From “The Devil Inside,” “The Rite” and “The Haunting of Molly Hartley” to “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” and the enormously successful “Paranormal Activity” films, to name but a handful, movies dealing with devilish and otherworldly control of human vessels are a staple of the horror genre. “The Possession,” though, strikes a certain balance between the familiar and the original. Based on true events, the film uses a 2004 “Los Angeles Times” article, “Jinx in a Box,” by Leslie Gornstein, as a leaping off point in telling the story of a young girl possessed by an evil spirit from a mysterious box. The wrinkle is that the entity is a dibbuk, or a spirit from Orthodox Jewish folklore. So when 10-year-old Em (Natasha Calis) starts exhibiting strange behavior, her divorced parents (Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Kyra Sedgwick) have to turn to rabbinical help, which leads them to Tzadok (Matisyahu).
ShockYa recently had a chance to attend a press day for the movie at a Beverly Hills hotel, where the cast and Danish-born director Ole Bornedal (“Nightwatch”) gathered to talk about real-life exorcisms, on-set spookiness, the importance of finding the right cast, and some of their lead filmmaker’s quirks. “Ole sent me some video of exorcisms which scared the crap out of me, I’m not going to lie,” says Morgan with a laugh. “I was a complete skeptic going in. Now, that being said, I still am a bit of a skeptic, but [even though you’re] open to it because we’re making this movie and you’re in that character’s spot… we had some weird things happen on this set. [So] I walked away from movie less of a skeptic than maybe I was going into it.”
Casting the film provided a few unusual twists as well, given Bornedal’s penchant for some out-of-the-box choices. While more recognizable faces were considered, the director fought for relative newcomer Natasha Calis for the part of Em and rapper-singer Matisyahu, in his screen debut, for the crucial role of Tzadok. “Ole was like, ‘This is my guy,’ and Matis came in and blew the doors off the thing,” says Morgan, recounting distributor Lionsgate’s initial reticence. “During my try-out or audition or whatever,” recalls Matisyahu, “I was reading the lines in Hebrew and doing the exorcism, and I was sort of singing them. And he yelled, ‘No singing!’ As a matter of fact, he had me holding his assistant down, and her slapping me in the face and punching me. She ripped my shirt. And I had to scream the Hebrew while I was holding her down. But then we got it.”
“To pick up from what Matis said,” interjects Bornedal, “it sounds like a crazy Scandanavian director torturing innocent Americans in their own country, but [the rigors of the casting process have] very much to do [with] finding natural people. The horror genre is so American and mainstream yet you see so many performances that in my opinion are unfortunately very superficial. I needed to see real characters, really naked performances. We rehearsed and talked a lot about the material — me, Kyra, Jeff, Natasha, Matis. I needed Matis to really get out there and cross the borders of what he was able to do, and he did. He was the real thing. The performances need to be organic, alive and hurtful, and heartful. I like to see actors cry, when it’s needed.”
Calis’ selection was no case of shrugging settling, either. She made quite an impression early on in the director’s rigorous and atypical audition process. “I saw Natasha for I think 10 minutes and I knew that she was the one,” remarks Bornedal. “I accidentally called the producer and said we could stop the search because we had our Em. They of course didn’t believe me, because that’s not how things work in Hollywood, so I just pretended [to look at more actresses] but I knew in my heart that she was the right one. With kids, pretty often I put them into a sort of trance, which makes me capable of finding a straight pipeline to their emotions. I brought Natasha to a trance and asked her to behave like Em possessed. I gave her some time to find the character, she closed her eyes, and when she opened them again she had transformed into Em. I started interviewing her and I asked her, ‘Why are you hurting your family? Can you explain to me why you behave like this?’ And she started crying, and said, ‘I can’t help it, it’s this person inside of me.’ ‘Who is that person, who is he?’ I said. ‘It’s not a he, it’s a she, it’s an old woman, an old Polish woman,’ she said. And I was just like, ‘Holy shit!'”
“This audition he’s talking about is why I did the movie,” adds Morgan. “The script is awesome and I knew it could work, but the only way was if we had this amazing actor playing Em. So I remember talking to Ole, like, ‘I don’t kn0w man, how are you going to find this person? I’m not sure if she’s out there.’ Then Ole sent me this DVD of her audition and I watched it and went, ‘Yeah, that’s it. If you hire her, I’m in.'”
Bornedal did, and “The Possession” had its cast. Filming proceded in Vancouver, with the cast bonding in the chilly weather and braving filming that included some days on location in an abandoned mental institution. The spooky subject matter gave everyone pause. “I’ve been on movies for a long time now and I’ve never seen a 5K light explode in the middle of key scenes,” says Morgan, “and that happened three or four times on this movie. Plus, in a closed studio without doors open or fans nearby, suddenly a gust of wind would come from nowhere. And the last thing I’ll leave you with is that all of our props — the dibbuk box included — were put in a storage locker so that we could go back and do re-shoots if we needed to, and would have everything there. A week after we wrapped filming that storage unit burned to the ground. It was investigated, and it wasn’t arson and it wasn’t an electrical fire — it started from within.”
Filming the penultimate scene where the adults try to wrest control of Em and cast the spirit out of her body proved remarkably memorable, too. “We were going to just shoot a segment of it — me and Kyra and Matis carrying her in and putting her on a table — and then there would be a cut and camera adjustment,” says Morgan with a chuckle. “So we went in, [did that] and no one said cut. Ole had disppeared, which isn’t true — he was there, but didn’t say cut and so the scene went on for like seven minutes, and the raw emotion of everyone’s performances was incredible. Nobody quite knew where it was coming from. I remember looking at Kyra when Ole finally did finally cut the thing and we were just like, ‘What the fuck just happened?’ It was a complete out-of-body experience. It shut down our whole crew — everyone was in tears. It was crazy, and as an actor that’s happened to me like, never. It just doesn’t happen, where you have that kind of out-of-body experience.” It did in “The Possession,” though.
Written by: Brent Simon