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”
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.”