Brandon Cronenberg‘s Possessor is a bloodbath with fleshy ornaments hanging like dreamcatchers above and around the tub, which is carved from raw bone and gauged teeth. It’s a feral, high concept nanotech sci-fi-horror explosion of gratuitous violence and progenitive life. It’s a difficult film to imagine because its concept is complex, hard to follow at times, and much of its cerebral madness is expressed through gritty, psychedelic visual effects that distort light and color and sound.
Andrea Riseborough plays Tasya Vos, a performer, an agent, a soldier, an asset, a Neo of sorts. She works for a vaguely conceived and designed “Corporate” entity that sends trained operatives into the bodies of unsuspecting victims through a sleek machine that looks like a sexy dystopian CAT scanner. Their missions involve assassinating subjects through the bodies of the ones they possess. Christopher Abbott is the unsuspecting victim she must inhabit on her next mission. He works at a data collection farm, peeking into living rooms through webcams to log the styles and colors of curtains people use at home. The hallucination that unfolds between them is equal parts terrifying and mesmerizing.
Brandon Cronenberg is a terrific talent. In only two features, he’s established a wildly original style complemented by the supreme influence of ooze and gore that crowns his father, David Cronenberg’s filmography. Possessor garnered some of the more extreme reactions at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, the fearlessness and ferocity that marks its every moment making it hard for one to shrug off. I sat down with the writer-director to talk about it.
Where did the inspiration for the high concept come from?
To be honest, I think it was inspired by a fairly trivial personal thing, which was that I had just finished Antiviral and I was going around doing press for that film, and the first time you do that it’s really surreal because it’s essentially playing a part. You’re kind of creating this public persona or this media self. And you’re building it from scratch, and it’s very weird the first time you do it. That, plus some things in my personal life. I was feeling a bit like I was waking up in the morning and sitting up into someone else’s life and trying to assemble this character who could function in that context. And so, that was probably the inspiration. I really ended up wanting to do a film about someone who may or may not have been an imposter in their own life, because I was interested in the ways we construct and maintain identities and the ways that acting and creation of character and narrative are fundamental to how we operate.
Was it difficult to direct Christopher Abbott to play and act like Andrea Riseborough, to convey someone acting like another person in the film in a meta kind of way?
You know, it was fairly easy because both Andrea and Chris are such fantastic actors. They really made that part of my job easy. I had my own ideas about how to approach that, and how to bring the character into a place where they were both playing that role going into it and we had those initial discussions. I know that they talked through on their own certain details they wanted to play with. On set, it was a pretty organic process. We came to each scene and discussed individually. I had my ideas, they had their ideas, and we sort of built it out together as we went through the shoot.
Why did you decide to tell the story of tapping into waking up in someone else’s body through the horror/mindfuck genre?
I guess that’s just where my head is at. I grew up reading a lot of Philip K. Dick and really being interested in the hallucinatory, more philosophical side of science fiction. That’s where my roots are. But I think, for one thing, horror gives you a place to explore that kind of visceral dread, and I think when you’re dealing with things that touch on basic human anxieties, horror is a great genre for that, and, of course, science fiction is always useful for talking about human beings, as well. You can take the real world and caricature it and skew it in a way where we can talk about real-world things through another lens.
Do you have a favorite Philip K. Dick story?
I have a lot of affection for The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldridge because it was the first one I read, and I still think it’s a really great one. But I like a lot of them. I mean, I really love his novels. I wouldn’t say that is really even my favorite. It’s just close to my heart.
Your film opens with a black woman getting gunned down by police. Was that incidental casting, or is there supposed to be some commentary worked into that choice?
It honestly was incidental. That character wasn’t written as having any specific race in the script because I didn’t think it was narrative. We did a number of auditions and had actors of different races audition. Gabrielle Graham, who played the part, gave this fantastic audition. It was not just the best. It was the best by quite a wide margin, and I wanted to cast her. And that was what motivated that choice.
Speaking of casting, was Jennifer Jason Leigh’s casting influenced at all by her playing Dr. Ventress in Annihilation?
[Laughs] No, although I like Annihilation! But it was just a more general appreciation for her work.
I have never heard anyone play an Owen Pallett/Final Fantasy song in a film, much less through a wind-up monkey doll. Are you a Final Fantasy fan?
It was a wind-up pilot actually! But yeah, definitely. And there are a lot of Toronto bands that are playing throughout the film. It’s set in an alternate universe version of Toronto. So, you know, in the condo, the characters are listening to a lot of local bands, stuff like that.
Riseborough’s character is so many things at once. How would you describe that character’s pursuit?
She is, in some ways, a character searching for her character. I think she’s an actor who’s played so many roles that she identifies with other people in a way that she doesn’t with her own life. That was the essence of the character for me.
What’s your next project?
I have two films in active development right now and I’m not quite sure what the shooting schedule is going to be. One of them is Infinity Pool, which is a kind of tourism resort satire with some sci-fi horror elements, and the other is a space-horror film called Dragon.