When dealing with writer’s block, sometimes the best antidote is simply pack up and go on a trip, preferably somewhere new with cultures that clash with those from back home. In Infinity Pool, directed by Canadian filmmaker Brandon Cronenberg, James Foster (Alexander Skarsgård) and his wife Em (Cleopatra Coleman) take a holiday to a resort in a fictional country to help Foster find inspiration to write his new book.
While a resort doesn’t seem like it can lead to new discoveries, they meet Gabi (Mia Goth) and Alban (Jalil Lespert), who offer to take them away from the resort—against its warnings—for the day to enjoy the country’s scenery. However, on the way back to the hotel, everything changes for Foster when a tragic accident lands him in prison and forces him to make a decision: accept his own execution or pay for the creation of his clone and watch it get executed instead.
Infinity Pool walks the line between a hedonistic bloodbath and playful satire about identity, the ultra-rich, and consequences that go unpunished. In Complex Canada’s conversation with Cronenberg, the director touches on what inspired him to write the movie, how certain scenes came to be, and how he came to characterize James Foster in so many different layers.
How did the movie come together? What inspired you to start writing the movie?
It started as a short story, actually. That was just essentially the first execution scene, so I guess I was just interested in identity and punishment, and a scene where someone is watching an exact likeness of themselves be executed and who believes that he’s guilty. It eventually expanded out to include the resort elements and the setting. So I was turning it into a feature script.
How did the satire revolving around the ultra-rich come into the movie?
I was thinking through the implications of the execution scene, and I guess the natural extension of that is to look at how people behave when they are not confined by conventional consequences: when they are socially permitted to do anything, what that does to them. That developed through the resort settings with the characters as I was trying to look at a sort of broader arc for that initial idea.
You can imagine it’s seemingly inspiring, but then to go there and go to a resort and only be exploring the tacky Disneyland version of that country, of that culture, and that history, was maybe a pathetic element of the character and a bit of a joke about how resorts deal with culture in the host state.
James Foster isn’t quite part of the rich people crowd, having married into money. What separates him besides that from the rest of the characters?
There is that sort of insecurity, that kind of desperation to be not just one of them, but to be seen on many levels as someone who wants to be rather than someone he is. It’s not just the money, although there is that, but also he’s someone who wants to see himself as a writer, and he is maybe aging out of it. You know, he is maybe reaching the point in his life where it’s becoming clear that he is not going to be that person, or isn’t that person, and that leaves him vulnerable to these people who are stroking his ego so I think that desperation. That slight outsider status is what ropes him into that group, but also makes it harder for him to fully embrace them without really…I don’t want to spoil too much.
What made James Foster think that the resort would be the ideal spot to find inspiration?
I guess a kind of pathetic decision. It’s about the fact that he’s going to this country, it’s obviously a very interesting country. It’s a fictional country, of course. You can imagine it’s seemingly inspiring, but then to go there and go to a resort and only be exploring the tacky Disneyland version of that country, of that culture, and that history, was maybe a pathetic element of the character and a bit of a joke about how resorts deal with culture in the host state.
And that’s what inspired the Chinese restaurant scene at the resort?
So once in my life, I went to a traditional all-inclusive resort and that Chinese restaurant was actually directly from that resort. That’s reality. It was a group of white guys dressed in these sort of offensive Chinese man Halloween costumes with the braid and everything, so yeah, that was that was taken directly out of reality. The time seemed to be indicative of resort culture in a broader sense. First of all, it was completely anachronistic and said a lot about the politics of resort life but also stood in a sort of disturbingly tidy way for that process of taking the world and reducing it to this kind of Disneyland, alternate dimension version of reality.
There’s been a trend of movies these days that have been critical of the ultra-rich and their lifestyles. How did you sidestep some of the cliches that these movies sometimes face?
I mean, it’s just funny. I know a bunch of these films have sort of hit at the same time. I think the process for getting Infinity Pool to this point, maybe it was maybe five or six years. Plus I was writing the short story as far back as 2014, at least, maybe earlier. So it’s just a coincidence. I wasn’t really responding to those films given the pace of film development. I think it’s a little bit less focused on that one particular issue. It’s not so squarely just focused on that, where some of these other films or maybe more, I don’t want to say narrow, but they’re more particularly interested in that subject. Hopefully Infinity Pool will feel different enough because it’s looking at a broader range of things.
How were you able to unlock Mia Goth and Alexander Skarsgård’s particularly wild acting?
You know, I really can’t take much credit when it comes to that kind of thing. I think people often ask you “How did you get that out of the actor?” “How did you get that performance from the actor?” But with actors like those, you don’t really get it out of them. There’s no tricking them into it. They already have that. You cast them to begin with because they’re so brilliant, because they’re capable of doing these things, because they have that energy, and because they’re so exciting to you. If you’ve been very lucky with casting and you get those kinds of performers, a lot of your job is to stay out of their way enough to let them explore the character. To create a context where they can explore the character and inject that kind of energy into them. You still guide the process. I’m still editing a scene, the scene in my head as I’m shooting and making sure I get what I want, but I really want them to surprise me, run with the characters and make them their own. And so a lot of my job is about creating an environment for that and then in the edit, making sure to support that kind of performance and not fuck it up.
What was the most challenging part about making Infinity Pool?
We were just doing quite a bit in not a lot of time. I think that’s it, it was just a normal independent film challenge, which was for the screen, it wasn’t a tiny movie, but we didn’t have an absolutely massive budget for what we were doing. And so shooting a lot of complicated stuff in a relatively short time was probably the hardest part.
So do you find that you had a harder time filming Infinity Pool or Possessor or Antiviral?
Infinity Pool was the hardest, for sure. I mean, we were filming in two countries. Both of those other films were in and around Toronto. So it was very much a kind of process that we were familiar with. It was home turf. We filmed Infinity Pool in Hungary and Croatia. We were filming a lot of stuff outside; it was just a much more complicated thing to set up and execute.