Brothers in life and film, Tony Smith and Ryan Smith were born in South Africa, raised in Vancouver, and are now taking on the film industry. Tony has become a recipient of the Directors Guild of Canada’s Kickstart grant, and has earned an award and nominations for his first short film Reflection. Ryan has also found success with his South Africa-based thriller Jacaranda becoming a semifinalist at the Austin Film Festival. The Smith Brothers recently worked together for a scifi-thriller called Volition. You can find Volition on the Apple TV, Prime Video and other Digital Platforms on July 10, 2020.
Nicholas Yanes: Growing up, what were stories you loved? Are there any you two still enjoy revisiting?
Tony D. Smith: E.T. is the movie that shaped me the most. I know then that if an alien and a little boy could get along and “be good,” then I could also find a place in this world. A story that I haven’t been able to shake is Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood End. It’s a book that Ryan introduced me to, but it’s something that I’ve never been able to shake. It holds some of the most profound ideas ever put to paper about our existence, our beliefs – and our future.
Ryan W. Smith: In terms of childhood stories/films, Cocoon comes to mind, as does Beetlejuice. Hook also hit me at the right age. I know it’s not one of Spielberg’s most revered works, but as a kid, I was totally pulled in by the magic and the struggle for Peter to connect with his inner child. Now as an adult, that piece of the story still affects me. Outside of film, Kafka’s Metamorphosis is a short story I come back to again and again. I also love Kurt Vonnegut’s writing, with his comedic, human look at some sci-fi concepts.
Yanes: When did you two know that you wanted to pursue a career in entertainment? Was there a moment in which this goal crystalized for you?
TDS: There is painful evidence of videotape that seems to suggest I always knew I wanted to be a director, but the truth is, I wanted to an astronaut and special effects wizard. I loved space and I loved the intricacies of movie magic – and so it seems like his was always my path. However, I’d say it didn’t crystallize until I was in the 12th grade. I was acting at the time, with small roles on X-Files and Poltergeist, but I found myself hanging around the set and giving all of my attention to the camera and working dynamics of a professional set. Not long after, I was looking at my bookshelf and realized that I didn’t have a single book on acting, but I had dozens and dozens of books on filmmaking. I then literally quit my acting agent, embarked on making a pre-film school feature… and the rest is history. Unless I get a chance to be an astronaut. 🙂
RWS: Tony led the charge here, for me. He was already working in the film industry by the time I started thinking about my career, so I knew it was a possibility. But I initially didn’t have the guts to fully make the leap into entertainment. From a young age, I spent most of my free time making short films with Tony and friends, or acting in community theater, but, after my undergrad, I chose what I thought was the safe route: I went to law school. Yup. Strange move, considering all that I was truly passionate about. But fear will do that. I only lasted one semester before my body physically rejected law school. I ended up dropping out and diving head-on into a career as a writer. It was probably the toughest decision I ever made. For me, it was the right decision.
Yanes: I’ve been lucky enough to interview writers from South Africa and other African nations. As a result, I am aware that there is a lot of great content being made in South Africa. With that said, what are some South African movies and shows you two think the world should know about?
TDS: I am so thrilled that such incredible art is coming from South Africa. I’m sadly not nearly as familiar with the work as I should be, but from all of the filmmakers I talk to who film in SA, it’s an extraordinary playground of talent and vision. I’m really excited to see the new generation of South African’s tell their personal stories. As far as older movies I think people should see that touch on South Africa’s past: Richard Attenborough’s Cry Freedom, Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 – and Gavin Hood’s Tsotsi.
RWS: I haven’t seen Gavin Hood’s Tsotsi in a long time (and I’m not sure how well it’s aged), but when I first saw it, it really moved me. I’d also recommend the documentary Long Night’s Journey into Day. It’s an incredible powerful piece about post-apartheid South Africa and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Yanes: You two have an upcoming movie called Volition. What was the inspiration behind this film?
TDS: Aside from some bizarre clairvoyant-like experiences of my own, I was feeling quite stuck in my life, almost resigned to the fact that maybe I could never make the movies I wanted to make. That I was a prisoner of my own perception is what allowed me to create James. He’s also a prisoner of his own design and it takes a vision of his own death to finally wake him up from his pre-determined worldview. When I realized how similar James was to me, I knew I had stumbled upon a story and character that was both grounded – and personally resonant.
Yanes: Volition has been met with a lot of praise. Could you two talk about how good that feels? On this note, was there a moment during the production in which you two knew that you had something special in this film?
TDS: The response to the film has been incredibly gratifying and validating. Ryan and I were always concerned that the swing we were attempting might be an embarrassing miss and strike out, but we felt compelled to feel the fear and do it anyway! As we were writing, we’d vacillate between thinking we had something good vs. thinking we had the biggest dumpster fire ever. I think this is the artist/writer/filmmaker mind, always wanting to improve the work. I can’t say that we “knew” we had something special, but I do vividly recall the moments in the edit suite where the movie connected to us emotionally… which is really all we can really go by, knowing that we are audience members first and foremost… and that if we like it, maybe someone else will.
RWS: Without giving away any spoilers, the film has a unique central idea, surrounding the potential cause of clairvoyant phenomenon. When Tony initially pitched me that central idea, I knew there was something special in it. Of course, that’s a long way from us having a finished film and there were many times along the way where we wondered if we could pull this all off. Doubts kept us pushing forward. Many moments in the journey felt special, but I remember feeling like all was really starting to click after some of the pick-up shooting we did. A lot of that came together in Tony’s edit.
Yanes: In the process of developing this idea into a script to production to post-production, were there any characters or moments that took on a life of their own?
TDS: Great question and it’s a fascinating topic. The answer is yes, characters and moments did take on a life of their own, which is EXACTLY what should happen. Ryan and I believe that if we build characters, themes and plot properly – that the emergent property should be “life-like.” The characters should have a worldview and their motives and reactions should be cohesive to their psychology. But… the characters don’t care about our writerly plot points, so we’d often follow the characters and see where they went. More times than not, they’d naturally line up with our plot points, but sometimes, as we chose to follow their logic, they would lead us into some incredibly new and exciting scenes – that were always more truthful and characters based than our preconceived outline of an event. Again, free-will to the characters, but they’re ultimately fated to by the writers. 🙂
Yanes: Upon reflection how do you two believe that you’ve grown as creators because of Volition?
TDS: I think that we’ve both earned a level of grey hair (I have 4, Ryan as 1) that can only be gained through a trial-by-fire experience like this. We were both willing to make this movie any way possible, even if we had to get our own little cameras and crew on a shoe-string budget. I can see growth both in the way we look at new material (we know we can pull it off), and in knowing when/how no to certain ideas that we might have.
RWS: I think we’ve gained increased confidence to go after the challenging goals in life. This shoot definitely tried us in all ways, emotionally, physically, intellectually. It really was a difficult shoot. Painful at times. But we’ve come out on the other side, and it’s so rewarding to have collaborated with such an incredible team to create a film we’re so proud of.
Yanes: When people finish watching Volition, what do you hope they take away from the experience?
TDS: I hope they have a good time, as the film is really fun puzzle piece mystery! I also hope the film sparks a little internal debate within them regarding the forces of fate vs. free-will in their own lives. I hope it inspires them to make whatever changes they need to. There is light on the other side of fear!
Yanes: Finally, what else are you two working on that people can look forward to?
TDS: Without revealing too many 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.
RWS: Among other projects, we’re developing a TV series that’s also in the grounded sci-fi. 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.