Arrow Video Frightfest returns for its twentieth year of frightful delights later this month. Running from Thursday 22nd August to Monday 26th August, the film festival showcases the best and brightest in films that embrace the darker side of cinema. In the run-up to the festival, we at THN are bringing you a series of interviews with some of the filmmakers presenting the fruits of their labour to the Frightfest audiences.
Today’s film is the science-fiction mind-blending Volition. The story follows James, a young man with clairvoyant abilities. James makes his living making petty bets and occasionally helping out the local crime contingent. After being drafted in to help on a new job, James accidentally stumbles across the sequence of events that will lead to his death. James, with help from new friend Angela, must try to piece together the riddle of his life as he tries to alter his future.
Volition is directed by Tony Dean Smith and written by himself and his younger brother Ryan W. Smith. The duo have been working together on films for years, starting when they were children with the family video recorder. Tony would direct and Ryan would star in the films, which gave the pair not only a chance to explore their creative sides, but also helped cement their future career paths. Now a couple of decades later, we sat down with them to discuss all about their process, their new film, and what the Frightfest audience can expect.
You guys have been making things since you were kids, what was it that got you into film-making?
TONY DEAN SMITH: I’m a little older than Ryan and so I got access to our dad’s things when we were kids. One of those things was a video camera that, for some reason, he trusted me to use. He was also a magician, as was my grandfather, so I think from a very early age they instilled in us a sense of storytelling and play make believe. It was just a natural thing for us to start performing. Just having siblings around, we were both our fellow crew members and fellow audience members to each other. We just kinda grabbed cameras and started to make things up. Very often they had special effects, very crude special effects, in them. I think that’s one of the reasons we got going.
RYAN W. SMITH: So we were born in South Africa in Johannesburg, and emigrated to Canada in 1990. I think Tony had the time to kill time or just get creative while we were travelling. Because we did a road trip through the States on the way, Tony would use my dad’s camera and film us, and would make little shorts and projects along the way and that continued as we got to Canada.
Tony, you stated in the webisode series that when you were directing in your younger years, the lines got blurred between director and dictator, how has your directing style developed?
TDS: Oh evolution is a wonderful thing, I’m now a benevolent dictator so it’s a little bit better (laughs). It’s funny, you obviously learn a lot from each experience. I think as the director joking aside, you’re just always looking for the best way to do something. I think you realise it doesn’t always have to come from you. Whatever idea is the best, you use. It’s such a collaboration. I think along the way I’ve learned that Ryan and I are just really the very best of collaborators. We don’t actually necessarily know where the ideas come from, we are just always defending story and trying to push story forwards. That even comes down to shot selection on set. As a director, I certainly have an opinion of where it should be, but it doesn’t mean that conversations aren’t open. I’d like to think I’ve grown a little bit.
The idea for Volition has been floating around for years, what was it about now that made it the right time to revisit and bring it to life?
TDS: Yeah it did take a little while for this to sort of find its footing. In previous iterations it wasn’t as grounded, it was more of a standard science-fiction adventure. Then when we stumbled across this character of James and his affliction, that it wasn’t a superhero type of gift he had, I think for us that’s what gave us access into this new world that we could tell something that was organic, but still something extraordinary happening to an ordinary person. We also just got to the point where we finally just wanted to make something. There’s so much paperwork and bureaucracy and rejection along the way, and we just decided that we have other projects that we want to do and we need to choose our smallest one, our easiest one, and go from there.
You guys have an interesting writing dynamic, can you explain a little bit about your process?
TDS: When we’re writing together, it is interesting. Some writing partnerships sit at the keyboard at the same time and type line by line, we don’t really do that. What we do is we spend a lot of time in the beginning together, brainstorming ideas and throwing concepts around. Once we land on something, we’ll work together closely to create a beat sheet and a rough outline, which is basically almost sequence by sequence of what the story is. Once we have that in a good place, we’ll split it down the middle, and one of us will take the first half and the other will take the second half. The we’ll go off onto our own and, with our shared knowledge of the project, each write our own half. Then we trade that half back and forth with each other, re-writing each others work. At the end of the process we both had a really good stab at the full project and often the ideas just blend and it starts to feel cohesive.
Volition isn’t the straightforward science-fiction story that you’d expect it to be when it starts, how hard was it to put together?
TDS: We approached it in some ways in a non-linear way. There’s a lot of layers to it, in some ways of course it’s an adventure that moves forwards. If you’ve seen the film, you know it has an interesting structure. We approached it from, ‘we know there has to be a payoff, maybe we need to find where the setup is’, or very often we saw, ‘well here’s our natural setup, how can we pay it off later in a clever and satisfying way?’ It’s funny, I don’t think we set out to be “clever”, we just wanted to tell a story about a clairvoyant in a psychological and perceptual loop. From there, we just experimented, almost like a jazz musician; tried some things and saw that the form was taking shape based upon the concept. It was really difficult to write. We had so many versions of the script. Even in through the edit as well. We both joke that we’re still recovering.
RWS: It was not an easy process. Everything from the writing to the production to the editing, it’s not been easy, but very rewarding. It’s so great to see that people who have seen it have been surprised by it. It is gratifying.
When I was watching Volition I felt some Twelve Monkey‘s, Looper and early David Fincher vibes. Were there any films or filmmakers that influenced either the style or storytelling?
TDS: For me, definitely David Fincher is right up there. I just think he’s such a master of the specifics, something I just want to get better at. Fincher I love. My whole arsenal of filmmakers I love go from Fincher to Tarantino, with some very old Spielberg when I was a kid. I love Christopher Nolan now for his cerebral science-fiction and what he tries to do. I like Michael Cahill who is a director right now who is doing some really interesting work – I Origins, Another Earth. Visually I definitely come from trying to emulate my heroes which were Spielberg, Scorsese, Oliver Stone, David Fincher and many more.
RWS: Terry Gilliam.
TDS: Yeah of course. I’m sure I’m missing so many, but at the end of the day you always try to find your own brand. Plus you’re limited by budgets and what we had to work with camera wise. Again, almost like a script, it starts to take on a life of its own and tells you what it’ll be.
Did you do much research?
RWS: Yeah we did. We did a lot of reading. We are definitely not scientists. I think we were really intrigued and inspired by ideas around quantum entanglement and some basic string theory ideas.
TDS: We were also fascinated by this experiment that not everyone knows about. Some scientists split a photon and they took one photon to France and one was in the UK. What they did to one half of the photon instantly affected the other. We were just fascinated by are we more connected than we think, and is everything affecting everything. We built James and the way he experiences fragmentation from that concept.
Volition has already screened in a couple of places, what has the reception been so far?
TDS: It’s been incredibly gratifying. We had no idea that it would connect with people on this level. We’re really finding our home, our genre family, which is really nice. We’ve had people just come up to us and see things that we weren’t even aware of, that actually are completely related to the depth of the concept. People that are wanting to see it two or three times, people that did that at certain festivals. It’s all really encouraging. It gives us some affirmation that, as crazy as it might have been, it works. It’s not a film for necessarily everyone, but I think there’s something in there for a lot of people.
RWS: The first festival we played was the Phillip K Dick Film Festival and we ended-up winning best feature. That was our opening to the festival circuit, and that was just such a wonderful surprise and it’s just kept building from there. Frightfest is just huge for us, we know how beloved the festival is, we’ve always heard of it, and now we get to be a part of it.
What are the Frightfest folks going to get from picking to watch your film?
RWS: In terms of actually watching the film I think they’ll walk away with a real mind-twister that I think gives you a really satisfying emotional experience, whilst also giving you something to talk about when you leave the theatre. That’s what we’re hoping for.
TDS: Along with that, it is not immediately obvious, but it’s also a film, Ryan and I have talked about, it’s a theme that sits underneath the spectacle of the film. It’s really about feeling stuck in your life and going through what you consider maybe the hardest thing, the darkness that holds you there. For most of us, that’s where we get paralysed and don’t do something. James has to go through the thing that he’s most scared of, which is death. I hope the audience come out of it feeling a little more courageous to do the thing they were scared of. Very often, for all of us, it’s not a train coming towards us, it’s just a new phase of life. You have to go through the darkness to get there.
RWS: There will be some goodies for those who attend, we’re figuring that out now.
Once this film is out of the way what are you guys working on next?
TDS: Well we have a couple of projects that tickle our fancy. Definitely related to Volition as far as the world of grounded science-fiction. We basically have something that is related to our grandfather who was this magician. He had some mental health issues towards the end, and without giving too much away…
RWS: … we’re just exploring the connection with magic and mental health, in a dark but ultimately tragic story.
TDS: It’s something we’ve been working on for a little while, and we’ve been through development a little bit with it. Now we’ve seen a new way, again a really solid, we think grounded mature way, that scares us a lot, but also we know it’ll move us in the way we think it could an audience too. Very much related to Volition, so we think the audience would come right along with us. Very much I think like Christopher Nolan has done, you can see the relationship between even The Prestige and Inception. We never planned it out to make this similar to Volition.
RWS: We had a recent discovery that really opens it up…
TDS: … that actually relates a lot to Volition.
RWS: It kinda plays with the story form a bit as well…
Catch Volition at Arrow Video Frightfest when it screens on Saturday 24th August. You can discover more about the film by clicking here.