Antiviral Director Brandon Cronenberg
Like the offspring of any revered icon, Brandon Cronenberg’s last name grabs hold of your attention. Indeed, the 33-year-old Canadian filmmaker is the son of David Cronenberg, genre cinema’s great auteur of psychodrama and body horror. And like his father, Brandon expresses a strong interest in the inextricable brain-body link, not to mention the dark crevices of society’s underbelly. Antiviral, Brandon’s feature debut as writer and director, is a sci-fi satire with a sharp conceit worthy of that unmistakable surname, and a stylistic strength that promises more compelling work from its maker. Uniquely skewering our ever-evolving (or devolving) obsessions with celebrity, the movie, now playing in limited release, tells of a world intended to appear not very far from our own, wherein a facility known as the Lucas Clinic perpetuates the ultimate form of star worship, infecting rabid fans with diseases harvested from the cells of the über-famous (what’s more, delis on corners sell “steaks” grown from celebrity muscle cells, so die-hards can literally consume their favorite A-Listers). At the center of this seriocomic nightmare is Syd March (Caleb Landry Jones), a Lucas employee who also moonlights as part of the superstar-sickness black market. Things turn especially ugly when Syd comes down with the same bug afflicting America’s most-wanted sweetheart.
In person, Brandon is deeply humble and unassuming, a boyish-looking guy with his father’s grey-blue eyes, and a few piercings that project just the right amount of edge. He’s remarkably articulate about the themes his film explores, and he proves just how fully he mulled over the movie’s ideas, which, according to him, aren’t that far-fetched at all. In a high-rise in the heart of Midtown Manhattan, in a small office whose unremarkable sterility calls to mind Antiviral‘s stark aesthetic, Brandon chats at length about the psychology of fandom, the time he cozied up with a primate on one of his dad’s sets, and his thoughts on the trajectory of celebrity culture, which, if not literally, has surely already gone viral.
Filmmaker: There’s a lot of pointed dialogue in Antiviral in regard to celebrity, such as, “What does it mean to deserve to be famous?” and, “Celebrities are not people, they’re group hallucinations.” How much of this is your own perspective? Do you believe that certain celebrities don’t deserve to be famous? Do you see them as being real people?
Brandon Cronenberg: A lot of that is me, but it’s also filtered through the character, so not everything said in the film is just directly my own opinion. “Celebrities are not real, they’re group hallucinations”—I do believe that. I think that the majority of people have this idea about a celebrity, but that idea is sort of a culturally constructed thing and kind of a fiction. Because a lot of what’s reported about celebrities is made up, and a lot of our sense of them comes from the media and is sort of unrelated to the human being who is living their own life, and living and dying in this way that’s sort of disconnected from their media double. But I think anyone who’s famous deserves to be famous, only in the sense that this whole criterion for fame is that people recognize you enough to be famous. A lot of people say, “Oh, this person doesn’t deserve to be famous.” What is it really to deserve to be famous? It isn’t an accomplishment. I think fame has always been something other than an accomplishment. It’s sometimes tied to an accomplishment—sometimes people become famous because they accomplish something. But I think it has more to do with the repetition of an image, or of a person, or a name, rather than fulfilling a certain obligation.
Filmmaker: The whole thing must be a more interesting concept for you now, since you’re essentially becoming a celebrity yourself, being a filmmaker in the public eye.
Brandon Cronenberg: That aspect of it is really weird, because going around promoting a film that’s about something like this is kind of strange. But, two things: First of all, as a director, and especially as a Canadian director, I can only become so famous, so I don’t imagine myself getting stalked by paparazzi anytime soon. Also, I think that the film is about the industry of celebrity, which isn’t the same as just celebrity in general, in a sense. I think, for instance, to recognize someone and have respect for them because you like their work, and to take an interest in what they’re doing because of that isn’t unhealthy—I think that’s fine. It’s more that certain level of fanaticism that represents a kind of mania and a kind of delusion that is unhealthy. And tied to that is this increasingly insular industry of celebrity that sort of mass produces fame through reality television, and tries to elevate people to this point where they’re famous and their job is just being famous for a year, or two years. I think that is different from just talking about your film, in that all art, to a certain extent, is a cultural dialogue that you need to engage in as an artist.
Filmmaker: What specific thing in our celebrity-obsessed culture do you see as being most closely linked to the satirical extreme that you go to in Antiviral?
Brandon Cronenberg: I don’t think there is one! [Laughs.] Someone bought John Lennon’s teeth, you know? But that isn’t even just the one thing. Covers of magazines comparing people’s cellulite…[the film is] only a very slight exaggeration. That industry’s pretty insane.
Filmmaker: I read that this idea germinated when you were in film school at 24, and came down with a bad case of the flu. Did a fear of illness or mortality factor heavily into the concept?
Brandon Cronenberg: It wasn’t really a fear of illness, it was more just a moment of seeing disease as something intimate. Because a virus is manufactured, literally, in someone else’s body, by their infected cells, and then gets into your body and penetrates your own cells, and that’s hugely intimate if you think about it on that level. So it was that moment of seeing disease as intimate and trying to think of a character who would see disease as something intimate. We tend to be repulsed by disease, but you could imagine an obsessed fan who would want a celebrity’s virus, or something, as a way of feeling physically connected to them if it were described in those terms—something from their body into your body. Don’t you want that? Someone’s gotta want that.
Filmmaker: You’re 32 now?
Brandon Cronenberg: 33.
Filmmaker: In the the eight or nine years since you first toyed with this idea, the world of celebrity and fan relationships has changed quite a bit, with social media somewhat leveling the field of interaction and things like that. Was there ever a worry that the concept would lose some of its relevance because of that evolution?
Brandon Cronenberg: During editing, a friend of mine sent me this Sarah Michelle Gellar clip where she was on Jimmy Kimmel Live and she was saying that she was worried about singing because she had this cold—she was worried she would infect the entire audience. And then everyone started applauding madly and cheering. So I thought, “Okay, we’re pretty much making a documentary now!” So it’s changed and it hasn’t changed. I’ve been talking about Paris Hilton lately. She’s out of style now, and maybe seems like the obvious, passé celebrity to go to to discuss this sort of thing, but I think, early on, when I was first writing, she was just really becoming very public, and there’s something about that moment, when a lot of people were using the phrase “famous for being famous.” Again, I don’t think fame has ever been inherently bound to accomplishment, but I think she was so just famous for being famous, in a way that everyone recognized, that I think that really fed into the celebrity industry. It was a certain moment in the history of celebrity. Now, to say that she’s famous for being famous is not even interesting anymore, but at the time, people were like, “Haven’t you noticed that Paris Hilton is famous for being famous and isn’t that kind of weird?”
Filmmaker: As the central character, Syd March, Caleb Landry Jones gives a really impressive breakthrough performance, and he looks like a runway model, which amplifies your visual juxtaposition of fashion-magazine chic and body horror. Can you describe how you came to work with him and how he complimented your aesthetic?
Brandon Cronenberg: Sure. His agent had worked with my producer, and when we were looking around for actors, he sent Caleb’s stuff over—some clips from films he’d been in and an audition he’d done for another film. And we all got immediately, really excited because he has that very striking look, and he’s very intense, and a great actor, He really has that thing that some actors have where they’re immediately interesting to watch. Even when they’re doing very mundane things, they’re somehow able to be captivating performers. So we wanted to get him and he wanted to do it, so it worked out nicely. I had actually written the character for a much older actor, and the character was a bit different in my mind, but when I saw Caleb, I wanted to plug into the excitement and roll with it. Now I can’t see that character any other way. He brought a huge amount to it and that was part of developing that character—discovering all of this stuff with him.
Filmmaker: And then, of course, there’s Sarah Gadon, who starred in your father’s Cosmopolis last year, and A Dangerous Method the year before that. Did your father recommend her to you?
Brandon Cronenberg: Well I saw her in A Dangerous Method, and I thought she was great, but I hadn’t met her until we sent her the script. I liked what I saw from her in my dad’s work, and then I asked him, and he said he had a great experience with her. So, whether you’re related to them or not, being able to talk to directors who have worked with actors, it’s a good thing.
Filmmaker: Gadon’s character, Hannah Geist, is the ultimate desirable object in Antiviral, and then there’s also Aria Noble, played by Nenna Abuwa. I was wondering why you didn’t opt to focus on any obsessed-over male celebrities in the film.
Brandon Cronenberg: There are a couple of references, and on the walls there were some male celerities in the office. I guess I was focusing on female celebrities just because of the degree of the fetishy body stuff you get in celebrity news. I mean, you get that with male celebrities, too, but the “who has the worse cellulite?” stuff is always female. The covers of those magazines, the surgical precision with which people fetishize and criticize—it’s particularly extreme for females. But there are both in the film.
Filmmaker: I also read that you had initial interest in writing, painting, and music, and then turned to film because it merges all of those things. How influential was your father, or his work, in that decision?
Brandon Cronenberg: I was less inclined to get into film because of people’s preconceptions about me based on my father and the fact that they assumed I should want to be in film. Like, “Oh, you must love film and want to be in your father’s footsteps!” It was always kind of obnoxious and kind of off-putting. So, I would say it probably took me longer to develop an interest in film because of that, if anything.
Filmmaker: Yeah, the connection must be a bit of a double-edged sword. There’s a clear cache to it, but also this pressure to assert your own voice, and to live up to expectations.
Brandon Cronenberg: I’ve felt that pressure, but only because everyone keeps telling me I should! I didn’t feel any special pressure, but especially now that the film’s done, everyone’s asking me if I feel some special pressure to live up to something, so I’m starting to wonder if I should.
Filmmaker: Well there’s obviously some thematic kinship going on. Did that develop on more of an unconscious level?
Brandon Cronenberg: Yeah, it’s more…I decided when I got into film that I needed to not worry about his career and just do whatever was interesting to me. To actively avoid it would be defining myself in opposition to him and in that way defining myself in terms of his career still. So I just did what I thought was interesting. I mean, he’s my father and we have a close relationship, so the fact that some of our interests overlap is pretty reasonable.
Filmmaker: Growing up, were you on set for a lot of your dad’s projects? Any experiences tied to specific films that stand out as remarkable?
Brandon Cronenberg: I was present to varying degrees. I mean, obviously, a lot of it happened when I was very young, or before I was born, depending on the film. I worked on eXistenZ in the special effects department, so I was very around for that one. Some of the other ones, not so much. I tried to be on set a fair bit for Eastern Promises just because I was already in film school at that point, and wanted to absorb what I could. When I was a kid, the baboon from The Fly sat on my lap. That was a pretty memorable experience! But I don’t think it had an influence on me as a filmmaker. [Laughs.]
Filmmaker: Good stuff. In Anitviral, I noticed you also make passing mention of Henrietta Lacks, who’s made a lot of headlines thanks to Rebecca Skloot’s bestseller, and even recent updates about the continued usage of her cells. Did Lacks’s story strongly influence the film’s concept, or was it just woven into the fabric of it?
Brandon Cronenberg: It didn’t strongly influence it, but it’s just a really interesting idea, I think. Because that relationship between identity and the body is really interesting. I think they’re two very different things, and I think identity is this very theoretical, weird thing that no one has a full grasp on. I don’t think we can perceive ourselves perfectly clearly, but obviously, from the outside, people can’t know us perfectly either, and we’re always in flux. And then you have this body that people associate that identity with, but again, the body is constantly changing, and I find all of that stuff really interesting. And in the film, obviously, there’s the celebrity cell steaks, and the idea that they’re grown from the celebrities. It’s sort of cannibalism, but it’s not quite cannibalism. Are they that meat, or is that another thing? The human being, the body—is that the celebrity, or is the celebrity this cultural idea, this abstract thing? So that was just a really great, real-world example of that sort of thing, but it wasn’t at the core of the film.
Filmmaker: You mention in press notes that you’re naturally reclusive, much like Syd March. How much do you identify with the character? Beyond, you know, his activities…
Brandon Cronenberg: Well, I definitely put some of myself in there. But in weird ways. I was going to college in this horrible city in Ontario, called London, Ontario, and it was hard to get good food there. So, for a while, I was eating a lot of egg salad sandwiches and orange juice. And when I was thinking about the character, I thought that for a character whose main interest in his body is this disease, I could see how food could become just a purely functional thing—just a necessity that he takes no pleasure in. So he has these units of food—orange juice paired with egg salad sandwiches. Interestingly, Caleb—because he likes to live the character as much as he can—was eating all egg salad sandwiches and orange juice when he initially got to Canada, and then he got really sick of them. So he was worried that when it came to doing those scenes, he wouldn’t be able to eat the egg salad because he was so grossed out by it at that point. But apparently the props department makes solid egg salad, so… [Laughs.]
Filmmaker: There’s a lot of talk in the film about the human face. Can you discuss your fascination with it?
Brandon Cronenberg: Yeah. There’s a line in the film that says “[the face] has a high information resolution.” I think it’s true. There’s such a huge amount of information that we communicate consciously and unconsciously through our facial expressions. And apparently that’s why we so commonly see faces in clouds and in rock formations—because our brains are tuned to look for faces, and look toward that information. Apparently with zebras, it’s the stripes. We see zebras as just striped animals, but they really identify each other through the stripes and they can really recognize quickly individual markings, and that’s a huge identifying factor for them. So I think the way we see things depends greatly on our biology.
Filmmaker: Antiviral speaks for itself, but how would you sum up your current view of our celebrity culture? Where do you see it going? Is it on a hopeless downward spiral? Is all this transparency just becoming more and more unhealthy? Is it getting worse? Better?
Brandon Cronenberg: I don’t know! I think it’s a version of something, a kind of broader, older human tendency that we have to deify each other. One example I tend to fall back on is sainthood. The saints were sort of celebrities. They were people elevated to the status of gods, almost, and there’s the iconography—the recognizable repetition of images—and the same physical fetishism. There are the old Italian churches that claim to have the finger bone of such-and-such saint, and it’s imbued with this great power, these relics. So I think we do that, for some reason. I’m not exactly sure why. I think it’s hard to predict where celebrity culture is going, just because I don’t think it’s unique to our time and place. Again, I think the industrial aspect of that is something that’s fairly unique, or that’s at least becoming more prominent—the manufacturing of celebrity to make money. And I assume that will, just by the nature of industry, go as far as it possibly can, but it’s hard to predict. I don’t know if it will implode eventually. I think we’ll always have some version of celebrity.