Tokyo: Brandon Cronenberg on the Necessary Violence of 'Possessor' and Why Everyone is Vaping in the Film

Brandon Cronenberg
Tibrina Hobson/Getty Images

Brandon Cronenberg

Cronenberg mused on the dangers of technology, the impossibility of making sense of the pandemic and how people read too much into connections with is father's movies during an online talk with fans at Tokyo International Film Festival.

Now would seem to be the ideal moment for Brandon Cronenberg’s 2012 debut Antiviral, but the director told a Talk Salon at Tokyo International Festival that a global pandemic was not the time for his movie about a deadly virus.

"The virus stands in for something in the film. As is the case often in sci-fi and horror, the horror is metaphorical, but now those things are so immediate and so literal," said Cronenberg via a video link from his Toronto hometown.

The festival is screening his second feature, the psychological body-swapping, sci-fi horror Possessor, and Cronenberg took questions from Japanese fans in an online talk moderated by festival programmer Yoshi Yatabe.

Asked by Yatabe how he views a world in the middle of the pandemic, in light of the prescient topic of his debut, Cronenberg replied, "I feel it’s impossible to see the world in 2020 because so much is changing, some of it terrifying, all of it fascinating and unexpected. I think we’ll only be able to see it in five or 10 years’ time, when we will be able to comprehend the repercussions of what is happening now."

Possessor has won critical praise for its disturbing examination of identity, shadowy corporate malfeasance and the dangers of technology, along with some inevitable comparisons with the work of Cronenberg’s father David.

The idea for Possessor "came from a somewhat trivial personal place," said Cronenberg, describing the experience of his press tour for Antiviral as, "consciously or unconsciously inventing a public persona and performing a version of yourself."

"It was very much the idea of a film about a person who may or not be an impostor in their own life and who may not understand whether they are. The sci-fi elements were built out from there, but those quieter and less dramatic scenes were the seeds of the film," he added.

The common themes of shady companies exploiting scientific advances in his two films are a reflection of Cronenberg’s concerns about the direction of society.

"I think corporate activity in many ways is defining all of our narratives right now because corporations are so incredibly powerful and influential in defining the ways we communicate, essentially building the tools we use to speak to each other, even as we are now," said Cronenberg in a discussion conducted via Zoom and streamed on YouTube. "That is having a dramatic effect on our psychology in ways we are just beginning to realize."

Questioned by the moderator and fans about the graphic gore in the film, Cronenberg responded, "The violence in Possessor is incredibly narrative because so much of Vos’s character [played by Andrea Riseborough] is defined by her relationship with violence… It was important for audiences to understand those experiences on a visceral level because that’s how they can understand her. The depiction of violence in the film shifts to track her psychology."

Pressed on whether it was really necessary to show so much bloodshed, the director quipped, “Even one stab less and the whole film would have been ruined.”

Despite almost inviting people to see connections with his father's work by casting Jennifer Jason Leigh, who appeared in Cronenberg senior’s eXistenZ, the director politely deflected questions on the topic.

“You’re maybe reading into it too much. Other people have more interest in that dynamic than me,” he replied to one. “I’m too close to my work and too close to him to have that kind of perspective,” he answered another.

The technology in Possessor, in which corporate assassins take over people’s bodies to carry out their crimes, is possible, if not for a few years yet, according to the director, who said he had researched the neuroscience behind it.

Science fiction is a useful medium through which "explore the world because I can create a caricature of the real world with through sci-fi," suggested Cronenberg.

E-cigarettes are a rarity in Japan as it is illegal to sell vape juice containing nicotine, leading one local fan to ask why so many characters in the film were vaping.

"In my mind, I set it in 2008 in Toronto in an alternative timeline, a parallel world. I imagined technology had developed in a different way," said Cronenberg. "So I thought everyone vaping would be kind of funny. It’s also very cinematic to have that much vapor coming out of someone’s mouth."