Sofia Alexander Brings South American Myth to new Series Onyx Equinox

Sofia Alexander Brings South American Myth to new Series Onyx Equinox

Crunchyroll has been making some major moves with original programming. But with shows like The God of High School, In/Spectre, and FreakAngels, they have shown a drive to bring unique and exciting content to the screen. One of the more interesting shows to come out on the platform is Onyx Equinox, a dark animated show about the many gods and cultures that exist in ancient Mexico.

Created by Sofia Alexander, Onyx Equinox takes the classic myths and ledges, and gives it a new twist. The show follows an Aztec boy named Izel as he is chosen by the god Quetzalcoatl to close five gates to the underworld and save humanity from potential doom. Sofia Alexander is no stranger to the world of animation, having worked on Infinity Train, Invader ZIM, and The Powerpuff Girls. But Onyx Equinox is a much more personal story, built on the legends and myths she has followed since she was a child. CGMagazine recently had the chance to chat with Sofia on a call, to discuss the show, culture, and how Anime had a strong impact on the culture and childhood within Mexico and South America.

CGMagazine: First I want to just get off with, how did this Onyx Equinox come together, and how did it make its way to Crunchyroll and become a full-fledged series?

Sofia Alexander: Well, it began as a college assignment back in my freshman year. Back then it was just Nelli, Izel, and Yaotl who are still in the series. And from that freshman year, I kept using these characters and developing a story. As I went through my college career up until my senior year, that is when I finally had the characters more fleshed out including the story and, of course, all the things that have changed. But for the most part, the characters are still the same. I had the story always on the back burner. I forgot about it a couple of times; came back to redesign and I used it a lot in my portfolios.

Onyx Equinox

Originally, I wanted it to be a comic book. And when I got the opportunity to sell it, well, I don’t want to say who ― I don’t want to put them in that kind of spotlight ― but I was going to sell it. And I don’t know if something in my gut told me to wait and because I wanted to tell the story in a different medium, and I felt that the characters were not there yet. I wanted to grow more with them as an artist; as a person. And finally, like I said I had this idea ― I’ve had it for 13 years now. So they have changed, they have grown. And the story has been shaped by my personal experiences as well as those of the writers of the artists.

And for me, starting off being a storyboard artist, telling stories, I thought maybe I can make this into animation, an animated show. And I was lucky to pitch it to Marissa. It was serendipitous. It was like being there at the right time with the right person and being ready. It’s those three. I don’t think people understand that it takes those three elements for you to be able to sell an idea because there are so many other wonderful ideas out there that don’t see the light of day because one of those things was not right. But I was just really lucky to have had Marissa there to hear my story, and for her to go, you know what, this doesn’t suck.

CGMagazine: I would love to talk about the myths and ledges used for Onyx Equinox. Why the choice of ancient Mesoamerican setting, and do you think it allows for more freedom in telling stories for the series?

Sofia: Well, the reason why it was a Mesoamerican setting is that I grew up in Cancun, and It’s a heavily archaeological site area, Maya specifically. And my grandfather is proud of our heritage. And he wanted us to appreciate the beauty of Mesoamerican and see it in a different light than what history has painted it as unfairly, even media, depicting Mesoamerican as savages and needs of colonization. From a very young age, I learned to appreciate the cultures and being an artist, I just kind of; stood in the middle of, like, the archaeological site, and I was like, how did they live? Where were their houses? What was this like? And I’m sure a lot of people ask themselves these questions but being an artist, I kind of like having the opportunity to truly let this story bloom surrounded by this very beautiful rich culture.

Onyx Equinox

And we will see more than just the Aztec and the Maya. And so I’m very excited about that because all these cultures are not well known. And to this day, we still have people that identify as Aztecs. We still have Maya people. We still have all these other different beautiful cultures.  They don’t get the media attention because usually, it’s Aztec or the Mayan. And the reason for it being a Mesoamerican setting for the story is just because I wanted to share the beauty of Mexico. And because I grew up watching movies about Greek gods or Arthurian legends and all these epics, Lord of the Rings, I thought why can’t we have the same, but set in Mesoamerican in our history, our culture? I never saw Mesoamerican being depicted how I wanted it to be.            

And being a huge anime fan I thought I wanted to make it into a cool epic anime-inspired fantasy action, adventure, tragedy. All the good stuff that I like personally. So that was the reason why. Saying choosing to do Mesoamerican-inspired cartoons, I don’t know if I would call it choosing because I feel like it was meant to be. I’ve always had this yearning of telling this story of a kid, a Mesoamerican kid. So, I don’t know saying that I chose it. It doesn’t feel right for some reason that sounds weird. But something that tells me like this is how it was always meant to be.

CGMagazine: Okay. On that note, as you mentioned, it is such a rich culture and such filled with a story. How did you sort out what to take from the myth, what to elaborate on and where did myth stop, and your ideas and visions take hold?

Sofia: That’s a good question. And for me, the important part first and foremost is what services the story and the character development. It can be any setting. That’s why it was nothing stopping me from it being a Mesoamerican but you do have to take into consideration, well, if there’s going to be monsters, what kind of monsters do we want to use ― real mythological monsters? And why would it serve the story? Would it move the plot forward?  If it were up to me, I would add everything that I know about Mesoamerican mythology. Like there’re so many cool creatures and monsters and gods. But again, it is one of those things like, if you go to a bakery, you can only eat so much. For me, one thing in order to show these beautiful legends and myths and figures of history, I just had to really reel back ― like really back in ― and be like, okay, for the story to advance, we’ll need this plot device, this kind of character, this kind of villain.

Onyx Equinox

But I don’t think it was a challenge on where to draw the line, but rather when to know it’s too much or when to know that like, look, you can’t use that because it wouldn’t make sense. Does that answer your question? It’s just about servicing the plot and the characters’ development. And yes, because it takes place in a setting where we’re talking about various cultures, and we only certain god’s people will question why I chose certain gods overall but it is just for the story and what services.

CGMagazine: How did you, or did you not tackle a subject that might not fit modern sensibilities, and how did you make it cohesive with the myths that do exist?

Sofia: What was important was to have a clear motive, and from what I understood from the myths, from what I learned from what the anthropologist helped us do research on. I chose those gods based on the kind of temperament I needed for these characters. And I don’t change the history of these gods. I just take who they are, and I put them into my story. So, I don’t deviate from their legend. Because I’m not telling their story; it would be cool because I have a bunch of ideas. But yeah, it’s just for me the, what you said, modern sensibilities. It is a very different culture. It’s a very different idea that’s for sure that we have not been exposed to. But for me, what is relatable is who the characters are.

Onyx Equinox

And once you relate to a person or a thing or characters in a story, then nothing else matters. Everything else kind of just buy-in. Otherwise, why would anyone read Lord of the Rings and feel connected to Frodo and his journey, the ring barrier? You connect with him because he was someone who was not equipped to carry such a big burden, and maybe that’s why he was chosen and how he grows. And you feel for these characters. So, for me, it was more important to make sure that these characters are relatable, and then everything else falls in place.

CGMagazine: I just have one last follow-up question, just because you did mention the fact that anime was such a big part of your childhood, and I’ve heard that from many people from South America. Why is it that you believe, or in your opinion that anime has and has for a long time taken such a hold on South America? What is it about the story that is told in anime that resonates in that culture?

Sofia: Actually, that’s a good question because of the history behind that in Mexico, we don’t have the means to create our cartoons, our media to promote, or anything. And American cartoons, some of them were too expensive for us to buy, and Japan needed to sell cartoons.  And the US wasn’t buying because they were creating their content. So, Mexico is like, hey, we need content, and we need it cheap and Japan sold it to us. And it just kind of became, like, big consumers of it. And so, it’s kind of been there, I guess. So, for me growing up with Anime because we had a demand for content that we could not create ourselves. Maybe that would have been different if we had been able to create our content.

But I don’t know like I think for me it was storytelling. I’m a fan of Dexter’s Lab. And you know, I had a lot of cartoons that are American that are episodic that I loved but for me, I connected with the characters a lot more when they had overarching stories of a season of a series of a much bigger plot. And it just felt like an epic you always want to tune in and see Goku has been able to achieve this Super Saiyan mode or, I don’t know. For me, that was what made me a fan of anime. I cannot speak for anyone else because maybe it’s because they like the style. But yeah, for me, it was more of a format.

CGMagazine: Awesome. Thank you so much for your time.

Sofia: Thank you. I appreciate these questions were awesome.

Pick up Issue #40 of CGMagazine to read the full interview with Sofia Alexander

The Cast and Creator of Utopia Reflect on How The State of the World Recontextualized Their Series 5 The Cast and Creator of Utopia Reflect on How The State of the World Recontextualized Their Series 5

Gillian Flynn and the cast of ‘Utopia’ Discuss Adapting the UK Cult Favourite

It’s always a risk diving into remaking a cult favourite. The team behind Amazon’s Utopia (2020) had big shoes to fill when adapting the UK cult favourite from 2013. American remakes can take many forms, and when adapting this series for the US, creator and showrunner, Gillian Flynn, was sure to make sure she paid the right mind to Dennis Kelly’s series while making sure to create something all her own. The cast and Flynn all had different relationships with the original series and sat down to share their thoughts.

“When you take on something that’s such a cult favourite as Utopia (2013), you just have to accept that some people aren’t going to like it because it’s not the thing that they like.” Flynn knows she had her work cut out for her, but never wanted to make a carbon copy of the UK series. “Why would you want to watch something that’s exactly like the other thing? They should be complimentary bookends. They should be, one informs the other and one plays with certain different themes and takes them in a different direction.” Dennis Kelly was seemingly on the same page, “Dennis would say at every turn, ‘hey, why remake something if you’re not going to remake it?’ which gave me so much breathing room and freedom that I appreciated.”

The Cast and Creator of Utopia Reflect on How The State of the World Recontextualized Their Series 4
Utopia

Though she wanted to create something new, Flynn always respected her source material. “I would never have gone in and gutted Dennis’ world and turned it into something unrecognizable,” she told us. “There’s such a richness there. Dennis, I think, is a world class world builder and obviously there’s no kind of world he can’t create.”

Respecting the source material but ensuring they brought something new was a common throughout discussions with the cast. Dan Byrd, who plays Ian in the show said, “We all wanted to have an acute awareness of the origin of this story and why we were making this show, what it was actually based on. We all had tremendous respect and admiration for what they did but knew at the same time that this show had to stand on its own two feet and was also fundamentally different from the British show in a lot of ways. So having the awareness was important but also forgetting everything we knew the second we stepped on set was equally important.”

Ashleigh LaThrop, who, along with Byrd, played a character plucked from the original, Becky, echoed his sentiments. “We are creating characters with the same names and some of the same characteristics, but they are unique to us and unique to our version.”

Utopia Review 3
Utopia

Desmin Borges, whose character has some of the more direct connections to his UK counterpart, wanted to know just enough about the original while ensuring he brought something new and saved the UK surprises for himself. “I dove into the first three episodes and then pulled back really quickly because what Dennis Kelly created was a masterpiece and what Adeel (Akhtar) did with Wilson Wilson was nothing short of spectacular. While my main focus was to honour the brilliance that they originally set forth for us, it was also my intention, if I was given the opportunity to take the baton and move it forward in our version, to honour them and take it in a direction that Gillian best saw fit and vibed for the experience we wanted for Wilson Wilson.” He went on to share, “I haven’t watched the rest of the first season or the second season yet and I probably will avoid it until we are done telling this story, and if we are lucky enough to continue telling it, it might be some time. But I very much am looking forward to finishing it when we’re finished Utopia.”

Like Desmin, Flynn didn’t want to spend too much time with the original series so as to not cloud her vision for her take. “I did Widows which was another adaptation of a TV series and I did the same thing for both of those which was ‘I am going to watch it first to see if I want to do it, watch it one more time, take notes, take the plot twists and write down the moments in my notebook that were really striking, then I would never look at it again.’ Because to me, I personally couldn’t do it, it feels a little lazy, it feels a little too easy for me to fall into doing one of those remakes that is literally a remake. I wanted to do something new and take that great DNA that Dennis had provided and the relationships but push on the parts that I found the most interesting.”

Utopia Review 2
Utopia

Many of the cast was new to the series, but Jessica Rothe, whose character, Sam, was a new addition that didn’t exist in the UK version, had been aware of the show since it went into development in 2013. “I similarly was introduced to the show when I first auditioned but I actually saw it for the first time back when this was an HBO David Fincher iteration.” On being added to the cast via Sam, she said, “I am such a huge fan of the British show and it is really daunting taking on kind of a new iteration of anything because the whole thing is, ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,’ but I feel so grateful that Sam was brought to life by Gillian. She is such an incredibly passionate fierce character and I love her addition to the show and I also think that Gillian has a lot of tricks up her sleeve.”

Rothe and Flynn think the show, by respecting where it came from and bringing something new, will appeal both to new audiences and fans of the cult favourite. Rothe said, “This show, I really think will capture the hearts of people who have never seen it before, and for those who are huge fans of the original, I think we pay homage in a really wonderful way to the beautiful, wild, messy, dangerous version that it was but we also take it in a different direction so it is not just a copycat, it really has a life of its own. I think that one of the big things that Gillian and our incredibly creative cast and crew poured in is so much heart and so much humanity which is something that our world needs right now.”

Flynn also wanted to bring a new appearance to her version, not only trying to avoid mirroring the story beats but the visual tone as well. “I knew there could be a tonal difference whereas [Kelly’s] is beautiful to look at and very sleek and, I think, kind of  takes it’s tone a little bit from the sort of world of graphic novels and that poppy-ness. I wanted mine to really feel like we’re in it, to really feel based in reality to really feel ‘this is where we’re at now,’ whereas his talks about food shortages and different issues landing in the UK, I wanted mine to really feel like we’re even closer to that. We’re close to disaster.”

Utopia Review 1
Utopia

Flynn has experience adapting both her own books for screen like with Gone Girl and a series for the American market like she did with Widows, so she was ready to bring her take to an existing piece. “Even with Gone Girl, I had read the book so many times obviously by then because I had so many passes at it. I listened to it on audio book once, took my notes, then wouldn’t let myself go back to it for that same reason, it has to become it’s new thing.” For Flynn and her cast, they seem to have the exact handle on it you want for adaptations of your favourite works, “It respects the original world and progresses and adds to it.”

Utopia is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

The Cast and Creator of Utopia Reflect on How The State of the World Recontextualized Their Series 1

The Cast and Creator of Utopia Reflect on How The State of the World Recontextualized Their Series

It seemed somewhere between collar pulling uncomfortable and kismet levels of coincidence when Amazon Prime Video’s American remake pf Utopia landed in the midst of a global pandemic. The world is managing months of lockdown, struggling with disinformation, and scraping the internet to find the solution to these woes. A show about the world struggling with a global pandemic and lack of trust in disputed from large corporations hits differently in 2020. Gillian Flynn’s take on the UK original has been in development since 2013, long before we sealed up for COVID-19, so it was interesting to hear what her and the cast had to say about how the show lands with our current climate.

“Obviously it’s been recontextualized quite a bit just in the past six months or so. It certainly took it, tonally from what was just on the edge of a dash of science fiction, something that seemed very unlikely, that a pandemic was a plotline to pull us through a larger story and then suddenly became a reality in the real world.” Gillian Flynn, creator, writer and showrunner, told me, when reflecting on her show’s 2020 release. “I think certain moments land harder and differently than one would expect them to. Certain things that were played to be a little bit surreal, now, unfortunately, don’t feel surreal anymore.”

Rainn Wilson and Ashleigh LaThrop in Utopia (2020)

“We had no idea, obviously, that it would end up being as relevant as it is.” Ashleigh LaThrop, who plays Becky, said when reflecting on the times. “In watching it now, it’s really interesting because back then, it was all ‘we’re making a TV show and it’s super fun and crazy’ and watching it now, there is definitely a little bit more weight behind it.”

Though the show was in production long before, postproduction was happening while the world had locked its doors, something Flynn found surreal. “As I was editing after the world shut down and editing remotely and I would have the TV on, like we all did in March and April, just trying to get a handle of what’s happening,” she reflected, “I would be in my editing bay, looking at my screen and look up at the news, which I had on constantly, and it was ‘which is the real life part and which is the part I can edit?’ And it was a little… it was shocking. It was certainly nothing that had ever been foreseen.”

Though Utopia seems jarringly relevant, or like it predicted our future, the cast was apt to point out that the themes of the show were always relevant before the world was dealing with a global pandemic.

Utopia (2020)

Sasha Lane, who plays Jessica Hyde, had remarked while on set that the script was so similar to the news, long before the world changed as it did. “There are a lot of similarities, but also, at the same time, when I said that, the pandemic wasn’t happening. So there were still things happening in the world that happen in Utopia or that people think about naturally and that were in our script and similarities and differences and all of those things so I think it really is the biggest thing of life imitating art, that’s plainly what that is.”

“When I had first signed on, to me, the most interesting piece of it was the idea that we all feel like we’re kind of on the edge of something, the world changing, the environment, politics, unrest and the lack of truth and the idea of conspiracy,” Flynn remembered. “I really did it not as any sort of medical procedure or ‘this is what a pandemic would look like,’ and much more with the intention of ‘this is where we’re at now.’ We’re at a place where there’s no truth, there’s no right side up, wrong side down. We are ripe for misinformation and spin and conspiracy.”

The Cast and Creator of Utopia Reflect on How The State of the World Recontextualized Their Series
John Cusack, Fiona Dourif, and Cory Michael Smith in Utopia (2020)

Conspiracy was a common theme throughout the chats, continuing to drive home that the gang found more relevance in the misinformation and conspiracy theories than the pandemic story line. John Cusack, who plays Dr. Kevin Christie in the series, circled back to his distrust in 5G technology and his discomfort with how information and misinformation is disseminated. “All I said was that [5G] was an unproven technology, just like any other, which you should be skeptical of. I think a lot of the conspiracy theories are grounded in a mistrust of power. But then they’re also, I think, fostered these days by social media companies that are really data mining companies masquerading as social media companies that are using algorithms to play on people’s fears and prejudice and spread rampant disinformation.” He expanded on the threat of this, “There’s an assault on facts and I think that’s coming from the tech space and opportunistic people.”

For some of us, a dystopian thriller hits a bit too close to home to work for our Sunday night escapism, but the cast of Utopia thinks there’s reason to dive into their version of our world.

LaThrop said “The entertainment is still there. It’s still, at its core, an adventure story about a group of antihero nerds trying to save the world. Even though it is more relevant just because of the backdrop, the story itself is one that’s easily accessible.”

Utopia (2020)

Dan Byrd who starts as Ian expanded on her thoughts, “It’s all about context. This show exists on a completely different frequency than what we’ve been experiencing for the last six months. To me, it still feels very much like escapist entertainment and adventure of fun sort of conspiratorial thrill ride that happens to have this hyper relevant underpinning now of a pandemic.”

The most warmth in the position that the show is a worthy addition to the streaming platform came from Desmin Borges, who plays Wilson Wilson, who thinks a show like Utopia could be exactly what we need. “I think in the unfortunately terrifying unprecedented times we find ourselves in you need a little bit of delusion to find sensibility. Once you’re there you can hopefully take action in helping community band together to fight this thing together.” He went on to say, “I think we’re going to give the viewers an opportunity to follow these characters through this ride and have a moment to process what’s going on collectively. There’s a huge lack of leadership over here in the States as how to deal with the issue that we’re dealing with and ultimately were not only dealing with a pandemic, we’re dealing with a global mental health crisis and I think oddly, coincidentally and beautifully enough, this show is going to give us an opportunity to work through some of those things that we’re dealing with emotionally, physically and mentally. And what better way through a delusional one-eyed conspiracy theorist with a four pound beard?”

So if reconciling your global crisis panic via a one-eyed conspiracy theorist with a last name the same as his first is choice avenue for you, check out Utopia which drops on Amazon Prime Video September 25, 2020.

Interview- Brandon Cronenberg for ‘Possessor’

Talking Film, Creativity and ‘Possessor’ With Brandon Cronenberg

Brandon Cronenberg rapidly became known for his stylistic dreamlike films that dance with the goriest explorations of philosophical concepts. In his latest, Possessor, Cronenberg weaves a yarn about Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough), a contract killer who does her dirty deeds by transplanting her consciousness into patsies. Her handler, Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh), sends her into her most high stakes job yet, taking over the body of Colin Tate (Christopher Abbott) in order to execute a wealthy CEO and his would be heirs. The stunning movie leans into the philosophical implications of theories of the self, and uses them to further explore the simpler ideas of sense of self, something that pits personal and work life against each other.

To further dig into the themes of the film, Cronenberg joined us for a roundtable discussion about his influences, his personal theories of the self, his upcoming projects, and, of course, the blood.

Talking about identity, do you feel like it’s more solely in the mind, or do you think it is connected to our physical body?

I don’t really think there’s a difference between mind and body. I think it’s all the same. I think the mind is really a process of the brain and you can’t really disconnect the two, even though in the film, it plays it a little bit like that through the science fiction because she’s inhabiting other people’s bodies remotely, that’s more of a metaphorical thing to discuss identity, but in reality, I don’t think those need to be really separated.

Andrea Riseborough in Possessor (2020)

Antiviral was a spectacular debut and Possessor has just surpassed that and it’s an amazing film. Are there aspects of the two films which overlap? Or were you looking to go in a completely different direction?

I wasn’t intending for them to overlap. I’ve had some people suggested there are some preoccupations across the two of them; construction of identity or injecting identity, in a sense, into someone else’s body. But I honestly wasn’t thinking of Antiviral when I was writing Possessor. It’s its own separate film.

Talk to me a bit about the conception of the explanation piece. So the part where the handler (Girder) is explaining how the job’s going to go, how the implants are going to dissolve. I’d just really love to hear about all the considerations you made as you created that.

A lot of it was, I guess, necessary exposition to set up the premise. I was, to a certain degree, trying to think through the reality of the tech and how that could function. Not to go into too much detail about it, of course, because in some ways, it’s fantasy technology and intended to operate metaphorically, but it has to feel plausible for the film world, and there has to be a certain amount of logic set up, at least initially.

Possessor (2020)

What can you tell us about the brutality of the violence in the film and how it relates to the state of mind of some of the characters? At one point, Girder actually asked her (Vos) why she resorted to stabbing and not shooting.

Her relationship with violence is very much at the heart of her character. So the violence in the film is really very much narrative. I felt it had to be visceral. People had to feel on an almost bodily level, what she was experiencing emotionally, and it also tracks with her psychology. So sometimes, we’re seeing it from a more observational perspective, then looking back on it, it’s more sort of stylized, almost fetishistic for her. I don’t want to go too far into analyzing the character, because I had very specific ideas about how their arcs would play out, and the narrative arc is designed to leave a little space for various interpretations from the audience. I don’t want to preclude the possibility of having audience members explore it for themselves. Certainly, I was thinking of her, in some sense, like one of those drone pilots who experiences PTSD because of the violence that they’re engaged in, even though they’re engaged in it remotely. And yet, at the same time, there’s something in her character that’s very much drawn to it. I think it’s a bit of a question whether that’s something inherent to her, or whether that’s something that’s being planted in her character by her mentor to be run by the Corporation.

One of the things I thought was so interesting, especially at the end of the film, is the conversation between Colin and Tasya and this battle between who is culpable in that case as things start to spiral out. Can you speak a little bit to where you think that line may be? We talked about identity before, with who we are and the effects of what has been done in our past, because here, you have a character that’s saying, “I’m not guilty and you were there.” I was just wondering what that line means to you.

I’d like to say two things about that. First of all, one of the things that I keep coming back to when I’m writing Possessor, and other things I’ve been working on, is the process by which we construct a sense of unified self, despite the fact that doesn’t really exist. I think a human being is a chorus of conflicting impulses, and ideas and emotions. Some of those come from our own brain, some of them don’t. There’s this very interesting science, examining, for instance, human microbiome, and how other micro organisms in our digestive tracts or parasites can affect our personality and affect our behaviors. And of course, in a more figurative sense, there’s the question of what you could call psychological infections, how we can pick up ideas from other people and claim them for ourselves. That’s especially interesting, and kind of terrifying right now, when you look at what’s happening on social media, for instance, foreign states meddling in the US elections. We are, in a sense, hackable right no because we’re so completely online. I don’t think we really yet understand what human society is becoming because of that, but certainly a lot people believe that they have certain ideas that they’ve generated themselves but they’re actually being manipulated in fairly nuanced ways online.

Possessor (2020)

I did some research into the neuroscience behind brain control. One of the things that I found was a Spanish doctor named Jose Delgado had done some experiments in the United States, involving brain implants in animals and also in human beings. There’s a scene in the film, where there’s a kind of documentary playing on the television where there’s this bull fight and the bull is implanted with this receiver and then the bull ring, that’s actually footage from one of his experiments.

A particularly interesting one that he described in a book that he wrote was an experiment where, because of the spot in the brain that he put this wire that was simulating different areas of the brain electrically, because of where that wire was, the subject was acting in response to stimulation, but then claiming those actions for himself. So, for instance, the experimenter would press a button, every time he pressed the button, the subject would get up from his chair, walk in a circle, and then sit back down again. But every time he did that, he would insist that he had done that of his own free will, that he was just looking for shoes, or that he had heard a noise somewhere, and was going to investigate. I think there’s a very interesting process of the brain by which we, in a sense, determine after the fact whether an idea or an action was generated internally, which I think has fascinating scientific and philosophical implications.

I think all of us at some point deal with having some imposter syndrome, especially when something monumental is happening to us. I guess we want to pinch ourselves and questions whether we’re just pretending this whole time? Is that something Possessor was meant to tap into?

I would say it goes even deeper than that. Ultimately, I don’t really think we have a true self. Beneath everything, I think it’s all, to a certain degree, performance. Sometimes we’re performing for other people, sometimes we’re performing for ourselves. Definitely, there is an interesting common experience of being in a particular situation, or trying to accomplish something, and not being able to see yourself in it somehow, because it’s at odds with your identity, whether it’s imposter syndrome in the sense that you mean it or whether it’s just that disconnect between our own self image and how other people see us.

Andrea Riseborough in Possessor

You’ve touched on this a bit, just now and when you were talking about the comparison to a drone pilot, but I know some people read this film as a statement on the woman balancing career and family life and struggling with it. Some others thought it was more of a general statement on careers permeating our personal lives and the duality of us that way. Can you speak to those themes and what was intentional or how it turned out?

To me, the career aspect of it is maybe a part of a broader struggle that we have, again, with how internally we see ourselves, but also, on a certain level, we’re all apes living animal lives, but in the strange human civilization that we built for ourselves. I think who we are internally is very chaotic and animal. Then who we are, as a result of civilized societies is somehow very restrained. I feel like there’s often a disconnect between what’s expected of us, and all the inner turmoil within us. That’s certainly true in a professional sense. The intention was both a bit more broad and a bit more specific. Broad in that I meant to comment on how all of us are dealing with that. Specific, in Vos’ case, it’s a very pronounced disconnect, because she has this sense of violence in her and these impulses, which are so at odds with what’s expected of her in a civilized domestic setting. In many ways, that is more horrific than the violence.

One of the more memorable sequences in the film was the host analysis, which swapped back and forth between reality and subconscious and the subconscious in the world. What were some of your visual influences?

To be honest, I can’t remember. I tend to watch a lot of movies with my close collaborators, like Karim Hussain, my cinematographer and Rob Cotterill, assistant director and producer. They all kind of mash together in my mind, in a kind of loaf that I store somewhere in the back of my mind, and in the development of it, it becomes hard to untangle the influences. But I mean we watched a lot of Argento, his Opera, we looked at Inferno for camera trickery, and then we just spent a lot of time experimenting and finding things that felt good to have.

Tuppence Middleton and Christopher Abbott in Possessor (2020)

At the end of your career, what you would like to be known for as a filmmaker?

I try not to think about that, because it’s just not something you’ve ever really have control over. On a film by film basis, I’ve tried to make movies that are somehow satisfying to me and they’re a lot of expressions of my own creative impulses and interests. I think that’s sort of all you can really do. I don’t think it’s necessarily healthy to think about the end of your career, maybe at all. But, also, it’s so out of your hands how people are going to see your film. And of course, that’s something that always evolves. You have filmmakers, who, long after they’re dead either go in or out of style, depending on previous discoveries, and what ideas people have about their work. So once the film is done, it really becomes something for other people to either take value from or not.

You said before that Possessor was one much denser script, which you broke into two screenplays. Will we be seeing that other film in the future?

It’s quite possible. The other screenplay’s still in the early malformed phase of writing it, it’s not really shootable in its current form, but it has some stuff in it that I am very interested in. I ended up writing two films over the course of Possessor development because it took a very long time to get it together. Those will presumably be my next projects, they’re both fairly far in the development process. One is called Infinity Pool, which is kind of a touristy resort satire with sci-fi horror elements. The other is a hallucinatory based horror film called Dragon. I would love to shoot those back to back as soon as I’m allowed to. But definitely the other script is something I’ll probably return to when I have some time.

Jennifer Jason Leigh and Andrea Riseborough in Possessor (2020)

Tell me everything about the blood in the film, what you used, how much you wanted, how you lit it, everything.

The blood was spectacular and I can’t tell you too much about it because it was actually a secret recipe and I don’t know what it was. We had this fantastic effects artist, Dan Martin, on the film, and he’s responsible for so much of the wonderful practical trickery. He had some contact who had this incredible formula for this very advanced kind of fake blood which looks amazing. It actually coagulates like real blood and then washes off anything incredibly easily so it’s great for resetting. But I don’t know what’s in it. I don’t even know if he knows what’s in it because it’s someone’s secret formula

Tantalizing.

How do you feel you evolved as a filmmaker the eight years between Antiviral and Possessor?

It’s a hard question to answer because I don’t really have that kind of perspective on myself. I like to think that I have maybe, a bit of a bit bigger filmmaking toolbox. Obviously, the more you do it, the more you evolve, and you end up pursuing certain paths in directing, but I don’t really have an answer for you because I think that’s a question for other people looking in at the work from the outside.

Possessor is available on VOD October 2, 2020

Random Acts of Violence - Roundtable with Writer/ Director Jay Baruchel 1

Random Acts of Violence – Roundtable with Writer/ Director Jay Baruchel

Jay Baruchel, Canadian darling and purveyor of comedy, has delivered some of the best writing and acting for big and small screens alike. For his sophomore film as director, Baruchel took on horror. Working alongside writing partner, Jesse Chabot, he adapted a comic book to create his horror feature, Random Acts of Violence. With his film coming to VOD July 31st and streaming service, Shudder on August 20th, Baruchel hosted some roundtables to chat about it. CGMagazine joined some other journalists to chat with Baruchel about his horror influences, his experience in the comics industry and how his upbringing and ever-changing sensibilities created the living document that became the script for his first scary movie.

You talked about the current state of horror and how it’s becoming stagnant so I was wondering if you could elaborate a bit more on that.

Oh gosh, yeah fair.

I guess as a fan of the genre. I find myself just barely scared by anything that I see. Rare is the horror film that is a good movie and actually scares me. I just also kind of developed a bit of a distaste, a personal distaste, for this idea of what a horror film had to be. Basically ten to fifteen years ago, a bunch of investors realized that they could put a little money into something that would make them a bunch and then all of a sudden we had this whole rash of contained genre films, which are very transparent in why they were created. For me, it’s an art form that is terribly important to me. I cannot separate my love of cinema from my love of horror movies and I think, when it’s when it’s at its best, it’s a very pure, very direct art form, and it lends itself to some pretty special stuff. So I just went out and tried to make the movie that I wish was out there.

Random Acts of Violence - Roundtable with Writer/ Director Jay Baruchel
Random Acts of Violence (2019)

As an actor you’ve worked with the biggest directors in the world like David Cronenberg. I was wondering if you could share some advice or attitudes that you’ve taken from the method of your work with them.

It’s this lovely absence of anxiety and chaos that seems to be the industry standard on most sets and it was very important to me to do what they did, which was have a set that everybody likes showing up to. To know that we might have it in two to three takes, but we never want to belabor anything and that was something Eastwood and Cronenberg shared in common. Then also getting to work with Ben Stiller on Tropic Thunder and watch as he developed the script for over a decade and got it to a point that he was really comfortable with, and yet he still left an opportunity for all of us to create on set on the day. Those three sets are real inspirations for me.

As an actor, people are often asked in interviews who they want to act alongside but they don’t really give the director standpoint a lot of focus. Now that you’re making a name for yourself behind the camera, who are some of the actors you want to work with from a director’s point of view?

Oh, wow, what a cool question. They’re all too cool for me, I suspect. But if I ever got the chance to direct Val Kilmer, I would be able to die a happy man. Obviously you can do a lot worse than Daniel Day Lewis. I got to act alongside Gary Oldman. Getting to direct him would be a dream.

Random Acts of Violence - Roundtable with Writer/ Director Jay Baruchel 2
Random Acts of Violence (2019)

So you mentioned earlier not being able to separate love of cinema from love of the horror genre, but there’s often a fine line between comedy and horror. How you go from movies like the How to Train your Dragon series and Tropic Thunder to something as dark as your film here?

It comes down to being very proud of and honored to have the acting career that I’ve had. But that’s like, you know, what I do for living. I hate saying that because inherent in that, it sounds like I’m dismissing it to a degree, which I really am not. I have been lucky enough to live off of my acting for quite some time, and as a result, I’ve gotten to be part of some pretty special films. But the movies I was watching at home and the stuff I was reading and everything I was so interested in myself has been pretty much consistent the whole time. I was always interested in and a fan of horror movies and action movies, and always reading a shitload of true crime and, so for whatever reason, I was just always interested more in strong medicine as an audience member. So I knew that if ever I get lucky enough to get the chance to, to create and articulate a vision in the movies, it would probably be something like that. The movies that I’m in and the movies that I watch are sometimes different than that.

One of the things that comes up within the film is this idea of the balance between horror as an art form and fetishizing evil. I was wondering what you think the differences between those is.

That’s a really good question. I think it’s a question that we don’t necessarily provide a clear answer to, which is deliberate because I think there’s some stuff which the film takes a specific moral philosophy and standpoint on, but there’s other stuff that is more contributing to a debate and a conversation that I feel should happen. That being said, there’s movies that I watch, and I know in my heart of hearts when something feels truthful, and when something feels fetishistic. I point to a Quebecois movie called, in English, 7 Days, and that movie is really harsh. It’s just one guy torturing another guy in a room basically for a whole fucking movie and great degree of realism and versatility and then some. It’s a fucking harsh watch, but never once does it feel cheap or false. Never once does it feel like a love letter to violence and it doesn’t seem to be wallowing in it . I think, to answer the question, I think it’s kind of hard, this almost amorphous thing that we call truth. I think that you can tell when something warrants its aesthetic and you can tell when something is, I feel, I think you can, tell when something is ugly for the sake of ugly. But again, I think it’s a terribly relative thing. Because every single one of us watches the same movie, we’re each going to have some different reactions to it. So that would be my instinct is that it speaks to more than the truth behind it; why 7 is important and why a lot of other movies of about a serial killer aren’t.  

Random Acts of Violence - Roundtable with Writer/ Director Jay Baruchel 3
Random Acts of Violence (2019)

The last question, they were talking about how they don’t see this as a love letter to serial killers and violence, but I saw it as a love letter to Italian horror. I saw a lot of influences from, 70s Italian horror. I just wanted to know what other influences you put into the direction of it.

I definitely think there’s some degree of Giallo in the movie’s DNA. I think when you see that, you’re seeing a lot of Karim Hussain’s (cinematographer) influence, because that’s an era and genre that’s really important to him. And, you know, for me, I think there’s some really obviously important and beautiful stuff to be taken from it, but I’d be lying if I said it was like my go to. However, I saw ways that aspects of it would work pretty well in our flick. But for me, the other big influences would be The Red Shoes byPowell and Pressburger, a British film from the 40’s, of a ballet dancer which is not remotely scary in a horror sense, scary in a different sense. Most people don’t call that film scary, but it’s just weird and it there’s an energy to it that I can’t put my finger on, but I knew it was right for this movie. And then I’d say the two films that informed the energy of the violence in our movie the most would be Irreversible and David Fincher’s Zodiac. Those both have an approach to violence in a super honest, realistic way that allowed it to be clumsy and sloppy and really gritty as a result and so those are our big inspirations.

You adapted this film from a comic book. I was wondering if you could talk to me a bit about the idea of bringing a comic book to screen how you did, the art and how you use it in the movie, and how your experience with Captain Canuck lent to that.

Oh, awesome. Yeah, for sure. Well, thank you.  It really starts from there being a really interesting story and interesting starting view points in the comic book. It got stuck in Jesse’s (Chabot, co-writer) head and in my head. Then, at a certain point, it becomes the only thing that matters is serving the story as well as we can. At a certain point, we allow the document we’re creating to start to live its own life, which means it’s beholden to source material, but only to a certain point where there lives a moment where the movie starts to want to be something of its own, and you have to kind of decide, “is this thing that it wants to be that is different than the comic? Is it worth doing?”

In terms of the aesthetics, I think subconsciously, we wanted it to look like that. But I think more than anything, I went in with our camera and our lighting and our color palette, it was more arch. We wanted really strong arch colors and light and shadow and that happens to be how a lot of comics are created and so it ends up looking like that.

In terms of what is my experience with Chapterhouse and Captain Canuck, I knew exactly what it would be like to be on a comic con tour and the headaches that the owner has to look forward to arriving at a venue, so there’s some bit in the movie where I’m yelling at the guy who owns the comic book shop about a fucking box that he can’t find that he sent and that’s like the shit that seems to happen at every comic con, and that seemed to be a bit of a comic industry banality that could be something funny and real. So I definitely took some of my years in admin in that world, it definitely informed vibes this movie.

Random Acts of Violence - Roundtable with Writer/ Director Jay Baruchel 5
Random Acts of Violence (2019)

This movie sets up two themes that are opposites of each other.  One is the autograph signing that features fans who are a little too into the Slasherman comic. Later in the film, the police interrogation where the officer’s expressing great disdain towards the comic. How do you feel the scenes comments on core culture of horror as a whole?

That’s the thing I think I wanted to show, that we’re trying to try to talk about. It’s an inherently relative experience as an audience member consuming a work of art. But also, I was trying my best to show every bad thing that can come from this. It’s more about this idea that one can divorce oneself from responsibility for anything one puts out into the world, which I think is as absurd as the concept that video games and comics make people kill people. I think those are both two very facile, silly, absurd philosophies. How those two scenes complement each other is, it’s like, this is what it can look like. It’s like, when you’re caught in something that you’ve looked the other way on, when Todd has made a Faustian bargain, even if he thinks, ultimately, that his book is victimized by critics, part of him, as a rational man, has to agree with at least part of what they’re saying. He knows, ultimately, that even if he believes his work has more merit than some people seem to believe it does. he knows what his fanbase looks like. He knows, ultimately, how it will come across in the cold light of day. It’s about the specter of responsibility that he was able to keep at arm’s length getting closer and closer to him until the end.

As a horror fan, I was really surprised by the names of the actors you chose because every one of them is known from big horror movies and, did you think of that when you chose the actors?

No, not at all actually. You’re totally right. And that was something we realized after we had our company together. It is the hokiest, corniest answer possible, which is; I just met with them and I knew they were the the right people to play these characters. I had met with a whole bunch of actors, and was lucky enough to get some really good conversations with some really good actors. But the only time that the light bulbs went off for me was in chatting with Jesse (Williams) and Jordana (Brewster). It was about three to four minutes into a conversation with either of them and with each of them that it was apparent to me that I finally, after the better part of the decade, found my Todd and Kathy and then it ends up paying some kind of genre dividends later, when I’m like “oh, fuck, that’s right, Cabin in the Woods and Texas Chainsaw” and shit. But when I was meeting with them, it was just trying to find a way to make my paper characters flesh and blood.

With this film, along with Man Seeking Woman and Goon, you film in Canada often. I know George St. Pierre always said that he enjoyed fighting in Canada for a comfort level. What exactly is the thing that draws you towards shooting in Canada and is it particularly important to you?

It’s two things. One of them is what he said. This is my home, this is where I’m from and where I’m most comfortable. The other piece of it is, I feel like many could call a silly obligation to English Canadian cinema. I want to know, for better or worse, I contributed to the cinematic language of my country. I want to know that I added something to our cultural tapestry. It would have been more convenient for me to have gone elsewhere, potentially, but I know that, at the end of the day, even if I got to create some really special stuff, I would have contributed to another country’s culture and this is, for me, my great shame is that I never joined the army, if I’m being perfectly frank. That’s not a joke. That’s something that’s  always haunted me since I was a kid. I didn’t do what a lot of my uncles, my granddad and my cousins did. This is not, please. I don’t mean to say that I am comparing this movie to what any of my uncles or granddad or cousins did during the army, but it is, in some way, that I can contribute and help and, and ‘cause, listen, countries come and go, but art sticks around. I would like to add to this country best as I can.

Random Acts of Violence - Roundtable with Writer/ Director Jay Baruchel 6
Random Acts of Violence (2019)

Earlier you touched on working in the comics industry a bit and you mentioned that you were saying that films have been similar throughout the years. What are some of your major horror film and comic book inspirations?

Alan Moore’s From Hell, I think is as good a use of the comic medium as has ever been created. I would also put Preacher, everything Ennis did for Preacher up there. Everything Ennis did for Punisher for the years that he did Punisher are really, really, really important to me. Then for horror flicks, it would be The Exorcist, the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre by Toby Hooper and John Carpenter’s The Thing. To be honest, I think still, The Exorcist is probably the scariest movie ever made. But I think what might be neck and neck with it as a movie people don’t think of as a horror movie, but I would argue that 2001: A Space Odyssey is probably the scariest movie ever made. I will spend my life trying to recreate even a moment from that film.

You mentioned Preacher and The Exorcist there and I wanted to ask you, there’s a tonne of religious imagery used in this film. I was wondering why you chose to use that and why you hate Christmas? No, I’m kidding.

I am kind of a child of two cultures to a degree. My dad is Sephardic Jewish. First generation. My side of the world is Irish English, Scottish Canadians and deeply Catholic and some of the most impactful, not necessarily the best, but most impactful moments in my childhood are tied to religion and Catholicism. Specifically and even Catholic school, from grade one through six, and I have hated myself the entire time as a result of this and I like to tell people that I was raised with two different but very potent forms of guilt from Jewish culture and Catholic culture. But it all seems to stem from- this is the best way I can say it: I remember my mom reading me the Bible when I was a kid and she got to the part on Noah, and I started bawling my eyes out uncontrollably. Three years old, bawling my eyes out. Why would G-d (Note to B-Frye, Jewish people don’t spell out g o d in print so we write it that way) want to do this? Catholicism has a lot of beautiful stuff in it, but it is very, very deeply violent. You grow up going to church and in class and seeing Christ eviscerated, brutalized and it’s drilled into you. So it’s impossible for me to separate blood from awe because it was drilled into me from a childhood and from years and years and years in church. My relationship with the church is still kind of like a weird, tenuous one. I reject most of it, and yet, I still feel a degree of safety and comfort when I’m in one. So there’s a push and pull in me, that finds its way out and manifests itself in this movie.

I was very happy to actually see after watching the movie that my long-time friend Anthony Fantastic did the art. He told me some of the furniture is his.

There’s a whole bunch of his shit in Todd and Kathy’s apartment. I think that’s Tony’s workstation in his apartment.

I know Tony as a musician, how did you come across him as an artist and what was it about his style that you thought really directed what you wanted Slasherman to do.

He was a friend of my production designer, Michelle Lannon, who I’ve known through three seasons of Man seeking Woman and then Goon: The Last of the Enforcers, so she’s somebody who I have a great affection for and she has a great respect for him as an artist, and so she came in with a really awesome team including her daughter, as well as Tony. Michelle knows really cool people. And that’s basically as simple as that. He came in and Tony showed me what he could do, and I was like, “Holy fuck, well, you could do a lot worse than that.” I wanted everybody, whatever little bit of playing field they were in charge of, I wanted them to be the master of it. I didn’t want to fuckin breath down Tony’s neck and I didn’t fucking need to either. I just wanted everybody there to create with reckless abandon relative to the department they’re in. It ends up being this, hopefully, neat passion project not just for me, but ideally as many people involved as possible. Listen, Tony’s contributions to this film are sincere and profound. And, and yeah the movie isn’t the movie without his artwork in it.

Random Acts of Violence - Roundtable with Writer/ Director Jay Baruchel 4
Random Acts of Violence (2019)

In this film, it seemed like you wanted to subvert some horror tropes. I’m not sure if that’s something that you guys added organically or if that came from the source material. Can you chat a bit about your approach to horror tropes and why you were kind of kicking them a bit?

Yeah, for sure. Your work should reflect what you actually believe. Even if we enjoy sort of, on a surface level, your standard type of slasher film, that scratches a certain itch for us. We’re also able to discuss and talk about why is this maybe is not the best and is potentially irresponsible and all this different shit. It’s just like, the point of something is, a conversation that Jesse and I always get into. I think we were lucky enough to have known each other since high school, but also the high school he went to is a fine arts high school. So this concept of, “you know, what, what is the point?” And ,“why does one do this?” And, “what does this mean?” This shift that was drilled into us. Of course, when we started writing this thing, our intellects were commensurate with our age, and in time passing, we evolve ideally and that document should evolve along with us. So at every year that the movie didn’t happen, we go back to the document, open the hood up and be like, “okay, how can we make this better?” And, read through like, “well I don’t think that way anymore,” and, “Holy shit this is a bit exploitative,” or, “this is thin and this is kind of shitty.” The dialectic in the film is a conversation Jesse and I had about our script over the course of a decade and we realized that it would be the most honest truthful way to do it, to actually not just let that conversation inform how we write the thing, but to actually put it into the movie and almost build the movie a bit around it.