Sitting in a booth at a Toronto diner, writer-director Brandon Cronenberg has ordered a vegetarian poutine that wouldn’t be out of place in his father’s Naked Lunch. Under a layer of thick greenish gunge masquerading as gravy, dead pieces of mushrooms curl up like snails, suffocating the french fries buried underneath. You wouldn’t be half surprised to find a finger in there, or maybe a pulse.
“I feel like this is another person at the table with us,” Cronenberg jokes, poking at it with his fork. “Like, it’s becoming conscious as we speak.”
This horrific poutine isn’t a bad entry point to discussing his second feature, Possessor, which concerns a parasitic host that subsumes the body and soul of a young man. Andrea Riseborough, playing a secret agent employed by a shadowy dystopian corporation, uses a mind-control device to take over a hapless dude’s mind and body (played by Christopher Abbott), so she can assassinate his girlfriend’s dad for a client.
His edgy proof-of-concept short, Please Speak Continuously and Describe Your Experiences as They Come to You, is based on Possessor. Starring Toronto indie darling Deragh Campbell, it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2019 and was selected for TIFF’s Canada’s Top Ten Film Festival.
Now, Cronenberg’s high-concept sci-fi feature version premieres at the Sundance Film Festival in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition. It represents the next stage of his career, which was hard won. After the success of his first feature, Antiviral, which premiered at Cannes in 2012, Possessor took nearly a decade to finance in a complicated co-production between Canada’s Rhombus Media and the U.K.’s Rook Films. Now 40, Cronenberg spent his 30s begging eccentric billionaires to make his freakish vision real.
“It started as a film about someone who may or may not be an imposter in their own life,” the filmmaker says.
“I’d written a massively overcomplicated script I then split into two scripts because I had too many things I wanted to talk about after Antiviral, and as I started to research actual mind-control experiments, it took on a historical angle, then a neuroscience angle. Then the Snowden leaks happened, so it had this government-surveillance angle too, and it was too much. Even though it’s a thriller at its core, Possessor came from my ideas about identity, all the ways we build a character to get through aspects of our lives.”
Imposter syndrome resonates with Cronenberg. He entered Ryerson’s film-production program as a mature student at the age of 24 after a long exploratory period of trying out things including visual art, fiction and, briefly, attending Fanshawe College because his friend was doing recording engineering there. Despite father David Cronenberg’s prominence as a great auteur, he wasn’t a cinephile yet, preferring to read Philip K. Dick novels and play in bands. He still sports the eyebrow and lip rings of a guy who loves his basement.
Eventually, he turned to making his own brand of body horror, a genre his father pioneered. His films are all viscerally disgusting. In Antiviral, Caleb Landry Jones is a cipher who purchases the viruses and pathogens from sick celebrities so that fans can inject them and experience their diseases. The film’s imagery abounds in pus, needles and oozing sores.
In contrast, Possessor plays like a restrained art-house take on a body-switching comedy, as if Nicolas Roeg were suddenly tasked with remaking Freaky Friday. At one point, Abbott wears Riseborough’s skin as a mask, popping her skull like a balloon.
“The thing is that when I decided to go into movies, I knew people would be interested in making comparisons to my dad, no matter what I did,” he says. “There’s no way I could make movies that didn’t relate to him, so I figured the best way to deal was not to engage with that at all. Because if I defined my entire career by trying to make movies in opposition to his career, it would be a completely dishonest way of making art.”
Filmmaking for Brandon Cronenberg is a subconscious process. He likes playing around with his cinematographer, Karim Hussain, engineering laborious in-camera practical effects. (Possessor boasts levitating particles and frozen water created by a rig that uses two directional speakers to issue acoustic sound waves that pin these objects into place.) He continues to make movies about people who want to be someone else, to the point of contracting their diseases, yet I’m not sure if he knows what this means for him personally.
“There’s a hilariously broad range of interpretation of what I’ve done so far, but I’m really just starting out,” Cronenberg says. “I don’t know what my voice is, or how my work is received, or what my identity is yet.”
The filmmaker sees his relatively late arrival to cinema as a blessing. "It’s interesting because if you’re a cinephile, you come with all of this knowledge, but so many people who are completely obsessed with movies don’t have any outside interests. If you’re just making movies about movies, you’re not really drawing from anything else.”
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