Thursday, August 30, 2012 | return to: arts


Jewish legend haunts new horror film ‘The Possession’

by michael fox, j. correspondent

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Something odd happens while Stiles White is answering the first question during a phone interview about “The Possession”: The reporter’s computer crashes.

White, chuckling, is quick to pin this poorly timed albeit minor setback on a dybbuk. After all, that’s what the movie’s co-screenwriter is about to talk about, for it is an unhappy dybbuk that propels “The Possession.”

In Jewish mysticism, a dybbuk is a wandering spirit that takes up residence in the body of a living person. “The Possession” follows a child who buys a small box at a yard sale and unwittingly becomes the host for a troubled spirit. Em’s divorced parents, Clyde and Stephanie (played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Kyra Sedgwick), must transcend their differences to help her, aided by a young sage named Tzadok (played by Jewish reggae artist Matisyahu).

Matisyahu as Tzadok and Natasha Calis as Em in a scene from “The Possession.”   photo/jta-diyah para
Matisyahu as Tzadok and Natasha Calis as Em in a scene from “The Possession.” photo/jta-diyah para
“It’s really about this recently divorced family, they’ve lost their way, they’re maybe not living life in a spiritual way, and in the arc of the story they have to come together,” explains co-screenwriter Juliet Snowden. “What was interesting [to us] was for the main character, Clyde, to come into this religious community — this other family that’s devoted to their prayer, their lifestyle, their commitment to their faith — and for this outsider to see a better way, a higher way of thinking.”

The husband-and-wife screenwriting team, whose credits include “Boogeyman” and “Knowing,” first encountered the concept of a dybbuk in a 2004 Los Angeles Times story about the bizarre, unexplained misfortunes that befell one owner after the other of an old wooden cabinet initially purchased at an Oregon estate sale.

“As writers of horror movies and thrillers, we’re always looking for stories and articles on weird real-life things,” White explains from Los Angeles. “This scary wine cabinet was interesting because we all drive by antique sales and garage sales and are interested in the history of odd objects that belonged to other people.”

Snowden and White read the Times story and filed it away. It circled back to them a few years later when they were working on another project for Jewish director Sam Raimi’s production company and were asked to take a run at the idea.

Hollywood has a bottomless appetite for both spooky stories and the casual exploitation of time-honored legends and folktales. But White and Snowden, non-Jews originally from Houston and Natchitoches, La., respectively, weren’t interested in using a dybbuk simply as the hook for a horror movie.

 “You would be shocked by how much Jewish research we did,” Snowden declares. “I want to know everything about these characters inside and out, and good writing is about authenticity.”

In a way, they had a head start. “We actually lived in Hancock Park [in L.A.], in the second-largest Hassidic community in the U.S., for seven years when we were [first] married,” Snowden relates. “We loved being in this culture that we didn’t understand at all.”

After the duo decided that Em’s father needed a mentor who was steeped in Judaism, Snowden and White agreed he should be Hassidic. One of their goals was to introduce a particular type of Jew that few audience members ever have the opportunity to meet.

“We wanted our character … to be a young guy in his 30s, maybe listening to music on headphones, in high-tops with a suit,” Snowden recalls. “We told the producers, ‘We see this as a Matisyahu guy.’ We wrote it with him in mind.”

Countless actors were auditioned, with the expectation that the chosen thespian would be made up with the requisite beard and trappings. When Snowden and White were informed that Matisyahu had been cast in the role, they were over the moon, not least because the famed rapper already had the beard. (The movie was filmed before he shaved it off, in an extreme makeover).

“Oh, my God, we were so thrilled,” Snowden effuses. “That authenticity, the movements he could give during prayer.”

“He would make little adjustments,” Stiles adds, “give the producers feedback, little things that would add authenticity that his character would or wouldn’t do.”

As a guide to shaping their main character’s arc while they were writing, Stiles and Snowden taped a quote from Rebbe Nachman of Breslov to the wall: “Everyone can attain the highest level. It depends on nothing but your own free choice … for everything depends on a multitude of deeds.”

“The Possession” opens Friday, Aug. 31 in Bay Area theaters.


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