Possessor is the mind-bending new horror sci-fi film from visionary director Brandon Cronenberg—yes, his dad is David Cronenberg, but Brandon doesn’t like to talk about that, so instead, we focused on his film. As it should be! There is certainly a lot to discuss in terms of such an ambitious slew of ideas and skin-crawling moments of horror in Possessor. We sat down with Cronenberg and picked his brain about the plot, which centers on an elite assassin (played by Andrea Riseborough) who neurologically possesses her targets, forcing them into unspeakable acts.
Staci Layne Wilson: Hello, Brandon.
Brandon Cronenberg: Hello.
Staci Layne Wilson: I saw Antiviral and I loved it. It was one of my favorite films of that year.
Brandon Cronenberg: Thank you.
Staci Layne Wilson: Yeah, so to me, Antiviral and Possessor they delve into primal fears. The first one focused on a microscopic virus that can kill you. And in Possessor, you’re literally losing oneself in technology. So what is it about these esoteric subjects that interest you as a storyteller?
Brandon Cronenberg: I’m not necessarily sure they’re esoteric. Maybe, it’s hard to judge, as an artist how people are going to respond or whether their interests align with yours. But to me, I liked the idea of using discussions about technology in a Sci-fi context to discuss both real-world, present-day issues and also more personal issues, because I think in many ways we’re defined by things like the technology that’s developing around us or our biology in the case of Antiviral.
Staci Layne Wilson: Well with writing and directing, both processes have their pros and cons. One is solitary while the other one is more collaborative. Which one do you prefer and why?
Brandon Cronenberg: It really depends. Writing is sometimes fantastic. When it’s going well, it’s one of the most exhilarating aspects of filmmaking. When it’s going badly, it’s one of the most horrible aspects. Directing is, as you say, much more collaborative. There are a lot of people moving the film forward together. It’s obviously much more visual as well. And I really liked that aspect of it. And I like working with the actors and my team. I can’t say that one is necessarily better than the other.
Staci Layne Wilson: When you’re shooting, do you stick very closely to the dialogue in the script or are the actors encouraged or allowed to rip off of what their characters might be thinking or feeling as long as they’re conveying basically the same thing to move the story along with that it says in the script?
Brandon Cronenberg: I tend to stick to the script fairly closely. Maybe that’s just because I’m a writer. I put all the time into figuring out the dialogue and I want it to be on screen. But if an actor has an idea, if they want to try something, I’m very open to it. I usually want to get the script, but then I’m very much up for experimentation.
Staci Layne Wilson: When it comes to the visuals, do you draw out the storyboards yourself because I know you do have a background in art, or does it all come together? How does it come together, so your internal vision becomes external and you can communicate it to others?
Brandon Cronenberg: I don’t actually use storyboards. The way it works is I sit down with my cinematographer, Karim Hussain, and we go through a fairly lengthy process, early on where we develop a theoretical shortlist based on the script, but without knowing who the actors are, without knowing what our locations are, without knowing all of the details that on-set would dictate the specifics of the camera movements and angles and so on.
We go in having talked about that stuff and that informs things like the equipment that we want to get and the locations that we’re looking for. But then when we’re actually shooting, often we throw that away. It’s there as a good reference to make sure that the scene is covered properly. But very often I find you just come up with something when you’re dealing with the physical sets and the real actors. Maybe it’s an idea that the actor has. Maybe it’s something motivated by the location. Maybe it’s a time issue. Maybe you’ve developed this very elaborate visual scene and you don’t have as much time to shoot it as you thought you did. So it forces you to innovate and find a way to do it in a couple of shots. I like to keep it fluid because certainly on the independent level, you can’t expect to get exactly what you imagine in development, but that’s also part of the fun, I think if you embrace it.
Staci Layne Wilson: Right. Well, I had watched the uncut version of Possessor and it is extremely gory, but it feels germane to the story. What is it like filming scenes like that? Both from a logistic standpoint and an emotional standpoint?
Brandon Cronenberg: It’s funny, some of the most disturbing scenes, I think when you’re watching a film or some of the most fun and least disturbing scenes to actually shoot, the actors may feel differently because they’re covered in blood. And I know there’s an element of discomfort that we try to be mindful of when they have to have to say prosthetics along and it’s uncomfortable or blood, but especially when it comes to things like a fake head and you’re shooting it at the end of the day. Although it may seem graphic and disturbing within the context of the film, in the context of shooting it, it’s just a bunch of your friends who are pumping blood out of tubes and playing Halloween with you. So it’s actually completely not disturbing. And a lot of fun. I’m told that horror sets are actually a lot more fun and light than comedy sets really.
Staci Layne Wilson: Yes, it’s all about the timing. What do you hope that audiences will take away from the Possessor film experience?
Brandon Cronenberg: It’s hard to say really. Obviously, when making a film have my own sense of the narrative and the themes and what experience I’m hoping to convey, but at the same time, part of any filmmaking process and especially a film like Possessor is stepping back at the end of it and letting audiences make it their own and explore it. Possessor was certainly designed to allow room for interpretation and audience discussion. So I don’t really want to tell people what to think or what to take from it, because that precludes the possibility that they will have their own ideas and inject their own thoughts into it.
Staci Layne Wilson: Well, once it’s out there, I’m sure certain things filter in whether you want to or not. Do you read reviews or do you listen to what audiences say, how they interpret your vision and your words?
Brandon Cronenberg: To a certain extent, especially the initial batch of reviews. I just want to get a sense of how people have responded to it, generally. I don’t read all of the reviews and I don’t stick with that because at a certain point you just drive yourself crazy. Or if they’re good, I guess you’re happy, but you can’t really address everybody’s specific interpretation of the film and you can drive yourself crazy fixating too much on reaction. So there’s a bit of a balance there, I think.
Staci Layne Wilson: Well, how about yourself? What is your feeling on the final Possessor, how it came out and now it’s out there in the world and how do you feel about it?
Brandon Cronenberg: Well, I’m thrilled because it took a long time to develop it. And the fact that I even got to make the film and it turned out the way I wanted it to is very exciting and I’m happy to be able to show it to people.
Staci Layne Wilson: Well, I loved it. So thank you for making it and it was great to speak with you.
Brandon Cronenberg: Well, thank you. It was great to speak with you too.