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Interview with Tony and Ryan Smith co-writers of Volition.
By James Whittington, Tuesday 7th July 2020
FrightFest 2019 delivered some amazing movies and one of the best was Volition from the talented brothers Tony and Ryan Smith. Now that the movie has been unleashed onto Apple TV, Prime Video and other Digital Platforms we chatted to them about this acclaimed movie and their plans for the future.
HC: You both hail from South Africa, what's the movie industry like in that country at the moment?
TDS: I believe the South African film industry is very healthy and it's a place Ryan and I would love to revisit and make a movie about. I have a number of filmmaker friends who film there and absolutely love the people, the scenery and the incredible crews.
HC: Did you know from an early age that you both wanted to be in the film industry?
TDS: I was either going to be an astronaut or a filmmaker from the time I was 9 years old or so. I loved Spielberg's E.T. and I knew that I wanted to make rockets, make movies and make the world a better place. It wasn't until we moved to Vancouver Canada that my passions met opportunity, as Vancouver is a very busy film center. We had been making short films all through those tween and teen years, so it feels like I've been a cinema lover forever, and I'm still eager to get my cameras in space one day.
RWS: As the younger sibling, my interest in the film industry came naturally, because Tony was already filming everything and he needed an actor! But over time, we started collaborating on short films. Slowly, I phased out of the acting role and started taking an interest in story and writing. For a period, we both went on our solo explorations, with Tony writing and directing short films and TV and me writing and acting in projects with friends. But soon we joined forces and started writing features together. I would say that, for me, I knew I wanted to be in the film industry from a young age (it was always an important passion of mine), but it took me into my mid-twenties to really have the guts to pursue it as a career.
HC: Where did the idea for Volition come from?
TDS: Volition came about in a few stages. The original kernel was something I wrote in film school as a short. About a scientist who develops a pill that allows him to see 15 seconds into his own future. He wasn't a regular psychic who could see other people's lives; rather he could only see what he himself would ultimately experience. The script didn't have depth of character, heart or themes yet, so I tabled it and made something else at the time. Unable to forget about the concept, and with a little more salt in my soul, I started to really like the idea about a down and out character who feels like a prisoner to what he foresees. At that moment in my life, I was actually feeling quite stuck in my film/art life - and couldn't see a way out of it. And that's when everything clicked. I realized that my very "belief" was holding me prisoner. I realized that I had to face an "existential death" of my ego/fears and push harder for my goals. This became the foundation for James, who, like me, was a prisoner to his "belief" about his future. I wrote a first draft and then RWS jumped on board. He was always involved as a sounding board during my many dark days in the trenches of those early pages, and he had been pitching me this interesting idea of using James' unique perceptual affliction against itself, which would ultimately lead us to pulling the concept apart and building it back from the ground up together.
HC: What is your writing process, e.g. do you both sit in a room where one types whilst the other one paces?
RWS: We're lucky as brothers to have a lot of shared experience, so the process of writing together is very smooth. That said, we also sometimes see things from different perspectives, so we're always pushing one another to stretch and improve. Generally, we'll brainstorm and outline together in a room for a long time, until we feel we have a good handle on the beats of the story. At that point, we'll divide the outline in the middle, and each take a half to write in script form. Often new discoveries will happen for each of us in that process. Once those half-drafts are written, we'll trade sides and each re-write the other person's work. We repeat this over and over until we have a cohesive piece that feels like it represents us both.
TDS: The best part about our process of 'divide and conquer' is that it really allows us the freedom to feel things out in large swaths, and to try things without feeling someone over our shoulder, especially for more emotional sequences. Imagine writing an emotional crying scene while typing together... we find that a bit difficult. So we give each other space. There's no micro-managing involved, so if we stumble upon a fantastic idea that affects our half or the whole - we discuss, and generally go for it, knowing that the new discovery will lead to more discoveries in subsequent drafts, ultimately for the betterment of the script.
HC: The plot twists and turns almost constantly, how difficult was it to keep track of what was going on?
TDS: We had graphs, charts, structural topographical maps... it was an insane film to keep track of. But, as we keep moving through the story, always experiencing it from James' primary perspective, it became quite easy for us. We eventually used a color-coding system to track all the layers and plot turns, and I'm quite certain that we both aged 12 years with the 2+ year writing period.
The film has an incredible cast, was it written with specific actors in mind?
TDS: We love our cast, so thanks very much. Truthfully, yes, we had these actors in mind. Ryan and I were going to make this movie no matter what, and no matter what budget. So we started to talk to our actors friends in Vancouver - and as they expressed interest - we started to really hear their voices within the characters we were writing. I would also like to say that our cast took what was on the page and elevated it simply by their sheer talent. They are the authorities of these characters and Ryan and I are both so happy to them getting the recognition they deserve for their grounded performances.
HC: Did you have much of a budget as it does look slick?
RWS: While we can't talk specifics in terms of budget, I'll say that it was not a large budget, in comparison to studio films. In the writing of the script, we knew that we'd have to rely on the concept and the thematic ideas to make this story stand out. As for the slick look, I have to give Tony credit for his direction and shot selection. Also, Tony had such a key collaborator in our DP, Byron Kopman. These two pulled off incredible feats without relying on budget to save them.
TDS: Stretching dollars is basically a pre-requisite for a director on any budget - any it was no different for us. We knew we had a very complex script and shooting schedule ahead of us, so my prep (story boarding and shortlisting) was very key in making sure we got the look that I saw in my head. I knew we wouldn't have time for elaborate oners, steadi-cam, etc - so I made a very early decision to not be fancy with the camera, as we would lose our day and fall behind schedule. So the "slickness" that you see is a testament to the prep/vision that I went for - and then also the incredible talents of Byron Kopman, our cinematographer (currently shooting Neill Blomkamp's feature) - who understood how to translate my gritty, sweaty, character-based vision into reality.
HC: Was your initial vision restricted by budget?
TDS: In talking to many of my director friends about this topic, our visions are always limited by budget - but there is also great creativity in having limitations. Some of the best songs are written in 2 chords and some of the the best movies were strengthened by their constraints. I feel the same. While Volition could happily work on a bigger budget and longer schedule, I feel like the style and execution are cohesive with the characters and themes.
HC: The response the film has had globally has been phenomenal, has the film opened doors for you?
TDS: The biggest door that has opened has been the one of internal confidence. We took some big swings with this film and it's been gratifying to hear from fans and filmmakers that they love the movie! Ryan and I have some really cool stories that we want to tell, so the success of Volition has encouraged us to be bolder as we take on our next project. As for literal doors, yes, it's been really nice to take meetings knowing that Ryan and I get to play in bigger pools and with bigger ideas.
RWS: Also, having the film play at some of the great sci-fi and horror festivals around the world has opened up strong connections with that community. We've really loved to getting to meet people and share in conversation about the film and the genres we love.
HC: So, what are you working on at the moment?
TDS: We can't reveal too many internal secrets, but we are working on a number of very cool projects that relate to Volition, and also a few that will be natural stretches for us into new science fiction territory. One story that we're excited about is about our grandfather, who was a magician, but who also suffered from dementia towards the end of his life. Stay tuned!
RWS: Among other projects, we're developing a TV series that's also in the grounded sci-fi zone. It has some connective tissue to Volition, but it's exploring a broader swath of society, rather than being focused on one particular person's affliction. We're excited by the concept's potential for exploring issues that concern us about our current day world.
HC: Tony and Ryan, thank you very much.
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