Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor Is Sci-Fi Horror With A Twist

The Canadian director’s second film is a scientific nightmare set not in the future but an alternate past.

Jennifer Jason Leigh and Andrea Riseborough in Possessor
Photo: Neon

Possessor is the name of the new film from Brandon Cronenberg, who made his feature debut in 2012 with Antiviral. Like that film, Possessor is an unnerving hybrid of sci-fi and horror about the invasion of one’s body by something transplanted from another human being. But while Antiviral focused on a bizarre fan culture in which people injected pathogens harvested from their favorite celebrities, Possessor deals with the ramifications of one person actually taking over the mind of another and controlling all their actions and thoughts.

The movie stars Andrea Riseborough (Mandy) as Tasya Vos, who works for a clandestine company that uses brain implant technology to take over the bodies of others and have them commit assassinations for the benefit of the company and its clients. Sent by her superior (Jennifer Jason Leigh) on her most dangerous mission yet, Vos begins to suffer long-term effects from the process that threaten to send her into a deep psychosis while destabilizing her ability to retain her own identity.

Set not in some distant, gleaming future but an alternate version of 2008, Possessor has much of the clinical observational style and visceral physical horror that were trademarks of the early work of Brandon’s father, the legendary David Cronenberg. But the younger Cronenberg carves out his own path here as well, with characters whose suffering and conflicts are relatable even in the surreal circumstances facing them. We spoke with Brandon Cronenberg about the genesis of the story, its ramifications, and placing it in a world just two steps removed from our own.

Den of Geek: I read that this film was initially inspired by you feeling like you were somebody else in your own body. Was that essentially the experience you were having?

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Brandon Cronenberg: In a sense. I was going through a bit of a strange period and this is maybe a very trivial place for a film to come from. But a lot was in flux for me and I was in a sense feeling like I was living someone else’s life. In the morning I was getting up and having to construct some character who could operate in that context, which I think is something that is not completely uncommon. So I wanted to write a film about somebody who may or may not have been an imposter in their own life, and use that as a way to talk about how we build character and narrative as a means of operating as human beings. The seed of the film was really in those dramatic character scenes and the sci-fi thriller elements built out from there.

Did the basic idea change a lot over that time as you were developing it and going through drafts of the script?

Yes, absolutely. Especially because it took quite a while for the film to get off the ground. I kept revisiting the script and tweaking it and changing things as I had new ideas and as I re-read it and wanted to alter it. So it did evolve quite a bit.

It’s been eight years between features for you. Was part of that getting everybody lined up behind it, getting the financing and all the usual trials and tribulations?

Exactly. Especially for an independent film, it can take a while to get it financed. Sometimes it comes together very easily and sometimes it takes a while. This one just happened to take quite a while to put together, not for any particularly interesting or strange reason, but just the usual indie film stuff.

What lessons did you learn from Antiviral that you wanted to apply to doing Possessor?

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It’s hard to really specify, but I learned a lot. Obviously, making any film, even a shorter film is a huge learning process. And then to make a feature and deal with the timescale and tracking a narrative over a film of that length, it’s all a growing process. It’s all, especially for someone who is still essentially at the start of their career, it’s all useful stuff. But I can’t really point to one thing that wasn’t a lesson learned. It was all a lesson on a certain level.

Did you have more confidence going in this time?

I don’t recall. It had been a long time between films. I’d made some shorts and some music videos in between, but it felt fairly similar going into it. If there’s a difference, I think it’s that I spent a lot of time working with some of my close collaborators during that development period, like Karim Hussain, my cinematographer, and (producer) Rob Cotterill. So I had a closer-knit group going into it. We had spent a long time working together on it and so it felt good in that way. And actually once we finally did get to shoot the film, it ran quite smoothly.

Getting back to some of the narrative ideas, Vos has that same conflict that I think a lot of people have between work and private life, although hers is taken to an extreme considering the work she does. But was that the key to making her relatable, even though she’s an assassin?

I think it was definitely a part of it. I think her kind of struggle is relatable to a lot of people, not just the contrast between work life and family life. But I think for all of us, we’re dealing with who we are in an internal way, which can be incredibly chaotic and sometimes dark and difficult, and not necessarily something that fits into a civilized, domestic scenario exactly. I mean we’re all apes and we all have a complicated inner life in all this, which we then have to essentially merge with our external characters who are able to function in those kinds of environments. So I think it’s also the conflict between interior sense of self and exterior sense of who people expect her to be and who people see her as. I think that is all somewhat universal.

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Did you always start out with the character as a woman?

In a very, very early version of the story as I was mapping it out, Vos was male only because it had come from my own experiences and I guess I just defaulted to male. But the two things that occurred to me very quickly were first of all, it would be more interesting to write a female lead and I had just done a male lead with Antiviral. Having her be a woman who’s in a man’s body adds this additional layer of contrast between the two of them, which I liked. Then also, I think we’ve just seen a number of stories where the man is having a hard time integrating with his family after experiencing something on the job, whether it’s The Hurt Locker or cop movies. We’ve all seen that the father and husband who’s disassociating from his family because he’s seen too much. So it felt a bit clichéd to have Vos be a man.

Possessor's Brain-Implant Lab
Neon

Why is it set in an alternate 2008, instead of 2023 or something like that?

The technology in the film is rooted in actual neuroscience. There is science there, it’s not completely a fantasy. But for that technology to actually exist in our world, it would have to be very, very far in the future. But I wasn’t really conceiving of Possessor as predictive science fiction. All the science-fiction elements are meant to be metaphorical and meant to be discussing who we are as human beings now. So I wanted the world to feel more relatable and not be this big distant sci-fi future. So in my mind, I shifted it into an alternate timeline where that technology had developed to the point that it was, and that freed me up to be able to play with it in a figurative way, rather than trying to make it realistic.

Now are there more aspects to this alternate universe that you extrapolated for yourself that we don’t see in the film? For example, the film hints that this is a world where corporations reign even more supreme than they do now, to the point of ordering assassinations.

Certainly. I like films that suggest a bigger world, but don’t spell everything out. I like films where the audience gets to invent for themselves, but in order to make it coherent, I had to, of course, delve deeper into that world-building than was maybe evident on screen. In terms of the corporate world, I mean, there’s interestingly a history of militarized corporations. The Dutch East India Company had its own private army and ruled Indonesia for centuries. Some people consider the Knights Templar to be the first multinational corporation and they were, of course, a Catholic military order to begin with. So I was interested in corporations returning to this place historically where they’re operating a little bit as states or having maybe a Cold War moment with violence happening in the shadows.

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Is this a world you would potentially return to? Are there other stories you could tell there?

I would like to. Despite everything I just said about not being explicit with the world, I think it would be fun to flesh it out for sure.

I understand you tried to do as many practical visual effects as possible.

The film is essentially all practical effects. The hallucination sequences are entirely practical. The scenes of violence are almost entirely practical with a little bit of clean up and so on, courtesy of Dan Martin, our makeup effects lead, who is absolutely incredible and a mad genius and allowed us to do things practically that we wouldn’t have been able to otherwise.

What are you working on next?

I have two films that are fairly far along in the development process. One is called Infinity Pool, which is a tourism/resort satire with sci-fi horror elements. The other is called Dragon, which is a space horror film. Both of them are written and in active development. So depending on how things play out in the next little while, I hope to get back to shooting soon.

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Possessor is out in theaters — wherever they are open — on Friday (October 2).