Some teenage boys canvas their bedroom walls with posters of basketball players; others, with action movie stars. But Brandon Cronenberg’s walls were celebrity-free zones. In fact, the closest he ever came to a celebrity obsession was an infatuation with Pink Floyd. “I read a book about the history of the band and got a bit into the people behind the music.” In terms of obsession, Cronenberg admits, “It was pretty lightweight.”
So why would the 33-year-old director choose celebrity as his muse for his feature-length debut, Antiviral, a film that imagines an alternate reality in which rabid fans pay top dollar to infect themselves with viruses harvested from sickly celebrities? Look no further than his last name. As the son of the legendary “baron of blood,” director David Cronenberg, celebrity has been part of Brandon’s life since childhood. Antiviral suggests that it’s a phenomenon the young Cronenberg has brooded over deeply. His vision of the subject is alarming, macabre, and highly critical.
Antiviral, which opened April 12, is the story of Syd March (Caleb Landry Jones), a technician of Lucas Clinic whose job it is to infect clients with celebrity pathogens. But when he unwittingly infects himself with a deadly virus that’s killing megastar Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon), Syd’s own quickly deteriorating body becomes a much-sought after commodity, placing him in grave danger. A visually stunning film, Antiviral inhabits a beautiful but clinical palate of grays and whites, occasionally interrupted by generous splashes of crimson blood.
We caught up with Cronenberg on the eve of Antiviral’s premiere. Twenty floors up in a New York high rise, Cronenberg’s lanky frame was draped in a black t-shirt and silhouetted against a cross-town view of the Hudson River. With piercings adorning his nose and eye-brow, Cronenberg was reserved but friendly, and eager to discuss Antiviral, cannibalism, and the perks and challenges of launching a directorial career in the shadow of his celebrity father.
Where’d the idea for Antiviral come from?
I started film school in 2004, and I was trying to think of something I could write, because I wanted to have a film that I was working on in the meantime. I was very sick one day and obsessing over the physicality of my illness and the fact that I had something in my body and in my cells that had come from someone else’s body. That is a really intimate thing if you think about it that way. Then I tried to think of a character that might reasonably see disease as something intimate, and I thought a celebrity-obsessed fan might want a virus from a celebrity’s body in their body as a way of feeling physically connected to them. And it kind of developed after that.
There’s a moment toward the beginning of the film in which the head of Lucas Clinic says in an interview, “Anyone who’s famous deserves to be famous.” What do you make of that notion?
I actually agree with that line. I think people say, Does this person deserve to be famous? Does that person deserve to be famous? But what does it mean to deserve to be famous? Fame isn’t inherently bound to accomplishment. It’s never been bound to accomplishment. Someone’s famous only because they become recognizable and people make a big deal out of them. That’s something we all do together. The idea that you must be famous because you’ve done something great is a really dated and flawed version of fame.
But don’t you think there’s been an overdrive of celebrity obsession since the rise of reality TV?
I think the celebrity industry has become more and more insular and more and more about mass producing people who are famous just for being famous. Reality TV stars make a living out of just being famous for a while. It’s not that I think that that’s a good thing, but I also don’t think that the question of deserving to be famous makes any sense.
Celebrities may not need to deserve it, but surely there should be some sort of source to their fame? Otherwise it’s just a rootless echo chamber of celebrity.
But it’s always been that, I think. I agree with you in one sense, in that that’s where the culture’s heading and people are openly accepting it and it’s becoming very common for someone to be famous for no reason. But fame has never been inherently bound to accomplishment. There have always been people who are famous for being married to someone famous.
Growing up in a family helmed by a world-famous director, you must be familiar with that dynamic.
It’s weird growing up with a famous parent, because you gain some of that fame by proxy. But again, it’s not for doing anything. I had experiences when I’d go to a new school and people would say, We knew you were coming. [Laughs] How, and who are you, and why? I grew up being approached by people who had a lot of preconceptions about who I was based on my father’s career. When I was a teenager I took martial arts classes, and there was one time when the instructor started referring to me as David.
What’d you do?
I just let him [Laughs]. I just let him keep doing it, because I was too out of breath to say anything. The flipside is that I got to travel around when my dad was making movies. I’m not trying to get sympathy. I had a good childhood. There definitely is a downside to it, even now with the filmmaking. On the one hand, I’m sure my film is getting attention because of my last name, and it’s an industry where it’s hard to get attention, so that’s beneficial. On the other hand, there are people who frame me in the context of my father’s career.
But you went into directing knowing that that might happen.
Yeah, that it would for sure happen. I’m not annoyed by it in the sense that it was unexpected, but it certainly changes the discussion. People’s interpretations of Antiviral are very based on their perceived relationship between me and my father. Some people have said, Oh this film is just a response to your father’s films and your relationship with your father. It’s not at all. I tried to think about my father’s films as little as possible when I was making it.
One of the plots of Antiviral is celebrity cannibalism, in which fans eat lab-grown human flesh of their favorite celebrities. How’d you come to that concept?
I just thought that in a film about celebrity consumption, having some literal celebrity consumption was important.
But lab-grown meat (known as “vat meat”) actually exists. Would you try it?
I’m a vegan, actually, so I don’t eat meat. But if it was vat meat, I’d be more inclined to eat it, assuming they didn’t have to keep harvesting cells from some locked up animal somewhere. If it was just like, OK, we took a muscle cell and all of it’s been grown from this cell and there’s no nervous system, and no animal involved. I’m actually all for that. I think that’s a good thing, ethically. And if it’s human meat, fine, I don’t care.
What did you do before you made Antiviral?
I was writing. I was trying to be a novelist, and I was into visual art and illustrating and painting. And I was playing in bands. Film was a way of collecting all of that stuff into an art form that I could focus on. I felt like I had to pick one thing, because any of those other things you could dedicate your whole life to and still not be great.
Did you feel creatively satisfied making a film?
Yeah, it’s great. I really like it, but it’s different. I was wrong to think it would be like collecting all those things into one art form. It’s its own thing, but I’ve come to really enjoy it.
You didn’t intend Antiviral to be a horror film, is that right?
Well, I wasn’t thinking about it in those terms. Halfway through we started smearing blood over everything, and I was like, Oh, it’s a horror film. [Laughs]
What’s scary to you?
It’s not like I have one particular phobia. I’m not hugely brave either. I was [recently] watching those Stan Brakhage autopsy films. Have you seen those? They’re pretty intense. It’s not like I can just watch those while I’m having breakfast. There’s this part where they’re peeling a face off a skull, and stuff like that is intense. I like watching it, but it’s not like I’m totally unaffected by it.
What’s enjoyable about watching an autopsy?
Seeing the human body in a new way. We don’t like to pay that kind of attention to our bodies. We like to see ourselves as somehow disembodied or less physical and less animal. When you see someone’s face peeled off or their scalp getting peeled back, you go, Alright, the human body is a very physical thing.