Tyler DiChiara
Actor Tyler DiChiara stars in writer-director-producer Justin Ward’s comedy-drama, ‘Relish.’
Photo by: Deborah Kolb

Sometimes the most inspiring journeys that teens can embark on are the emotional ones that allow them to learn about the powerful bond of friendship, and that their differences are what make them special. Tyler DiChiara is making his feature film acting debut, and is part of a compelling young cast, in the new comedy-drama, ‘Relish,’ which emphasizes the importance of young adults learning to rely on others to help them deal with their personal demons.

Justin Ward wrote, directed and produced ‘Relish.’ In addition to DiChiara, the adventure movie also stars Hana Hayes, Mateus Ward, Rio Mangini and Chelsea Zhang.

‘Relish’ follows five teenage outcasts escape a private treatment facility in hopes of attending the infamous Dreamland Music Festival. Led by a rebellious transgender male, Kai (DiChiara), and with help from Aspen (Hayes), a social media influencer; Levi (Ward), a football player addicted to opioids; Theo (Mangini), who suffers from bipolar disorder; and Sawyer (Zhang), an alien obsessed nerd, the five embark on the journey of a lifetime.

The film also brings a level of authenticity to the heart-wrenching struggles and challenges faced by modern teens, especially by the transgender community. DiChiara just made history at the 40th Annual Young Artist Awards as the first transgender Best Actor Recipient of the Academy.

‘Relish’ will be in competition when it has its World Premiere at the Burbank International Film Festival. The premiere will be held tonight at 8pm PDT at the Burbank AMC 16 Theaters (125 E. Palm Ave, Burbank, CA 91502). In honor of the comedy-drama’s premiere, Ward and DiChiara generously took the time before the festival to talk about writing, directing and starring in the feature during an exclusive phone interview.

ShockYa (SY): Justin, you wrote the script for ‘Relish.’ What was the inspiration in penning the screenplay? How would you describe your overall writing process?

Justin Ward (JW): I first started working on the idea in the summer of 2017. I was playing with the idea of a couple of kids who break out of a treatment center, but I hadn’t flushed out the idea. Then Terry Nardozzi, who’s our producer, approached me after she screened my first film. She said that she wanted to work with me, and asked I had any ideas.

I think it was the pressure of presenting an idea on the fly that pushed me to pitch the story of five teenagers breaking out of a treatment facility, and going on a wild road trip. That journey draws them closer, and they become friends, but they come from different walks of life.

So then I had the task of writing that script, without having flushed out anything. The two things that I focused on, and felt were the most important, were the themes of freedom, including having the freedom to be who you are, and that society places us in a box.

While I was working on those themes, Terry was adamant that were was an LGBTQ character in it. One of the characters in my original idea was a transgender female. When I started working on the idea of the five different characters, the idea of having a a transgender male then started to present itself. It then became clear that he would be the one who helped them break out. That really excited me, and the story grew from there.

SY: Speaking of the transgender character, Tyler, you made your feature film acting debut in ‘Relish,’ in which you play Kai, a trans male who’s spending time int he treatment facility. What was it about the character of Kai, as well as the overall script, that convinced you to take on the role?

Tyler DiChiara (TD): The whole industry was a silent dream for me; I never really spoke to anyone about wanting to be an actor. I then got a DM one day from a casting director, who said I had a look that they were looking for, and I was like, wait, what’s going on here?!? I never told anyone about my dream of acting.

So when I got the DM about ‘Relish,’ and asked if I wanted to read for it, and found out what the story would be portraying, I was skeptical, because this was the first time I would be acting in anything. But I realized that this was a big opportunity for me to get involved in the film industry.

It was also a great opportunity to portray a man who’s just like me, in as real and raw of a way as possible. So you get to see what I go through on a daily basis in certain scenes. So I’m so honored that Justin and everyone wanted to create something like that. The film industry really wants to help us to tell our stories…and I’m so happy to see those stories, and be a part of this community.

‘Relish’ is now part of that trans movement that needs to be out there, and I’m so honored to be a part of it…Justin really showed how we all just want to be free…The script was absolutely beautiful when I read it. I couldn’t be more grateful to be where I am today, because of Justin and this film.

SY: Justin, in addition to scribing the script, you also directed the feature. How did working on the screenplay influence the way you approached helming the movie?

JW: The one thing that Terry and I talked about while working on the script was jumping right into production. There wasn’t a lot of time; we shot for only nine days in January of 2018, and we had about three-four weeks of prep, which is insane. So everything happened very quickly.

As soon as the script was finished, we immediately went into casting. It was really interesting to cast the film. I knew that I wouldn’t have a lot of time with the actors, so I needed actors who could handle one or two takes. So we set out to find the actors, and we reached out to those we had in mind.

My wife (Laura Ward) worked as the casting director on the movie, so we talked about Rio Mangini being the perfect example of what Theo would be in the story. My son (Mateus Ward) plays the jock, Levi, and I knew he could play that role. Laura and I talked extensively about Hana Hayes playing the character of Aspen, the social media influencer, once we got into casting.

I initially didn’t have any idea who I wanted to play Sawyer, but I knew whoever we cast would have to have a quality and charm; she would also have to be able to play the character as being spiritual and old minute, and then young and naive the next minute. That was a hard quality to find. But when we saw Chelsea Zhang, I was floored, and knew we found the right person to play Sawyer.

But I backed myself into a corner when I wrote the part of Kai as a strong transgender male. We needed somebody who was not only a smartass, but also strong and vibrant, while also having a tragic past experience. But that experience hasn’t derailed him, and he’s not a victim, which was the most important thing to me. Every story I’ve seen about transgender individuals turns them into victims, but I didn’t want that at all for Kai.

So finding someone to play this strong character was problematic. But we were fortunate enough, after a nationwide search, which even involved my wife reaching out to people through DMs on social media, that we found Tyler. I decided to take a risk, as I wanted to cast a transgender male who’s real, raw and passionate about this project. So we cast Tyler, and worked with him for a few weeks on the part.

In addition to playing Levi, my son, Mateus, was also a co-producer on the project, also gave Tyler a crash course on acting for a couple of weeks. We then worked everyday for a week to create a bond between all of the actors…I was very fortunate to find the cast we have, as they’re all very talented.

SY: The movie brings a level of authenticity to the heart-wrenching struggles and challenges faced by modern teens, especially by the transgender community today. ‘Relish’ is an emotional, and inspiring tale about the powerful bond of friendship, dealing with one’s own personal demons, and learning that our differences make us special. Why was it important to both of you to focus on those inspirational messages in the story?

JW: Finding the tone of the film was very challenging, because I knew that the depths that these characters were suffering are serious issues. Each one of these characters is suffering from an extremely important issue for teenagers today. So I didn’t want to make light of that…but we did want to make it relatable, while also finding a comedy element out of it, and not making fun of anyone.

So I worked to create these troupes at the beginning of the story, and you instantly know these characters, as you’ve seen them in every movie. Then by the end, you hopefully see them all differently…I believe that people are so much more than what they initially show us, and let us see…We also wanted people to feel as though they’re really going on the ride with these characters. That was the theme we wanted to achieve, and it was ambitious, so hopefully we achieved it.

TD: While we were filming each scene, I felt like we were all just being ourselves. After they said “Cut,” we were still those characters-we were just regular kids in a car in the middle of nowhere, having a grand old time. We were singing and dancing, and just being regular teenagers. So to have those relatable moments, both on- and off-camera, was so amazing.

I really hope that trans men can relate to my performance. All those moments you see on screen have happened to me, which is why it was so easy to portray them on camera…So it was cool to be a part of that relatable experience.

SY: ‘Relish’ is set to have its World Premiere at the 2019 Burbank International Film Festival (tonight). What was the experience of preparing to bring the movie to the film festival been like?

JW: I think this is a special film, and everyone who’s seen it so far has had a really positive reaction to it. I think getting into festivals can be a real challenge…so I champion any film that gets into a festival. I don’t think people realize how tough it really is; it’s not just about the quality of the film, but also if it fits into a festival’s schedule, as well as their agendas.

Everyone at the Burbank International Film Festival has been really wonderful. They’re really strong supporters of the film…so we’re thrilled to be having our World Premiere there. It’s a really exciting experience…At the end of the day, as filmmakers, we want our movies to be seen in theaters by as many people as possible. AMC is an incredible theater to have our film be shown in…Burbank’s been great, and we’re exited to be there.

TD: When we had our cast and crew screening, I had a sneak peak of what Burbank was going to be like. I originally just saw the film with the rest of the cast and crew, but now I’m about to see it with people I don’t even know, including fans who follow me on my social media accounts. I’ve never had the experience of someone wanting to just meet me somewhere!

Being able to also see my work on the big screen has been great…I’m so glad that I went after my dream, and it’s led me here. I’m so proud that I get to be a part of this industry, and I’m going to have the biggest smile on my face at the festival!

Photo ofJustin Ward and Tyler DiChiara
Justin Ward and Tyler DiChiara
Job Title
Writer-director-producer of, and actor in, comedy-drama, 'Relish'

By Karen Benardello

As a graduate of LIU Post with a B.F.A in Journalism, Print and Electronic, Karen Benardello serves as ShockYa's Senior Movies & Television Editor. Her duties include interviewing filmmakers and musicians, and scribing movie, television and music reviews and news articles. As a New York City-area based journalist, she's a member of the guilds, New York Film Critics Online and the Women Film Critics Circle.

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