Before you judge a person, walk a mile in their shoes. That’s the old adage about empathy and understanding. But what if it wasn’t just an idiom and you could actually, physically walk in someone else’s shoes? No, I don’t mean walk around wearing their shoes, I mean literally inhabit their body and entire being. What would you do? Would it make you see things differently?
In Possessor, the latest movie from Brandon Cronenberg – scion of the great Canadian body horror master himself – it turns out you can do exactly this. In the world of the film, the technology exists for one person to take over or “possess” another person and control their every action. Naturally corporate interests are exploiting this advanced tech by using it for both espionage and assassination, the idea being that the perfect killer is someone who doesn’t even know they are one.
Possessor takes that concept and drills down a little deeper. Similar out of body experiences have been explored by movies like Avatar and Inception, but never has a movie delved so disturbingly into the consequences to one’s psyche if you frequently found yourself possessing others and using their bodies to commit murder.
We spoke with Possessor director Brandon Cronenberg about the personal origins of this mind-bending thriller, the performances within performances of the film’s leads, the infamous Sean Bean death curse, and the value of practical makeup effects when you’re making a movie like this.
Will Perkins: I know you premiered Possessor at Sundance earlier this year, but January is kind of feeling like a decade ago for most people. First, I’m just curious as both a filmmaker and as a movie lover, what has it been like bringing this movie out at such a strange time in the world?
Brandon Cronenberg: It is strange. I kind of don’t feel like I’m releasing a movie in part because I’m just doing these interviews, but in some ways it’s sort of straightforward. I mean there’s obviously a lot of feeling out the right balance and how to release things, but from my perspective it’s just the same.
When we talked about Antiviral in 2012, you talked a bit about the real world inspirations for that film. You mentioned a clip of a celebrity who had a cold while they were appearing on a talk show and they were worried they were going to give it to everyone in the audience – obviously that anecdote has a very different connotation in 2020. Did Possessor have a similar jumping off point for you? Was there something that sort of like kicked off this vision in your mind, something that you experienced in the real world?
BC: For Possessor it began as something a bit more personal and trivial to be honest. I was going through a bit of a strange period where a lot of things were in flux for me, and I was in a sense having trouble seeing myself in my own life. I was sitting up in the morning and feeling like I was sitting up into someone else’s life and having to madly scramble to construct some sort of character who could function in that environment. So I wanted to make a film about someone who may or may not be an author in their own life and use it as a way to talk about how we construct characters and narratives in order to function as people. The seed for the film was really in those dramatic relationship scenes and the sci-fi thriller elements kind of built out of those.
Speaking about building the characters, I appreciated the many layers of performance that were going on in the movie. The character of Tas (Andrea Riseborough) is seemingly so broken by this “possessing” work – obviously because she’s going around murdering people – that she has to rehearse even the most simple human interactions with her loved ones just to sort of get back to normal. Then Christopher Abbot’s character has one of the most interesting performances as an actor that I’ve seen in awhile. He’s playing himself, then he’s playing Tas trying to play himself, and so on. It’s an incredible performance – both your leads are fantastic – but for you as the writer and the director how does that really complex character progression take shape on the page? And then when the actors come into the equation how do you work with Andrea and Chris to try to convey this very complex thing?
BC: Well, it’s interesting on the page. It’s fairly easy because you just write it as a spy script. You have one character who sometimes is playing himself and sometimes is undercover playing someone else. In terms of shooting it, it was an interesting question. Initially, there was some discussion about how we were going to approach it in a kind of formal way and I was wondering if the actors wanted to, for instance, be on set during each other’s scenes and watch each other and whether one of them was going to sort of take the lead and the other one was going to mimic. So there was a little bit of discussion early on, but actually in practice it was a fairly organic process. I had my own ideas initially about how the characters would overlap and what kind of things they would both be doing. Chris and Andrea both had their own ideas we talked about a bit. I understand during the shoot they were discussing behind the scenes what Vos would do in a given situation and consulting with each other. Then of course as we shot on set there was a kind of scene-by-scene figuring it out, so in practicing it was actually a pretty organic and collaborative process that we built as well.
Now speaking of performance and perception, I’m a big fan of Sean Bean (Game of Thrones) and I have been since his days in Sharpe. So thank you for giving him a reprieve of sorts from that “Sean Bean’s character always dies” curse. When you cast an actor like Sean in the film are you conscious on that meta level – like, “okay, people might be expecting one thing from this because it’s this actor.” Does that play into it at all?
BC: [laughs] Certainly I was aware of it and I know that Sean has a great sense of humour about that, but ultimately the character is the character and the story is the story.
As a fellow Torontonian I have to say that you made the city feel really unrecognizable. It’s such an alien and alienating vision of the city. You re-teamed with the great cinematographer Karim Hussain on this project, can you tell me a bit about some of those initial conversations you had with him about the look and feel of Possessor and then and then how you shot the film to give the city such a distinct visual quality?
BC: Karim and I are actually quite close friends. During the very long development period for Possessor we were mostly living down the street from each other, so we spent a lot of time watching movies and also experimenting with practical camera effects. We made a few low-budget experimental music videos with friends of ours, some short films, and all that was a process of assembling the tools that we would eventually use for the film. We had a very long runway for the shoot, so there wasn’t really one discussion or one process. It was a very gradual discussion. We knew we wanted, for instance, to differentiate those moments when Vos is outside of the machine and the moments when she’s inside possessing people. For her, she’s very uncomfortable outside of the machine because she’s in her own life, so we wanted to make it especially harsh and to have the world be actually more unsettled when she’s off the job – and more visually comfortable when she’s engaged in these acts of violence. So outside of the machine it’s all handheld, there’s a bit of a deeper focus, a bit of a harsher look, and then inside the machine it’s very shallow focused, there’s no handheld, it’s all steadicam and dolly, and so it was really with Karim years of those conversations and sort of fine-tuning things.
I have to ask you about the practical effects because I know you’re a self-avowed fan of special effects, special makeup effects, and things like that. Do you come into a film like this and very intentionally say “we’re gonna do it all practical or as much as we can” or is it more situational for you, like “we’re gonna find the solution that works best for this scene”?
BC: It’s not about making it as physically and practically as you possibly can, it’s just whatever’s right for the scene to be honest. As a rule, I try to do everything as practically as possible. It’s not that I have an issue with computer effects – I think they have their place and for some things I’m sure it makes sense from the start, but for this film and for everything I’ve done so far i’ve started looking at it from a practical perspective, both in terms of the special effects and also the camera effects. Karim we’ve already talked about and fortunately I also had another mad genius on this film: Dan Martin, who did the special effects. He’s sort of another Karim in that they’re both encyclopedias of film knowledge and very experimental, incredible artists.
In my mind practical effects tend to have more weight and texture to them on screen. I think it’s good to basically start with a convincing practical effect and enhance it with VFX if possible, because it just hits harder. It’s funny, a lot of people are reacting to the violence in the film and I was surprised by how extreme the reaction was. I have a feeling some of that is because all of those effects are done practically and people aren’t used to seeing that kind of makeup effect anymore. Even really good CGI can sort of float and so on, but with practical – in addition to that weight and texture – it gives you an added benefit in terms of process because when you’re spending years in a room with your hands on lenses and gels and fluids and you’re experimenting with with practical tools for creating these effects, you stumble on happy accidents and then you start to find yourself going down new paths based on unexpected effects that you’re getting. You can’t really have that same process of discovery when you’re working with CGI, so I like going through that and seeing “well, that makes sense” and this physicality definitely comes through in a very visceral way.
That mask, the Tas mask that’s on the poster, that’s the thing that’s staying with me from the movie, not so much the brutal violence, but kudos to the team there on that.
BC: That’s a Dan Martin special!