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Interview: Brandon Cronenberg talks about his debut film ‘Antiviral’

Brandon Cronenberg. Picture: Getty

Brandon Cronenberg. Picture: Getty

  • by ALISTAIR HARKNESS
 

Brandon Cronenberg’s inspiration for his debut film – a dystopian vision of a sick society obsessed with fame – was discovered close to home, he tells Alistair Harkness

THE FIRST time Brandon Cronenberg noticed people being weird around him was in high school. “I started a new school once and this guy was like, ‘I heard you were coming, this is such a big thing: you and me … here … together.”

In his head he was probably thinking “back away slowly”, but then came the question: “Can I have lunch with your dad?”

Cronenberg laughs. “It’s like, that’s weird.”

That it is. But it’s also understandable. As the son of David Cronenberg, the Canadian auteur behind “body horror” classics Videodrome, The Fly and Dead Ringers (films that have helped redefine underground, mainstream and arthouse cinema alike), Brandon knows only too well that his father’s notoriety – or rather, the notoriety of his father’s work – has made his dad something of a cause célèbre over the years.

Indeed, Cronenberg Senior is precisely the type of artist who is as capable as any pop star of attracting fans who might imagine they have a special connection to him that goes beyond his films.

We’re discussing this largely because the 33-year-old Brandon has now made his own film. Antiviral – a dystopian vision of a sick society obsessed with fame – may share some filmmaking DNA with his father’s output, but it also feeds his unique perspective on fame into a disturbing exploration of celebrity culture, particularly the relationship between fans and their idols.

“Growing up I definitely saw both sides of that equation,” he says. “One of the themes in the film is that divide between celebrities as cultural constructs, which are essentially fictional characters, and as human beings, which are completely unrelated to the figures that exists in the public consciousness. It’s not a novel observation, but when you see it first hand, it’s still kind of shocking, especially the degree to which people feel like they have a personal connection to people whom they’ve never met. The mania surrounding that just fuels this dynamic.”

This idea manifests itself in the film in a deliciously icky way by homing in on the character of Syd Marsh (Caleb Landry Jones), the pallid employee of a private clinic that peddles the viruses of ill celebrities to the fans that worship them. As it happens, the germ of this idea actually came from a bout of flu.

“Back in 2004 I got this really bad flu,” explains Cronenberg. “I started to obsess over the physicality of my illness: the idea that I had something in my body that had come from someone else and how that was sort of a weirdly intimate connection.” Specifically, he started thinking of the type of person – other than himself of course – that might see disease as something intimate. “A celebrity obsessed fan is someone who would conceivably want to get Angelina Jolie’s cold as a way of feeling connected to her, so it sort of developed from there into a metaphor that I thought was interesting to discuss celebrity culture.”

One of the clever things he’s done in depicting this world is to normalise how grotesque this obsession has become. In addition to the central idea of the clinic, for instance, the world is filled with mainstream news reports saturated with infrared shots of celebrity crotches. Meanwhile the black market thrives by using smuggled viruses and DNA information to cultivate celebrity skin for public consumption. The matter-of-fact nature of it just makes it all the more disturbing.

“When you look at these telescopic shots of people’s thighs with their cellulite highlighted, that culture is just grotesque, but it’s so common now we almost don’t notice it,” says Cronenberg. “I mean, we laugh about how gross it is; it’s not that nobody realises that it’s crazy. But the degree to which it’s crazy is huge, so the idea was to push it just enough in the film so that it’s disgusting again, but in the context of a world that treats it as completely normal.”

Ironically, the themes of the film, particularly the false impression people have of public figures as inhuman constructs (as opposed to what Cronenberg refers to as the “decaying human farting shitting animals” behind them), are somewhat applicable to what he’s going through promoting the film. He’s very aware, for example, that with Antiviral he’s not being judged as a filmmaker or as a person, but as the son of a world famous director, not least because the type of film he’s made would be described as “Cronenbergian” regardless of his last name.

Yet if it bothers him he doesn’t let it show. He seems to find it more surreal than anything else, chuckling at the mention of the media whirlwind that occurred at last year’s Cannes film festival when both Antiviral and his dad’s latest, Cosmopolis, had their world premieres on the Croisette. “I have a really close relationship with my father so being there with my family was, erm, cute.”

Indeed, the only thing he says he’s ever found obnoxious was that when he was growing up, people assumed he must really be into film.

“People would have all these preconceptions, so I enjoyed not being interested in film for a while.” Instead, as a “huge book nerd” he read a lot and toyed with trying to be a novelist. He also did a lot of drawing and painting, and played in bands. When he was around 24, however, he was bitten by the film bug after realising he was doing too much without getting good at one thing.

“Film seemed like a way of focusing my interests. And then it started to seem like a bad idea to not do something interesting just because people were obnoxious about it. That’s when I just decided to stop worrying about it.”

• Antiviral is in cinemas from 1 February

Chips off the old block: Five directors who have followed in their father’s footsteps

SOFIA COPPOLA

Francis Ford Coppola’s daughter came through the savaging she received as an actress in her father’s The Godfather Part III with a lyrical adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel The Virgin Suicides, then won the best screenplay Oscar for Lost in Translation and became the first American female director to be nominated for an Academy Award.

N JASON REITMAN

The son of Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman ploughed a darker furrow than his dad with tobacco industry satire Thank You for Smoking before scoring huge success with teen pregnancy comedy Juno and financial crash comedy Up In The Air. Young Adult was also brilliant, if under-seen.

NICK CASSAVETES

John Cassavetes is regarded as the godfather of indie film thanks to raw improvised dramas such as A Woman Under the Influence. Nick, below, went a different route, directing mega-successful tearjerker The Notebook and terminal illness weepy My Sister’s Keeper.

JAKE KASDAN

Jake, below, is the son of Lawrence Kasdan, director of The Big Chill (and writer of Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Empire Strikes Back). Jake has found success as a TV director and producer (Freaks & Geeks, New Girl); he also wrote and directed the amusing Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story and Bad Teacher.

 

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