Brandon Cronenberg interview: Antiviral, celebrities and sci-fi

With his debut feature Antiviral out in UK cinemas now, we spoke to writer and director Brandon Cronenberg about his disturbing movie...

Offering up a distorted view of present-day reality, Brandon Cronenberg’s Antiviral is a queasy satire about celebrity obsession. Caleb Landry Jones plays a young salesman at a clinic which offers its customers a means of getting closer to their screen idols – by selling celebrity diseases. This unsettling premise is supported by a magnetic performance by Landry Jones, and assured, cooly detached direction by Cronenberg.

With Antiviral out in UK cinemas now, we met with the filmmaker to chat about the making of his debut feature, celebrity culture, science fiction, plus the influence of his father’s filmmaking.

I was struck by the surety of Antiviral as a debut. Was that the case behind the scenes, or were you quite nervous about your first feature?

Um, I don’t know – I kind of forget actually. It was both nerve-racking and weird. I’m quite a high-anxiety person, so that kind of continued through, but I don’t know – maybe because I was working with a really good group of people, and there was a good atmosphere on set, I didn’t feel as freaked out as I thought I would.

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How did you go about casting Caleb Landry Jones, because he’s great.

Yeah, I love Caleb. I’d seen him in X-Men: First Class, and he was actually the kid at the end of No Country For Old Men, on the bicycle. But because those were such unrelated movies, I didn’t really have him in mind until we saw his reel during pre-production. We were looking at his reel, and saw an audition he’d done for a previous film, and we all got really, really excited, because he has this quality that makes certain actors fascinating to watch.

You know, he’s a nuanced physical actor, and he had some exciting weird thing about him. So his agent knew my producer, so he was reading the script as we were getting excited about him. And he liked the script, so he flew to Toronto, and this was his first time in Canada. We both had a long talk, and we were both very happy with each other, I think. 

It must have been a tough role for him to play, because he’s required to be ill from the first shot, and increasingly so as the film goes on.

I never had to push him. He would always push himself – sometimes further than we were comfortable with. We’d have to reel him in, because we were worried hurt himself; we’d say, “No, you have to wear pads – you’re not going to throw yourself on a concrete floor.”

He really is the kind of actor who likes to feel it and run with it, which made my job very easy, because I could just pick and choose what I wanted. There was no issue of having to get something out of him – by the time we’d finished, we could almost have cut three different characters [from what we had], just because he gave us so much material, and so much to work with.

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He treads the line, doesn’t he, in that he’s a quite amoral character. So was that something you explored in the edit?

He was always that character. He was complex, funny, maybe a little more wise-crack-y. He was always an antihero, though. It almost becomes a monster movie, where he’s the creature, in a way.

He reminded me of Richard the Third.

Richard the Third?

Yeah. That hunched, disturbing presence.

It’s like some of the silent movies, people keep saying. People see Caligari in there. [Caleb] loves those films – he wasn’t trying to deliberately mimic them, I don’t think, but he was affected by them. That body language, that physical nuance.

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The concept is fascinating. I read somewhere that it might be inspired by Sarah Michelle Gellar. Is that right?

It was actually while were editing – a friend sent me this YouTube video of Sarah Michelle Gellar on Jimmy Kimmel, saying she couldn’t sing because she had a cold. She said, “I could sing, but I’d infect all of you,” and the audience opened up in applause. I thought, we have to finish this film quick, or it’s obsolete as a work of satire, you know? [Laughs] It was practically a documentary at that point. But we were already done shooting by then. 

So where did the inspiration for it come from?

It started with an interesting disease, I guess. I started writing it in film school, which means I took eight years to write it, on and off. I was sick with the flu, and I had this fever dream. I was obsessing over the physical nature of my illness, and how I had something in my body that had come from someone else’s body, and how that was a weirdly intimate thing, if you think about it that way.

So afterwards, I was trying to think about a character who might see disease as an intimate thing. I thought a celebrity-obsessed fan might reasonably want Angelina Jolie’s cold as a way of feeling physically connected to her in some way. And then it developed into a metaphor, which I thought was an interesting way of discussing that culture.

Do you think celebrity culture’s changed? That we don’t have Hollywood idols anymore, but are obsessed over celebrities at a more base level?

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I think there’s always been a bit of that, even when they were idols. I’m talking about celebrity obsession as a broader human impulse – the saints, say. There’s the iconography, the fetishism in the same way, like the finger bones, the relics from dead saints. So I don’t think the way we see celebrities has completely changed, but sure, maybe there is a more bodily invasive desire – magazines ask who has the worst cellulite this summer. But the mania that surrounds them, in the sense that they’re deified, is huge still. So there’s that dual impulse to elevate them and to rip them to pieces.

What has really changed is the rate at which we consume media. It produces celebrity extremely quickly. Often, for no other reason than to become visible – it’s not a novel observation, but people become famous for doing pretty much nothing, and their job becomes being famous. Paris Hilton was the obvious tipping point where that became a big part of the discussion – why did everyone suddenly care about Paris Hilton? Because she became visible; she became famous for being famous.

So I think the rate of that is increasing, and that industry is becoming increasingly insular. The difference between now and the golden age of Hollywood is that the star system was put in place to sell movies – it was connected to a creative act. A star system could be considered dubious, because it’s connected to the business side of the creative act rather than the art, but now the creative act has fallen to the side, and we’re left with reality television and other forms of entertainment that don’t really require anything else. The system can produce the celebrities, make a huge amount of money, then discard them. 

I wonder if that idea’s reflected in the set design, because aside from one scene – I think it may have been an office – nobody has any art. There are no books. Nobody seems to own anything. Was that your intention?

Yes, absolutely. And the celebrities note that there’s never any discussion of why they’re famous. They’re just famous. It’s just this entirely insular world that is unrelated to anything besides fame.

There was a quite Lynchian moment, too, where curtain is pulled back and a character appears to address us directly. I was wondering if you could tell me what your thinking was behind that, because I thought it was quite striking.

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I was trying to think of the various ways that people could make money out of celebrities. The character Levine says, “We’re all rats here. We’re all scavenging the bin.” I think there’s a fantasy over having control over celebrities – people who want some sort of dominance, some position of power over people who in reality they have no power over. Because to have power over them will elevate them somehow. So there’s this character who makes money by exploiting that fantasy of power, which I think is very connected to certain forms of celebrity news – that idea of power, to see Kate’s vagina, or whatever. It’s voyeurism, a power that comes from being on the invasive side of the equation.

Were you hinting at a certain element of hatred, as well, from the public toward celebrities? Where beneath the adulation, there’s also resentment?

Absolutely. There’s resentment, for sure. There’s resentment and also there’s the fantasy of being them. It’s a very perverse position, because the reason they have that status is because of other people – it’s a collaboration. One of the lines in the film is “celebrity is a collaboration” – and it is. People become famous because they’re visible, and if they’re visible, other people make money out of them. We choose to participate in that culture.

You grew up with a celebrity of a different kind, of course. Did growing up with a world-famous film director feed into your film as well?

Yeah, for sure. Being able to see… one theme in the film is that divide between celebrities as media constructs, and then the human being, which is almost completely unrelated, in a way. That celebrity is a fiction in the media, and then there’s the animal underneath, which is living and dying and decaying. Again, it’s not that I think that the existence of that divide is a novel observation – a lot of people recognise that. Not everyone – because part of the industry feeds off people who imagines that these stories about celebrities are true – but when you see personally just how wide that gap is, and how extreme the difference is between someone’s public persona and how they are as a human being, it still manages to be shocking.

How much do you think your father’s films have influenced your filmmaking?

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I didn’t see much of my father’s films until I was in my 20s because they weren’t age appropriate – and I haven’t seen all of them. The ones I have seen, I’ve mostly seen once. That’s because I’m too close to them, and too close to him to have the perspective, to be influenced by them in the way people usually mean. I can’t see them neutrally.

He’s my father, so I’m very influenced by  him in that sense. We have some of the same genes, I grew up with him and have a close relationship with him – I’ve never rejected him as a means of rebellion. So he’s definitely influenced who I am and my interests, but I wasn’t influenced by his films or him as a filmmaker, because I just don’t have that relationship with them. 

His influence is all over the place, isn’t it? The day before I saw Antiviral, coincidentally, I rewatched the Japanese film Tetsuo.

The Iron Man!

Yes, and Body Hammer, too, the second one.

Great films.

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Horribly beautiful. But you can see that influence. It goes round and round.

Exactly. It becomes part of the culture. And also, my father’s had a very long career, and it’s interesting when people draw those comparisons and say, “Oh, it’s so obvious.” He’s done quite a wide range of things – more recently, say, he’s done crime films like Eastern Promises. So it would be hard, I think, to make a film and avoid anything he’s touched on in his career anyway. I just decided, when I got into film, to not think about his career one way or another, to just do what was interesting to me, and try not to think about what people would say after the fact, because it would be just paralysing and impossible to work from an honest place.

Where can you see your career going next? This is obviously just an early step for you.

Uh, hopefully! I hope I can make another film. It actually came out today in Canada, so I’m not sure how it’s done. But at least it’s been getting into some decent festivals. I’m writing something now that’s still in the early stages, so I don’t have much to say about it, but yeah, I’d really like to make another film, and work with a lot of the same people who worked with me on this one, because I really liked working with them.

Do you think you’ll continue along the same vein, which fuses elements of horror and science fiction?

Probably, a bit. I wasn’t specifically trying to work within one particular genre when I was making this film.

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It’s several different genres at once, isn’t it? It tips over into detective or hard-boiled territory at one point.

We tried to go a bit noir with it. I don’t know. Given what I’m thinking about, it will probably have some science fiction elements and horror elements, but at the same time, it won’t be extreme sci-fi. It won’t be space ships. It’ll be light sci-fi with some horror stuff, depending on how it goes – I’m not totally sure yet.

We’ve had a real renaissance in science fiction lately in any case – Looper, Safety Not Guaranteed and so on.

Yeah, science fiction is so great for discussing material, because you exaggerate it a little bit, and it casts a new perspective on what’s already there, because you’ve slightly skewed it. It can be a very useful tool for examining human society.

If it were offered, could you imagine going down a more mainstream route? Could you imagine being part of the Hollywood superhero movie system?

I don’t think so. I feel like there’s a sweet spot where you have enough money to do what you want to do, especially within genre, usually – and you need a bit more money for effects.  And beyond that, you have so much money that you start to lose control. I was fortunate enough to have a lot of control over this film. I wouldn’t want to make a studio film because I’m not confident that I’d have control over it. Maybe that changes when you have a long career and you’re well established, but it’s all about control. I think it’d be very frustrating to have to make too many people happy without being able to make the film that you want.

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Brandon Cronenberg, thank you very much.

Antiviral is out now in selected UK cinemas, with its home release to follow on the 11th February.

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