Filmmaker Sam Raimi has been in the news recently, talking about the coming remake of his classic cult horror film “The Evil Dead,” but the man best known to mass audiences as the maestro behind the three “Spider-Man” movies starring Tobey Maguire is also talking up a spooky new thriller, “The Possession.”
Opening Friday, the film stars Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Kyra Sedgwick as a recently divorced couple grappling with the increasingly erratic behavior of their youngest daughter after she purchases an ornate cabinet box at a yard sale. It isn’t long before Morgan’s character realizes that there is some evil possessing the girl.
According to the screenwriters, husband-and-wife writing team Juliet Snowden and Stiles White, the inspiration for the film came from perhaps an unlikely source: the Los Angeles Times. Specifically, a 2004 article with the headline “A Jinx in a Box?” that caught the attention of Raimi, who worked with the couple on the 2005 thriller he produced, “Boogeyman.”
The article told the story of a Missouri college student who listed a “haunted Jewish white cabinet box” on EBay. He had purchased the item at a yard sale but insisted that it had brought him nothing but bad luck, including hair loss. The box contained two locks of hair, one granite slab, a dried rosebud, a goblet, two wheat pennies, one candlestick and, supposedly, a malevolent possessing Jewish spirit called a dybbuk.
It was eventually sold to Jason Haxton, a university museum curator in Missouri, who still owns the box.
Raimi sent the story to Snowden and White, who saw an opportunity to write about a family in crisis through the lens of a horror thriller. “We were fascinated by the article,” Snowden said. “The first thing Stiles and I do is to sit down and talk about characters and how should this story happen.”
They retained the basic premise of the original story -- the catalyst is still a dybbuk box purchased at a yard sale -- but really the underpinnings of the film have to do with the trauma of divorce as experienced most directly by young Natasha Calis’ character, Em.
It just so happened that several of their friends were going through bitter divorces and the children were emotionally suffering because of the upheaval. So they decided to make the dybbuk box “a metaphor for what happens with divorce,” Snowden said. “We are always analyzing the dramatic elements of the story. If we can tell a great dramatic story and put the supernatural on top of that, that just adds the extra element to it.”
White said that in the early planning stages of the script they had to decide “do we go down the road of just trying to tell a documentary style story or do we create characters?”
“That is what the producers were more interested in,” White said. “We could tell this story through characters. It would be this family dynamic. The kids are going back and forth between mom and dad on weekends. Dad has this new empty house and [the daughter] sees this cool antique box at the yard sale.”
The script went through various drafts over 18 months, during which time Danish filmmaker Ole Bornedal was hired to direct. Also, Snowden and White spent time researching Jewish exorcisms, and a rabbi came aboard as a consultant. (Hasidic rapper Matisyahu plays an exorcist in the movie.)
Throughout the process, though, one key scene never changed: the sequence in which an MRI reveals the spirit residing in Em’s body.
“It’s one of those ideas that never got lost,” White said.
“Whenever studio executives are looking for screenwriters, you have to come in and pitch -- you have to tell them your idea for the movie,” Snowden said. “You are competing against a lot of people, so when we pitched that idea to Sam Raimi, his eyes widened.”