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SYFY WIRE Interviews

Brandon Cronenberg on Possessor and the racial and gender issues of body-swapping

By Jennifer Vineyard

Writer/director Brandon Cronenberg’s latest film, Possessor, could be perfect as an ongoing television series — a more sinister Quantum Leap or Altered Carbon, where instead of leaping into someone else’s body to help make things right, or just borrowing a better “sleeve,” you set up some poor schmuck as the patsy for murder. And then you kill them, by having them kill themselves. 

Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough) is something of an expert in these fake murder-suicides, a hired assassin who remote controls host bodies via brain implants, becoming the other person for a short while. It should be routine, but now she’s having some difficulty becoming herself again, and her latest host (Christopher Abbott) is providing some major resistance to her intrusion. The resulting mind-meld passages and assassination attempts are some of the most beautiful-yet-queasy body horror, awash in blood and red light.

Ahead of its Oct. 2 theatrical release, SYFY WIRE caught up with Cronenberg to chat about the science behind Possessor, the racial and gender issues of body-swapping, and how the pandemic affects his past and future work. 

**SPOILER WARNING! The interview below contains mild spoilers for Possessor** 

Possessor, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Andrea Riseborough

How is your pandemic going? Has it made you rethink anything about your first film, Antiviral

Well, it’s less good by the day here in Ontario. We’re just getting into our second wave. And it has been brought up a number of times that Antiviral would be the film to release right now. I don’t know if I would have changed anything, necessarily. I think infection and that kind of viral biology is so personal to everybody right now, so it would have been a different film, if I were writing it right now. It would be hard not to want to address society as it stands at this moment, if you’re making a film about viruses, but I don’t think I would have changed anything, because it isn’t really about viruses.  

Let’s talk about the science behind Possessor. You were inspired by José Delgado’s Physical Control of the Mind: Toward a Psychocivilized SocietyPossessor’s brain-implants are a sci-fi extension of his experiments, which demonstrated how you could puppet people with electricity? 

Possessor and a short film I did, Please Speak Continuously and Describe Your Experiences as They Come to You. That was sort of related in that we were exploring some of the practical camera effects and using it partly as a way to further develop the technology and the visual ideas of Possessor. The short was based on a dream I had had, and it’s described in the film, which is someone living in a kind of afterlife where someone they know and love has come into the room, but one small thing about them has changed, so over time, they start to question whether this person is really the same person they knew before. The crossover between the two films is really the aesthetic, the gels and jewel colors and shots and some of the effects that we were playing with.  

And then the neuroscience part of it is fascinating, even though Possessor and also the short are intended to be more figurative sci-fi than real predictive sci-fi. They’re meant to talk about who we are now, rather than what’s possible in the future. But the neuroscience is actually all there, and I think it’s pretty philosophically interesting. In some of Delgado’s research, he found that patients would perform actions that were triggered by the implants, by stimulating certain parts of the brain, but afterwards, the patients would retrofit their own motives. For instance, every time Delgado hit a button on the transmitter, one patient would get up, walk around his chair, and then sit back down again in exactly the same way. And every time he did that, he would make an excuse for it, and would explain it in terms of his own free will. He would say, “Oh, I thought I heard a noise in the other room,” or, “Oh, I was looking for my shoes.” It was like his brain was, after the fact, claiming his action as something that came from his own will, rather than something that came externally.  

I think that says a lot about how our brains function, and I think it could be applied either literally or metaphorically to a lot of things, like the way we are currently dealing with the manipulation of public opinion on social media. People feel that they are generating their own opinions, and are identifying with them strongly, even though they’re actually being manipulated, say, by a foreign state looking to influence an election. As an example. 

That’s one of the eerie things about Possessor, how people can be manipulated and controlled on multiple levels. It also allows you to transcend race or gender. In the opening sequence, a white woman hijacks a Black woman as her host, and engineers a situation where her Black body is gunned down by police, so she can get away with murder. What was your intention there? 

To be completely honest, I didn’t specify a race for that character when I was writing the script. We weren’t casting for any particular race, but Gabrielle Graham, who played the part of Holly, gave this really spectacular audition. She really just nailed the subtle, nuanced, and emotional aspects of that sequence. So I cast her for that reason. Obviously, if that character is Black, you can read that scene as saying the corporation has the other layer to their actions in scapegoating her, and especially in the current context, that becomes more relevant. But the honest answer is that I cast Gabrielle for her performance, rather than specifically looking for a Black actress. 

Possessor, Andrea Riseborough

Any new body is alien to Vos, but especially the male body. She sees herself as a female body with male genitalia during a sex scene. How did you go about that? 

It’s an interesting story, actually. I always wanted to have that in the film, because I think it’s important to address her relationship with gender and her relationship with sex, which were both very complicated. If you are a person who is jumping into other bodies and experiencing other bodies, both male and female – not just from a gender perspective but also from a broader identity perspective – that is very interesting to me.   

So initially, I had specified that she had a penis in that scene in the script. There was some conversation about the fact that not all actors would be up for something like that, and maybe it should not be so specific when we were casting, but a conversation with whoever ended up coming on to play that part. I guess, the reality is that it’s not something everyone would be comfortable with, even though it’s exactly what any of us would do in that moment. How fascinating to experience sex in the body of someone of a different gender! So the script went out and didn’t specify that Vos had a penis in that scene. It just said that she was merging bodies and had aspects of his body.  

After Andrea Riseborough came on the film, one of the first conversations we had, she said, “You know, I think it would be a very, very strong image if Vos had a penis in the scene.” And I thought, “You are so the right actor for this film!” I was so thrilled to have her on it because it was like she was reading my mind. We were so on the same page. It was really wonderful. I’m glad we were able to do it that way.  

What’s the status update on your upcoming projects, Infinity Pool and Dragon

Both of them are still in active development, and they’re coming along nicely. In a normal year, I would say we would be able to shoot one, or both of them. I hope we still can. It really depends where we’re shooting. There are a lot of things that are filming right now, certainly in Toronto. Will they be able to continue given the second wave of the pandemic that’s happening? I hope so. If they can, maybe we can make these films soon, but it’s hard to predict until we see how things play out. 

Especially with travel restrictions. Since Infinity Pool is a tourism resort satire with some sci-fi horror elements, where did you want to shoot it? 

We were hoping to shoot that partly in Croatia, for some of the resort scenes. But I don’t know when we’ll be able to do that. It’s all up in the air until there’s some kind of effective vaccine. 

What about Dragon? You can’t shoot where that one takes place. 

Well, it’s set in space, so we definitely can’t! [Laughs] Although Tom Cruise is making it happen, so you never know! 

Possessor opens in theaters Oct. 2. 

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