It’s never easy living the shadow of someone else, and especially to follow in the footsteps of greatness. For Brandon Cronenberg, that imposing shadow takes the shape of a giant fly, several killer mutated children, and scores of exploding heads. His father, David Cronenberg is a director beloved by genre film fans the world over. Brandon has made the difficult decision, under those circumstances, to become a filmmaker himself, and has come bursting out of the obscuring darkness with his debut film Antiviral.
Though maintaining that the themes and imagery of the movie are not beholden to his father’s work, Antiviral’s plot, involving the consumption of celebrity biological material by obsessed fans, fittingly speaks to a common creative gene within his family that spurs an inclination toward body horror and social commentary. In our few moments with Brandon during Fantastic Fest, we covered everything from the intangible construct of identity, to hulking out, to forgettable David Spade comedies. As horror fans ourselves, it speaks highly of Brandon’s genuine personality and rich intellect that the subject of his father never came up once.
Obviously the theme at the heart of the movie is society’s obsession with celebrities. Was there a specific real-world event that represented your breaking point? A celebrity incident that finally made you realize you had to make this movie
[laughs] That’s the short answer. It actually started with disease. Back in 2004, I had just started film school and I was very sick. I was trying to come up with an idea, and I was obsessing over the physicality of illness; the fact that I had something in my cells that had come from someone else’s body. That was intimate. I tried to think of a character who might see disease as an intimate thing, and I thought of a celebrity-obsessed fan who wants Angelina Jolie’s cold as a way of way of gaining some physical connection to her. It’s that physical fetishism that is a huge part of that cultural. And then it became an interesting metaphor for discussing celebrity culture, which I do find sort of fascinating and grotesque. But to be honest, when the chance to make a movie came around, that is what I had written.
It wasn’t so much about making a statement as it was that the optimal conditions presented themselves for that project?
Yeah, it was one that I really wanted to make but it’s not like I flew into a hulk rage. [does a frightfully accurate impersonation of The Hulk] “MOVIE!”
Although in my head, that’s always how it’s going to be.
I do like to rip through my shirts, but…
It gets expensive after a while.
So, there are a lot of haunting visuals in this movie, this preponderance of nightmarish image.
Well thank you.
Yeah, I suppose that is a high compliment to pay a horror director. As you’re writing a script like this, do those images enter your mind as vital components of the narrative or is that more a concern once the script is completed and you’ve moved on to production?
I guess it’s a bit of both. I sort of—how do I do it? [jokingly] How am I so great? No. I think it completely varies. Sometimes I’ll want to say something with a scene and then I’ll try to picture a way that it could evolve in an interesting way visually maybe or narratively and then that leads to the visuals. Sometimes it’s on the day. I may know what the scene is, but exploring the room and the actors on the day, we find it together there in that moment. Some of it was weird, like Syd in the closet with the mouth. That was based on, I used to do a lot of ink drawings, and that was based on some ink drawings I had done that I wanted to see if I could bring to film. I guess there’s no one way; whatever works.
So utilitarian filmmaking?
Gotcha. So how did Caleb Landry Jones come aboard? Were you two acquainted before you did the film?
No. I had seen him in X-Men: First Class actually, and he’s quite interesting in X-Men given what that film is. But obviously I wasn’t thinking of X-Men when I wrote this.
Yeah Antiviral is arguably quite different from X-Men: First Class.
What?! [laughs] There goes my plan to use Antiviral to pitch myself for the next X-Men movie. Basically what happened is that we were looking around, considering our options, and think of who would be great. His agent had worked with my producer before so he recommended him. We were all in the production office and he sent Caleb’s reel and an audition tape for another film just to get a look at him. We all got really excited, because he has that thing; that difficult to articulate screen quality that is fascinating. As we were getting excited, he was reading the script and wanted to do it. So he came to Toronto, and it was classic. He had a very light jacket on, it was freezing cold; his first time in Canada. We met him, he had a glass of milk, we talked.
A glass of milk?
He was very nervous, as were we. But he had great ideas and we wanted him very badly.
He’s got a sort of natural eeriness. Even when things haven’t reached the boiling point yet, you can tell something is perpetually off. And I really appreciate that screen presence in this genre.
Another thing I enjoyed was the juxtaposition of these stark white, sterile environments with the gruesome body horror elements and disease. You mentioned that the idea for this movie came when you were ill. Was that juxtaposition a reference to being in a hospital environment?
Well, thankfully I wasn’t that sick. I wasn’t hospitalized. One of the themes in the film is that huge divide between celebrities as cultural constructs, as sort of media constructs and the physical body that those constructs are both based on and removed from. So I guess I liked the idea of having sterile, inhuman elements to the design that were completely representative of the inhuman celebrities, of these icons, these deities, these perfect theoretical people. And then contrasting that with the bodily decaying…the meat behind that, and then throwing them together at certain points.
I like how that gives the movie a THX: 1138 feel, but with, as you said, the meat rotting behind the façade. At what point in your life did you realize that filmmaking was something you wanted to do and, in your case especially, make your own?
When I was 24. That’s when I started film school. I was sort of avoiding film up until that point for various reasons, and then I decided film would be an interesting way of collecting some scattered interests that I had. I was writing prose, I was doing visual art, and playing in bands, and I felt like I couldn’t spend enough time at any one of those things if I was trying to do them all and get good at them. So film just seemed like a way of focusing all those different interests into one medium.
What does it mean to you to have your film playing at a festival like this? A festival that is so reverent toward horror and genre cinema.
I love this festival. This is my first time here, and we’ve definitely been getting the most interesting interviews. People have been really great. It’s huge. I think the genre community, horror fans in particular, has been especially cool about everything from the beginning and have been really supportive. So to be able to play here, and then to have some people actually like it, has been wonderful.
What are some subjects, either inside or outside of horror, that you would like to tackle next?
I’m sort of writing something, I’m not far along enough to say anything interesting about it. I’m always interested in identity and what physical existence means; who we are and the sort of intangibility of who we are. That sounds really pretentious.
I’ll try and reword it so it doesn’t sound pretentious.
[fake, but thick Texas accent] I’m interested about…heads.
So you’re remaking 8 Heads in a Duffel Bag, is what you’re saying.
Alright fine, that’s exactly what I’m doing.
No, no one should do that. Let’s just leave that dead.
Cultural caricatures is something I want to play with.
I’ll be interested to see what you do with that. And please, call me about that totally real 8 Heads remake.