Conversations about Creativity
Filmmakers Smith Brothers:
Playing Singles or Doubles – The Many Angles in the Game of Creativity
October 24, 2017
Tony Dean Smith and Ryan W. Smith are brothers, independent creators as well as collaborative ones. Presently, they are collaborating on a feature film titled Volition premiering in 2018.
Tony Dean Smith has created since childhood. After writing and directing numerous shorts as a teenager, as well as a pre-film-school feature film as a 21 year-old, Tony went on to become an award-winning film school graduate, which lead to him receiving the coveted Directors’ Guild of Canada Kickstart award, given to five Canadian filmmakers a year. That prize funded his first 35mm short film, Reflection, which played in numerous festivals, taking home a first prize award at Stephen Simon’s (Producer of What Dreams May Come, Somewhere in Time, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventures) Film Festival and earning five Leo Award nominations (including best picture, director, cinematography, male and female performances). Tony went on to direct three episodes of CTV’s critically acclaimed series, Robson Arms, the series Health Nutz, co-directing Summerhood – and dozens of visually rich music videos and short films. Tony has also dedicated his mind to the craft of film editing, and has garnered acclaim for his work with prizes from the Toronto International Film Festival, the Leo Awards and numerous other film festivals. He has edited features, indie-films and TV movies for NBC, Universal, Syfy, Hallmark, Lifetime and more recently, with Neill Blomkamp. As a writer, he is the recipient of the Super Channel Super Catalyst Screenwriting Award for The Sensational that he co-wrote with his brother and oft-creative partner, Ryan W. Smith. Together, they co-wrote the sci-fi/thriller Volition, which Tony directed (premiering in 2018).
Ryan W. Smith, similarly, has created since childhood, spurred on by his own intrinsic creative spirit and by both wanting to – as well as being instructed to – assist his older brother Tony’s creative enterprises. Ryan’s education too, centered around the Arts. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of British Columbia, with a focus on comparative Religion, Literature and Arts; he simultaneous earned a minor in Theater. During these times, Ryan created plays and short films with friends while also taking a stab at acting and improv comedy. Later, Ryan went on to earn his Master of Fine Arts in Screenwriting, from York University. Since then, Ryan has written for and produced on multiple seasons of television for Disney and Netflix (Some Assembly Required, Mr. Young), for which he earned two Leo Awards. He has also written on the upcoming series, ReBoot: The Guardian Code, for YTV, National Geographic’s Facing Escobar, and on various film projects. In addition, Ryan has garnered awards for his feature screenplay, Jacaranda, which won the ScreenCraft Fellowship, and placed as Semifinalist at the Austin Film Festival and the Academy’s Nicholl Fellowship for Screenwriting Competition. He and his brother, Tony Dean Smith, also share the Catalyst SuperChannel Emerging Screenwriter Award for their feature script, The Sensational. Most recently, Ryan and Tony have produced the feature film, Volition, which they co-wrote, with Tony directing.
Ellen: Tony and Ryan, you both create independently and also jointly plus you both work with a variety of other creative individuals. There is a difference between creating alone and together, that is, between individual and collaborative creativity. What differences do you see?
Tony: Creativity is such an enigmatic concept and I don’t think there is any one way to go about it. Perhaps, the biggest difference between embarking on something as an individual versus on something that is collaborative is the original spark – the original idea. While many people can jump on board and help build projects, it is the creator’s own unique impulse that is needed to hatch the idea. There may be lots of overlap, but I think what Ryan comes up with versus what I come up with, while perhaps sharing many underlying thematic elements, might manifest differently. As an example, in exploring a theme such as freewill, I might tend to push for something in the science-fiction realm, whereas Ryan might see it through the lens of historical drama. This is a broad example, but one that we see from time to time in our work.
Ryan: When creating alone, one has a pure understanding of the form of any given idea he or she might be exploring. When collaborating, the challenge comes in translating this abstract form into something that can be recognized by one’s creative partner. While having to take this extra step (of articulating the abstract thoughts into something more grounded) may seem like a waste of energy, with Tony and me, it tends to be a very useful part of the process. In order to communicate our ideas with each other, we are forced to articulate ourselves. This process seems to test the ideas. Those that pass the test tend to be resilient, strong ideas – not all of them, but many of them. Of course, there are also those times where externalizing an idea and discussing it, can sometimes lead to the death of a concept that might otherwise have flourished internally, but that’s the risk we take when we collaborate. We also try to honour our internal process so that we’re each given silent introspection time in tandem with our external collaborative time.
Ellen: Do you think that an important element in creating collaboratively is also to have the ability to be a proficient, independent creator?
Ryan: While Tony and I collaborate on many projects, there are various other works that we do, that are solo. I think this does help to strengthen our collaborative relationship. We both respect each other’s solo work, and are inspired by seeing the new discoveries we each come to. I think that the admiration we have for each other’s independent creations, leads us to truly trusting each other in our collaborations. I know that Tony’s a great storyteller, so I trust him to make strong decisions. And I think he feels the same way about me. Rarely, do we feel like one person is carrying more weight than the other. We share the work. By the same token, there are areas where one of us is more proficient than the other. In those cases, that person might take on the lion’s share of that piece, but all the while, we are both striving to improve ourselves so that we can share the weight.
Tony: To use tennis terms, Ryan and I can play singles or doubles. I think this allows us to approach the court of writing with an awareness of the many angles that need to be covered in the game of creativity. There certainly are areas where Ryan is stronger than I am, and vice versa, but our ability to share knowledge of the various aspects (serving, volleying and completing) is what allows us to develop as writers – which forces us to look at our strength and weaknesses, thereby becoming better individually and within our partnership.
Ellen: Do you bring elements of what you created on your own into what you create together and if so, how important is it to the collaborative production that each of you happens to be voluntarily self-challenging?
Tony: We do bring ideas that we started as individuals into our partnership. Not all ideas make it but there is lots of overlap. Volition, the movie, is something that I came up with, but it didn’t hit its stride until we began working on it together. As far as challenging ourselves, that is the name of the game. We are constantly developing ideas in the hopes that it catches fire within our hearts. It’s usually when an idea can’t be put down that we know we are on to something. Whether we are writing solo projects or working together, we are always pitching each other and talking about story beats and script issues – which is a welcomed respite from what I think could well be the loneliest craft in the world.
Ryan: I think we learn something new with each project we develop, whether alone or together. Each new experience adds texture to the next experience. I think Tony and I have really helped to motivate one another to keep progressing. One of us will do something unique and fresh, which will inspire the other to dig deeper and be even more creative. This process goes back and forth which I think is really healthy and fruitful. We are both voluntarily self-challenging in that we are always striving to learn, and are always curious. I think that mindset is the key to not only creating strong work, but to enjoying the process along the way.
Ellen: Would you say that an important factor in both of you being self-challenging was parental encouragement? This is evidenced I think, by the fact that all four siblings in your family pursued their own creative passions.
Tony: Yes, most definitely we had parental encouragement and enthusiasm. Keri Smith is a theatrical actor-director, a singer and drama teacher and was Assistant Director in Volition and Ricci Smith is an Olympic Team Canada chef who now has her own catering company.
Ryan: Thanks to Ricci, the cast of Volition was perhaps the best fed ever!
Ellen: I would guess Tony and Ryan that while involved in a creative project together, you often disagree. So how does the process of debate and compromise work for you both? These factors, presumably, do reoccur?
Tony: We do both. Everyday. We even have debates that can get heated, but we know that we are both coming from honest story places where we are both correct (right down to our assumptions). With this in mind, we methodically hash out our ideas and by the time we get down to what the essence of the debate is/was, we arrive at a mutual agreement. So it doesn’t actually feel like a compromise at all. I think this also changes depending on who is fore fronting a certain project. If it’s something that is my “baby,” I might get the last word in. But if it’s something Ryan developed, he really is the authority on that project. All we have to do is justify its angle. We are open to being convinced.
Ryan: We debate a lot. It’s a key part of our process. Often, we’re on the same page about a given idea or story point, but sometimes we don’t agree. In these situations, we tend to be really good at hearing one another out. Our aim is always to improve the story. What’s going to serve the story best? I think we’re quite good at not letting our egos get in the way. If one person’s idea proves to be better for the story, we go in that direction – even if one of us has to do a great deal of convincing – but always done for the sake of the story. The best idea wins. Like Tony says, it never feels like compromise as in one of us is bowing to the other’s will. We discuss the given idea until we both see that there is value in it, and go from there.
Ellen: There is much that can be achieved while creating independently but making a movie is only possible with teamwork. And that is because it requires the abilities of many and that important group energy that fuels the collaborative journey. With regard to the making of Volition, how did you actually begin? Was it through story first?
Ryan: Yes, we began with story and moved forward from there. Tony had been thinking about the idea for quite a while and he actually wrote the first full draft of the script. Like we do with most projects, we discussed the draft at length. I really loved the engine of the story and the characters that Tony had created. As with any early draft, it had some kinks that needed to be ironed out, but there was something really special there. As Tony and I talked about it more, we started to come up with a new approach to certain elements in the story. At that point, we decided to collaborate and start working on the script together. The result of this decision was a whole slew of drafts using the pieces that Tony had initially created and spinning them into new directions. We discovered a lot along the way and tried various very different version of the script until landing at our final shooting draft. At times, the screenplay became such a puzzle that I think we were happy to have two heads in the game, rather than one.
Tony: Volition is a concept that I came up with in film school back in 1999. It was a rudimentary idea, but one that I kept going back to. Eventually, in 2011, I cracked the idea and saw a way to make it that was fresh, fully formed and suitable to my varied tastes. After writing a first draft and almost getting the movie made, the momentum really picked up when Ryan and I started to refine the idea together (literally hundreds of drafts) and then bring on others who shared in our passion for the project.
Ellen: Then comes the assembling of the right team once you have the funding. Please elaborate on your selection of the right team.
Tony: They say that filmmaking is like war, so you really want to make sure you have people who are ready and willing to do whatever it takes, no matter what hour it is. My first step was to show the script to certain actors who I had in mind. It was very important that they were indie friendly. We had no trailers or any of the comforts that they would have got on larger productions, but we did have a grounded and passionate approach, a good script and a family vibe all the way through. The first key was to hire our cinematographer, Byron Kopman. Bryon’s energy matched ours and he was able to bring his entire team on board. From there, it kind of just started to roll. Good people hiring good people.
Ryan: With our funding in place, we really wanted to do all we could to make this film a success, and, absolutely, putting together the right team was a crucial early step. Fortunately, Tony and I have both worked in the Vancouver film industry for the last decade so we have come to make some great relationships. So many people in the industry were generous with their expertise and their time. Having now made it through production, I can say that we couldn’t have asked for a better team! We were surrounded by such an enthusiastic, talented, and giving group of talent. Everyone gave this production their all, from our incredible cast (Adrian Glynn, Magda Apanowicz, John Cassini, Frank Cassini, Aleks Paunovic and Bill Marchant) to our Director of Photography (Byron Kopman), to our fearless A.D. (Keri Smith, who happens to also be our fearless sister), to the Camera, Lighting and Makeup Crew, and our Production Assistants. The entire group worked tirelessly, always with a smile, always ready to go the extra mile to bring this film home.
Ellen: And with frequently, a well-fed team!
Tony and Ryan: Thank you, Ricci!
Ellen: Now Ryan and Tony, please elaborate on your own, ever-evolving creative process?
Ryan: I’m still grappling to understand my creative process. Maybe that’s a good thing. As far as I can tell, I create best when I silence the external chatter of the world and sink into my inner world. Sometimes, Tony and I do this together (as in, we sit across from the each other in a silent room and toss ideas around, having a shared dream, of sorts). Other times, we do it on our own. Dreaming awake is the goal, I think. In this dream arena, anything is possible, and censorship plays no part. I like to start in this limitless place before moving forward. Once I’m satisfied that I’ve brainstormed enough and have enough raw material, I then bring the censorship brain into the picture and start deciphering what, if anything, in my brainstorm is useful. The creative process seems to work best in this two-step process: unbridled creation, followed by careful analysis. It’s the combination of heart and mind. For me, reaching the heart is the most challenging part, but that’s where the good stuff lies. I personally can more easily access my analytical skills, but if I haven’t dug deep enough in the heart zone, there’s no point in analysis. More digging is required.
Tony: The creative process is something that we chat about all the time. Rather, I’d say we are doing the work and chatting about our results. We learn so much from each endeavour, and we think it instructs us on our craft. Of course, the truth is that every new project contains a new set of secret doorways that need to be unlocked. And you cannot use an older key. While the old key worked before, to use it again reveals how clichés are formed – and we don’t want to retread on our work or on other people’s work.
Ellen: Both of you have worked on Volition while being committed to other creative projects as well. How do you manage your time?
Tony: Lots of vitamins! Seriously, it can be very hard at times. Along with Volition, I am also an editor for film and TV, which keeps me very busy. I then try to work on my other writing projects, with and apart from the films Ryan and I work on – so it does take its toll. I feel that I decided a long time ago that this is my life and this is my true self. So anyone that comes into my life knows this to be me – and they accept me for what I am. There is a balance to be struck of course, and I’m still working on trying to find that.
Ryan: Juggling multiple projects is seriously challenging but it is the reality of our world. Ideally, I would like to work on one project at a time, allowing for the deep plunge that it takes to really feel a story. In reality, I often have at least a couple projects on the go, at various stages of development. To tackle these projects effectively, I carve out windows of time for each one. For instance, I’ll wake up extra early most mornings to get a couple of hours in on one on-going project, before taking a break and hopping onto the next. Persistence seems to be the key. As long as I’m working on a project regularly, I am able to carry that internal world in my head. The great thing is that sometimes, the multiple projects help each other. Ideas cross-pollinate.
Ellen: I see many advantages to both working alone and together. The advantage of working alone, allows for a certain freedom and for the time to take your creative exploration to wherever it might lead, while working together, allows for discussion, reinforcement and often needed affirmation that you are on the right track.
Ryan: Working alone has it’s pros and cons, as does working together. Tony and I enjoy both processes. Even when we are working alone, we will often run ideas by one another. We will discuss challenging areas and help one another see a new perspective. This process is amazing. We’re lucky to have each other in that respect. Even when Tony and I collaborate, there is still a strong component of solo work. Often, we’ll break a story together, sitting across from each other. This may take days, or weeks. We will discuss the story inside and out, mapping out its structure and ideas for various scenes. We will then divide this outline in half, and then tackle the scenes alone. Sometimes, I’ll take the first half and Tony will take the second half, and vice versa. Once we’ve written our halves, we pass them to each other for feedback. We discuss our thoughts and we re-write each other’s work (i.e. Tony takes my half and I take his half, and we each make revisions). This process continues until we finally have a version of the script that is really a mix of both of our voices. Fortunately, we have a strong sense of each other’s voice, so the blend is quite seamless.
Tony: I started working in film in 2000, so for the longest time, I was a solo artist. I didn’t really imagine that I’d have a writing partner – and so I got very used to developing ideas on my own that would be close to my heart (why develop anything else?). It was around 2005 or so that Ryan and I decided to fully try our hands working together. We soon discovered that we had lots of creative qualities that were compatible and complimentary. We joke around that I’m John and he’s Paul from The Beatles. We both make music, but approach it from slightly different places – all motivated by the love of ideas. Even on projects that we don’t have a shared credit on (solo records), we have absolutely had long discussions on the story.
Ellen: It is pretty marvelous that you gain so much from collaboration and that suggests how receptive you both are to new ideas. Also, you are obviously both good listeners and that in itself is an essential ingredient of creative and intellectual growth.
Tony: Yes, we learn a lot from collaboration. There was a time when the balance of strength was different to what it is now. I was good at a certain style of writing and Ryan was good in the opposite area. We then challenged each other to write what was most challenging, instead of just building the areas where we were most comfortable. I think this really allowed us to develop a fully formed ability to write in any area. Having said that, it’s an endless study and, just like the gym, one has to keep going to keep the muscles strong.
Ryan: I have learned a ton from working with Tony, everything from process to specific skill sets. I’m sure we’ve both learned a lot from each other. When you write in a bubble on your own, you can almost convince yourself that you’re churning out absolute gold. Or, conversely, that you’re writing pure crap. The truth may be somewhere between those two extremes. Having a partner whose story skills you respect, comment on your writing, only helps to improve your output.
Ellen: How defined were your roles in Volition and how fluid were they as well?
Ryan: With the production of Volition, we each had our defined roles, Tony as the Director, and me as the Producer. These roles have their clearly defined domains, so we rarely stepped on each other’s toes. And, given that we both wrote the script, and have discussed each moment in it in great detail, we seem to be on the same page. The one thing that’s kind of funny is that sometimes, when envisioning a given scene, Tony and I would sometimes imagine the same basic blocking but often, in reverse. If a car drove into a scene, he might have seen the car enter frame on the right, where I might have seen it enter on the left. That’s always a funny discovery, and actually, it happens quite often.
Tony: Everyone has a different brain and a unique way of seeing reality. Ryan and I are no different. While we see eye to eye in so many areas, there are times when we assume the other person is in agreement only to find that the work is different to what we had intended. Luckily enough for us, we have pretty well-developed communication skills and a lot of patience, so we then dig deep into how the miscommunication happened. More often than not, the result will be that the story idea gets better, for example, more colors, thanks to the refinement.
Ellen: How does personal intuition fit into collaborative situations?
Tony: I think we’re in deep agreement most of the time. We’re both sensitive souls and care about similar topics. Our intuition (that thing that can’t be measured) is something that we have learned to trust and to explore. We never shut down our intuition. If Ryan is feeling something, I want to learn about it. I want to give him space to pull it out of the ether and into form. It’s such a delicate process that we have both learned to respect that area of our mind/body complex and allow it to manifest. Very often, this feeling will bring out great clarity in our work as the subconscious mind knows far more than the surface brain ever could.
Ryan: I think we’re both driven by intuition. We can’t always define why something feels “right” or “wrong,” but something in our sensibilities is triggered and we tend to listen to that trigger. Sometimes, one of us will feel it, and not the other. Other times, we both feel it. Either way, we pay attention to intuition as it usually points to an issue or a concern that’s worth digging into. In terms of writing and filmmaking, I think that our intuition is informed by the years of movie-watching, studying and writing that we’ve done. We can feel when something is off. We listen to those feelings.
Ellen: So, what qualities would you say are essential in successful collaborations?
Tony: Listening and trying it on the other person is essential in any collaboration. I also don’t think that we feel “ownership” over an idea. Once the idea is born, it starts to take on a life of its own and we as writers are simply trying to parent it. We try things, we try different things – and eventually, we see what’s best for the project, not what’s best for us as egos or individuals.
Ryan: I think the primary requirement for collaborators to share is communication skills. Tony and I speak very freely and openly with each other. We can always hash something out in a conversation, even in moments of stress and tension. You also need to have trust and faith in your collaborator’s ability to follow through on commitments. We’re always working on these qualities.
Ellen: And these qualities have propelled the production of Volition.
Ryan: For sure. We’re currently in the post-production phase, and Tony is cutting the film. All the way through the editing process, we are chatting about sequences, performances, and ways to make the story better. Communication is central at all points along the journey. As for trust, we do trust each other to stick to our commitments and serve the production to the best of our abilities. We’ve built that quality not only as brothers but as creative partners as well.
Tony: Absolutely. I am spearheading the editing from my director’s standpoint, but nothing is better than me showing Ryan a sequence and for him to comment on areas that are fully working – and areas that are not. Through that process, I try his idea, we evaluate what it did to the movie – and we either implement the idea or we don’t.
Ellen: It must be a pretty heady experience to both witness and be deeply involved in the birth of Volition.
Tony: It’s been a fantastic experience. This movie was almost made 3 times. We had funding that fell through a couple off times. We also had some companies that wanted to buy it for me to direct, but they wanted to change certain aspects that we didn’t feel were right for the project. So to have the movie shot is very exciting. There are certain scenes or bits of dialogue in the movie that are directly lifted from my first draft – so to see something I imagined on the screen is pretty cool. The movie is also a swan song to some of my own struggles as a person, so from a deeply human level, it’s moving to see it come to life through the eyes and actions of these characters.
Ryan: It’s a dream come true for us! So many years went by with us trying to get the project off the ground. First, it was about solidifying the script. Then, we took some time trying to find financing, and, in particular, the right partner with whom to create this film. With that partnership in place, we’ve loved every moment of building this team and film. It hasn’t always been easy but wow, what a rewarding experience, when we look at back at all that’s come together! We’re very fortunate.
Ellen: Any advice to other emerging filmmakers?
Ryan: I would recommend persistence, above all. There’s a lot to be said for sticking to a goal until it reaches its target. Most people will quit when the going gets tough. We’ve had those moments of doubt, and they’re likely to return, but I’m thankful that we’ve continued pushing until this moment. Talent and skill are hugely important too, so it’s always crucial to keep studying, learning and remaining curious. There’s always more to learn and higher levels to reach. If you combine that desire for knowledge with persistence, I think you’re going to have success in one form or another.
Tony: Keep making content. You learn who you are and who you aren’t by doing things, not by endless analysis and procrastination. I always heard that you needed to make 10 films (shorts or features) before you made a good one. While I don’t think that’s a rule, the ethic behind it is true. The more you make something, the better your craft and your understanding of the form gets. When I teach directing, I always tell my students that directing is like getting to the plate in baseball. The first time out, you’re so distracted by the lights and the crowd, that you don’t even see the ball coming. Swing and miss. But every time you get out there, you see more and more. And eventually, everything actually slows down and you can concentrate on simply being in the moment. That’s when all your hard work and practice pays off. That’s when your “talent” comes to the forefront. That’s when you can smack the ball deep into the left field.
Read all Ellen’s interviews in one place in the Conversations About Creativity Book.
Her conversations with diverse creators give readers fascinating insights into the commonalities, the differences, the passions, the persistence and the joyful engagement found in the innovative process. There is no ownership of creativity which exists in many disciplines. These interviews are inspirational and catalysts for self-reflection and creative engagement.