain accent, for instance, or try to deliver a line in a different way, they’d really have fun doing it. And even if I gave them a note that didn’t make sense immediately, they’d view it as challenge, like a game. That’s where the magic is. The best parts in the movie are the parts where they’re just having fun; many times improvising. No written line can compete with a real smile.
Review Fix: What was the feeling like on set?
Shachar: It was a great set, all thanks to the team of brilliant collaborators – Iris Yang (Producer), Katia Najera (Production Designer), Yinong Xia (Editor), Zilong Liu (Cinematograhper), and Sydney Meadow (Co-Writer). Of course the work on set was stressful, but it was also such a joy to work with young actors who brought so much energy and life to set. One of my main goals as a director is to put the actor’s real personality on screen, and not a part that they are playing. I believe the good atmosphere on set made that possible.
Review Fix: How have the audiences been reacting to Tree #3?
Shachar: We’ve been getting great audience responses that have ranged from laughter to crying. That spectrum of emotions is one of the greatest feelings for a director. The numbers of people who are moved by the film and how each audience member connects to different aspects of it have touched me. I was surprised by just how many different people from different backgrounds have been able to connect with the film. From actors, to immigrants, to very young kids and grandparents, everyone has always felt like a miscast at some point in their life. I hoped the film would speak to a broad audience, but I didn’t realize the universality of the film’s themes.
Review Fix: How did you feel about your film winning a Student Academy Award?
Shachar: It’s such an incredible honor that Tree #3 won a Student Academy Award. For me, it’s like landing that speaking role I’ve always wanted. The recognition the film received from the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, an organization that I’ve looked up to so much all these years, was surreal.
Creating work that is extremely personal and truthful, that forced me to expose my insecurities and imperfections was somewhat terrifying. The scariest thing about it is the possibility that people won’t relate to what I find “truthful”, and that I will realize that perhaps I was wrong all along, perhaps discovering that no one really cares about a kid in a tree costume.
But this award proved to me that people do care about a kid in a tree costume and that it is possible to move from the background into the spotlight. I discovered that even if my teacher told me I was nothing more than a tree in the back, if I’d rehearse enough in my living room and believe in myself, I could win a Student Academy Award.
Review Fix: What films have inspired it the most?
Shachar: Little Miss Sunshine, Ratatouille, Beginners inspired me the most. I’m a huge fan of Pixar. They are so great at crafting emotional, heartful, honest, and original stories. Their online course “Pixar in a Box” has inspired me a great deal.
Review Fix: What have you learned about yourself through this entire process?
Shachar: I learned that it is important to tell stories that I care about deeply. Because the story was alive in me, I felt like so much of it told itself. The subconscious plays such a big part in creating movies; not just my subconscious, but also the actors’ and collaborators’ subconscious. Creating a film has the power to show someone the invisible, to show them things they didn’t even know about themselves. Telling the story of Itai made me want to be like him again and it inspired me to be braver and prouder.
Review Fix: What’s next?
Shachar: I’m writing a comedic feature about my experience in the Israeli army. We are currently developing a show based on Tree #3 and I’m also developing an animated show based on a Israeli children’s book about a witch and her talking cat. I’m also part of the Viacom Viewfinders Directors Program, where I will shadow on a Nickelodeon TV series.