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We Share Genes: Brandon Cronenberg on Antiviral

His new body horror movie, rebelling against and accepting following his father's footsteps, and how film school prepared him for his first feature.

 

We’ve got another Cronenberg. David’s son Brandon is making films now, and his feature debut Antiviral played at the Toronto International Film Festival where we got to meet him. The film is about a bootlegger (Caleb Landry Jones) who steals diseases from the company where he works, a company that collects celebrity diseases to sell to fans. The day after his Toronto premiere (it also played in Cannes), Cronenberg spoke with us about his own personal views on body horror and filmmaking.

 

CraveOnline: You must be getting this question all day about comparisons to your father’s films.

Brandon Cronenberg: Ah, let’s jump right in.

 

Might as well. Have there been and did you expect comparisons to his work?

Oh yeah, for sure. I mean, everything I do gets compared to his work. Even before I got into filmmaking, that’s something that is just a weird element of living with a famous parent. Your identity gets weirdly entangled in their career and then with people’s conceptions about who they are. So I knew especially getting into film that obviously that would be a thing.

 

In Antiviral, did you embrace the Cronenbergian legacy?

No, not deliberately. I decided when I was going to get into film that the only way I could do it would be to sort of disregard his career and not deliberately embrace it or shy away from it, because either way it would be completely defining myself in relationship to his career and his work. So no. The film represents my own interests quite honestly. I realize there are comparisons to be made and some of them I think are legitimate. Some of them I think are overstated but it’s just a case of he’s my father and I grew up around him and we share genes. So there’s some overlapping in our interests and aesthetic sensibilities.

 

Did you ever consider not exploring body issues and mutation?

[Laughs] Not for a second. Don’t be absurd. Well, I mean, it’s something that I find interesting. I thought it was relevant to the discussion of celebrity so I didn’t want to deliberately avoid that stuff just to avoid comparisons, especially considering that I figured they’d be there anyways, but also I don’t think it’s possible to make art from an honest place if you’re just worried about someone else’s career.

 

On the technical side, even down to renting equipment or hiring crew, does the name help or create anything going in?

It’s hard to say with the name. The name’s a bit of a double edged sword, you know. There are people who absolutely don’t care. There are people who show me undue respect. There are people who feel undue contempt for me. Actually, we had a lot of trouble with equipment and finding effects artists because Guillermo del Toro’s film was in town. It was such a big film that a lot of the rental houses had equipment lined up for him and a lot of the special effects people were working on his film.

 

You were competing with Pacific Rim?

Yeah. [Laughs] And you don’t want to compete with Pacific Rim. You can’t win.

 

How do you do shots of a needle going into a mouth?

Very carefully.

 

Are those trick needles or fake mouths?

There are trick needles and fake mouths. There’s a lot of real needle work in the film. Yeah, a lot of stuff is actual.

 

So you stick someone, but not all the way?

No, you stick ‘em all the way.

 

How about the swab going all the way up Caleb’s nose?

That’s actually a swab. It’s for that and it goes into your nasal pharynx.

 

Did Caleb really put it all the way in?

Caleb is a very talented physical actor.

 

How did you create the mouth sore for the close-up?

The effects in the film were mostly practical. Some of them were touched up a bit with CGI but we tried as much as possible to be old school about it and use prosthetics which I always think look better. I think CG has its place but I think a lot of the time, even in an effect that is in some ways less believable but is using a physical prosthetic is somehow more satisfying to watch because it has this texture that computer graphics often don’t have.

 

I agree. Do you get squeamish or grossed out by any of this stuff, mouth sores and mutations?

In reality?

 

Or seeing it in a film.

No, I’m pretty all right with it, especially when I’m creating because there’s no distance from it. It’s not like it’s striking you. You’re not experiencing it usually.

 

The gossip magazines in the film are called Celeb and Acclaim. Was there every any chance of using real magazines?

That’s interesting, we never explored that possibility, partly because I guess we assumed it wasn’t a possibility, but also the whole film is sort of like an alternate reality I guess. The celebrities aren’t real celebrities. If there was a possibility, I don't know.

 

What got you thinking of celebrity culture and diseases as the same story?

I was sick and thinking about disease and the physicality of disease, the fact that I had something in my body and in my cells that had come from someone else’s body and the weird intimacy to that connection. Then I started thinking about a character who would see disease that way and I thought a celebrity obsessed fan might be open to seeing disease as intimate, might desire an infection from someone who they’re completely obsessed with. So it then seemed like an interesting metaphor also for discussing celebrity culture.

 

What about the idea that technically, the disease encryption would be a distorted face that could be realigned?

Well, it could never be realigned. I mean, that technology is a little funny. I was going with it partly because I really liked the idea of letting the viruses have their own faces and having these deformed faces alongside the celebrity faces. And partly just because I think actually altering the structure of a virus, if that technology existed, would probably be really boring to watch. So I wanted to give it some visceral element, even if it meant making this kind of alternate reality technology.

 

Is the machine sort of a backwards technology? It looks more primitive than what we even have now.

Although some of it’s based on actual biologist tools. We rented a bunch of real equipment that would be used in labs and kind of assembled it partly from that. It is and it isn’t. I definitely like giving it a bit more of a physical breathing, letting it be a bit of a life form. It’s made up but it’s not totally unrelated to real biology equipment.

 

When you got onto the set and were directing your first feature film, what surprised you about the experience?

Not a lot surprised me about it. It’s sort of like making a short film but longer and with more people. I guess I’d grown up around film so I’d seen film sets and stuff. That’s not to say it wasn’t a difficult experience. I mean, making a film is hard and it’s a lot of work. It’s not that it just came easily to me or anything but there wasn’t anything that really stood out as surprising or especially unexpected.

 

Even though you’d had this experience on a short film, how did it feel to see things you imagined in real life, and hear actors saying your lines?

It was great. It’s a really interesting process actually too, because I’d been writing it since 2004 also and we started shooting last year. So you have in the production office a wall of the faces of the actors with the names under them. To gradually see that wall fill up face by face and to have those characters become real and physical was definitely an exciting process.

 

How about showing the movie to an audience?

I actually wasn’t in the theater because I’ve seen it so many times I can’t sit through it. I was very interested in the audience’s reaction but there comes a point… I’m very happy with the film but I’ve seen it so many times that I can’t sit through it anymore.

 

What was the first movie set you were on as a kid?

That’s a good question. I don't know actually. I’m sure my parents would know the answer to that question. The first movie set I remember being on was The Fly but I think I was on earlier sets.

 

How old were you on The Fly?

’86 so I must’ve been around five or six.

 

As a kid, were you there for any of the scary scenes?

I wasn’t there a lot. I think we just stopped by. I remember seeing one of the fake bodies, the fly bodies, and being slightly disturbed by it. And then the baboon sat on my lap. There’s a picture of me with this baboon on my lap when I was a kid. That was cool, the live baboon.

 

That became such the definitive Jeff Goldblum performance. Did you get to meet him when you were a kid?

Probably. I really don’t remember a lot. I was quite young.

 

Would you then have been on any sets from Dead Ringers through A History of Violence?

Well, eXistenZ I worked on as a special effects technician, so I was working. I was actually on set quite a bit for that one. Eastern Promises I sat in a fair bit when I had a chance. I was in London a little bit for that. Here and there.

 

By Eastern Promises, were you already thinking about being a filmmaker and you were there to study?

Yeah, I was already in film school so I was more interested in it from that perspective.

 

Was there ever any chance you would not go into filmmaking?

Yeah, I had no interest in getting into film until I was 24. First of all, I was more of a book nerd. I wasn’t a cinephile growing up. I like film but I wasn’t obsessed with it in a way that a lot of people who get into film are obsessed with it. And also, a lot of people approach me with these preconceptions based on my father’s career that oh, I must love film, I must want to get into film and that really put me off.

 

Or you’d think the opposite, that you’d totally rebel.

Well, that was it. I really enjoyed saying, “No, I have no interest in film whatsoever.” But then at a certain point, that seemed like a bad reason to not do something that was interesting and film’s an interesting medium. I was so scattered in my creative pursuits. I was doing a little prose writing, a little visual art and a little music and I realized at a certain point that I needed to focus my energy on one thing if I wanted to get good at it. I thought film would be a good way to unite those interests in one art form that I could spend my life trying to get better at.

 

What was your relationship with film before you were 24 and started taking it seriously?

I mean, I liked it. I watched films. It’s not like I disliked the art form. I was concerned when I got into film school because everyone was obsessed with film and they knew everything about film. They knew all of the most obscure directors imaginable. Not all of them but a lot of them. So I was worried that that was the way you needed to be to be a filmmaker, but my father’s not like that. Really I feel like you need to have enough of an interest in the art form obviously to be able to take it seriously and understand the history of film, to get a good sense of what you’re doing. But at the same time, I feel like film is best when there’s also a bit of an outside influence. If it’s just films about making films by people who love films, then it becomes so disconnected from anything else. It just becomes about film culture and it becomes a bit masturbatory, you know.

 

There was a spate of that in the ‘90s. So when you got onto the set of your own films, what were the film school teachers completely right about?

I think there was some basic technical stuff that they were right about it and other than that, film is very difficult to teach in an academic setting because you can learn a certain amount about filmmaking, but beyond that you have to learn it through the process of doing it. Film school is great for that because you’re around people who want to make films with you and you have the time and the equipment so you learn a lot. I think the academic side of film school was sort of a mix of filler, like art history. I remember making collages of my face at one point. I took a good philosophy course but that stuff was not directly related to film. It was more to fill out the bachelor’s of fine arts degree. And then the production classes, the first semester you really learned everything you need to know technically about film, unless you’re getting into a really specialized technical field like sound mixing or something. People have their own approaches to the process but really there’s no one right way to go about it and to make films. Someone can teach you how to direct but they’re just making it up. If you look at the greatest directors in history, their techniques are completely varied. You sort of have to figure out what works for you and what works for that instance.

 

Did you get to learn on film equipment, either 35mm or at least 16?

Yeah, first year. We must have been one of the last. I don't know if they still teach film there. We had one year we shot on Bell & Howells. So we’re using the same cameras that they shot the first World War with. They had these huge Mickey Mouse wind-ups. So yeah, I shot film. The first films I made in film school were black and white 16mm and we actually cut film and taped it together.

 

Was Antiviral digital?

Yeah, it was the Arri Alexa.

 

Did having a background in actual film format inform the way you shoot and cut?

I don't think so. I think film is so on its way out. It’s interesting and I guess for nostalgic reasons I’m happy that I had that experience with actual film but the film medium is now so unrelated to filmmaking in a way. Even when people shoot on film you’re editing it digitally so it’s so unrelated I think to the process.

 

Still your film is very still with a lot of long takes, so you didn’t use digital to shake things around.

But I think that was more from watching a lot of films and absorbing that aesthetic. I wasn’t deliberately trying to embrace the film medium. Maybe some of what I was absorbing was just technique that came from shooting on film.

 

Did any of those long takes get ruined by something silly in the middle?

Yeah, many of them. Long takes were always like 13,14 takes and it’s minor things, a minor bump of the camera.

 

What are you working on next?

I’m writing a script now that I’d like to make as my next one if it doesn’t take too long to write. I think I’m a slow writer. I can’t really talk about it yet just because it’s still not fully formed so I don’t have a lot to say about it. Either that one or if some great script comes to me. I like writing but I would definitely direct someone else’s work.

 

I was going to ask, will you always be a writer/director?

I think I’ll always write with the intention of directing my own stuff, but in between while I’m writing stuff, if I really like someone’s script, I’m not intent on never directing anyone else’s writing.

 

At what point in your life did you become aware of Videodrome?

I mean, I saw the cover of Videodrome. I had no idea what it was as a kid. I’ve seen it once but I forget when I saw it. I think I was in my 20s, possibly in film school.

 

That’s probably the appropriate age for it.

Yeah. [Laughs] I had been aware of all his films just as posters.