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Behind the scenes of the sci-fi thriller film produced, directed and written by alum from The Creative School

Actors Sam Worthington and Simu Liu among other big names in ‘Simulant’
By: Asmaa Toor
April 04, 2023

Diving into a futuristic world of artificial intelligence (AI) and capturing themes around human evolution, sci-fi thriller Simulant premiered on April 7, starring Sam Worthington, Simu Liu, Robbie Amell, and Jordana Brewster. The team behind the film is stacked with alumni from The Creative School. Simulant writer Ryan Churchill, director April Mullen and producer Tim Doiron are alumni of the Performance program, and producer James van der Woerd is an alum of RTA School of Media.

When Mullen and Doiron started talking about next steps after graduating from the Performance program in 2001, they took a leap of faith and started a full-service production company Wango Films. Little did they know that 20 years later, they would be directing and producing a major feature film set to premiere in theatres across Canada.  

Simulant, as the team describes, is a story of the not-so-far future surrounding AI and the rapid growth of technology. The laws governing androids dictate that owners must deactivate unwanted Simulants (SIMS). But since Faye (Jordana Brewster) already pulled the plug on her late husband, she can’t bring herself to do the same to Evan (Robbie Amell), his android counterpart – even after she realizes her relationship with him is only prolonging her grief. 

Instead of deactivating Evan, Faye sets him up in an apartment to live illegally on his own. While there he meets Casey (Simu Liu), a brilliant programmer who helps him become more human in order to win Faye back. Unbeknownst to Evan, his new friend is wanted for questioning by a determined Artificial Intelligence Compliance Enforcement (AICE) agent Kessler (Sam Worthington). Evan has to win over Faye’s heart before they are both discovered and he loses everything.

The team behind Simulant, from left to right: James van der Woerd, April Mullen, Tim Doiron, Ryan Churchill standing outside on their film set

The team behind Simulant, from left to right: Producer James van der Woerd, Director April Mullen, Producer Tim Doiron, Writer Ryan Churchill. Image courtesy of Wango Films

“The film is current, terrifyingly current. Although the film was written by Ryan years ago, prior to any of the advancements around AI, we might be on our way to that kind of future now,” said Mullen. “In a very real near future, where technological advancements force us to reckon with our conceptual limitations around life, death and consciousness, how do we as humans push ourselves into the next stage of evolution?" 

From scriptwriting to on screen

Churchill wrote the script for Simulant long before the idea to begin production came to be. Originally, it was written in 2015, and the inspiration behind it had little to do with science fiction and more to do with love and interpersonal relationships. 

Simu Liu acting in Simulant with red cast last

A still from Simulant starring Simu Liu. Image courtesy of Wango Films

“The initial spark for the script wasn’t science fiction, it was a personal experience. It was inspired by relationships and how sometimes one partner withdraws and is almost able to switch their love off, while the other is unable to let go,” said Churchill. “That got me thinking about the nature of love in general and posed the question ‘are some people programmed to love a certain person?’ I married that to my deep interest in programming and artificial intelligence and how it’s going to impact our collective future; and that’s how the idea for Simulant came to be.”

When he began writing the script, however, Churchill assumed the evolution of AI and transhumanism was still 40 or 50 years away. With recent technological advancements, he says we might be closer than we think. 

“I hope members of our audience come away asking questions like ‘what defines our humanity?’ and ‘what makes us valid as beings?” he said. “It leads to all sorts of ethical questions that the film itself touches on and I’m excited for viewers to finally be able to see it.”

Doiron also notes that when filming and production for Simulant started, there was very little conversation regarding AI. However, with the rise of tools such as ChatGPT and AI infiltrating a multitude of industries, the film is now more timely than ever. 

A still from Simulant with a man looking at a holographic image

Simulant, being a sci-fi thriller film, focused on themes of AI, transhumanism and the rapid evolution of technology in the modern age. Image courtesy of Wango Films

“All the buzz around artificial intelligence wasn’t a thing when filming and production started. But now, it’s coming out at a time when AI and a lot of topics discussed in the film are very prevalent,” Doiron said. “It’s very much relevant to the common conversation topics of what’s happening in the world today.”

Breaking into the film industry

As alumni themselves, the Simulant team has firsthand experience in embarking on their professional career journeys out of university. Producer van der Woerd shares his experience in getting opportunities in the film industry. 

“There’s a ton of opportunity in the industry, especially in Toronto but for me personally, I didn’t know anyone in the film industry when I graduated and I didn’t even know it was a possibility for me to seek out a career in the area,” van der Woerd said. “I think my best piece of advice is to really put yourself out there and get into the environment that you want to work in. Keep putting perseverance first and say yes to new opportunities, because you never know what that opportunity can lead to later.” 

The Creative School at Toronto Metropolitan University

The Creative School is a dynamic faculty that is making a difference in new, unexplored ways. Made up of Canada’s top professional schools and transdisciplinary hubs in media, communication, design and cultural industries, The Creative School offers students an unparalleled global experience in the heart of downtown Toronto.