“Most people would give anything to be turned into something else,” said turned-mad scientist Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) in David Cronenberg’s The Fly in 1986. It’s a statement he quickly regretted, given the disturbing bodily transformation that ensued – but Brandon Cronenberg, at least, learned a valuable lesson from his father’s science-fiction masterwork. Sometimes it’s best to stick with the genes you were born with.
Undeterred by the legacy of his dad’s genre-defining body horror films, Brandon Cronenberg is not only carrying the filmmaking seed of his father forward in 2020, he’s also making it his own. With cerebral techno-thriller Possessor premiering in the UK this Friday at the BFI London Film Festival – ahead of a theatrical release on 27th November – the Canadian writer-director is certain that the general public is ready for the re-emergence of the nightmarish Cronenberg chromosome.
Possessor follows Vos (Andrea Riseborough), a cyber-assassin who uses a neurological device to plug into the minds of innocent people, hijacking them to carry out vicious killings for a shady organisation. Despite her increasingly unstable mental state, Vos agrees to take on a high-profile job targeting John Parse (Sean Bean), the odious CEO of a data-mining corporation. She takes possession of the man dating his daughter, worker drone Colin (Christopher Abbott), in order to carry out the hit at close quarters. But when he begins to show signs of instability, the job turns out to be much less straightforward than Vos had anticipated.
Channelling everything from William Gibson’s Neuromancer to George Orwell’s 1984, Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor is a powerful statement on 2020 anxieties that analogises the dangers of a super-connected and technologically advanced world controlled by corporate superpowers. With our futures possibly at stake, THE FACE caught up with the science-fiction visionary director to find out why Possessor might be the most pointed real-world critique of the year.
The film’s premise reminded me of those parasitic insects that lay the eggs inside caterpillars that then hatch and take over their bodies. It’s a very Cronenbergian concept. Where did the idea come from?
I read a lot of Phillip K. Dick in my formative years, but Possessor actually came from a fairly trivial personal place. I was doing the press tour for my first film, Antiviral, and it was a pretty surreal experience. You’re constructing a public persona and performing a version of yourself that then runs off and has its own weird life without you online.
I felt like I was sitting up in someone else’s life. So really, I was just trying to write a film about a character who may or may not be an imposter as a way to discuss how we operate as people. The sci-fi and horror elements and the thriller plot built out from there.
Possessor touches on real-world anxieties about things like data mining, targeted advertising and even Chinese “spyware”. Were these intentional analogies?
Yeah, they were. The Snowden leaks definitely influenced the writing. I was feeling very depressed about the death of privacy through technology, and so in the film, there is a literal invasion of privacy.
Through corporate, data-mining work, Colin watches people through their webcams for these incredibly mundane reasons to track, say, what kinds of curtains and blinds they’re buying. More metaphorically, the “possessed” characters stand in for a similar kind of surveillance. Instead of someone looking through your webcam or turning on the microphone of your phone, they’re actually in your body, living your life and experiencing the most intimate details of who you are through your nerve endings. That’s just as terrifying.
I think it’s relevant now because, as we are seeing with Russian interference in the US elections, and disruptions through social media, we’re being exposed to such a constant stream of information that we’re becoming, in a sense, more and more hackable ourselves.
Whether it’s a foreign state trying to influence an election or a private company trying to influence your buying habits, we’re all out there and open to it – there’s just so much information about us available. The ways we can be influenced can be tailored to us specifically, and that’s something happening on a scale that we’ve never seen before. I think we’re only just starting to understand the repercussions of being part of an online society and what that will mean.
Some of the film’s violent and graphic content had to be cut to get a pass from the censors. How important was it to use brutal imagery to communicate its message?
I think some of the reaction to the violence is probably because [effects and makeup designer] Dan Martin and [his company] 13 Finger FX’s work is so incredibly brilliant. In action films, you see a lot of digital squibs and blade extensions – but I love practical special effects because they have a weight to them, and a texture that you don’t always get with VFX.
The violence in Possessor was very [much part of the] narrative because so much of Vos’ character is rooted in her relationship with violence. Much of the narrative is the arc of her relationship with what she does for a living. To me, it was necessary for those experiences to come through in a very vicious way for the audience to understand what she was going through, emotionally.
Vos carries out these terrible deeds by taking control of other people’s bodies and effectively using them as puppets. But when we see her in her own body, she has this expression of anguish and trauma. Why did you choose to portray her in that way?
It’s the psychological weight of killing. I mean, some drone pilots get PTSD because, even though they are operating remotely, they are the ones inflicting this violence.
Reading interviews with these pilots, you hear about the ways they have initiated drone strikes in situations where it wasn’t clear if they were only killing top-level terrorists. And in some cases that has been hugely destructive and traumatic. So I thought that was interesting for this person in Possessor to be traumatised by their own actions even though they’re not in any physical danger.
When I watched Antiviral in 2012, I remember being captivated by Caleb Landry Jones’ acting. I had the same feeling in Possessor watching Christopher Abbott. He delivers a really emotional performance with his eyes, conveying a character who is essentially enslaved by Vos.
He’s such a spectacular actor. I didn’t have to trick him into it, or do anything. I had my own thoughts about how the character should work and also about how the two performances should overlap. I understand that he and Andrea discussed behind the scenes how Vos would react in certain circumstances, and we just built it organically and collaboratively.
When you get actors like Chris or Andrea, it makes your job very easy as a director because they bring you so much great stuff; you have a huge amount of material to work with.
There is vivid use of the three primary colours, red, yellow and blue, in the film’s lighting. These all clash heavily with one another, heightening the tension as the possessed character, Colin, is subjected to this terrifying neurological invasion.
That was conscious. The jarring emotional quality of having these different psychological spaces feels immediately distinct because the colouring is so different; they break completely from real-world colouring, and from each other.
It also felt to me like there was a distinct lack of natural colours like green, which makes the film feel clinical and cold.
You’re describing Toronto! Haha. I wasn’t avoiding green specifically, but part of it was creating, in my mind, not a future world, but an alternate present.
As much as some of the neuroscience behind the technology could lead to this sort of [mind possession] device existing, it’s not something that would exist in the near future. I wanted to use it metaphorically, as a way to talk about us rather than having this completely alien society.
But at the same time, in making this alternate universe, I was trying to skew the world a little bit through the design and the locations to make it feel uncomfortable, to remove it a bit from reality while keeping enough familiar elements to be able to discuss the present.
In conclusion, if David Cronenberg is the godfather of body horror, then who is his son, Brandon Cronenberg?
The godfather of drinking too much coffee and sitting around in my sweatpants, apparently!