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Possessor | Brandon Cronenberg - Interview with the Body Snatcher

We speak to Brandon Cronenberg, the writer and director of sci-fi thriller Possessor about what he has in common with a body-swapping assassin…

Following an assassin who takes over other people’s bodies to execute high profile targets, the idea for Possessor came at an unusual time for writer and director Brandon Cronenberg: “It was during the process of going through my first film press tour actually, which is totally trivial,” he tells us. “Of having that strange experience of building a public persona or suddenly living a very different kind of life. I was feeling as though I couldn’t see myself in my own life. I was getting up in the mornings feeling as though I were getting up into someone else’s life and having to scramble to create a character who could operate in that context.

“I wanted to initially write a film about someone who may or may not be an impostor in their own life as a way of discussing how we build characters and narratives in order to function as human beings in a basic way. Because I think that kind of storytelling is just inherent to how we operate.”

Said imposter is body-swapping elite assassin Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough) who finds herself sinking deeper into her latest assignment, Colin Tate (Christopher Abbott). Soon her stressful day job and (equally as stressful) private life become entwined until she becomes trapped inside a mind that threatens to obliterate her.

Possessor | Signature Entertainment, 2020

We speak to Brandon Cronenberg, the writer and director of sci-fi thriller Possessor about what he has in common with a body-swapping assassin…

Following an assassin who takes over other people’s bodies to execute high profile targets, the idea for Possessor came at an unusual time for writer and director Brandon Cronenberg: “It was during the process of going through my first film press tour actually, which is totally trivial,” he tells us. “Of having that strange experience of building a public persona or suddenly living a very different kind of life. I was feeling as though I couldn’t see myself in my own life. I was getting up in the mornings feeling as though I were getting up into someone else’s life and having to scramble to create a character who could operate in that context.

“I wanted to initially write a film about someone who may or may not be an impostor in their own life as a way of discussing how we build characters and narratives in order to function as human beings in a basic way. Because I think that kind of storytelling is just inherent to how we operate.”

Said imposter is body-swapping elite assassin Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough) who finds herself sinking deeper into her latest assignment, Colin Tate (Christopher Abbott). Soon her stressful day job and (equally as stressful) private life become entwined until she becomes trapped inside a mind that threatens to obliterate her.

Possessor | Signature Entertainment, 2020

“In an early version of the film, an outline that I did for [Vos] was actually male because I had come up with the idea just through my own personal experiences being on the road with the film and of creating a public persona,” Cronenberg tells us. “[It] was very strange seeing videos of myself online performing another version of myself for interviews. It was completely surreal so I guess I defaulted to a male character who is somewhat like me. 

“But then I thought that was boring for a number of reasons. I had already done a male character for [my previous film] Antiviral, plus I think we’ve all seen so many films where this husband and father is unable to relate to his family because of the horrors of his job. You know whether it’s The Hurt Locker or any of these kinds of police films, so I thought it would be more interesting to have a woman.”

Vos is an extremely complex character – a woman, an assassin, a mother, a corporate drone and… perhaps a psychopath? She does kill for a living after all… We’re never entirely sure of Vos motivations or even of her background, something that Cronenberg wants to keep very much intact: “There were a few more details [of her back story], but I don’t want to tell you what they are because she’s meant to be open!” he laughs. “The film is designed in some ways to leave space for the audience to be creative. Although I had my own very specific ideas about the characters in the story, I like filmmaking where there’s room for interpretation and disagreement. I don’t want to preclude the possibility of people having those conversations and hopefully even disagreements by telling them what to think.”

What isn’t under any doubt are the film’s visuals, which have been created using a variety of methods. From Vos looking like she’s melting when becoming immersed into another body (with the use of a wax double) to her world-changing colour when being trapped in Tate’s mind, Cronenberg used plenty of experimental techniques to hone the look of the film: “I have a particular process that I go through with Karim Hussain, the cinematographer. We’re quite close friends and actually, we lived down the street from each other during the years of Possessor development. So we would spend a lot of time in his living room playing with various projection feedback and lenses and gels, and finding ways that we could distort the image. 

“[For the wax-melting scene I used] a practical effect that I’ve been interested in for a while and it seemed like a good excuse to play with that. I brought it up with Dan [Martin the effects artist] and he did some experiments with melting blocks and played it in reverse in order to melt and reform. These early experiments looked fantastic, so that was something we incorporated. He just made these fantastic wax figures that were incredibly well painted. They look almost like CGI sometimes because of the paint job, but they’re actually completely practical.

“On the last day of shooting, the final thing that we did was melt all that stuff we had. We had three massive heat cannons and we were in a warehouse and we were just melting them very slowly. Half of the crew was fixated on the melting wax, the other half of the crew was watching the Toronto Raptors game because it was when the Raptors were in the finals, so you could really tell where people’s loyalties were!”

Another key element to the film’s gritty aesthetics is the equipment used, especially the machine that transplants Vos’ mind into the target. Though this technology is yet to be invented you won’t find any slender tablets or pristine stainless steel gadgets here: “It’s less exciting to me, visually, to see a lot of screens and touchpads,” he says. “Also that’s been done in Black Mirror and a lot of other predictive science fiction that’s trying to imitate the real world. So in order to give it a different look and a different feel, I didn’t want to go in that direction.

Possessor | Signature Entertainment, 2020

“Although actually when you look at a lot of the real-world equivalents when you look at brain-machine interfaces, the technology does tend to be pretty analogue because a lot of it’s in the prototype stage. A lot of the touchpads and the gloss come later when products are being made for consumer production, but a lot of the actual neuroscience that experiments are done with very are analogue-looking!”

In fact, though the technology to take over peoples’ bodies very much feels like a futuristic science, Possessor is actually set in the late Noughties… “In my mind, and I think it made it into the film as an Easter Egg, it’s set in 2008 in Toronto, in an alternate timeline,” Cronenberg explains. “The reason I did that was, although the technology could exist, and although I did a fair bit of research into neuroscience and found that that kind of physical brain control is possible to get to, it would have to be set in the very distant future.

“We’re not near that point yet (even though there’s been some incredible interest – it was even done back in the Fifties and Sixties, with wires implanted for electrical stimulation of the human brain), so it would have to be a distant future film. But I didn’t really want to make predicted science fiction [film].

“It wasn’t that technology was intended to show what the future will be. It was really intended as a metaphor to talk about how we function and talk about things that are going on now. I wanted the world to feel more familiar and more current, so I set it in an alternate timeline where that technology has advanced at a different pace and that freed me up to essentially do whatever I wanted with the world and then keep it natural.”

Speaking of current, Tate is a target specifically to gain access to his future father-in-law (Sean Bean), who just so happens to own a company that uses spy software for market research – a very topical theme in the age of pretty much every person on the planet inviting big tech companies into their homes via phones and laptops… “It’s the entire business model for Google,” Cronenberg tells us of this surveillance technology. “A lot of these companies there’s this, on the one hand very alarming invasion of privacy or tracking of people’s actions on social media and using various apps, but a lot of it is just used to advertise to people and to track their buying habits. So that was an exaggerated version of what’s already happening.

Possessor | Signature Entertainment, 2020

“Also, I think the surveillance angle can function metaphorically [when] looking at the body possession elements of the film. Instead of someone activating your microphone on your computer or your camera on your cellphone, they’re actually inside your body, experiencing the most intimate details of your life – first hand through your own nerve endings or [through] the body of someone close to you and that person is actually someone else. Some outsider who is functioning as a kind of full-body organic surveillance device…”

Indeed, by combining contemporary topics and near-future technology, some of the actions within Possession feel like an uncomfortable possibility, but it also can give audiences the opportunity to consider some important ideas… “I think that sci-fi is a fantastic way to discuss the real world because you take things, thematically, that are very real and relevant to people, but you caricature them,” Cronenberg says. “You send them in the [near] future to discuss where we’re going or you send them to an adjacent world to discuss where we are now.

“Sci-fi really frees you up to talk about a lot of things and puts the audience in a place where they can examine the world from a fresh perspective…”

Possessor is on Digital HD on 1 February and on Blu-ray/DVD on 8 February