About an hour into Brandon “Son of David” Cronenberg’s new film, Possessor, one character takes a vicious beating to the head, face and neck by a man whose mind isn’t his own. Colin Tate (Christopher Abbott) has been hijacked by Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough), a corporate assassin who deposits her consciousness into her victims’ brains and destroys them from within rather than without. Each swing of the club is done by Colin’s hand, but the mind driving him is Tasya’s. Mercifully, the moment lasts a few minutes only, but the crew actually shot around five times that amount of footage—best to cover one’s ass when filming remorseless brutality, apparently.
But five times almost feels thin to hear effects and makeup designer Dan Martin tell of the various prosthetics, props and puppets that went into making the sequence happen. “We shot the versions we did with the actor on location,” he says. “We shot all the puppet stuff on a separate day. It got its own mini setup when we were shooting it, and I have the extended versions of those takes. I’ve got the rushes still. If they’d used all of that, then that character would have been beaten for a solid 15 minutes.” He laughs, not at the thought of a 15 minute savage beating, but more at the semi-absurd effort required to convincingly break down the human form on screen. Repeatedly setting up dialogue between characters is one thing. Doing that same task for cranial devastation is another.
Possessor, Cronenberg’s second feature following 2012’s Antiviral, can be divided into three distinct parts: the script, the cast and the effects. The first two pieces are elliptical on purpose. Cronenberg writes with an occlusive hand while both Riseborough and Abbott are enigmas throughout. That leaves the effects, and in horror writ large and Possessor specifically, effects are fundamental. Other genres rely on effects too, of course, but horror films, as Martin sees it—and especially horror films shot on smaller budgets—justify the use of effects better than other filmmaking modes. “Horror has always been seen as an opportunity for investors because it’s got a comparatively high rate of return on its investment,” he explains. “You’re not gonna find an independent biopic that’s being shot for $1.5 million spending a good portion of that budget on old age makeup for a character.” A biopic can’t spare that expense. Nobody goes to see movies like that for effects work in the first place.
But people do pay the price of admission on horror movies partly, possibly even predominantly, for the effects, so the genre and the effects are interwoven: The latter serves the intentions of the former, whether in a slasher flick where creative, gory and agonizing death sequences are the attraction, or in a film like Possessor, where the effects augment the ambiguity of the filmmaking. Film being a visual medium, the line where ambiguity tips into confirmation of what’s unfolding before our eyes becomes perilously thin, and Possessor toes that line from the outset. The question of whether it’s Tasya in control of Colin or Colin in control of himself hangs over each scene once Tasya transfers herself into Colin, and the matter of where their identities start to bleed into each other remains inscrutable to the last. Maintaining that necessary mystery becomes a challenge under these criteria.
Martin views his role as being to help Cronenberg pose those questions to Possessor’s audience, not to answer them. Taking that further, when dealing with gags—an industry term referring to event effects—it’s best to think of them as magic tricks. “With a jump scare or anything like that in horror, it’s about setting your audience up for something and then pulling the rug out from underneath them,” Martin says. Sideswiping viewers works best. Possessor achieves this in the edit, making recurring use of melts and fades to throw reality out of objective comprehension before dropping in a sequence where Colin beats someone half to death. (Maybe it’s closer to three quarters.) For less visceral effects, Martin collaborated with Cronenberg and Karim Hussain, the film’s director of photography, to hide the tells inherent to practical effects and avoid giving them away.
To pull that off and satisfy the balance between making the magic trick work and also keeping it seamless, Martin followed the tried-and-true method of overdelivering. “Brandon will write an event in the script, or whoever the writer is on a given project will write an event in the script, and I’ll try to provide them with way more than they need, so they choose exactly the right amount,” Martin notes. “They’ll never be able to get more than I provide, so it’s much better for me to go big, and then have them be able to take exactly what they need.” His role as an effects designer means producing the most visceral version of a visceral event, and the most surprising version of a surprising event, and then allowing the director to find the space to fit those pieces in with the tone and style of the film.
On the “most visceral” scale, there is, of course, the beating. On the “most surprising” scale, take your pick. The image, for example, plastered all over Possessor’s poster constitutes one of the film’s most shocking and nightmarish moments, but there’s also what Martin fondly refers to as the “flesh trench,” seen in a kinetic flash at the 26 minute mark as Tasya’s upload goes underway. He describes the prop as a “three foot long rubber tunnel, sort of an anatomical giant internal body structure, that would be puppeteered by four people.” And as the people puppeteered, Hussain slid, in Martin’s words, a “proboscis-like lens” down the tunnel at one end and out the other. The energy that went into pulling off the effect outweighs the amount of screen time the effect ultimately receives. It’s a literal blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment.
But the brief glimpse from inside the trench is worth that energy. Like all great special effects, the flesh trench is scarcely recognizable as an effect. Partly that’s the duration of the shot. Partly it is the practical nature of the effect, which Cronenberg insisted on. (If he ever favors CGI over practical, odds are that he’s getting written out of the will.) Mostly it’s down to the way Martin and the rest of the team consider their role as effects designers. His aesthetic is guided by abiding humility. “I don’t think there’s a single effect [in Possessor] where I wasn’t being carried enormously by editors and cinematographers and sound designers,” Martin confesses. Film being such a concerted medium, anyone who walks onto a set thinking they’re more important than everyone else will have their bubble burst before the director calls “action.” There’s a luck factor at play here, too. Martin worked with a number of Possessor’s below the line crew on Peter Strickland’s In Fabric, like producer Andy Starke and sound designer Martin Pavey. In Martin’s eyes, it’s his peers making him look good and not the other way around.
Still, modesty aside, from an audience perspective, it’s the visual effects—the gags, the makeup, the intestinal grooves of the flesh trench—that lend Possessor cogency. The film never achieves true clarity. It’s not supposed to—clarity would shatter Cronenberg’s illusions—but Martin’s touch as designer provides viewers an anchor to cling to as Tasya and Colin battle for supremacy over his body. The sleight of hand performed by the camera and in the edit gets a little easier to track thanks to Martin. Like any good magician, though, he and his fellows know how to leave viewers guessing what’s happened, and how, well after the credits roll.
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.