One night in 2004, Brandon Cronenberg was watching an episode of Jimmy Kimmel Live!. The guest of the hour: actress Sarah Michelle Gellar. The former Buffy the Vampire Slayer star conducted the on-camera interview while sick, telling Kimmel that if she sneezed, the whole audience would get infected with whatever disease she had—and everyone started clapping and cheering. Cronenberg, then a first-year film student at Toronto's Ryerson University, had an idea. At the time, he was developing a screenplay inspired by his own recent bout with the flu, and how realizing that he probably caught the illness from somebody else created a strange kind of intimacy between them, even if they'd never actually met.
From these germs, Cronenberg had the plot for what would become his feature-length debut, Antiviral (opening in limited release and on VOD today via IFC Midnight). Set in an alternate, slightly futuristic version of Toronto, the film—which Cronenberg wrote—centers on Syd March (Caleb Landry Jones, from X-Men: First Class), an employee at the Lucas Clinic, where people pay for needle-injected transmissions of their favorite celebrities' diseases. It's all very legal, and very hip.
As the film opens, Syd meets with a young man who's obsession over a beautiful starlet named Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon) leads to Syd filling his upper lip with Hannah's herpes. But then Hannah gets sick again, and when Syd visits her to take a sample of her latest, unclassifiable ailment (contracted while she was "looking for orphans in Africa"), he decides to try some out for himself. Shortly after, Hannah's condition drastically worsens, and Syd starts to feel her pain.
Before finalizing Antiviral's sci-fi-meets-horror-meets-noir script in 2011, Cronenberg, now 33, shot two short films that revolved around similar themes: Broken Tulips (2008), which is basically Antiviral's aforementioned opening sequence truncated, and The Camera and Christopher Merk (2010), about a boring guy living in an apartment that's monitored by cameras and aired as a reality show. Clearly, Cronenberg has a few opinions about popular culture's fascinations with, and the manufacturing of, fame.
As for the last name, it looks familiar, no? That's because he's the son of David Cronenberg, the iconic filmmaker behind unsettling classics like The Brood (1979), Scanners (1980), Videodrome (1983), and The Fly (1986). David's son, however, isn't all that thrilled to keep talking about the fact that he's David's son, which is understandable—a film as strong as Antiviral deserves to stand on its own merits, not its maker's family ties.
In this loose chat with Complex, the soft-spoken, young Cronenberg discusses the unexpected road that led to him to become a filmmaker, how fan obsessions over Robert Pattinson hit close to home, and why the creepiest ideas found in Antiviral are only marginally crazy when compared to real life.
Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
You originally wanted to write fiction, not direct movies, right?
Yeah, I love books and I really wanted to be an author. I was also into visual arts and playing music, but I was doing too much at once. I've been to a few schools—at one point, I even did an English/philosophy thing. But when I was 24, it started to seem like I was too scattered. Film seemed like a good way to bring all of my interests together.
I like writing, but I also like visual arts and music. With filmmaking, you get to dabble in all of those things. Of course, it's not really the same. I don't get the same satisfaction making a film that I do from drawing.
What kind of literary fiction were you interested in writing?
I wanted to write novels, but I wrote some short stories as a form of practice. It was sort of semi-magic-realism stuff.
Like Gabriel García Márquez?
No, it was more absurd than that. I didn't get very far, though; I didn't develop a style of any kind.
Did you shy away from filmmaking at first because it's what your father is known for? To separate yourself from him?
Yeah. Well, it was partly because I wasn't a big cinephile growing up. A lot of people approached me with preconceptions about who I was and what I wanted to do because my dad made films, which was off-putting and made me more inclined to not want anything to do with that. It's a really powerful art-form, and it has a kind of prominence in our culture that's appealing to me. I've become much more interested in film since I started working in film.
Did the newfound love for movies hit you immediately once you started film school?
Not really. It took me most of the four-year program. It wasn't until the last year that I realized this is what I want to do with my life.
When I made my first short, Broken Tulips, that's when it started making sense to me. You make a bunch of student films throughout the program, but they tend to be fairly restricted in terms of locations and budgets. The last year, though, you're allowed to go nuts and make one real short that doesn't have those kinds of formal restrictions. The experience of making Broken Tulips was what solidified it in my mind that I wanted to keep making films.
As you've said in previous interviews, the idea for Antiviral first hit you in 2004 while you were sick. It's interesting to see that both of your short films, Broken Tulips and The Camera and Christopher Merk, share the same themes of celebrity obsession and cultural voyeurism that dominate Antiviral. Were those shorts meant to be practice runs with this subject matter before making Antiviral?
To a certain extent, yeah. It's interesting because short films can be really great, but I think for people who want to make features, short films initially tend to be…not practice runs, because you want each short to be good on its own, of course, but the stakes are much lower.
I probably would have kept writing and working on Antiviral when Broken Tulips received the positive feedback that it did, because it was the only larger idea I had at the time that was in any kind of real development stage. But it was definitely encouraging to see that the short was getting a good reaction by student film standards. It was useful to have that film when I wanted to the full feature, too, because I was able to show it to people and say, "Look, this is a shorter version of all that I'm going for with Antiviral." They were able to see that I was competent enough to take that next bigger step.
Have you always been intrigued by the themes of celebrity and voyeurism that pervade all of your films so far, or did that come into play once you started writing Antiviral back in 2004?
Yeah, to some degree. Well, for Christopher Merk specifically, it was about this combination of the voyeurism and exhibitionism that comes from something like Facebook, and how social networking sites connect to the whole celebrity thing. It's this strange place where people can be a celebrity and the paparazzi at the same time. They're always shooting themselves eating and doing whatever, so that culture of voyeurism and exhibitionism was interesting to me. Also, that feeling of seeing yourself on film and not recognizing yourself was difficult to comprehend for me before I worked on Christopher Merk.
Do you think your interest in these themes stems from growing up in a household where the father is a celebrity? You must have always been aware of the celebrity culture as a result.
I think so. It's weird when people have preconceptions about you based on something out of your control. I remember going to school and strangers would come up to me and say, "Oh, I heard that you were coming." [Laughs.] They had some idea of who I was and were aware that I was about to become their classmate, and that always bothered me. To them, David Cronenberg's son was coming, and I was like, "But I don't even know who you are." That poses a number of disturbing questions, like, "Who's been talking to you?" And, "What have they been saying?" [Laughs.]
There were a few moments like that. Also, there's something strange about that interplay between a public persona and the human being. Part of Antiviral is that theme of the divide between celebrities as cultural and media constructs and the human being that's unrelated to that construct. I definitely think growing up around some people who had that and seeing that had an effect on me. It's not a very novel observation to say that celebrities are people who aren't really anything like how they're seen by the public. The degree of that divide is still sort of shocking when you're witnessing it firsthand and you know how they really are, and how they're nothing like how they're portrayed or who people think they are.
Last year, your sister Caitlyn was rumored to be dating Robert Pattinson—reports came out saying they were spotted together at a party for Pattinson's film directed by your dad, Cosmopolis. That must have brought a lot of Antiviral's themes especially close to home for you.
[Laughs.] That was totally strange. And then reading how she was going to his apartment at these late hours of the night, and how she was doing all of this crazy stuff with him and breaking Kristen's [Stewart] heart…it was bizarre to witness that happening and then also witnessing it not happening while being around my sister.
There were photoshopped magazine covers of them together even though the pictures were taken years apart from each other. [Laughs.] There were people who thought it was true, and they were harassing my sister about it. I was just thinking, "Why?"
For people who love a guy like Robert Pattinson, they don't want to hear anything that could ruin whatever image they have of him, and how he lives in some larger-than-their-life way. If they find out that he's just sitting at home and watching TV right now, and not doing something glamorous, it'd crush them.
Yeah, but in that case they didn't want it to be true because they have this idea of an amazing romance between him and Kristen Stewart. They want it to mirror their fictional romance, and the fact that my sister was causing problems and playing with his dog really outraged them. [Laughs.] And it was based on nothing.
And then when Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart broke up for real, the comments sections of so many Tumblr pages were filled with truly disturbing messages about how devastated these fans were about it, as if they're parents just got divorced. It got really intense.
It's crazy. That's the thing: It's actually insanity at some point. If you respect someone on a really high level and they happen to be famous, but your respect comes from appreciating their work, that's totally fine. There's a certain point where I think it's a legitimate form of insanity, and it's that point where you think you have a relationship with this person who's never met you. That's delusional, and it was interesting to explore that idea in how the fans in Antiviral will go so far as being injected with their favorite celebrity's diseases in order to be closer to them in some way.
There's a really interesting line of dialogue in the film where a character says, about a Kim Kardashian-like public figure, "Celebrity is not an accomplishment—it's more a collaboration that we choose to take part in." Was there anything about that "collaboration" in particular that surprised you while working on Antiviral?
That it's actually even more insane than I ever imagined it could be. [Laughs.] I read tons of gossip magazines and watched a lot of TMZ while developing this film, which is really eye-opening if you spend a lot of time consuming those things. Going into this project, I planned on exaggerating a lot of the celebrity culture to play up the genre elements a bit, but the thing I realized was that I didn't need to exaggerate anything. The movie is ultimately less of an exaggeration than I thought it'd be, even with its heightened sense of reality.
Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)