For his latest feature film project, writer/director Brandon Cronenberg takes us into the world of Possessor, where highly skilled assassins inhabit unsuspecting hosts as a means to carry out their tasks. At the center of Possessor is Tasya Voss (played by Andrea Riseborough), who is one of the best agents working in her field, but when she takes on a job where she takes over the body of Colin (Christopher Abbott), a struggle ensues where Tasya isn’t quite sure just who is controlling who anymore.
Possessor recently screened at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, and while in Park City, Daily Dead had the distinct pleasure of speaking with Cronenberg about the themes and approach he took when crafting his latest project. Cronenberg also discussed his experiences collaborating with both Riseborough and Abbott, as well as the need for the film’s practical effects, which helped amplify the film’s shocking moments of violence.
This is such an interesting follow-up after Antiviral. I’d love to hear about the genesis of this project and the approach that you wanted to take, in terms of exploring this woman who's extremely good at her job, but very bad at being her own person?
Brandon Cronenberg: The root of the film really came from an interest in the ways that we all construct and maintain identities and the way that we need to struggle to work as actors and through creation of character and narrative in our own lives. What she's going through is an exaggerated version of I think what we all go through, because I don't feel that as human beings we have some basic identity that is just essential to us beneath everything. In the case of Tasya, part of the way it's exaggerated is that she has an extreme disconnect between her internal life and who she is and her desires and her impulses beneath the surface, and then who she is in this conventional domestic life, and those things are incredibly at odds. But in a sense, both of them are imposed on her by other people and constructed through context.
It's interesting, too, because there are some parallels in this when people talk about the roles that women play in society, where there's this duality of trying to maintain your home life, trying to maintain professional life, and those struggles women face. But I appreciate that this film never calls Tasya a failure because she can't do both. It's just that she's built differently, and she's become so emotionally disconnected because of what her job is, that it makes it hard for her to function in real life. And Andrea conveys that struggle perfectly here.
Brandon Cronenberg: Andrea did a fantastic job, obviously. I was extremely lucky to be able to work with her. In terms of our shorthand metaphor, I guess acting really was an easy thing for her to relate to the part, her treating it in a sense as a metaphor for acting. She was able to relate to aspects of that character because as an actor you are inhabiting other people, and there's a way that that affects your own identity and your own personal life, or so I hear. Some of the discussion early on was really about what she could draw from, and acting is probably a reasonable parallel if you're looking for an angle to take.
Can you discuss your collaborative process with both Andrea and with Chris, because I love how there's two sides of the same coin at times. Did you work with them a lot ahead of time, or did you just trust their instincts to be able to pull off the physical aspects of these characters?
Brandon Cronenberg: It was an interesting process. We talked about it very early on at one point, and there was a bit of a rabbit hole that I felt we could've gone down where there was a question of who would be imitating who, because in a sense, it's her playing him playing her playing him. They were both interested in observing each other and it was theoretically a bit hard to figure out where to start with that.
In practice, it was very organic and easy. Again, partly just because they're both fantastic actors, and as I understand it, they checked in with each other about how they might each do certain things and did some work in the background. But a lot of what we did was on set and just exploring together. I had my own ideas coming into a particular scene. They also had ideas to add to that and we built it out through the process on set, which was more beneficial than having an elaborate rehearsal or anything like that.
There are also some really fantastic visuals in Possessor, especially during the binding scenes and when you’re transitioning between identities. Can you discuss the approach you took to the visual style of this film?
Brandon Cronenberg: Because we developed the film over quite a few years, when we finally went into shooting, we had a fairly complicated visual language that we were using. For instance, in those scenes where Tasya is outside of the body possession, it's all handheld. There's a deeper focus to the shots. The lighting is a little bit harsher. When she's inside a body, there's no handheld. It's all dolly and steady cams. It's a shallower depth of field. Part of that was to give a sense, I think contrary to what you would expect, that it's her time outside of that space in those more conventional domestic moments where she's a bit more on edge. And then for the hallucination sequences, it was all practical in camera effects and makeup effects. That was also just a long collaboration with our DP, Karim Hussain, and Dan Martin, our effects guy.
Speaking of the effects, there are some really brutal moments in this. Was that your intention when it came to the violence that you didn’t want to shy away from the nature of those moments then?
Brandon Cronenberg: Absolutely. I don't really like sanitized violence in film. I think if you're going to deal with violence as a subject matter, you should really embrace it and deal with the visceral impact that actual violence has. I think for this film, the fact that it was all practical effects may be adding to the response that we're getting to the violence, because I think people are very used to seeing CGI violence and CGI blood right now. It has a floaty quality to it that you don't get when you are just shooting really well-constructed silicone.
But also part of the intention for this film specifically was to use the violence in a narrative way to discuss Tasya's psychology, because she has this relationship with the violence. It's really affected her and shaped her perception of it so that at times we see what she's doing from a more third-person perspective, and it's a bit less detailed and faster and more brutal than at other times when she's flashing back to it, for instance. It's almost fascistic, and we're in a much more subjective space dealing with her complicated relationship with violence and how that's also shaping her character outside of the work that she does.
I do love that you're using practical effects. You have a lot of experience being around films as a kid, which was the heyday of practical effects. Is that part of the reason why practical effects are so essential to you?
Brandon Cronenberg: I should say I'm not against VFX. There are some VFX used for instance, for set enhancement and some touch-ups. But I think the two things I like about practical effects are first of all that they do have this incredibly visceral quality to them and this texture and weight. Even if you end up using VFX to touch them up, if you start with something that is fairly close to what you want in camera, it really affects people. They feel it. They might not understand if they're not aware of that kind of formal element that they're seeing something practical versus CGI, but they feel it.
As with this film, again, I think a lot of the response to the violence is because it's practical and that has a weight to it. But the other thing is a question of process. With Karim for instance, we spent so much time just in his living room messing around with physical things and cameras and finding ways to distort images in a physical way. When you do that, you stumble onto all of these happy accidents that then drive the visuals forward. Much of what we shot, we came to just through experimentation. You need a practical process together. You're not just handing it over to a company and saying, "This is what I want." You're spending hours playing with things and finding new visual elements that you can then explore further. But that's essential to a practical process rather than a computer-based process.
In case you missed it, visit our online hub for more live coverage of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.
[Photo Credits: Above photos courtesy of Caitlin Cronenberg (photo on the left) and Karim Hussain (photo on the right) via Sundance Institute.]