The most Philip K. Dicksian thing I witnessed at Friday’s opening night of the seventh annual Philip K. Dick Science Fiction Film Festival was not on the Santa Ana Ebell Club’s screen but in the audience.
As the world premiere screening of the freaky time travel thriller Volition was rolling, a man sitting near the front of the auditorium became very agitated as he yelled something to the effect of, “BWAHHH-AH-LAGHHHH-AH-LAGHHH-AH-LAGHHH!”
Here’s the deal: The outburst came during a scene with an actor who had a graying beard that made him somewhat resemble Philip K. Dick, whose works were adapted for the movies Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, A Scanner Darkly and The Adjustment Bureau, as well as the current Amazon series The Man In the High Castle.
When Volition was paused and the lights were turned up so the fellow could be escorted through an exit and to a place where he could receive medical attention without an audience, the media player bar along the bottom of the screen showed the flick was almost exactly at the halfway mark. Spooky!
In the confusion, which included chipper paramedics greeting audience members as they made their way to the gentleman, who is believed to have suffered a seizure, someone over my shoulder remarked, “That was loud as shit!” Another fellow managed to grab the ear of Volition director Tony Dean Smith, who was told of the victim, “Maybe he fell asleep and awoke during a particularly intense scene.”
Smith could not be too perturbed by the unplanned interruption–let alone the suggestion that someone could have slumbered through his world premiere–because by the time the festival ended its three-day run in Santa Ana, which capped a three-city tour that included New York and Los Angeles, Volition won the Best Philip K. Dick Feature Award at a ceremony held Sunday in the same venue.
He has crafted a very solid mind-twister about a shlub named James (Adrian Glynn McMorran, a Canadian actor you may know from the TV series Arrow), who uses clairvoyant visions of the immediate future to pull nickle-and-dime cons like winning sports bets. He’s hired by a shady businessman and associate (John Cassini) to escort stolen diamonds to a buyer because he knows James can see problems before they happen and do something to avoid them. But what James sees, over and over, is his own death.
Actor Bill Marchant plays the foster father who raised James. Is it just me, or does he look something like PKD in this still from Volition? Marchant was not present in Santa Ana (but perhaps Mr. Dick was?) to join McMorran, Cassini, Smith, Smith’s co-writer, co-producer and brother Ryan Smith, costume designer Amroe Anderson and her costume assistant and husband Dusty Anderson on stage after the screening.
Some in the audience compared Volition to Memento–one guy even told Tony Dean Smith his picture is better–but as the director was quick to note, having a story with time elements that fold in on themselves is very Philip K. Dicksian. While Volition is not an adaptation of one of the prolific writer’s stories, he was a huge influence on how Smith sees the world–and universe–as a storyteller and filmmaker, the director conceded.
“Our character James is an outsider,” Smith had said of the protagonist before Volition rolled. “He’s not a Tom Cruise hero-type character.” Afterward, the director admitted that his film was “very difficult to make, develop and edit,” saying original drafts of the script had the lead character being a scientist who developed a drug that unwittingly caused clairvoyance. The story did not gel until the James character was hit upon.
McMorran told the audience he was at first reticent about taking the part because, as an indie project, it frankly did not pay him his usual rate. But what attracted him was how everyone in the cast and on the crew worked “at a very passionate level” and “it became like a family.”
Speaking of family, Cassini mentioned that he lives within walking distance of the Vancouver home where those intense scenes were shot. After one overnight shoot, he was standing on the front lawn, covered in “blood,” when his wife drove by to take their children to school. “My 8-year-old, who was 6 at the time, rolled down the window and said, ‘Oh, I love you so much right now.”
Cassini first read the Smith brothers’ Volition script way back in 2012. “I knew it was really good,” he says. “I knew it was really special.”
Other special films festival director Daniel Abella selected that played in Santa Ana and won festival awards were:
The Dark Red (Best Horror Feature)
Beyond the Door (Best Philip K. Dick Short Adaptation)
I Am the Doorway (Best Sci-Fi Short)
Myse en abyme (Best Eschaton, Singularity and Beyond Short)
Sereget (Best Person of Color Short)
Nobody Dies in Longyearbyen (Best Documentary)
Tatu (Best Trailer)
All of those winning films played Sunday at the Ebell Club except Nobody Dies in Longyearbyen and Tatu, which were part of Saturday’s New Frontiers: Documentaries from the Edge and International Sci-Fi Shorts programs respectively at Orange County Museum of Art.
Films that did not play during the festival’s Orange County run (or at least they didn’t, according to what I saw Friday and what the program lists Saturday and Sunday) were:
Destroyer of Worlds (Best Sci Fi Featurette)
Post Mortem Mary (Best Horror Short)
Uncle Griot (Best Animation)
Abella, who founded the annual event in 2012 and has curated it every year since, valiantly braved a flight from his New York home to Los Angeles International Airport, fought LA rush hour traffic and arrived just in time to introduce Tony Dean Smith to the Santa Ana audience.
Victor Payan of Media Arts Santa Ana (MASA), a nonprofit that supports community cultural empowerment through special resources and initiatives, and is the 2019 Philip K. Dick Science Fiction Film Festival’s West Coast partner, kicked things off Friday evening by introducing screenings of winning entries from the first-ever Philip K. Dick Multicultural Dystopian Short Film Challenge.
Four Challenge shorts were from OC filmmakers: Stefan Allen Buhr’s Based on a True Lie; Alberto Solorio’s Bedlam; Alex Murphy & Kai Karafotis’ Valentine; and Michael Brewer’s Photo Finish, which won the award for Best OC Film.
My personal favorite from the Challenge bunch came from Australia: Radheya Jegatheva’s iRony. Judges agreed, naming it the Best Youth Film. But they deemed as the Challenge’s Best Film Searching for the Miraculous (Part 1: One Day in Death Valley), from American director Elizabeth Withstandley. What WEEE Are – WEEEdroponics, from Italian directors Alessio De Marchi and Alessandra Turcato, won the Challenge’s Best Multicultural Film award. Entries also came from from Canada, Argentina, Colombia and Switzerland.
Sandwiched between the Challenge program and Volition was a second presentation of shorts titled “When World’s Collide.” If I were to give an award for the short from that collection that was most Philip K. Dick-like, it would go to French filmmaker Benoit Schmid’s Tomorrow Shall We All Be Transhuman?
Payan reminded me after the festival that he had brought to the stage Sean Young, whose 2018 film Precipice was part of the “When Worlds Collide” program, and the Canadian director brought with him to Santa Ana someone named Rachel. Or was it Rachael? Blade Runner fanatics get why that’s significant.
Besides the films, the fest’s Santa Ana leg included an opening night party at the downtown nightspot La Santa Modern Cantina and Culture Clash playwright/performer Herbert Siguenza leading a table read of his new play Isaac Asimov Grand Master Funk Saturday at the California Fine Arts Exhibition Gallery in the Santora Building. All ticket holders were invited to take walking tours of historical Santa Ana sites that include Philip K. Dick’s former home, which is only a few steps from the Ebell Society clubhouse.
Matt Coker has been engaging, enraging and entertaining readers of newspapers, magazines and websites for decades. He spent the first 13 years of his career in journalism at daily newspapers before “graduating” to OC Weekly in 1995 as the paper’s first calendar editor. He went on to be managing editor, executive editor and is now senior staff writer.