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Marina Antunes [Celluloid 07.07.20] Canada scifi thriller

It's interesting to see what one can pull off with limited resources and a whole lot of creativity. Such is the case of Volition.

The latest feature film from writer/director Tony Dean Smith stars Adrian Glynn McMorran as James, a man whose complicated life gets even more complicated when he develops clairvoyance. There's a whole lot more to the story than that, including some bad guys, a romantic interest and more than one really great action sequence.

Leading up to the film's release on July 10, 2020 on Apple TV, Prime Video and other digital platforms, we had a chance to chat with director Tony Dean Smith and his writing partner and brother Ryan W. Smith, about the complexities of writing this story, finding the right actor to lead the film and the struggles of shooting on an indie schedule.

Quiet Earth: Where did the concept for the film come from?

Tony: Ryan and I loved character-based stories, so we've definitely dabbled in different areas, but there's not a lot of for-hire work in the comedy world, maybe more Ryan than for me.

The story came about when I was in film school. They say write what you know and as a teenager, I was always late so when I got to film school, I wrote this short story about a scientist who invents a drug that makes him early to everything, but he was perceptually early. He was essentially becoming a clairvoyant and was seeing small snippets of his future. But as soon as he invented the drug, a lot of bad things start to happen to him. That story was fine but very sort of surface and didn't have the depth of theme or characters that I eventually developed.

So I put it away. And then a few years later I was feeling quite stuck in my life as a filmmaker. I wanted to make the next thing and I knew kind of what I wanted to do, but know how to do it. And I realized that my own fears, my own perception of my future was the very thing that was limiting me. So in a way, I was almost creating a self-fulfilling prophecy, very much like what James, our protagonist does. And if he's someone who sees a fixed future, that always comes true and he's apathetic because of it. And so the film then just became about that: how do you get up off of your ass and make that change in the face of the greatest fear of all which is death? Then Ryan and I basically did a hundred drafts together. I wrote a very first draft and I don't know Ryan, if you want to get into our writing madness, but it took us a little while to crack.

Ryan: I really loved Tony's first draft and there was just this unique kernel that I hadn't seen in other other sci-fi films about clairvoyance and what might be the roots of clairvoyance or what might be causing it. It was a really unique take.

When we started working together, we started playing around with the structure and that's where we landed on sort of the using clairvoyance to turn in on itself structurally as well.

It was not an easy project to write at all but so gratifying to solve the puzzle in whatever way we did. And there are times where we didn't think we'd be able to crack this and it took all the way through to the edit to really feel like "okay, this is landing now."

Was this a project that you were always going to work on together?

Tony: We've been trying to do things together through the years but we also have our own for-hire work and our day jobs. So this was something originally that I was probably going to go and try and do as a really, really small project. Even smaller than this. I was actually willing to go buy the camera, shoot myself, make Ryan play Angela and James... I would've done it.
But now very early on it became a joint partnership in the project.

What was the writing process like when you have something that's this complex?

Tony: I'll jump in quickly here and I'll let Ryan sort of carry this one. I would say that we always break story together. We all sit in a room for weeks or months on end and we just discuss and we write everything down so we have a global document and outline. Then our process is kind of unique. We actually split the script down the middle and we go off and write. Ryan will go and write the first half and I'll go off and write the second half and we're free to do so based on the outline that we have developed. Then we come back once we finish those tasks and we swap. I'll read and re-write his half and he'll read and re-write my half.
We do that a bunch of times until we finally land on something that's cohesive. We have very similar writing voices, but also some differences in our backgrounds so it really helps. And then as far as the actual plotting structure, madness pie charts, right. I don't know if you want to dare to venture into that territory.

Ryan: Yeah. I mean, it really was a crazy period of sort of mind mapping. The number of squiggles and charts that we had on the wall and on the whiteboard was pretty insane. And there were times where we thought we were like losing our minds because it was not easy to crack. But I will say it did come together in the edit, but the script itself was also a very cohesive piece. We both are really careful about making sure the script works. It's just that when you get to the edit, you realize that maybe we don't need this section or maybe the performance has gave us something more interesting in another area. And so in the edit, we found an ending that we preferred and that led us to do some pickup shooting, some re-shoot in certain areas to really pull the things together even more.

You mentioned performance. Adrian Glynn McMorran really like nails it. What was the casting process like and finding the right person to play James, because it's such a key pivotal role and so much relies on him.

Tony: In the early days when we were writing a script we obviously could just write the character first and we just feel their wounds and then what they're needing through the story. And then Ryan and I started to discuss whether we could we make this ourselves or do we go get a studio back in? But very early on popped into Adrian popped into our heads. We all went to Point Grey Highschool in Vancouver so we'd known each other through the years. I had actually directed Adrian in a music video and I had directed him in a student film that I made a long, long time ago. So he was always there, in the back of our minds.

He's just so incredibly authentic and genuine and vulnerable. He wears his wounds on his sleeve, but like all of us, he can also be charming and cocky and sometimes that's a really cover for the wound. We just really started to see how James could be Adrian and vice versa. Then as we kept writing, we started to talk to Adrian. We did look at other people as well, but we kept coming back to him and we're so kind of blessed because he is James. I couldn't see anyone else playing that role.

Adrian and I shed some good tears actually over the arc of James and our own journey as artists because Adrian and I have been at this for a little while together.

What was the shooting process like?

Tony: I'll take a deep breath on answering that one.

It was a really difficult, very complex shoot that actually needed many more days than we had. We only had 18 days to shoot it. I have a background as an editor and I've done some directing before as well so I was aware that our page count per day was impossible and that the way I wanted to shoot the film was also impossible. And I love moving cameras and dollies and steady cams, but I couldn't do that so the amount of prep and planning was immense. And I have to be incredibly precise knowing that I only had an hour to shoot what should be a four-hour scene. And I had to shoot it, not just from the one primary angle, but, without giving anything away, the film, you revisit certain areas because of James with clairvoyance. And so I had to shoot those at the same time and know who was where and when.

Ryan and I had color coding everywhere. Adrian as well, had his own emotional chart to know exactly where he was and when he was. We'd love to shoot linearly and chronologically, but it's impossible really for a film because of schedules and locations so we have to shoot everything in the alleyway, for example, on day one and then shoot everything at let's say Elliot's house, for the next few days. So it was all over the place as it always is, but the added complexity of what we're doing turns it into overdrive.

Ryan: There was the added challenge of James. He gets pretty beaten up throughout the film so we have to hand it to Jamie Swettenham, our effects makeup artist, for the great work he did. The continuity of tracking James, his wounds and all of the different elements... it was a real challenge scheduling wise. It was, it was a real adventure for all of us.

What's next for you?

Ryan: Tony and I have a few projects that were we're cooking right now. One is inspired by our grandfather who was actually a magician and our father was a magician, and both Tony and I dabbled in magic as kids. It's in that world. The story is dealing with the crossover between magic and psychosis, or well, really dementia because my grandfather, toward the end of his life, he suffered through dementia and it was incredibly painful to watch and to be with him during that time. We started exploring what dementia is and how did that possibly connect to the imagination and to magic.

Volition is available on Apple TV, Prime Video and other digital platforms on July 10.

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