“Film is an art form that contains other art forms,” says Possessor director Brandon Cronenberg.
On its face, Cronenberg’s statement seems obvious, but he isn’t simply describing cinema as a medium. He’s reminding moviemakers that they need to find influences beyond the movies if they hope to produce original work.
“You’ll always work well with people who have abilities that you don’t have,” Cronenberg told Dread Central following the world premiere of his sophomore feature at the Sundance Film Festival. “Literature, prose, is useful if you want to write dialogue that doesn’t just sound like movie dialogue. You start to make movies about movies about movies if you’re only interested in film and not drawing from anywhere else.”
In Possessor, Andrea Riseborough plays Tasya Vos, an assassin working for a shadowy corporation. To carry out contract killings at the direction of her boss, Girder, (Jennifer Jason Leigh) Vos uses brain implantation technology to hijack another person’s body, then takes out her target under the identity of the possessed—a kind of corporeal camouflage.
One of the film’s most haunting images is crucial to this dystopian premise, and Cronenberg says he wouldn’t have been able to create it if not for his background in fine art. “We were having trouble figuring out what the mask that Vos wears when she possesses people would look like,” he says. “But I could draw something that became the basis for that design because I had done some drawing in the past.”
Possessor is also as much about the art of performance as it is about possession itself. “The film can absolutely be read as an acting metaphor,” Cronenberg says. “When Andrea and I talked about where she could draw from, she asked me if there was any real-life job that could get her into the headspace of her character. I said, ‘I’m sorry, but it is acting… acting is the closest real-world equivalent.”
When Tasya isn’t rehearsing the lines she has to recite from inside another body, she’s practicing how she’ll greet her estranged husband and son when she’s back in her own skin. For Cronenberg, it’s her identity crisis—her distancing from any sense of a true self as a means of survival—that amplifies Possessor’s unsettling tone.
To capture Tasya’s fugue state, Cronenberg had to create a visual language unique to Possessor. That’s where Karim Hussain—his longtime friend and cinematographer—came in. “Karim and I spent a long time—quite a few years—experimenting with practical and camera effects,” Cronenberg recalls. “We had a library of ideas that we wanted to draw from.”
“One of our main structural ideas,” Cronenberg continues, “was that the look of the film when Vos was living her own life would be less anxiety-ridden than the look of the film when she was possessing somebody. Outside of the possession scenes, we decided that the film would be shot handheld with more depth of field and the lighting would be a little bit harder. In the possession scenes, there’s no handheld—it’s all Steadicam and dolly shots with very shallow focus.”
Cronenberg says that color yellow eventually became “a major structural touchstone” in Possessor. But he and Hussain didn’t make that stylistic choice early in their process. “That wasn’t immediately decided upon,” he notes. “But yellow became an indication of the theme of character disruption.” And to further shape the film’s aesthetic: “There’s also a connection between the reds in the film and Vos’ relationship with violence.”
Of course, the director’s own relationship with violence is on display, here, too. Using in-camera trickery, Cronenberg depicts the body transfer process in Possessor with the same feverish fascination with flesh that his father, David, explored for years in his seminal body horror works.
These scenes, in which Tasya’s skin melts into abstraction, were shot “over many days in little bits and pieces,” says Cronenberg. “We shot some low-budget experimental music videos and a short film that helped us play with the ideas—things like video feedback, various lenses, distortion. All the color in the film—the reds and the yellows—are in-camera, all done practically. And then a lot of that material was edited together. It’s a lot to pick apart, but it involved a lot of subtle trickery that we built up over time. ”
Cronenberg and Hussain even shot some of that experimental material in Hussain’s living room long after the main shoot had wrapped. And with FX artist Dan Martin on board, the crew could count his talent for prosthetics and wax figures as yet another invaluable asset to the project. “Both of those guys are mad geniuses in their own fields,” says Cronenberg. “I had great collaborators with a lot of ideas and enough time to bank these images.”
Possessor premiered at the Sundance Film Festival (January 23-February 2).