PLEASE SPEAK CONTINUOUSLY AND DESCRIBE YOUR EXPERIENCES AS THEY COME TO YOU, the new short film written and directed by Brandon Cronenberg, premiered at Cannes, the Toronto International Film Festival, and the New York Film Festival this fall. It tells the horror story of a psychiatric patient fitted with a brain implant which forces her to relive her dreams in waking life. After the film’s Toronto premiere, we spoke with Cronenberg about his interest in neuroscience, inspirations for the short, and his upcoming feature film POSSESSOR, which will star Jennifer Jason Leigh and Andrea Riseborough.
Science & Film: How did the idea for PLEASE SPEAK CONTINUOUSLY come about?
Brandon Cronenberg: There was a Spanish doctor named José Delgado who did some very strange and interesting experiments on animals and people in the 50s and 60s in the United States. He wrote a book Physical Control of the Mind Towards a Psycho-Civilized Society, in which he goes into great depth about the experiments. It was that era of neuroscience when it was a lot of like psychiatric patients [that were being experimented on, who] would be consenting to have literal wires be put in their brains.
He [invented] this thing called a stimoceiver which was a brain implant that had a wire that would go to a specific part of the brain, and by stimulating different parts of the brain he would control a surprising array [of things in the patient]. He could control hand movements to turn a knob, control the iris elevation, and that kind of thing. There’s this great line where he writes that he got the patient to make a fist and said, “try to open your hand.” They couldn’t do it and said, “well doctor, it seems your electricity is stronger than my will.” This is in his book, which he is writing essentially as an argument for more funding. The last few chapters are like, this is why great experimentation is so great, you should really give me more money. It’s fascinating. It’s totally dystopian.
S&F: What was he trying to prove with these experiments?
BC: It seemed pretty exploratory. He could control emotions. He talks about making patients fall in love with doctors by turning up the electricity; they would start by saying, “I really don’t like this doctor” and by the end they’d be proposing marriage. He could control limbs—they would do a series of movements and then think that they chose those movements. They would get off a chair, walk around in a circle, and sit down, and then Delgado would say, why did you do that? They would say, oh, I heard a noise. And then he’d press the button and they’d go through the same motions again and he’d say, why did you do that? And they’d say, I was looking for my shoes—all sort of terrifying, but philosophically really interesting stuff.
I’ve been working on a feature for a number of years—which I just finished cutting so hopefully that will be done next year—and it’s a bit of a sci-fi extension of that reading. That got pushed last year and I was really eager to make something. I had this dream that I wanted to turn into a film and so I folded that into the brain implant idea. Delgado didn’t talk about triggering dream memories but I already had a dream idea that I wanted to try out.
S&F: In the film, the brain implant device looks very similar to some real implants that I’ve seen people have for spinal cord injury, for example. Did you take inspiration from real life for the design?
BC: I did a bit. The Braingate work is very interesting, but it was more based on the Delgado stuff and a lot of photos. Human patients tend to be fairly bandaged, but cats and chimps usually have a pretty big protrusion.
S&F: There is a dynamic in the short between doctor and patient in which the doctor is a very controlling figure. Some depictions of scientists in films is of people with dubious ethics—was that something you were interested in playing with at all?
BC: No. That’s interesting, but I would hate to represent scientists as somehow inherently evil. I think when you get into a certain vein of science fiction, where, narratively, lines are being crossed, then it’s hard to completely avoid dubious scientists as characters, but I’m not in any way anti-science. As a person I think it’s great. I think there have been horrible things done in the name of science, but I’m not anti-science. I’m really very pro-science. I guess there’s a kind of danger there when you get into science fiction because you can possibly, inadvertently, play into that, but it certainly wasn’t my intention.
S&F: How does the feature film differ from the short?
BC: The feature is conceptually a little different but it is still rooted in the same stuff. In the book, Delgado talks a lot about how he could never control people like a puppet. But then he talks about controlling them exactly like puppets. The feature is a sci-fi assassin, thriller-y film rooted in the idea that someone could be controlling someone else’s body. Aesthetically [the short and feature] are related because the visuals came out of a bunch of experiments I was doing with my cinematographer Karim Hussein for the feature. Alicia Harris, the production designer, did a great job.
S&F: What is the feature called?
S&F: Do you have a distributor yet?
BC: Yes. I’m not sure if I’m allowed to say. It’s almost finished. It’s been sold to a few territories.
Brandon Cronenberg's feature debut ANTIVIRAL premiered at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. His short PLEASE SPEAK CONTINUOUSLY AND DESCRIBE YOUR EXPERIENCES AS THEY COME TO YOU is his second film. POSSESSOR, his next feature, will star Jennifer Jason Leigh (EXISTENZ), Andrea Riseborough (BIRDMAN), Christopher Abbott (GIRLS), Tuppence Middleton (THE IMITATION GAME), and Sean Bean (GAME OF THRONES).