By SHAWN MACOMBER
VOLITION writer/director Tony Dean Smith was 9 years old when he became aware of the apartheid regime defiling and corrupting his native South African land.
“I remember bawling my eyes out,” he tells RUE MORGUE. “I was absolutely freaking out that some of my friends weren’t as free as I was. It was an awful revelation, really. Luckily, we had very progressive parents who did not hesitate to explain to us the immorality of these laws and the value of questioning everything. For example, I also remember, for some reason, buying a Bible when I was probably 7 and asking my mom, ‘What do you mean, the Earth was made in seven days?’ And she said, ‘Well, maybe it’s a metaphor. Maybe seven days means seven billion years.’ So our parents allowed us to explore topics openly without feeling like anything was too taboo. They encouraged us to think freely in different contexts and not accept injustice, which was amazing and obviously had an impact on our work.”
“Growing up in a system that is so insanely unjust, I think it framed our sense of the types of stories we want to tell,” Tony’s brother and VOLITION co-writer Ryan W. Smith adds. “The moral landscape of a story is so important to us. We never want our films to merely serve a fancy plot. We want to explore what it is to be human and the moral choices we make as people. And I don’t know how it couldn’t have been shaped by some of the things we experienced growing up in South Africa.”
This unwillingness to accepted received wisdom—or reality—is a foundational block of VOLITION, an absolutely riveting and affecting sci-fi thriller that releases today on Apple TV, Prime Video and other digital platforms (see review here). The film explores deep philosophical questions of autonomy and self-determination through the character of James (Adrian Glynn McMorran), a clairvoyant drifting on the seedy edges of society until true love and a vision of his own death simultaneously arrive in a filthy back alley.
“The original concept I wrote—somebody sees a fixed increment of their own future and must try to change it—was very surface-y,” Tony says. “It wasn’t until I realized that I was actually feeling quite stuck in my own life that the deeper levels of the story began to develop. You know, as a filmmaker, I was kind of concerned that I wasn’t ever going to make the movie I wanted to make. That apathy, that fear, was creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. I was identifying with this future. It hit me kind of hard, actually. And if I could tell a story about the clairvoyant from that perspective, then it actually became much more metaphorical, you know? James has to face his own death, but we all as human beings have to confront our own demons and self-imposed limiting ideas—pride, ego, whatever—if we’re going to push beyond the things that are holding us back and oppressing us. That’s what the film deals with on a deeper level.”
This is, in part, why VOLITION feels like such a personal film, despite the extrasensory element. And it’s magnified by the fact that the Smiths are siblings who discovered that their shared blood could be transubstantiated into a fruitful creative partnership. “I’m the younger sibling,” Ryan says, “and when we immigrated from South Africa in 1990, it was essentially a big family trip. A lot of bonding going on. Tony already had and interest in filmmaking, so he would take my dad’s video camera, or Handycam at the time, and film us. All of our siblings would act in these homemade movies, and that eventually evolved to us developing further and beginning to collaborate on other short films. Then, separately, we also both took an interest in theater and eventually in writing. Once we reached early adulthood, we realized, Hey, we’re both creating things. Why don’t we start truly collaborating and take it a bit more seriously?
“So for many years, we’ve collaborated on feature script ideas and short films. It has been amazing, because we get along very well, yet we’re able to be brutally honest with each other about whether we like something, but it’s never coming from a place of ego. We both just care so much about character and story. Whenever we go through these debates, it’s always about what’s best for the project. It has been an amazing working partnership.”
In this way, the Smiths skip the problem many writers have, which is that they don’t have anyone they trust to be vulnerable with—to be able to accept that brutal honesty as coming from a constructive place. “Very often, when two people are trying to work out an idea and there’s a disagreement, there’s some fear at work beneath the surface and somebody gets reactive,” Tony says. “We both honor and respect each other’s ideas, which allows us to dig deeper: OK, what are you trying to say? What’s the base assumption behind it? We joke around that we’re sort of John and Paul and we take turns sometimes being the salty or the sweet one, but our blend is…really special to us.”
Of course, there’s plenty of opportunity for hacking into one another’s work when the narrative scaffolding is built on elements as notoriously complex and paradoxical as clairvoyance and time travel. “It was very much like reverse-engineering a perfectly working clock,” Tony says of the creative process behind VOLITION. “It took all of our strengths. To be completely honest, there were moments when we just gave up on the script and thought we wouldn’t be able to crack it. But the base of the process was, once I found I was kind of like James in my own way and stuck, I wrote a very, very quick first draft. It was very chronological–similar ideas and themes, but not the movie you see now. Ryan came up with the idea of using the structure against itself in a way—this idea of using clairvoyance against itself. From there, the point was to fool the audience into thinking that the film is organic and seamless when, of course, it’s actually built on so much technique and many, many rewrites.”
“We always break story together,” Ryan continues. “We’ll sit in the same room and brainstorm and shoot the shit and just really let our minds go free. Eventually, that results in some level of a beat sheet/outline. At that point, we’ll split the outline directly down the center. One of us will take the first half, the other will take the second half, and we go off on our own and write those halves. Then come back together, read each other’s halves, give each other notes, rewrite each other’s work. That’s where the trust and the respect for each other’s process comes in, because we’re always trying to serve the story. We’ll continue that process again and again, going back and forth until the script becomes a cohesive whole. And with this film, given its unique structure, it was just a ton of iterations where once we changed the ending, we really had to ask, Well, how does that affect the beginning?”
“It took us a while,” Tony adds, “and we’re honestly still recovering because it was so brutal on us.”
The proof, however, is in the acclaimed pudding: VOLITION picked up the Best Feature award at the 2019 Philip K. Dick Film Festival and has won solid reviews. “Ryan and I are delighted and thankful and surprised at the response,” Tony says. “We took a big swing with the film—a really esoteric mini-thriller. We’re really touched that people other than our mom and dad are connecting to it!”
For an outsider—such as, say, your humble correspondent—it is no surprise. After all, aside from being beautifully constructed and executed on a narrative and technical level, VOLITION reaches velocity via two of the most intrinsic, powerful elements etched in the hearts of every human being: The fear of death and the need for unconditional, affirming love. “It’s interesting,” Tony says. “Ryan and I are not always aware of the psychology at play while we’re writing. It’s only in hindsight, or maybe even discussing some of these deeper elements in interviews like this, that we see the bigger forces at play on a metaphorical level. And so the more we’ve gone forward, the more I’ve come to understand that the film speaks to a larger truth of how important it is for us as human beings to have a love that drives us forward to our dreams—a love strong enough to overcome the fear that seeks to prevent us from achieving it.”