Envisioning the world
Brothers Tony and Ryan Smith are in the process of bringing the feature film Volition to the screen. (photo from Smith Brothers Film Company)
Local Jewish brothers Ryan and Tony Smith have worked in the film and television industry in Vancouver for most of their careers, and their latest project, a feature film, is set to begin filming in May 2017.
“Volition is a film about a man named James, who is afflicted with clairvoyance – the ability to see snippets of his future, out of order, before they happen,” Ryan told the Independent. “James gets involved in some shady dealings, using this ability. However, he soon has a disturbing clairvoyant vision: he sees his own imminent murder. At that point, he realizes that, if he has any chance of survival, he must go on the run.”
Tony has always loved metaphysics and both brothers are fans of the cerebral science fiction genre. The inspiration for Volition came during Tony’s film school days, and returned many years later, when he was going through a period in his life where he was feeling stuck.
The idea of the observer being responsible for the existence he or she sees resonated, “so, if I see the world positively, I might see the world positively; if my thoughts are negative, I’ll see the world that way,” he said. “I started to think that, what if where I’m stuck is because of my thought process, and those thought processes are almost creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Then I thought, what would it take to get me off my ass and try something different – that turned into the character [in Volition] seeing his own death. What if that is what it takes to finally motivate somebody to change?”
Born in South Africa, and raised for the better part of their childhood in Vancouver, Tony and Ryan were exposed to the magic of illusion at an early age. Both their father and grandfather were professional magicians in South Africa. One of Tony’s earliest memories is of his dad performing a magic trick, ending with his mother locked in a trunk.
When they moved to Vancouver in 1990, their dad continued his work as a jewelry designer but remained a part of the International Brotherhood of Magicians. Their dad is still a great storyteller, and is also a budding actor – “Our dad wants to really be cast in it [Volition], but we can’t afford him,” said Ryan.
The early exposure to magic is, as Ryan puts it, related to filmmaking in terms of “what you’re presenting, where the twist is and what the audience is watching, when.”
Oxford Dictionaries defines volition as “the faculty or power of using one’s will.” About how the film’s protagonist will employ this faculty, Tony said, “That’s what it’s all about. James doesn’t believe he has free will, because he sees pieces of his future ahead of time, and his visions always come true. He almost has an arrogance to him, in that he knows something the rest of us don’t. Through the narrative, he’s faced with the daunting task of not only trying to avoid his murder, but of attempting to undo his own belief system. He needs to believe in free will, even though his life has shown him that its existence is an illusion.”
Tony is a director, writer and editor, whose short film Reflection earned five Leo Award nominations, including for best picture and best director. Ryan is a full-time writer for television (Reboot: The Guardian Code, Mr. Young, Some Assembly Required), which has earned him two Leos.
Reflection and Volition seem to share similar themes of loss, regret, isolation, hope and the need to be understood. Tony said he and his brother like writing redemptive, honest stories. Ryan added that, underlying these two films, “there is a hopefulness of returning to a truer sense of self – the character is going through something, a struggle, and they’re hopefully getting to a place of self-understanding and growth even though it can go through some dark places.”
Tony will be directing Volition and Ryan will be the film’s producer; both brothers are credited as writers. When asked about the challenges of working together closely, as brothers, Tony, who is the oldest, said, “Because I came to this world first and it was my kingdom first,” he has that older brother “of course, I’m right about this thing” mentality. He said he even went so far as to coerce Ryan into signing a contract (with no expiry date) at a very young age, which states, “Ryan will shoot the scene whether he wants to or not, he won’t go crying or wimping.”
Nevertheless, as Ryan grew up, he started speaking his mind. “We have so much video evidence of the short films and the things that we’ve done through the years,” said Tony. “I found this moment when Ryan is an early teenager and he’s starting to give me lip. He’s actually on-camera starting to disagree with me!”
The brothers said they come from a relatively traditional Jewish family. Ryan attended King David in South Africa and then, on moving here, enrolled in Vancouver Talmud Torah. He said his days at these two Jewish schools and his engagement with the Torah stories “were, in a way, early touchstones for story and myth.”
For Tony, Judaism’s spiritualism and mysticism also inspire his storytelling. “I still have my first Bible,” he said.
“I love the Genesis story, I love the Noah story, and my mum, at an early age, I asked her, ‘How did the world get made in seven days?’ ‘Well it’s a metaphor,’ she said. At an early age, she was letting me in on abstract ideas and symbolism,” said Tony.
Filming for Volition is expected to begin in May, and Ryan and Tony are currently in the process of gathering the crew and auditioning for the two lead roles. Veteran Vancouver actor John Cassini has signed on for the role of the villain, Ray, a corrupt businessman, and his brother Frank Cassini will also feature. Tony and John worked on Comedy Network together, and Tony said John is “such a presence … he could read the phone book and make it interesting.” Tony also noted that John brings “an authenticity to the role – it’s not a two-dimensional villain, it’s a very textured antagonist.”
The latest casting announcement came just this past Monday, on Feb. 27. Canadian actor Bill Marchant will play, according to the film’s website, the “mentor character, Elliot Williams, a troubled psychologist with a dark secret.”
The Smith brothers are taking a unique approach to their pre-production process, documenting the journey through semi-monthly webisodes.
Volition is being produced by Smith Brothers Film Company in partnership with Paly Productions Inc., and Paly has been a “driving force behind doing this indie webisode marketing,” said Tony. The brothers, who are normally private about their creative process, liked the approach of “getting to know our audience from day one and welcom[ing] them into the process so we can build a grassroot connection with them.”
Readers can check out the webisodes and follow the brothers’ journey on volitionthemovie.com.
Alice Howell is a graduate of the University of Otago in New Zealand, with a bachelor of arts in film and media studies and a bachelor of science in psychology. She is a writer and actor based in Vancouver.