With the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills serving as a plush, if incongruous, setting, director Ole Bornedal and Hollywood newcomers Natasha Calis and Matisyahu sat down Tuesday with Spinoff Online about The Possession, their new horror film about a child’s terrifying struggle with supernatural forces.
Loosely based on events detailed in a 2004 Los Angeles Times article about a cursed dibbuk box – a dibbuk is malicious spirit from Jewish folklore -- sold on eBay that brought misfortune to each of its unlucky owners, Borndedal’s feature film offers a fresh take on the demonic-possession subgenre that’s been tackled so many times before. The Ghost House Productions/North Box Productions film, which opens Friday, also stars Jeffrey Dean Morgan (Watchmen and Kyra Sedgwick (TNT’s The Closer).
Bornedal (Nightwatch) said producer Sam Raimi (The Evil Dead) had been interested in the mysterious Dibbuk box as a storytelling device. However, while the director said he appreciated that approach, he admitted he wanted some distance from the events alleged in the newspaper article.
"I didn't want to explore in detail what actually had happened and who was in possession of the box right now," Bornedal said. "Not because I'm superstitious, but because I just didn't want to go there. I felt that it could get on my nerves. I felt that it could get into my nightmares if I dealt too much with that."
The director instead focused on a recently divorced couple who discover their 13-year-old daughter Em (Calis of NBC’s The Firm) has become the victim of a malevolent force, and looked to his characters to channel the horror.
"The best scares are still the scares that you and I can provide," he said. "That's why when you see all of these pompous, operatic Hollywood movies with all of the aliens trying to invade L.A. -- I don't find it scary at all. But I would find it scary if my little kid all of a sudden said, 'Dad, who am I?’"
Bornedal found breakout star Calis to portray the dibbuk's host. "She has a direct pipeline to all her emotions, which is really, really rare,” he said. “You can always make an actor, even a child actor, perform really well, but this is just outstanding.”
Calis makes the development of a complex character like Em sound like, well, child's play. "Something in the back of my mind just kind of clicked and I just started right away building the character,” she said. “It was kind of just my take on possession and my take on the character.”
Bornedal revealed that, perhaps surprisingly, it’s actually easier to direct young actors in dark, disturbed roles. “You can talk them into a lot of things because they're just curious," he laughed. "Many actors who've been around for years, sometimes you have to break down a barrier. They have worked with a lot of directors, and some of the directors were not the most inspiring directors, so they have a natural suspicion when they come to the set."
"With kids of course, they don't have any barriers at all from day one, so it is easier in that respect," he added.
The film's sound design includes a memorably creepy demonic voice that Bornedal said came directly from his young star's imagination. "In her mind, it was an old woman sitting inside of her, and I took that to the writers and said, 'Listen, guys, this is an old Polish woman sitting inside of Em. It's an old Polish woman.’"
Orthodox rapper and alternative musician Matisyahu was cast as the street-smart Hasidic rabbi tasked with saving Em's soul. "Someone mentioned him, Bornedal recalled. “I didn't know Matisyahu and then I started studying some of his videos. He knew all the rituals. He actually corrected a lot of stuff and told us how to do it."
The musician turned actor explained that, having lived for 10 years in a Hasidic community in Brooklyn, he didn't need to do any research, as he was already familiar with stories about dibbuks. "There's real ideas about that within Judaism," Matisyahu said. "Particularly in the Kabbalah, like in the mystical elements of Judaism, and I believe in some of that to a certain degree."
He admitted he had tried acting in college, but when he became religious at the age of 21, he dropped those ambitions in favor of a career in music until about five years ago. "I changed agencies, to CAA, with the intention that I would do some acting at some point," Matisyahu said, "And this was kind of like the first thing that really came up that felt like the right thing for me to do."
He also acknowledged that performing music is different than acting, but noted there’s a common thread.
"When you forget about what dance move you're going to do or what your voice sounds like and you become saturated into the music to the point where it feels 100-percent authentic -- it fees real," he said. "You feel you're doing something real and it's the same thing with acting when you become one with the line -- with the moment."
The Possession opens Friday nationwide.