Profile: Brandon Cronenberg, director of Antiviral
Debut feature from son of David Cronenberg explores celebrity obsession and illness
Toronto, Canada, 1985
The son of a director you might have heard of called David and his wife Carolyn Zeifman, who have been married since 1979, Brandon Cronenberg premiered his debut feature as a writer/director at last year’s Cannes film festival. Set in a society so celebrity-fixated that punters pay to infect themselves with the diseases of the famous, Antiviral betrays a clear genetic legacy – the dystopian alternative present, the icky body horror, the deader-than-deadpan humour – but it also proves with its skill, style and confidence that Cronenberg the younger merits attention in his own right.
On the origins of Antiviral’s story
"I was sick with a virus, and I had this kind of fever dream about the physicality of the illness - about having something in my body that had come from someone else. Which led me into thinking about celebrities’ bodies: the disconnect between the celebrity persona and the real person, how they are fictionalised so that the celebrity body has very little to do with the real person. The body ages and dies, but the celebrity body is regarded as this inhuman, perfect thing."
On the newness – or otherwise – of this phenomenon
"You could say that celebrities are the modern-day saints, and there was a trade in physical relics of the saints – so maybe it’s not new. But I think it’s a fairly grotesque culture. People’s desires are being exploited."
On disease as added value
"The metaphor I use of the striped tulip being more desirable because it’s diseased is just a tidy analogy, I guess. Do you know about the Dutch tulip bubble? During the global craze for tulip bulbs, it was the diseased ones that had value, that everyone wanted."
On the chilly, stripped-back look of his film
"I had very clear desires going in - and I worked with better people than I deserved to. The visual style was in part a budget decision, but in truth that sterile, simple look can be harder and more expensive to find. The environment we worked hardest on was the clinic, which was intended to replicate this idea of the fetishised ideal body."
On his lead players, Sarah Gadon as sickly global megastar Hannah Geist, and Caleb Landry Jones as virus trader Syd March
"It was a very collaborative process with the actors. The one who had the most trouble was Sarah, who just couldn’t see herself as an icon on that level. There’s a shot in the film of her being made up, which people assume is a construction, but which was in fact shot on set as the make-up artists worked on her – so I guess that’s a sort of meta-commentary on the construction of an image. With Caleb, we went further than we would have with another actor. He really pushed himself. Syd wants to think he’s detached from this culture of celebrity worship, but he’s very much a part of it; he shares the obsession."
On the tabloid culture of hysterical news reports and star-stalking portrayed in the film
"I used the word ‘ordeal’ over and over because on those TV gossip shows, everything’s an ordeal."
On the film’s undercurrent of black comedy
"I like deadpan humour. Humour gets lost if you’re winking at the audience. I agree that the film is a comedy really. Not everyone thinks that … some people have been very, very angry with me about what I’m saying! But for me it’s part of the satirical tradition."
And on Dad
"I didn’t really watch his films growing up, apart from Fast Company. Really the only weirdness is that we all have such a good relationship. My parents still hold hands; that’s the weird thing. In a way I think I’m too close to him to be influenced … although I suppose I’m genetically influenced. It’s not so strange that I would have some of the same interests. I knew everyone would compare us, but I didn’t want to deliberately avoid the same territory … that would be defining myself in terms of his career."
On whether he’ll make a romcom next
This was the romcom.
Antiviral is released at select cinemas on 1 February and on DVD and digital download on 11 February.