Opening today nationwide, Lionsgate’s The Possession is inspired by a 2004 newspaper account of the eBay auction of an antique wooden box said to contain a dibbuk, a malevolent spirit from Jewish folklore, that tormented each of its owners. The unusual sale, and the legend at its core, immediately drew the interest of authors, rabbis, scholars and, yes, Hollywood screenwriters.
“I think for us, there was this underlying story of this unusual dibbuk box – this antique – and it had all these great real life elements and weird phenomenon that happened to the various people that owned it,” Stiles White who wrote the screenplay with his wife Juliet Snowden, told reporters gathered Tuesday in Beverly Hills.
The two were joined by director Ole Bornedal (Nightwatch and stars Jeffrey Dean Morgan (Watchmen), Kyra Sedgwick (The Closer), Natasha Calis (NBC’s The Firm) and Matisyahu for a discussion about the legend of the dibbuk box, and the importance of fighting horror-movie clichés.
Snowden explained that exploring the fractured relationships of a family suffering through a divorce helped them to pinpoint the horror in the script, but producer Sam Raimi also wanted them to weave in some of the real-life occurrences recounted in the newspaper story.
“In the LA Times article, there were several instances of things that happened: A man purchased the box at a yard sale, we have that in the movie,” she said. “He gave it to his mother for her birthday, that’s in the movie — she instantly had a stroke. We were taking as many facts from the article – that was really important to Sam Raimi.”
In the film, a laid-back basketball coach (Morgan) and his ex-wife Stephanie (Sedgwick) are forced to work together to save their youngest daughter Em (Calis), who begins to exhibit odd behavior after she buys a curious antique box at a yard sale.
Morgan revealed that creepy occurrences on set had him walking away from the film less of a skeptic. “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, and this happened three or four times,” said the Supernatural alum. “In a closed studio without doors open or fans nearby, suddenly a gust of wind would come from nowhere.”
He also related a story about a storage unit that held the production’s props, including the dibbuk box. “A week after we wrapped filming, the storage unit burned to the ground and it was investigated,” he recalled. “It wasn’t arson, it wasn’t an electrical fire – it started from within. That’s all I’m going to say.”
Despite the chilling subject matter, Sedgwick told reporters the set was a lot of fun. “There was a lot of levity,” she said. “In fact, there were times when I’d say to Jeff, ‘Hey, this is a really heavy scene!’ And he’d say, ‘There are kids here. Yuck it up! We’ve got to keep it light,’ and he was right. He was absolutely right.”
Bornedal praised his young star Calis, who plays the girl possessed by the evil spirit. “Natasha actually was the first girl I cast, and I casted her for like 10 minutes and I knew that she was the one,” the director said. “I actually did call the producer and said, ‘We don’t need to cast anymore.’ And they, of course, didn’t believe me because that’s not how things work in Hollywood, and so I just pretended and I casted some more girls, but I knew in my heart that she was the right one.”
“This audition that he’s talking about is why I did the movie,” Morgan said. “Because the script was awesome and I knew it could work, but the only way it could work is if we had this amazing actor playing Em.”
The veteran actors also praised performance of Jewish rap and reggae star Matisyahu, with Morgan giving Bornedal the credit for that casting. “Ole knew that Matis was the guy from the get-go, and Lionsgate was like, ‘He’s a rapper.’ And Ole was like, ‘This is my guy,’ and Matis came in and blew the doors off.”
Bornedal noted that horror performances are often superficial, and he was most interested in finding and creating real characters. That prompted Sedgwick to tell a story about Bornedal directing the climactic exorcism scene at the hospital.
“He took us all aside beforehand and said something like, ‘We’re going to go across the road – the exorcism road – and there’s going to be clichés all over the highway and they’re going to try and jump on us, but you have to say no!’” Sedgwick laughed. “Do you remember that? He characterized a cliché as this little demon. It was hilarious.”
“It’s true,” Bornedal said. “The genre calls on so many clichés. And you constantly have to beat them and see if you can beat them and reinvent the emotions.”
For Calis, the exorcism scene was especially intense. “I got to scream, and I got to lose my voice a few times,” she said. “It was fun experimenting with what level I could take Em to because she’s such a complex character.”
Matisyahu, who also plays a pivotal role in the scene, said he drew inspiration for his character from the more emotional Judaism prayer style of Karlin Hasidim, which involves screaming. “People say to Karliners, ‘Why don’t you try asking nicely?’” Matisyahu joked, explaining that for this sect of Judaism, prayer is a war. “That’s what I took with me to that scene. There’s a war — there’s a real war happening.”
Snowden told reporters that the museum curator who owns the real dibbuk box reached out and asked if they wanted to borrow it while they were writing the script. “We said, ‘Hell, no!’ I think that was the same for everybody, including Sam Raimi.”
“For us, when we talk about the true story or the nature of this movie, you can be a skeptic all you want,” White said. “But then when someone contacts you and wants to know if you want to borrow the actual box, suddenly you become a believer really fast. We didn’t want it.”
Related: Spinoff’s review of The Possession