Something odd happens while Stiles White, co-screenwriter of “The Possession,” is answering my first question: My computer crashes.
This would normally not be worthy of comment, although your correspondent’s Mac is new and hiccup-free.
White, chuckling, is quick to pin this annoying, albeit minor, setback on a dybbuk. After all, that’s what we’re gathered on the phone to talk about, for it’s an unhappy dybbuk that propels “The Possession.”
In Jewish lore, a dybbuk is the spirit of a dead individual 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 Tsadok (played by Matisyahu).
“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 over the phone from Los Angeles. “We’re also interested in what’s scary to people. 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 a different 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, Texas, and Natchitoches, Louisiana, respectively, weren’t interested in using a dybbuk simply as the hook for a generic horror movie.
“You would be shocked by how much Jewish research we did,” Snowden declares. “I’m talking months. 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 the second largest Hasidic 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 Hasidic. One of their goals was to introduce a particular type of Jew that very few audience members ever have the opportunity to meet.
“We would see all these young men in our neighborhood and they were so cool looking,” Snowden recalls. “We wanted our character — who knows something that our main character does not, and is typically [in movies] an older man or an older woman — to be a young guy in his 30s, maybe listening to music on headphones, in high-tops with a suit. 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 outfitted with the requisite beard and trappings by the makeup department. While they were rewriting the script, Snowden and White were informed that Matisyahu himself 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,” White adds, “give the producers feedback, little things that would add authenticity that his character would or wouldn’t do.”
Matisyahu’s performance was a kind of validation of, or repayment for, the Jewish foundation upon which White and Snowden constructed their screenplay. As a guide to shaping their main character’s arc while they were writing, they taped a quote from Rebbe Nachman of Bratslov 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.”
Snowden emphasizes, “That’s not where Clyde starts out.”