After an eight-year period of development, director Brandon Cronenberg returns with his sophomore feature Possessor, a seductive and macabre crime thriller that mixes body horror, near-future nihilism and noir elements to deliver a funky, freaky brew. In his Sundance review /Film’s Chris Evangelista called it “unrelentingly aggressive”, finding the film “special and exciting.” With an ensemble led by Andrea Riseborough, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Christopher Abbot, the film feels assured and audacious, settling in on a mood that’s both macabre and intoxicating.
Chris described Possessor as “unlike anything you’ve ever seen before”, but there are still echoes of what the David Cronenberg, Brandon’s father, has brought to the screen. I find that an entirely positive thing. In the best of ways, this feels like Brandon and his collaborators are making this space his own while being unafraid to echo the work of his father and others masters of the genre and generate direct comparison without ever feeling redundant, referential or reverential. Frankly, in many ways Possessor comes out ahead of some of the most celebrated of his father’s works, and that’s a remarkable thing indeed.
/Film spoke to Brandon following the film’s debut in Park City. We spoke about his process, the long gestation for this project, and what else this remarkable filmmaker has coming up for fans of his work.
The following has been edited for clarity and concision.
Congrats on Possessor – In the best possible way, it felt to me that you were leaning in to the expectations of what people hear when they hear the name “Cronenberg”. Can you talk about your own navigation of these burdens?
Everything I do in film, everything I’ve done so far has just been an honest expression of my own interests and creative impulses. I think that’s the only correct way to approach it because otherwise I wouldn’t be making a film honestly. I understand people will draw comparisons and it’s up to them to decide how interesting that is or isn’t from the outside. From my perspective, I’m just trying to do what is interesting to me and make films that I like.
Is it fair to say this one has more explicit references? It feels more tied to something like Existenz than either your shorts or Antiviral. Or is that just us as film critics trying to simplify things that shouldn’t be simplified?
I won’t tell you what you should or shouldn’t do as film critics! [Laughs] Certainly that’s not part of my process.
So, what is your process?
I usually start with an idea that I like, maybe it’s a character or it’s a scene. In this case, I was interested in a character who may or may not be an imposter in their own life and what that would mean more broadly in terms of how we construct and maintain identities. Then I sort of very slowly and agonizingly build out from that point.
Do you enjoy the writing process?
It really depends on the context. If there are people waiting on me and I have a gun to my head, it’s an absolute misery. But when I’m writing and I have time and it’s flowing, it’s the best thing.
Independent of reference to paterfamilias, are there specific elements, either drawn from literature or other films, that you do draw from? Is there anything that might surprise us?
You know, I’m terrible at answering that question. I tend to just absorb a huge amount of material and let it stew somewhere in the back of my head. I don’t really have specific reference points for this. From the technical perspective, I’ll say that we spent a bit of time looking at some Argento films, [1987’s] Opera for instance. That occured once the script was already written and we were in pre-production, so it isn’t really an inspiration in the sense that I think most people mean when they ask that question.
The construction of the helmet and stuff like that certainly feels quite organic and angular which reminds me a little bit of Geiger, hyet feels very much your own. There’s so much baggage in this space it’s impossible not to try and start situating even the production design into what came before. Are you ever paralyzed by the need to navigate in what feels an original way?
When you’re in the thick of it you can’t worry too much about that. You kind of have to shut out that conversation. Or at least I do, because especially working in genre, you’re never going to make something wholly original – It will always connect in some ways with what has come before, and I think the best thing that you can do is really forget those things at a certain point. You kind of absorb them – you want to be literate, you don’t want to pretend that they don’t exist, but at a certain point you need to shut them out and just go with something internal. The helmet was based on a drawing that I did, for instance, during pre-production. It just has to come from something in you even if that thing is informed by the history of your experiences with film and books and everything.
Is this a new thing for you, to actually contribute so overtly to the production design? Or is your background artistic in that sense, not just filmmaking but in terms of actually physically drawing?
I spent a lot of time trying to be a visual artist at a certain point. I’m not spectacular by any means, but I have spent a fair bit of time drawing, so that’s useful because sometimes it’s hard to articulate what you want when it’s a very visual process. Being able to draw, even if that’s just the start of the conversation, is something I find to be really useful.
If you were forced to lose one cinematic sense, would you chose to lose sound or picture?
It would have to be sound. I’m much more visual, although I played music for quite a while.
So you definitely come from both worlds.
Yeah, it’s a very terrible question to ask. If you lose picture you’re just doing radio!
This is another unapologetically Toronto-based production. Is there something creatively exciting about, for example, of taking the headquarters of the national broadcaster and making it into an apocalyptically corrupt corporation?
Absolutely. On a personal level, it’s funny for Canadians, because this horrible dystopian nightmare of a job is working at the CBC. So that’s hilarious, even though I like the CBC quite a bit. Shooting in Toronto is fascinating because on the one hand, I have my own history with the city and can explore that in a different way and bring that to the film and it gives it that personal touch. At the same time, I’m taking audiences to places that they’ve never seen before. So you get to fill out the blanks.
Can you talk about the casting and how you got these individuals and convinced them to be part of your journey?
How did I do it? I don’t know. I got very lucky to get two actors I have incredible respect for in Chris and Andrea. It just sort of came together at a certain point after taking a very large amount of time in development. You’d have to ask them I think specifically what it was that drew them to the film. With Chris, I went down to New York and we talked about it. I didn’t know him before, but he had worked on a film with my editor, Matt Hannam, so there was some connection there. With Andrea, it had turned out that she’d seen Antiviral and was interested in doing something with me, so I showed up to that meeting expecting to have to work very hard to convince her. But she wanted to do it pretty much from the start, so that was easy and wonderful!
And Jennifer! Again, I think we just got really lucky with her. She had a gap in shooting her show and she was able to come for the film.
I’m not trying to be a schmuck here, but she obviously is an overt connection to your dad’s film Existenz that swims in similar waters.
I don’t know how much it echoes that film necessarily. I’ve been told it does.
We critics are simple creatures that look for patterns.
For sure, and, again, it wasn’t again part of my process. I had met her years ago, when she was working on that film, so I guess there was a sort of old personal connection to a certain degree. I’m not sure how much of that influenced in a serious way her desire or willingness to do the film. Certainly my own interest just came from the fact that I think she’s a phenomenal actress and she could do something with that part that would be very unusual because I think. There’s a danger with a role like hers where it can just become a kind of standard character. You need somebody like Jennifer to really inject it with something special and unusual. And she brought some great ideas to it.
You talked about Mr. Hannam, who cut two films at Sundance [including The Nest], both of which I adored. That man is a gift. I’m wondering if you could talk about your collaboration with him because it feels more than even the usual connection between editor and director.
I met Matt during development of Antiviral. He had worked with [the award-winning production company] Rhombus before and they introduced us. He’s become not only a close friend, but a close collaborator and a core member of my team. I think having that connection is useful in two ways. First of all, you have someone you can trust who can be a part of the entire process. For instance I can send a script to Matt and we can essentially pre-edit it to a substantial degree, with him giving me feedback from an editor’s perspective. Sometimes I disagree with him, but usually he turns out to be right in the end. He’s a very experienced editor and that process is useful. But also, just in the editing room we have developed a shorthand. The difference between Antiviral and Possessor was obvious in the sense that we could read each other very well. Our first cut of the film was actually pretty refined for a first cut because we could skip all of the preliminary process and just get into it.
Given that he was in so early on the journey, did you find that there was less modification as it were, less rebuilding the story in post than there was on something like Antiviral?
It’s interesting because the way the narrative is structured in Possessor there wasn’t really a lot of room to rebuild it in a serious way. That isn’t to say we didn’t restructure it at all, but the editing process was largely about cutting away and refining rather than rethinking the story. On another film that would be true, and getting the feedback from him and doing the preliminary work would put us in a better position going in to the editing room. But in this case, there also wasn’t a lot of room to play around in that way, so we had to find other ways to improve it.
Did you wach the film with an audience in Park City?
Sundance audiences are weird audience at the best of times – what was your response to their response?
It was certainly nerve-wracking, which I think that’s probably not uncommon. I have a particular weird thing where I think my films are funnier than a lot of people think they are. So if the audience doesn’t laugh as much as I’m expecting them to, I feel they’re going to kill me at the end of the screening. That was true for Antiviral in Cannes and for the Sundance screening of Possessor. At the second screening in Salt Lake City we got more laughs. I think that screening was particularly good because I think it was probably because it’s more filled with film fans and less industry.
For what it’s worth, I saw it at the third screening and there was plenty of laughter along with the screams.
Thank you, I’m very relieved.
Could you talk about the role of film festivals for this kind of film? What did you find the difference between the Cannes and the Sundance audiences?
The tone of the two festivals is quite different. I don’t really know how to put it other than to say Cannes is a very French festival and Sundance is a very American festival. Anyone who’s been to both will know what I’m talking about! [Laughs] It’s always exciting not only to show the film to audiences for the first time but to engage in a kind of public reveal. That is the point where the film becomes real and you send it off and it starts to live its own life, which can be scary as well. But it’s mostly a good time.
In between projects do you go to festivals? Are you still gorging on cinema?
I’m fortunate to live in Toronto where we have several major festivals. I go to TIFF during years when I don’t have a film there. Otherwise, I watch films a lot. I have lived for quite a while just down the street from my cinematographer Karim Hussain and he has a fantastic projector set up and we spent quite a bit of time watching films together.
This film took a while to birth – are you pushing forward now with future features?
I’m very eager to make another film quickly. Possessor took eight years to get made and I don’t want to go through that again. Antiviral was my first film and I spent eight years just trying to get to the point where I could make a film so I didn’t have something ready to go afterwards. That was part of the process, and then just the general difficulty that you can experience making an independent film took a long time to get it made. This time I have two other films that are actively in development with scripts written and I hope that I can make them back to back to back with Possessor. That would be the dream for me.
If you got a call tomorrow to do a franchise film, would you do it?
[Laughs] Which franchise?
You tell me.
I think it would be hard to turn down a ludicrously huge studio movie just because I would need to know what it’s like to make a film in that context with that much money. I’m sure it would have its own challenges, and I would need to do it once at least to know. Not that anyone’s offering, but if they did….
I’m honestly trying to not be one of those annoying people constantly talking about your dad, but he did turn down the chance to direct Top Gun and Return of the Jedi.
There are some parallels already there that I won’t get into as they have no place on the public record! [Laughs]