Enter the Dibbuk: Stiles White and Juliet Snowden find evil in a box | Interview with the writers of THE POSSESSION

06. Dezember 2012

The Coens, the Wachowskis, Wilder and Diamond, Orci and Kurtzman and most recently the Soska twins – you may add your own favorite duo of screenwriters to the list but in most of the cases you will find that it is the chemistry between the two persons involved that makes their work so special. Stiles White and Juliet Snowden are no exception to that rule. With „The Possession“, the real-life couple just saw their fourth collaboration come to cinematic life. With us they talked about demons in a box, exorcism movies, family dynamics and that it’s always about „the next thing“.

screen/read: Exorcism has been a rather neglected topic in horror cinema for quite a while. In recent years though it experienced some sort of resurrection. What is it that you found attractive enough about the subject to write an exorcism movie?

Stiles: It feels like a lot of horror subgenres are having various resurgences. Maybe it’s because there’s simply more of everything now: comic books, video games, TV series, young adult novels. You know? There’s fiction everywhere. So we’re getting all kinds of new variations on classic horror concepts – vampires, zombies, ghosts, as well as evil entities who can take you over.

Juliet: From the very beginning, we saw this project as more of a „possession“ story than an „exorcism“ story. It was tentatively called „Dibbuk Box“ when we were writing the script, because that was the nature of the original article the story was based on – a haunted antique box that had been discovered and the strange phenomena that began happening to the various owners. What was interesting to us was the idea of a cursed object that you’ve brought into your home. And wherever the box goes, the evil follows. So that was the hook for us in terms of what could make this scary. But it was really the idea of a family recently broken by a divorce and what starts to happen to the young daughter that we wanted to write about. We said all along as we were writing, if you had to take the horror elements out, this should still be an interesting family drama with compelling characters. That was the attraction to this material, the opportunity to tell that kind of story.

screen/read: So you drew the inspiration from a news article and thus probably from a real case. How did you deal with this source? And did it matter whether or not the whole incident felt believable to you?

Juliet: Yeah, there are certainly some real-life aspects at the heart of this movie. As mentioned, this whole project started with a 2004 article in The Los Angeles Times. There was a story about a man who bought an antique wooden box at a yard sale. The woman selling the various items said that the box had belonged to her grandmother, who had dubbed the cabinet a „dibbuk box“ and warned her kids „never to open it.“ Not only that, the grandmother had instructed the family that when she died, she was to be buried with the box – and for various reasons, that request was not granted. So, this guy buys the box and immediately weird things start happening in his life. A whole series of unexplained phenomena: disembodied voices in the house, lights smashing and breaking without cause, sudden illnesses, intense nightmares of an ancient hag attacking the man in his sleep. – The man realizes that all these events started as soon as the box came into his life. He sells it on eBay, and now weird phenomena starts happening all over again to the new owner. That person also sells it, a third owner now gets it and guess what? The phenomena keeps happening. – Sam Raimi’s company Ghost House Pictures got the rights to the story and that’s where we came onto the project. We thought it was a great real-life idea for a horror movie, that an object could be haunted or cursed.

Stiles: In terms of research, we had to dig in to the whole nature of this type of entity that supposedly inhabits the box. The word dibbuk (or dybbuk) comes from Jewish folklore. It’s a malicious or malevolent possessing spirit. An abbreviation of dibbuk me-ru’a ra’ah („a cleavage of an evil spirit“). This idea that the dibbuk spirit „cleaves“ to a human host is very scary. Like a parasite, it’s hiding in plain sight. The tagline in the trailer says it all: „Darkness lives inside.“ If the dibbuk had been trapped in the box sometime in the past, there was probably a good reason. – We wanted to keep as many true elements and aspects of the horrific phenomena from the actual story. The real dibbuk box has Hebrew carvings on the outside and has a Jewish history behind it, and we wanted to stay true to all of that. Inside the box the new owner found various personal „tokens“, a couple of old coins, a small candle holder, lockets of hair. Furthermore, he found traces of wax drippings on the outside of the box, as if it had been used for some kind of ritual. Was the box built to somehow contain a dibbuk? That’s what we wanted to explore.

Juliet: When it was announced that we would be writing the movie, the real-life owner of the dibbuk box contacted us and wanted to know if we were interested in borrowing the box while we wrote, you know, for inspiration. Our answer: no way! It’s funny how suddenly your beliefs are challenged when someone offers you the real deal. And the incidents and accounts do feel believable to us and actually did matter when we were deciding to take this on.

screen/read: How close would you say the finished movie is from your original script? Have there been necessary compromises or things being changed due to whatever reasons? And can you remember elements that have been there at certain stages of writing that didn’t make it into the film?

Stiles: To be honest, we don’t really think of making a movie in those terms. The script is a particular phase of the process. It’s kind of the invitation to the party – and then a lot of people show up to the party and bring their stuff. It’s an experience that can change and grow as you move along. Sure, there are always scenes and bits that you write and sometimes shoot that don’t make it into the final cut, but that’s the sculpting process. You have to take away the parts that aren’t the movie. – That being said, the movie represents everything we could have hoped for. We were involved in rewrites as they were filming. We were up in Vancouver for a bit during production. You’re getting glimpses and bits as the process goes along. When they start actually casting a movie, it’s the first real shift in your mind. You finally have a face and voice for this character you’ve been thinking about. And then a funny thing happens: the actors really become the characters and bring them fully to life. Suddenly you can’t remember your image of the character when it was just on paper. That goes for every creative part of filmmaking. The music. Locations. Art direction. It’s collaborative. Everyone gathers to tell this story.

Juliet: Seeing the finished film for the first time was fantastic. I got totally caught up in the story. Even though I knew how it all turned out, I found myself getting tense in all the right parts. For me, it’s all better than expected. It’s the movie. It takes on a life of its own.

screen/read: With exorcism films you cannot avoid being compared to „The Exorcist“ which will always be something between an archetype and a blueprint for many examples of the subgenre. How much and in what respect did you try to move away from standards that are associated with this movie?

Juliet: We’re big fans of „The Exorcist“. It’s certainly a major touchstone of a movie in terms of drama blended with horror. But when you start to develop a story based around different ideas and character dynamics, the dibbuk box and a divorced family, etc. – it’s going to take its own course.

Stiles: And when director Ole Bornedal signed on for „The Possession“, we knew that our story would have its own place. We were already familiar with a couple of Ole’s films, and we caught up on the rest of his movies when we started working with him. We were very excited because we could see that Ole was going to bring his unique style and story sensibilities to the project.

Juliet: Here’s another cool thing if you really want to go back into the heritage of this kind of story or film. There’s a famous play from 1914 called „The Dybbuk“ about a young bride that becomes possessed by one of these same malicious entities from Jewish folklore that we explore as well. It was also made into a Yiddish language film in 1937. Very eerie and atmospheric. It might even be the first narrative film that explores this whole idea of evil entities and possession. Throughout the process of making our movie, the question comes up, „Why is it usually girls or young women who become possessed?“ Who knows, but maybe the DNA of that goes all the way back to stories like „The Dybbuk“.

screen/read: Not too long ago, William Friedkin was asked about his opinion on the new wave of exorcism movies and his reply was not very favorable, to say the least. How do you think about the various additions to the canon like „The Last Exorcism“, „The Exorcism of Emily Rose“, „The Exorcism of Emma Evans“, „The Rite“ or „The Devil Inside“.

Stiles: It’s been cool to see the recent batch of films explore other themes in the realm of possession and exorcism, „The Exorcism of Emily Rose“ and „The Last Exorcism“ in particular. Again, finding different ways to tell a new story around a common horror theme. „Emily Rose“ is a psychological thriller and a courtroom drama. „The Last Exorcism“ takes a realistic documentary approach where the subject tells you up front that there’s no such thing as an exorcism, and then we go down this rabbit hole of a very strange mystery and the subject begins to question his own beliefs. And for all these movies, you have different directors and storytellers using this core mythology of possession and doing something new with it. Maybe unlike other horror subgenres, it took a bit longer since the release of „The Exorcist“ to find the new ways to tell these stories so that they felt original, but it certainly seems like we’re there now. And by the way, all these different movies would make a great weekend film festival. Just throwing that out there.

screen/read: The topos of a dysfunctional family with the evil spirit making things even worse is quite central to your film. It’s the father/daughter(s) relationship that keeps the dynamics high. In „Knowing“, also based on a script of yours, the family bonds between a father and his son are equally relevant to the otherwise supernatural storyline. Would you say that the parent/child constellation defines your approach to a high concept movie?

Juliet: We’re always going to be interested in the family or relationship dynamic at the center of a story. When we think about the horror films that really had an impact on us, „Poltergeist“, „Rosemary’s Baby“, „The Omen“, there’s a family relationship at the center of all of them. And yes, in the stories we do, a parent/child dynamic is a recurring theme. That might come from the fact that we’re married and we write together and we have our own family, so that’s the stuff we’re living with every day. When you write, you have to put your own fears and experiences into the stories. That’s what makes them feel truthful to other people. So we’re really just taking the elements in our daily atmosphere and writing from that place.

screen/read: Speaking of „Knowing“, it’s interesting to see how a show like Tim Kring’s „Touch“ pretty much relies on a similar idea (minus the apocalypse) and proves how it can work as a serial engine. With that in mind and the fact that tv becomes more and more cinematic, would you find the idea attractive to conceive a series (maybe have one in mind already) or do you feel yourself more at home with the big screen?

Stiles: Television is certainly interesting to us. When we love a series, we really get hooked on it. I’m sure that when we hit upon the right idea where we could explore our sensibilities in an ongoing serialized fashion, we’ll make a go of it and see if we can pull it off. It’s really finding the concept that demands to be told in a TV format, rather than just taking a feature film idea and trying to stretch it out.

screen/read: So far you wrote one short film and three features together, while „Knowing“ and „Boogeyman“ also had a third writer involved. What does the process look like when you collaborate on a script? Do you come up with the basic ideas together, do you write seperately and then find a mutual level, or how is the process coming along?

Juliet: We pretty much do everything together – brainstorming, outlining the story beats. Then we usually split up the scenes and swap pages back and forth, revising things as we go. By the time a script is finished, we’ve become one writer. It’s a consistent voice throughout.

Stiles: The magic formula is in our partnership. We’d both been writing things separately for years, but when we became writing partners something new happened in our work that wasn’t there before.

screen/read: Let’s talk a little bit about your background. How did you find your way into writing screenplays and has this always been your goal in the industry or did it happen along the way? And what brought you into moviemaking business anyway? Which films from your childhood and youth would you consider responsible?

Stiles: I was working in special effects for Stan Winston Studio. It was a great environment. Creatures and monsters coming to life before my eyes every day. Like a lot of people out in Los Angeles, my ultimate goal was to be a full-time writer. As much as I enjoyed working on really cool films, I wanted to be creating the stories. Juliet and I had been writing scripts for a few years – together and separately – but nothing was taking off yet.

Juliet: After we got married, we felt it was time to really try and make the writing thing happen. We knew we had to write that definitive „calling card“ script that could get our foot in the door. We’d just been through all the planning and rituals and anxiety of a wedding, and we thought, „What if we wrote a horror movie about a wedding?“ It was a real simple jumping off point. At the time, the new wave of teen horror was in vogue with movies like „Scream“, „I Know What You Did Last Summer“, and „Urban Legend“, and we thought we’d veer off in another direction. So we took the „Rosemary’s Baby“ route and went more psychological, but it was all based around the event of this upcoming wedding and the young woman at the center of the story suddenly not sure if she really knew the person she was about to marry. That sample script of ours made its way to a few people in the industry and things started to happen after that. We never sold that script, but it’s certainly what opened those first few doors.

Stiles: In terms of the films from our childhood that were responsible? We’ve named a bunch of them already as far as horror inspirations. But it’s a very long list of films and filmmakers that have inspired us over the years. I don’t think I can point to one film and say „that’s the one.“ For example, we just went to the Stanley Kubrick exhibit here at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. It’s absolutely incredible. You walk through these different rooms dedicated to his many films: „Paths of Glory“, „2001“, „A Clockwork Orange“, „The Shining“ etc. You’re looking at props and costumes and camera lenses and script pages with notes and you realize what an influence so many of these movies have had on you. And not just the films, but the way certain directors approach their craft, and the signature details that make their work distinct. When you’re standing in an exhibit like that, surrounded by so much film history, you realize how you’ve been inspired and all the things you’ve absorbed along the way in your experiences of being a film fan.

screen/read: If your imdb profiles are trustworthy you are writing the remake of „Poltergeist“ next, again for Sam Raimi. Given that this is not just an empty rumor, can you already say something about how you approach the material? Since it is a much beloved classic you are probably already expecting fans of the original being very critical about it. How will you meet the expectations?

Stiles: We’re not involved with the current version of the remake. We worked on it some years back with different studio heads and producers. That’s the nature of these things. Windows open up and you have a moment to take your shot. But we’re certainly looking forward to seeing what Sam Raimi does with it.

screen/read: In general, how would you validate the status of the writer in Hollywood today? Did the writers’ strike change anything or do you still see a lot of your peers starving and having to fight for their copyright? And what are your own experiences, especially when looking back at your career so far?

Juliet: We’ve both been at this a long time. Even before we started to have a career as screenwriters, we were slaving away in a studio apartment working on a stack of scripts that never saw the light of day. But that’s part of the process. There’s a lot of trial and error you have to get out of your system before you start figuring out how to make movies work on the page.

Stiles: And we’re still learning and trying to do new things on each project, finding ways that we can get excited about a way into a story. In terms of the current status of writers, I still think it’s a strong path of getting into the industry. When a great script comes along, it will get noticed. Actors will want to be in it. Directors will want to direct it. And every year those scripts appear. Now there are entire websites like „The Black List“ dedicated to that very thing – to say, „Hey, here are the great new scripts everyone’s talking about. Start paying attention to these writers.“ We’ve been very lucky to have had three movies made and to work with some great people. But we don’t spend a lot of time looking back. We’re looking ahead. It’s always about the next thing. „That one“ is gonna be the best yet.

[Photo Credits: Studocanal | Concorde | Snowden/White]

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