Five teenage outcasts with disparate personal issues but with the same need to be understood and accepted, break out of a private treatment facility and embark on a road trip that will become a journey of self-discovery. It's the premise behind new indie drama Relish, written and directed by Justin Ward and currently in post-production. We were lucky to have an exclusive sneak peek at the screenplay and gather some early behind-the-scenes commentary from the filmmakers and one of its young stars.
A father of two teenagers, director Justin Ward sets out to make a modern-day, youthful road-trip movie that speaks to this generation. He wanted a raw and candid look at how teenagers are faced with overwhelming decisions and dealings with extreme peer pressure and bullying. “We are all so much more than what we show and how we are seen. I wanted to tackle the issue of judging a book by its cover and how unfair it is to lock people into a box. It is extremely difficult to find ourselves in a world where we all are bombarded with images and ruled by social media, condemned by internet trolls, constantly judged by our posts and photos and instantly labelled. That's even more difficult for teenagers and almost impossible for those who suffer mental illness or addiction.”
After starting off his career producing and directing original plays for his own theatre company, followed by a long stint in television, Ward transitioned into feature films last year with his directorial debut The Meanest Man In Texas, a prison period drama based on a true story, starring his son Mateus (Weeds, Hostages, Murder In The First). The film has gained traction in the festival circuit with several awards already under its belt, with an expected release later this year, with Relish being the follow up.
Whilst Relish tackles familiar coming-of-age themes, the film's merit lies in the telling of the inspirational and humurous story of transgender teenager Kai. Kai is the group's unofficial leader; handsome, strong, a force-of-nature but with a big heart, who also happens to be trans. For the role, Ward cast a female-to-male trans actor Tyler DiChiara. This is Tyler's debut role and his performance has already received noteworthy praise for his realistic portrayal of trans teen. A role that would have been usually casted to a cisgender actor, Ward almost makes a political statement by casting Kai, an authentic representation.
Ward felt it was time to showcase a disenfranchised group of people in a new light: “I wanted to write a story about a pre-op, pre-testosterone transgender male who is more than just a vocal piece for their movement or a tool for a writer's theme. Yes, Kai struggles with the fact that he is a female who identifies as male, but he also struggles with other issues that all teenagers face: finding love, being seen for who he really is, financial and family issues and fear of the future. I wanted to create a well-rounded individual, someone we all could relate to.”
The other young misfits include: Theo (Rio Mangini – Netflix's Everything Sucks), who desperately wants to fit in but battles with self-doubt, Aspen (Hana Hayes – Insidious: The Last Key, Netflix's To The Bone) whose glossy appearance reveals an inner struggle. Levi is played by Mateus, plagued by the pressures of being an athlete and Sawyer, (Chelsea Zhang – Me and Earl and The Dying Girl, The Perks of Being a Wallflower) who is under the grips of a personality disorder.
Filmed over just 9 days, the production's team biggest challenges were limited time, money and resources. Producer Terry Nardozzi, whose extensive experience on Broadway is being put to the test in her first foray into working in film, stresses that she could not have asked for a better project: “I think in either medium it's important to work not only with people you trust, but also with professionals who know their job and are committed to excellence. I was impressed both by Justin's efficiency – I was aware of his talent – and by the work ethic of our crew and our young cast. We are extremely proud of this film and cannot wait to share it with the world.”
The biggest challenge in pre-production was casting. He wanted a real trans male to play Kai, so along with his casting director, his wife Laura Ward, they searched high and low to find the right person. Ward and Mateus worked with Tyler over Skype for a month and flew him out to Los Angeles for an intensive, long 4 day rehearsal period, so that he was ready and prepared before filming started. “I think Tyler will blow people away with his performance. He's so talented! We also made sure we surrounded him with extremely talented actors. I knew we would be moving at lightning speed and rolling on rehearsals, while they would only get a few takes, so they had to be pros and prepared.”
This is Mateus' second time working with his father, previously playing the titular role in The Meanest Man In Texas. He says of the father-son working relationship: “Working with my dad is always a blast. This role was a completely different beast compared to my other projects and very different from our last film together. Playing a boisterous and sexual alpha-male is something I haven't done yet. It was a very interesting experience. Given the outstanding talent of my co-stars, I felt like I was falling behind a bit. They are all so good, which is one of the best feelings you can have as an actor. It really made me step up my game!”
The 19-year old actor highlighted how his father's passion for the project inspired the cast and crew to work their hardest and the thing Ward does best as a director is the way he assembles a team of people he can trust and communicate with: “He directs actors with an understanding that we know our characters the best. He is by far the most freeing director I think anyone will work with!”
Maybe then it's not a coincidence that the director told us he is fascinated by the concept of freedom: “What is freedom? Freedom of mind? Freedom of body? Freedom of speech? Freedom to be ourselves? These are the questions this film explores. But ultimately, I wanted to take us on a wild road trip with these characters, and hopefully one that the audience will never forget.”
Relish is currently in post-production.
Follow Relish on @RelishTheMovie.
Words by Francesco Cerniglia @FrankieWriter.