Brandon Cronenberg Unleashes Human Drones And Experimental Film Techniques In POSSESSOR

There’s weird science both in front of and behind the camera.

Writer/director Brandon Cronenberg first ventured into the body-horror field with 2012’s Antiviral, a visceral peek at celebrity worship a few years hence. Now he’s poised to unveil the latest trend in weaponizing human beings with Possessor, currently in postproduction. At the Fantasia festival in Montreal, we caught up with cinematographer Karim Hussain, who encored from Antiviral and explains that while the onscreen tech in Cronenberg’s second feature is futuristic, the processes he and the director employed harked back to old-fashioned practical means.

“There’s no significant CGI in Possessor,” reveals Hussain, who also shot Jason Eisener’s Hobo With a Shotgun, Ted Geoghegan’s We Are Still Here and segments of the anthologies The ABCs of Death and The Theatre Bizarre. “Everything was done in camera; the only digital work will be normal little cleanup things—wire removal and stuff like that. All the major effects were done live, so we got to create very radical, strange projection effects and rolling shutter effects to make things look like they’re melting live. We did acoustic levitation, which is making objects fly in the air using sound, and an optical illusion you can only see in camera that makes it look like water is freezing by throwing a signal through a subwoofer that hits a channel of water and synchronizing the camera shutter and speed to a frequency. It was all very fun techniques that had their roots in science to create the movie’s hallucinatory world.”

He adds that Possessor was originally intended to roll four years ago, and that the delay turned out to be a blessing. “We got to test stuff with extended research and development that most movies wouldn’t be able to have,” he explains. “That made us really push our limits as makers of images. A lot of those tests were done in my old living room over the course of those years.”

Described by Hussain as “a very dark and extreme horror movie,” Possessor stars Andrea Riseborough (Mandy), Christopher Abbott (Piercing), Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tuppence Middleton and Sean Bean, and deals with an agency that essentially creates human drones. “They kidnap people and implant mind-control devices into their brains, and then those people are piloted by a sort of performer who goes into a kind of coma and guides them via these implants to commit lone-wolf assassinations that are good for the financial and political gains of the company involved. Now, that sounds like a standard science-fiction concept, but then the movie really steps it up when something goes wrong with one implant, and the bodies of Andrea Riseborough and Christopher Abbott’s characters sort of fuse into one individual being—and the weird stuff begins.

“It’s a completely different movie from Antiviral,” Hussain continues, “and visually it’s radically different as well. Antiviral was a very bright, white film, while this one is extremely dark and moody, with shadowy photography, very soft-contrast. We used a lot of old vintage lenses to counteract the fact that it was shot on digital. Mind you, we used an Alexa camera that definitely reduced the digital factor, but the idea was to make it very filmic and organic, whereas Antiviral was much sharper and almost a cross between a fashion show and a visit to the doctor. There’s also a secondary narrative going on in Possessor that I won’t spoil, which has very much to do with one’s philosophy toward what a normal family should be like, and how to deconstruct and/or cause damage to that structure.”

Neither of Possessor’s two female leads are strangers to extreme and outré cinema, which stood them in good stead to enter Cronenberg’s bizarre scenario. “You’re talking about two Rolls-Royces in terms of actors,” Hussain raves. “Andrea is incredibly radical as a performer, and has no problem going all the way for a role. Jennifer is wonderful and hilarious, and really adds something kooky and interesting to her character. She’s not somebody who’s going to show up and deliver a normal performance; she always goes the extra mile and gives you something different. Both of them were a delight, and in fact all of the actors on Possessor were. Every day we were surprised by the little gifts they would bring us to elevate what was already a very strong script.”

Another key contributor to Possessor’s strange world was special makeup effects creator Dan Martin, a frequent collaborator with Ben Wheatley (High-Rise, Free Fire) whose recent projects also include Jonas Åkerlund’s Lords of Chaos and Richard Stanley’s Color Out of Space. “We also did a lot of radical experiments in that area, using wax and other kinds of unusual materials and projections onto prosthetics. Dan is a very clever individual, and really knows his shit in terms of horror history and unusual genre pictures. He’s really bold and experimental in the way he approaches the craft.”

Possessor already has distribution in the U.S. from Well Go USA and Canada from Elevation, and Hussain says the filmmakers are first planning to send it out on the festival circuit, likely early next year. Some fest audiences have already gotten to see a short film that he describes as “part of the research and development for Possessor. It has an incredibly long title, Please Speak Continuously and Describe Your Experiences as They Come to You, and we shot it using a lot of our practical projection processes and elaborate montage ideas. It ended up being selected for Cannes’ Critics Week, so this short, which was effectively a camera test, got into a few major festivals, and people seemed to dig it.”