Possessor was one of the most striking films at the Sundance Film Festival. Its arresting look and high violence will are impossible to look away from even at their worst moments. Director Brandon Cronenberg spoke with AIPT after his film’s premiere at Sundance.
AIPT: How would you describe Possessor?
Brandon Cronenberg: Possessor is a science fiction horror film about a character who can inhabit the bodies of other characters using a brain implant. And her job is to work for this corporation where she drives these people to commit assassinations for nefarious business reasons.
AIPT: What was your inspiration behind the movie?
Cronenberg: I was interested in making a film about someone who may or may not be an impostor in their own life. I’m interested in the ways that we construct and maintain our identities. I think that acting and creation of character and narrative are fundamental to how we operate as human beings. And so I wanted to make a science fiction movie about that. Actually, although the film is very much a thriller and a kind of a horror thriller, the root of it is in the quieter domestic scenes, which I was interested in because it’s really about the ways that we play characters in our own lives.
AIPT: That leads to a question that I had. Possessor is extreme in its nature, but still tells a very intimate story. How were you able to focus on that story?
Cronenberg: I think in writing you just sort of draw from everything around you. You draw from the news, you draw from your own life. I mean there are people who think that they are characters in the film because I’ve taken snippets of dialogue from my own relationships with them and my friendships and domestic life. So I think you just always borrow from a variety of sources and flush out what would otherwise be a kind of outline of the plot.
AIPT: Horror movies tend to be gray and bleak, Possessor kind of looks an Italian horror movie. Why did you use so many colors in it?
Cronenberg: I was just in a colorful mood. Honestly, I don’t know. Maybe I just had been watching too many giallos. But Antiviral, my first film, was deliberately very stark and white and that was the aesthetic. So maybe I just burned out on that. I felt like playing with color. Also, it’s more of a hallucinatory film and I really feel like a color, if you are able to shape a scene with it, can really impact emotion. It doesn’t necessarily work if you’re doing something very naturalistic because we can’t have suddenly a completely red scene with yellow flares. But if you’re working in a looser space where you can do that kind of stuff formally, I think it’s a great tool.
AIPT: Some might find the movie a little bit gory at times. Do you ever feel about turning the audience off?
Cronenberg: I think you can’t worry too much about turning the audience off because you’ll always turn some people off, especially if you’re working in a genre space. People will get it if they’re into it, not everybody will get it. It kind of comes with the territory. I was talking to someone recently about humor and horror and I find my films to be very funny. I don’t mean to sound like a narcissist. I just, I try to inject humor into the films. And if I go to a screening and nobody laughs, I think I’m going to get slaughtered again. Because for me, I think there’s an element of absurd humor even in these kind of dark stories. I find that kind of a geeky crowd and a genre crowd tend to get that and appreciate the humor. People who are less used to that, I feel like have a harder time understanding how say violent, gory images could be paired with humor. And that can be all right. You can never please everyone. And I think you kind of have to just go with your gut and do something that is meaningful to you.
AIPT: Talking about humor paired with horror, sex and violence have been paired since the earliest horror stories. Why do you think they work so well together?
Cronenberg: That’s an interesting question. I think possibly because they’re both very animalistic impulses. I mean, I mean, sex and violence are things that you see all throughout the animal kingdom. They’re basic aspects of who we are as apes really. So maybe there’s just something extremely visceral about both of them.
AIPT: Technology has played a central role in each of your features. Today, people are more comfortable using technology than ever before, but there’s still that strong fear of it. Why do you think that that is?
Cronenberg: Actually, it’s a difficult thing because I really like technology. I love adopting technology early. I think technology is beautiful and exciting and fantastic and I don’t fear technology in general. On the other hand, I do think that there are aspects of our current technological landscape that we should be more afraid of. For instance, surveillance. I don’t think people really grasp how little privacy they have. And I’m not saying that as a conspiracy theorist. I was just reading the New York Times piece recently about how easy it is for people to be tracked and how companies are sold their location data.
And of course in a world where so much of our psychology is shaped to social media and that’s so much a part of our life, the fact that we can be manipulated as with Russia manipulating the elections and that kind of thing. we’re now sort of hackable in a way. We’re leaving ourselves open to manipulation, which has always been the case. I mean, propaganda has always been a thing. But it’s more insidious and I think on a broader scale than it ever was. So yeah, technology is fantastic and we should embrace it, but I think also it’s important for people to be informed and afraid in the right way.
AIPT: In Possessor, you use a lot of practical effects. Do you prefer practical effects to CGI?
Cronenberg: I think CGI has its place. I’m not anti CGI. I think if you’re making a complete dinosaur these days, you kind of have to do it. There are times when it’s important to lean into VFX. But I think as much as possible, I think doing things practically is beneficial for a couple of reasons. I mean, first of all, practical effects have a certain kind of texture and weight to them on screen. Even if you’re touching things up with VFX, starting with something that’s fairly practical and doing as much as you can on set, I feel often gives a weight to things. I never really liked CGI blood for instance, in film. You can always kind of feel it, even if you aren’t someone who can pick it. And I think some of the response to the violence in Possessor has been because it was so practical. I think people have a more visceral response.
But the other thing is that there’s a process to practical effects that I find to be very useful. So for instance, my cinematographer, Karim Hussain and I spent years working on the film. It took quite a few years to come together. And in that time we were developing a lot of camera tricks that were used in the hallucination scenes in the film. But so much of that came from happy accidents. We would be testing one thing and then just stumble on something else and then we would run with it. And when you’re working with practical effects, that’s something that happens all the time because you’re hands on, you’re working with real materials, you’re testing, things are responding in unexpected ways. And so I think you stumble on things that you can in a way that you can’t with VFX because you’re not just … with VFX, you’re kind of describing what you want and handing it off to a company. You’re not surprising yourself in the same way.
AIPT: My final question, you’re a creator and creators are always thinking. What future project do you have going on?
Cronenberg: So I have two films in active development right now. One of them is called Dragon and it’s an outer space horror film. And the other one is called Infinity Pool. And it’s a kind of tourism satire or a beach resort satire.
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