Inside the making of ‘Possessor Uncut,’ the arthouse sci-fi thriller too extreme for the MPAA
Inspired by a sensation he couldn’t shake years ago, filmmaker Brandon Cronenberg wrote what would become his second feature, “Possessor,” a sci-fi horror tale about an assassin who hacks into strangers’ brains and uses them to murder high-profile targets.
The real-life scenario from which the techno-thriller concept sprang, of course, was only slightly less extreme and nightmarish: It happened during the press tour for his 2012 directorial debut, “Antiviral.” In interview after interview, Cronenberg had begun to feel as if another self was emerging. Once invented, that persona seemed to run wild beyond his control.
“It was like having a strange doppelgänger out in the world that you can’t recognize yourself in. Like I was sitting up in the morning and into someone else’s life,” Cronenberg, 40, said over video chat from Toronto, where he’s based and makes his films.
In his darkly satirical “Antiviral,” borne out of a flu-induced fever dream, Cronenberg imagined a celebrity-obsessed society in which fans pay to be infected with the diseases of their idols. Brutal, cerebral and set in a jarring alternate 2008, “Possessor” follows a woman whose job is eroding her psyche and her soul — the problem being that the job involves taking over other people’s minds, and her latest host isn’t going without a fight.
The Canadian artist hadn’t always planned to follow in the footsteps of his filmmaker father, “Videodrome” and “Scanners” director David Cronenberg. He describes growing up with more literary leanings, devouring the sci-fi novels of authors like Philip K. Dick and Kurt Vonnegut. But with his second feature, Cronenberg continues to use the medium to explore modern anxieties and ills, establishing himself as one of genre filmmaking‘s boldest new voices.
“It’s hard to say where anything comes from,” he said, contemplating the influences that have shaped his artistic perspective. “Sometimes you’re drawing specifically from your life, or you’re referencing someone else’s work, but I think a lot of the time you have just been molded a certain way through your experiences and that becomes the filter through which you represent reality.”
His most overt nods, to 1991 slasher “Popcorn” and 1967’s British mind-control flick “The Sorcerers,” are subtly inscribed on the spines of books on one character’s bedside table for hardcore cinephiles to relish.
The film’s technological fascinations are informed in part by Big Data and the controversial brain-control experiments of Spanish neuroscientist Dr. Jose Delgado, who implanted electrodes into bulls and other animals, and even humans. “The technology in the film could, I think, exist,” Cronenberg says.
It’s where evocative and explicit imagery melds with groundbreaking practical effects that “Possessor” feels most visceral and visionary: Geysers of crimson spill forth as a knife plunges into a man’s neck; a particle of matter glitches in the air as if snagged in the fabric of reality; a face melts away and re-forms before our eyes as agent Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough) commandeers the consciousness of her next target (Christopher Abbott).
Presented stateside by distributor Neon, “Possessor Uncut” — titled so to distinguish it from an R-rated version that also will be available in some markets — is the complete version as far as Cronenberg is concerned, replete with the uninhibited moments of sex and violence, such as the transfixing erection glimpsed in a sequence memorably bathed in electric blue, that might otherwise have earned the film an NC-17 rating.
“Generally I prefer explicit violence, and I prefer violence that is viscerally disturbing to people,” said Cronenberg of the graphic scenes not for the faint of heart. “I find it more unsettling if violence is very sanitized. If you have a PG-13 movie where 100 people get killed and no one bleeds, to me that’s doing a disservice by trivializing the violence. So I prefer people to have that visceral response, because you should.”
“The most amazing thing about ‘Possessor,’” said director of photography Karim Hussain, who also lensed “Antiviral,” “is that it exists.”
Riseborough, who builds to an enthralling symbiotic pas de deux with Abbott as their characters battle within the same body, had been curious to meet Cronenberg as soon as she saw his first film.
"[I was] watching ‘Antiviral’ and thinking, ‘God, this filmmaker is an auteur — I’m excited to see whatever is going to come out of this person,’” she said. “It felt so stark and strangely, blindingly bright, but it was such a dark, dark piece of work.”
Andrea Riseborough stars in the science-fiction/horror hybrid “Possessor,” writer-director Brandon Cronenberg’s violent, visionary film about a future-tech hitwoman.
With a feral edge and a sickly pale sheen, her Vos is introduced after the messy execution of her latest hit. She’s ruthless and methodical at her job, the star operative of a shadowy outfit led by the unsettlingly aloof Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh). But inhabiting others for such grisly ends has left Vos haunted and drained; it is leeching her of her own humanity.
Coming home to her estranged husband and son, she struggles to remember how to act as herself. Awash in primal giallo hues and filmed digitally using practical techniques and effects, some of the most horrific images are the ones through which Vos relates to the world and her place in it.
The “arresting kinship” between the character’s work and her own resonated with Riseborough.
“That feeling of being so unavoidably absorbed by or dissolved into another human being’s experience and then having to come back to what one might call one’s own, which is then completely alien, was hugely familiar,” said the chameleonic British actress, known for her turns in period biopic “W.E.” and the cosmic cult horror pic “Mandy.” “It’s very much like acting,” she added with a smile, “but without the killing.”
The high-wire performance of “Possessor” belongs to Abbott as Vos’ unwilling host, Colin Tate, a low-level worker in a data-mining conglomerate who’s dating Ava Parse (Tuppence Middleton), the daughter of the company’s founder. Vos’ mission: to “possess” Tate via brain-implant technology and use his identity to assassinate his girlfriend’s dad (Sean Bean), then make a clean exit by forcing Tate to kill himself, thus severing their neural connection.
It’s a forceful and nuanced turn that sees Abbott for much of the film inhabiting two characters — playing both Tate and Vos-masquerading-inside-of-Tate as the two fight for dominance within the same psyche.
“I find it endlessly fascinating that, even as you get older, you expect to arrive at a fully formed human,” Abbott, who earned a Golden Globe nomination for his star turn in the 2019 Hulu miniseries “Catch-22,” said of the film’s existential provocations. “But in a lot of ways you’re constantly fooled, or you constantly question who you are: Am I me, or am I just this vacuum that has sucked up a bunch of other personalities?”
Acquired out of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, where it had its world premiere in January, the critically acclaimed indie opened this weekend on 200 screens and at drive-ins, capping a seven-year production odyssey full of starts, stops and near-deaths but also fruitful discoveries.
For years the project was mired in the usual indie production challenges and unusually long delays. Cronenberg and his close collaborators, including Hussain and supervising producer Rob Cotterill, spent the time experimenting with colored gels, lighting contrasts, projection vortexes and a vintage 1970 Angenieux 25-250 zoom lens the cinematographer nicknamed “Lucky Pierre,” which had arrived from France by way of Bollywood with a glorious fungal bloom in its rear element.
The cinematographer’s apartment became a laboratory for the lighting experiments and science-based camera techniques that would yield some of the film’s most stunning and transgressive images. Their experimentation even led to an unrelated short film they made that premiered at Cannes employing some of the aesthetics they would later use in “Possessor.”
“We were inspired by the documentary on Henri-Georges Clouzot’s ‘Inferno’ that never got made,” said Hussain, a veteran of Canada’s vibrant indie genre scene. “The real crazy effects, all those are practical and in-camera. Basically four years of our life was a huge camera test.”
Some visual ideas came from science videos Cronenberg had seen online, or intriguing optical curiosities the pair would encounter in the world and attempt to replicate. In one scene, a stream of water appears to defy physics, a sign that Vos’ mental grasp during a high-pressure possession might be slipping. The effect was captured in-camera using a subwoofer placed inside a fountain that generated a tone at a frequency of 24 Hz, matching the 24 fps frame rate of the camera.
“That’s a science experiment that even children do on YouTube, but it’s never been done within the world of a professional movie,” said Hussain.
In another scene, a particle vibrates in the air in front of Vos-as-Tate’s eyes — a tiny object that was levitated acoustically, using sound waves. “That was there, floating,” remembered Abbott of the magic-making happening on set around him. “For me that only heightened the world, because a lot of it was real. It just added to the imagination of it all.”
Hussain recalled the day they achieved the effect of Vos “melting” into Tate, using real heat so hot the camera was mounted on a crane using long lenses. The production’s “nerds” were crowded around the monitor, but the Toronto Raptors were in the play-offs en route to a historic NBA championship. The rest of the crew was glued to the game. “It was like, ‘I can’t believe you’re thinking of sports at a time like this! Look! We’re melting heads!’”
Making the phantasmagorical tangible on set and in the photography itself also lent the project a holistic quality of discovery, a philosophy Cronenberg says extended to the frenetic energy editor Matthew Hannam gave the film as he found new rhythms in his cutting.
“There’s a process to it that I enjoy and find useful, because when you’re sitting in Karim’s living room playing with actual gels and video feedback and hands-on with this material, there are all these happy accidents,” said Cronenberg. “You can suddenly glimpse a path that you can go down and explore. That lends itself to great surprises that you wouldn’t get if you were working purely with computers and telling people exactly what you wanted.”
With production designer Rupert Lazarus, Cronenberg built immersive atmospheres for his cast, while prosthetics supervisor Daniel Martin of 13 Finger FX created a sculpted head for the film’s most gruesome effect, as well as prosthetics for the actors to wear during the film’s hallucinatory sequences.
One particular appendage enhanced Riseborough’s mindset going into the film’s sex scene, the most provocative way “Possessor” manifests Vos’ experience of inhabiting a male vessel: a prosthetic penis. “The experience itself felt out-of-body,” she said. “Having this prosthetic member attached and hobbling up towards the set, I felt more vulnerable having this thing exposed than I’ve ever felt. I felt this huge sense of being suddenly very territorial.”
It’s one of the more striking moments in which the psychological is visualized in the film. “No doubt her identity experience even outside of gender is very complicated,” Cronenberg said of his protagonist. “There are so many different people, different professions, different lives, and to an extent she’s internalizing all of those things in a character who exists across other people.”
And did that strange feeling that inspired “Possessor,” that uneasy mirror self, fade away once Cronenberg exorcised the story onto the screen? He paused and smiled into the digital ether of our video chat. “It’s even weirder now.”
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