The Antiviral director chat body horror, celebrity obsession and why he's happy to be compared to his famous father.
On the strength of his aseptic directorial debut Antiviral, which had its premiere at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival in the Un Certain Regard section, Brandon Cronenberg is proof that there's such a thing as good filmmaking genes. The influence of his father, David, is stamped all over his satirical body horror. As LWLies found out recently, however, Brandon's got no concerns about being compared to Cronenberg Sr.
LWLies: You took the film to various festivals in 2012, did you find that people's reactions differed from festival to festival?
Cronenberg: A little bit, although I think generally the audiences seemed to be pretty into it, people tended to stick around after for the Q&As. The audiences have been really great so far.
Had it been a long journey for you or did it all come together quickly?
It actually started back in 2004, when I started film school. I was extremely sick for a while, I had this bad flu and kept having really bad fever dreams which was getting me very upset. It really weirded me out that I had this thing, this virus inside of me that was living and fighting my body. After I got better I started to think about these characters who might see disease as something intimate, and I made the link with our celebrity obsessed culture. So, you know, you might want Angelina Jolie's cold or Bruce Willis' infection. Someone's virus as a way to feel connected to them on a more intimate level. It felt like a good metaphor.
To you, then, the film is as much about psychological disease as it is physical...
Yeah, it started with physical disease and then became more about this mental, less literal illness of celebrity obsession. It became a satire, it's hugely critical of celebrity culture. It's a widespread insanity, at the extreme end of celebrity obsession there's a kind of mania that represents enormous loss of perspective. But it's become so common, so everyday in our culture.
It's ironic that you went to place like Cannes to promote the film, where celebrity obsession is the festival's currency to a large extent.
Yeah, that didn't pass me by. It's kind of hilarious to me, but in a way Cannes was the best place to have a discussion about celebrity obsession, when it's right in your face like that and you can't avoid it. The flip side of it is that the film is commenting on something more immediate.
How do you think we've got to the point we're at now in society?
I honestly don't know. I think it's rooted in something older and broader than our own culture, it's connected to religion and you can see the foundations of it in churches all over the world. It has to do with the commoditisation of celebrity and fetishisation of fame, and I think what's different now is that modern-day media is producing celebrities extremely quickly, people are becoming famous very quickly for not doing anything and their careers become just about being famous and making money as they can off their fame while they still have it. I think the celebrity industry is becoming something insular and unrelated to accomplishment.
Do you think we may eventually see a backlash to that breed of celebrity?
I wonder... I don't know. Maybe we'll eventually dispense of all forms of culture and art and just worship these false idols. Or maybe there will be a backlash. I could see either extreme happening. But the mainstream will continue to be defined by industries that are exploiting people's interests for money.
Why did you decide to turn this idea into a body horror?
I didn't really set out to make a body horror, and actually I didn't even realise we were making a horror until we were halfway through shooting. But in terms of the body elements there are a couple of reasons. It's a style that fetishises the body, and so the film had to fetishise the body as part of its satire. I mean, celebrity culture fetishises the body in a way which I think is perfect, but people are so used to it that I had to do something more grotesque and shocking to get people's attention. Also, I wanted to have a cultural contrast between celebrities, which had to feel like fictional characters without bodies, and the human animal behind that, the decaying, farting, shitting, dying animal. So we needed to make the body very uncomfortably explicit to contrast the inhuman parts of the film.
How did Caleb [Landry Jones] become involved?
I saw him in X-Men: First Class and also he's the kid in No Country For Old Men. So I'd seen him in some films but I wasn't thinking of those films when we were casting because they're so different. But his agent had worked with my producer and they were discussing possible actors and we got hold of Caleb's reel to look at. We all got really excited because he's a really fascinating actor, you know, he's got this hard to articulate thing that some actors have that makes them so interesting to watch. Thankfully he liked the script and things moved pretty quickly after that.
It's an extremely physical performance. Did that come from the script or was that something Caleb brought to the part?
It was definitely a collaboration. There were elements of the script that called for it but I have to say Caleb really pushed it beyond anything I was expecting. I had no idea what he was capable of and how far he could go. Early on he was really willing to hurt himself and we had to tell him to go easy on himself a few times. Some of the pain you see is definitely real though.
There's obvious similarities between Antiviral and some of your father's earlier films. Do you embrace those comparisons or do try to deflect them?
I think it as inevitable, so I try not think about it too much. I think some of the similarities are more subtle and some a really quite defined. But it was always going to be the case and I knew it was going to be like that from the moment I decided I wanted to be a filmmaker. He's my dad, I've got his genes. It's in my fabric.
Did he oversee any of Antiviral?
What do you love about movies?
I think it's a powerful medium, partly because there's so many elements to it. It's almost becoming hard to define what film is. But I also think it still has a significant place in our cultural landscape, people are so passionate about movies they love and movies they hate. I hope that doesn't change.
Antiviral is released 1 February in cinemas and 11 February on DVD and digital download.