Bran­don Cro­nen­berg on bring­ing disease to celebrity cul­ture,

With his first fea­ture Antiviral, Bran­don Cro­nen­berg is liv­ing the maxim ‘like fa­ther like son’. “Dad has had a very long and var­ied ca­reer,” he tells Don­ald Clarke. “Al­most any­thing I did would gen­er­ate com­par­isons”

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Eight months ago, sit­ting on a windy bal­cony in Cannes, I asked David Cro­nen­berg what he thought when he heard his son’s first fea­ture had made it into that fes­ti­val’s Un Cer­tain Re­gard com­pe­ti­tion. “It took me 20 years to get to Cannes and he did it with his first film,” he said through com­i­cally grit­ted teeth. “No, as a fa­ther, I was, of course, de­lighted.”

Bran­don Cro­nen­berg – a neat, dark young man with a stoner’s hes­i­tant de­liv­ery – laughs shal­lowly when he hears this story. “Yeah, I think he was proud,” he says. “Ac­tu­ally, We have a pretty good re­la­tion­ship. I’m sure he didn’t really mind.”

If Bran­don cares about putting clear blue (or bloody red) water be­tween him­self and his fa­ther, then it doesn’t show in that first film. Antiviral imag­ines a uni­verse in which ob­ses­sive fans will­ingly seek out dis­eases re­cently con­tracted by their favourite singers, movie stars and TV per­son­al­i­ties. Shot in the di­rec­tor’s na­tive Toronto, the pic­ture car­ries traces of early Cana­dian hor­ror movies by David such as Shiv­ers, Ra­bid and The Brood. Sticky bod­ily flu­ids ad­here to cold blue sur­faces. Des­per­ate ma­ni­acs bleed angst in a god­less ur­ban hell. You know how those things went.

Any­way, Bran­don clearly didn’t feel the need to make a quaint pe­riod drama as a way of dis­tanc­ing him­self from dad. “But he just made a pe­riod drama.” True. David re­leased A Dan­ger­ous Method last year. But that was hardly a typ­i­cal Cro­nen­berg project.

“There are echoes, and some of those com­par­isons are fair,” Bran­don says. “But most are over­stated. He has had a very long and var­ied ca­reer. Al­most any­thing I did would gen­er­ate com­par­isons. But if I ac­tively tried to avoid copy­ing him, then I would still be defin­ing my ca­reer by his.”

Was the se­nior Cro­nen­berg able to stop med­dling in his son’s pro­duc­tion? He did not, I hope, turn up to make con­stant crit­i­cisms of the fram­ing.

“He wasn’t even in Canada at the time,” Bran­don says. “He was shoot­ing overseas, so, no he never showed up on set. Hang on! What kind of par­ent is that? Ha ha!”

Son to David’s sec­ond and cur­rent wife Carolyn Zeif­man, Bran­don was born in 1980 and has spent most of his life in and around the in­creas­ingly hip en­vi­rons of Toronto. (Mak­ing a slightly un­happy face, he notes that style watch­ers are for­ever declar­ing that city “the next Seat­tle”.) As a youth, he did make some at­tempt to avoid tak­ing up the fam­ily busi­ness. His ear­li­est am­bi­tion was to be a writer. Then he had no­tions of be­com­ing an il­lus­tra­tor.

“Yeah, and I was play­ing in bands. I was try­ing to do too much,” he drawls. “I needed to pick some­thing I could fo­cus my life upon. Film seemed like a way of gath­er­ing it all to­gether. All those things are very sat­is­fy­ing. And this way I could do them all as part of that job. It turned out I was wrong. Film is its own thing. It’s some­thing dif­fer­ent and it doesn’t ac­tu­ally help you sat­isfy all those needs.”

Bran­don spent some time in film school, made a few shorts and be­gan plot­ting his as­sault on fea­ture cin­ema. Though Antiviral does throw up un­canny re­minders of ear­lier, first-gen­er­a­tion Cro­nen­ber­gia – if Bran­don was no re­la­tion, com­par­isons would still be made – it must be ad­mit­ted that Antiviral is based around an im­pres­sively orig­i­nal high con­cept. Its cyn­i­cal an­ti­heroes flog viruses that have re­cently spent time in­con­ve­nienc­ing celebri­ties. The idea came to Bran­don over an un­com­fort­able, damp week­end.

“I had just started film school and I had the flu,” he re­mem­bers. “I was hav­ing a semi­con­scious fever dream. It struck me what a weirdly in­ti­mate thing a virus is. It ac­tu­ally comes from within some­body else. I started to think about an ob­sessed fan who might want An­gelina Jolie’s cold or what­ever. That seemed like an in­ter­est­ing metaphor to dis­cuss celebrity.”

It is a gen­uinely fas­ci­nat­ing con­cept. The recre­ational pa­tient can ex­pe­ri­ence the same aches and ef­fu­sions that have been plagu­ing his or her favourite movie star. Cro­nen­berg uses the con­ceit to make some in­ter­est­ing points about the sleek patina of mod­ern celebrity. Antiviral is of­ten prop­erly dis­gust­ing. It is some time since I’ve seen a film that fea­tured so much vom­it­ing up of blood. It is more com­mon to em­u­late the fa­mous by buy­ing their sig­na­ture per­fume or copy­ing their hand­bag.

“Yes. There is a rea­son that I made it so dis­gust­ing,” he says. “There is some­thing grotesque about that cul­ture. So I made it vis­ually grotesque. It’s a cul­ture that fetishises the body. So I wanted the film to high­light the dif­fer­ence be­tween that fetish and the re­al­ity. The hu­man body is de­cay­ing. It’s dy­ing. We shit.”

All things that are not sup­posed to af­fect, say, Ms Jolie? “For sure. Her me­dia con­struct doesn’t do those things. Many peo­ple are fear­ful of their bod­ies. They don’t like to con­sider that stuff.”

Once again, we drift into fam­ily con­cerns. Few the­ses on “body hor­ror” get through their first para­graphs with­out men­tion­ing David Cro­nen­berg. Dad was, I would imag­ine, an in­flu­ence on Antiviral in an­other fash­ion. Bran­don grew up in a house that was con­stantly vis­ited by celebri­ties. He’s seen them eat­ing pota­toes and drink­ing beer (and, pre­sum­ably, ob­served them re­treat­ing to the lava­tory af­ter­wards.) He, there­fore, has some grasp of the gap be­tween re­al­ity and per­cep- tion in th­ese ar­eas. In­deed, his dad has been a vic­tim of such mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tions. The god­fa­ther of con­tem­po­rary hor­ror is the most mild-man­nered, well-spo­ken and qui­etly spo­ken of in­di­vid­u­als.

“That’s right. One theme of Antiviral is the di­vide be­tween the real life of celebri­ties and this imag­ined fan­tas­tic life they lead. It’s not a novel idea. But if you have ex­pe­ri­enced it first hand, then the di­vide be­comes quite shock­ing.”

And he has no­ticed that di­vide in me­dia re­sponses to David?

“Yes. As I say, it’s ob­vi­ous. But it’s shock­ing when it’s right there in front of you. Peo­ple really do re­gard the me­dia myths as be­ing true. That be­comes the ac­cepted life his­tory. That really is a prob­lem in so­ci­ety.” And Antiviral is the an­ti­dote? “I don’t know about that. Maybe.”

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