Vancouver-shot Volition tempts fate at Whistler Film Festival

Memento meets True Romance in critically acclaimed sci-fi feature

Volition is that rare breed of independent feature film that appeals to a wide range of people.

It’s for people who watch True Romance on a first date and point at Clarence and Alabama and say, rather breathlessly, “That’s what I want in a relationship. That’s so cool.”

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It’s for people who’ve pondered long and hard about fate and free will and who, despite their long/hard pondering, have yet to decide where they come down on this key existential question.

It’s for people who love a cinematic puzzle like Christopher Nolan’s Memento, and don’t mind if that complicated puzzle comes with a big hit of sci-fi.  

And it’s for people like yours truly who live for well-crafted locally produced film projects where we get to see our city’s finest actors — noted thespians such as Adrian Glynn McMorran, Magda Apanowicz, John Cassini, Frank Cassini, Aleks Paunovic and Bill Marchant — having the time of their lives in nuanced, well-written roles.

Adrian Glynn McMorran and Magda Apanowicz in Volition.
Adrian Glynn McMorran and Magda Apanowicz in Volition.

Volition is directed by Tony Dean Smith, which he co-wrote and co-produced with his brother, Ryan W. Smith. This made-in-Vancouver film has been making waves on the global festival circuit since its premiere at the venerable Philip K. Dick Festival in Santa Ana, Calif. earlier this year, where it won the festival’s top prize. It’s also screened to packed houses and raves reviews in Buenos Aires, Mexico City, Berlin, Burbank, Los Angeles and London. 

Vancouver cinephiles will finally get their chance to screen this critically acclaimed sci-fi thriller whenVolition finally has it Canadian premiere at the 19th Whistler Film Festival this week.

Frank Cassini and Aleks Paunovic in Volition.
Frank Cassini and Aleks Paunovic in Volition.

Volition tells the story of a broken man named James (McMorran) who has been clairvoyant for most of his life. As the film opens, James is pulled into a sketchy diamond scheme with a couple of experienced criminals (cousins played by real-life brothers John and Frank Cassini) and their dim but brawny friend from jail (played by Aleks Paunovic) just as he’s fallen head over heels with an infinitely cool young woman (Apanowicz) and begins to have premonitions of his own grisly murder.

And that’s just the first 10 minutes of the movie, which somehow manages to honour projects such as Memento, True Romance and The Twilight Zone while creating something that is very much its own thing.

“I’ve always been into esoteric ideas,” says Tony Dean Smith. “I loved science fiction films growing up, and films about our nature, our perception, and our place in the universe.” He first had the idea for Volition back in film school, but describes the original idea as shallow. “It was a surface adventure,” he says. “It would have been fun, but it wouldn’t have made you think.”

Volition is written and directed by Tony Dean Smith and produced by his brother, Ryan W. Smith.
Volition is directed by Tony Dean Smith, which he co-wrote and co-produced with his brother, Ryan W. Smith.

It was years later, when Smith was working on a music video for McMorran, that he felt he’d found his character.

“This music video was about this downtrodden, broken man who’d been beaten up by love in his life, and literally that character in that video is dressed exactly the same way that our character would be dressed,” recalls Smith. “Adrian had this real authenticity about him. He was broken and wounded but lovable and worth working on. So I gravitated towards this idea that Volition isn’t a superhero movie. It’s about a guy with a gift. The concept went so much deeper.”

Not that it was all smooth sailing after that fateful meeting and creative epiphany. The film had a false start in 2013, when Smith and co. were about to go to camera and their funding fell apart. However, the false start gave Smith some further insight into James, and what this important character is really all about.

“I realized that underneath the high concept and the clairvoyance, it was really about a character who was stuck in his life, and that was a theme that I could really dig into,” says Smith. “I started to challenge me to ask, ‘OK, what will it take for me to get off my ass to keep hustling to make this film?’ Like for James, ‘What does it take for him to make him fight against this fate with which he lives?’”

For Smith, it took hard work, patience, a bonkers shooting schedule (they crammed what should have taken 25 shoot days into 18 days), and profound respect for everyone involved in bringing this story to the screen, from crew to actors to audiences.

“It’s been gratifying and electrifying to find our niche sci-fi genre audience who’s digging the film and the concepts that we’re presenting,” says Smith.

Volition is one of 86 films from around the world screening at the 19th Whistler Film Festival, which runs until Dec. 8. Volition screens on Dec. 5 and 6. For tickets and schedule information, visit

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