Whistler Film Festival Delivers Volition on a Silver Platter

Have you ever thought you could predict the future? You had a dream and a week or two later that dream unfolds. Is it déjà vu, coincidence or is it a gift? Can you harness it to better your life and other lives? If you find the key to controlling it, what are the repercussions? How does it all work and who else can do it? There would be great responsibility that comes with great power and I’d be very careful who I confided in.


Volition has arrived at the Whistler Film Festival and coincidentally enough (maybe I’m kinda psychic) the premise of the film is about a man with clairvoyant powers. Did I have a dream a week or two ago that this film was going to be here? I definitely did and am now trying to find a way to harness it. I’m also hoping to watch Volition while in Whistler. It is showing twice so my chances are good and I might have psychic powers that I may or may not be able to harness. However, I have located the co-writer/director Tony Dean Smith. His brother Ryan W. Smith is the other half of the writing team and producer.  


The feature film, Volition is Vancouver shot. After a successful festival run and numerous international awards, the film is having its Canadian Premiere at the Whistler Film Festival. The cast is led by actor/musician Adrian Glynn McMorran (The Revenant, Arrow) and has a plethora of Vancouver talent supporting the film in John Cassini (Daughter, Seven), Magda Apanowicz (You), Aleks Paunovic (Van Helsing, Cold Pursuit), Frank Cassini (Good Fellas) and Bill Marchant (Chappie). 


I met up with Tony at a Starbucks while in Whistler. In my dream we actually met inside a coffee cup. Pretty accurate but I think it needs some tweaking.      


“I had heard that you had attended Vancouver Film School?”

“I certainly did. I graduated in the class of 73, which was back in ’99 or 2000 in my early 20’s. I had made a bunch of short films as well as a digital feature that I’ve never shown to anybody. I’d made a lot of elementary mistakes before going to VFS and felt good to go and start learning the craft.”


“Were you making films shortly after film school?”

“Yes and no. I had my father’s voice in my head, which was ‘make sure you can work and get a job.’ When I was in film school I wanted to write and direct but it’s tough to stick to that without having a day job. I had focused on cinematography and editing and was good at both. After school I found work in post-production. I made my first Directors Guild of Canada film 2 years out of film school called Reflection. It’s definitely related to Volition in the way of branding. It’s a supernatural thriller with a ghostly/spiritual aspect to it.”


“Your film premiering at WFF is Volition. I know that it deals with premonitions and clairvoyance. How was it inspired?”

“This was an idea I came up with in film school back in ’99. At the time it was a short film and it didn’t have the ground-in, gritty feel that this film does. It was much more about a scientist who invents a way to see into the future. I never made that film but did make Reflections, the short film. I’ve always been interested in the esoteric side of life, the unexplained and the unknown. I don’t think we yet have the science to explain it but I tend to believe there’s more to existence than what we think.”


“How did the story of Volition evolve?”

“I’ve had some experiences that were uncanny and I shouldn’t have known about events that transpired but you can’t really build a narrative around that. It was a couple years later when the concept grew into a bigger narrative, where I saw this guy with a gift that’s really an affliction. When he was younger he had a vision of his mom dying in a car crash, which actually happened the way he had seen it a few months later. He grew up with this sadness of not knowing why the world worked the way it did and why was he able to predict the future. He grows up without faith in changing anything and is empathetic to events that unfold. He gets involved with Ray, played by John Cassini doing a deal he shouldn’t do but he says yes anyways. Upon agreeing to Ray’s deal, the floodgates of visions begin to open and he can’t get out of it. My brother, Ryan W. Smith and I wrote it together and had multiple rewrites but then the funding fell apart. It wasn’t until a year later that we dove into it again to get it made. Filmmaking is tough and it still took us a couple years to get made and developed into what it is now.”


“Is John Cassini the lead actor?”

“Adrian Glynn McMorran is the one that plays James, the lead. He’s incredibly authentic and I’ve known him since high school. He was in my first feature film which nobody will ever see. It was called The Other Side of Being and was made before The Sixth Sense and based on someone that doesn’t realize they’re in the afterlife. It was The Sixth Sense before it came out. I shouldn’t have sat on it. I like the idea of crossing over where it’s like a dream and you don’t realize it. I met John on CTV’s Robson Arms. Due to the success of my film Reflection, I began working as director and John was acting in it. We hit it off and became friends. I did a film with his brother Frank Cassini, so I’ve had a chance to work with both of them. When I started developing this story a couple years later I didn’t know who was going to play which role because the script had changed dramatically. At the end, John Cassini is our classic antagonist.  There’s more to his character and he ends up getting a raw deal, which allows for a nice little character arc.”


“Are there some good twists in this film?”

“There are a few good twists in this movie and we feel bad for telling all the reviewers not to reveal them. Thankfully the spoilers haven’t gotten out there because things are not what they appear to be. Yes James is clairvoyant but why is he? He doesn’t even know the reason but the movie answers that question. As someone that follows esoteric things I had this epiphany; what if clairvoyance is only possible if X happens.”


“Do you have a distributor connected to the film?”

“No, but we have interest from a number of parties. This is our first rodeo, we’re sorting it out. We’re very proud of it, it’s all Canadian and a family endeavor.”


“Where does the film go after Whistler?”

“There’s a few more festivals… my brother Ryan knows the list. I believe we’re playing in Germany, in Buenos Aires, Brazil and a few more Internationally.”


“Did you have to submit it to festivals specific to that genre?”

“We sent it across the board and then started to recognize that the genre festivals were the ones selecting us more than places like Cannes. We found a lot of love from genre festivals and others like Whistler.”

“Do you and your brother share in the directing?”

“No, it’s just me as the director…only because I’ve been directing since I was a kid and he’s always been my wingman, he was always my writer and actor. On this one he was the producer because someone needed to be. We had a small crew, a small budget but on our next big one we’re going to co-direct. We’re so excited about that because we both have show-runner mentality and love collaboration and good communication between each other.  We can go to some very hard places in discussions but we always serve the story, we don’t care about ego. When we were kids, I was holding the camera and he was acting.”


“Your family was doing the catering/craft services?”

“Yes, my sister is a chef. The crew and everyone were so happy, they couldn’t wait for lunch and hot snacks. My other sister that was teaching musical theatre is used to managing and supervising, so she was our 1st.  Assistant Director. She managed everyone as well as the schedules. I love my family. We’ve worked on films in the past and on this one they were protecting me on production levels and the behind-the-scenes chaos. They were putting out fires I never even knew about and I thank them so much for that.”


“How many days did it take to shoot?”

“We shot 18 unit days but it easily could’ve been 25 and probably should’ve been 30. Because I made a shot list and storyboarded it I thought I could go in there like an assassin and be very utilitarian in my approach. I had to and when you see the film you’ll see it has some perspective shifts. I had to be really dialed in to make it work. I’m very thankful I did all the prep but at the end of the day you still have to throw some things out. When you get to set you realize it doesn’t look nearly how I’d planned but at least I was able to visit the scene in my head so I was able to extrapolate and transpose the scene.”


“You storyboarded the entire movie?”

“I storyboarded half the film and there’s a big turn after the first half. From the second half on I did specific sequences. On day one I showed up on set so sick from exhaustion. I had a blanket around me and I think all the storyboarding exhausted me. Although I did make a shot list I would much rather have my storyboard to use. They’re much more important to me.”


“Did you have rehearsals?”

“Yes they were fantastic. When you’re working with the actors and doing table reads you’re able to bring the characters so much deeper. We had the script and the scenes but once you give them to the actors; they’re professionals and they’ll dive into the characters and make them blossom. They make them their own.”


“You’re open to collaboration with the actors?”

“Yes, very much so, all the way through. All the prep that I do and as specific as I am I’m still ultimately improvising. I have a music background and if you throw a song on I’ll improv to it. I learned from watching behind the scenes videos of some of my favourite directors and you’ll hear, ‘you can prep all you want but when you get there on the day, the style will look different or an actor might throw something at you that you didn’t expect’. If you can stay light on your toes and improvise with them, the collaboration makes it so much better. Kubrick famously said, he was a taste filter.”


“Would you say that you learned so much making this film?”

“Very much so, I wish I could go back right now and remake it, I would do it so differently. I can’t wait for the next one. We’re going to stay with this brand and genre. I’m very excited about it and the things that I’ve learned.”


“When you add up the pre-production, the shooting and post, how long did it take from start to finish?”

“This was one of those films that took a long time. The first draft was written in 2012 and almost got made in 2013 before falling apart. In 2014 we started on the script again. The concept and the core remained the same but our approach was a bit different. After 2 years of writing and looking for funding we started shooting in 2017. We began to think we were going to shoot it ourselves so I went out and bought the camera gear, the lighting gear and everything else needed to make an Indy production. I was going to resurrect my cinematography career… and then somebody read the script and was interested in coming on as executive producer, Paly Palestrant. He said ‘great, what else do you have in the way of market research?’ We showed him all our work and he said, ‘let’s make it!” Thankfully, I was able to hire a cinematographer and that’s when Byron Kopman came on board. It was also a difficult edit and I’m an editor.”


“What made it so difficult to edit?”

“The nature of the concepts. Because he’s a clairvoyant you have to carefully edit what he sees and what he doesn’t. How does that evolve through the film and what does the motif look like? We then discovered some story issues and had to go do some reshoots in mid 2018.”      


“How long did the casting process take?”

“We knew we wanted certain people so we targeted some actors. Of our main 6 we actually targeted them all. I knew I wanted Adrian as the lead. We did look at other people but if you know him and you see the film and you hear his music… the guy is the most magnificent artist and he’s so authentic. We’ve had so many wonderful conversations on life, tribulations, hopes and dreams. He was so right for the role and so were the Cassini brothers.  When I was a guest director at VFS I directed Magda Apanowicz and knew this girl had the ‘it’ factor. She was living in LA when I contacted her. I pitched it to her as Memento meets True Romance and she said they were two of her favourite films.”               


The Whistler Film Festival is now over, as predicted and Tony Dean Smith was incredible. He has amazing vision and he won Best BC Director. They had this to say about him. Tony shows complete control and mastery of this twisting mind bending thriller, and is an incredible representation of the surge in directing talent coming from BC.’ I am predicting more success, more awards and more great films. 


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