Interview: Brandon Cronenberg on Giving Horror a Transfusion With “Antiviral”

Brandon Cronenberg has had a surreal couple of days. A day after he walked the red carpet at the Toronto Film Festival inside the auditorium at Ryerson University where he was once a student, he’s at the Intercontinental Hotel performing a post-mortem, otherwise known as a press day.

“I’m not even sure if you’re real,” Cronenberg says to me, half-jokingly after confessing not to have slept for the past 72 hours. “Is this a hotel? Is this my apartment? Am I in an alley somewhere talking to a cat? I don’t mean that as an insult. I like cats a lot.”

For Cronenberg, who the film’s producer Niv Fichman called “the shyest kid I’ve ever met” in a warm introduction before “Antiviral” debuted in front of the hometown crowd, this is hardly normal. Then again, perhaps it’s just desserts for pushing people out of their comfort zone as naturally as he does in his feature debut. 

Based on his short “Broken Tulips,” Cronenberg has crafted a film as incisive as one of the knives used to cut “celebrity cell steaks” in his sci-fi-tinged first film, imagining a world where celebrity worship has reached the extreme of being able to purchase the common cold or worse from one’s favorite star. In “Antiviral,” it’s a big business for a company called the Lucas Clinic, where a young man named Syd (Caleb Landry Jones) works and soon becomes intrigued with an ingénue (Sarah Gadon) whose virus is as mysterious as she is famous.

Although genetic modification is common in the world Cronenberg creates in “Antiviral,” one that isn’t all that far removed from current reality with sterile clinics tucked inside neighborhoods with old fashioned butcher shops and bars, it’s clear Cronenberg has kept more than a few strands from his famous father David while carving out a unique voice of his own, boasting both a mordant wit and a knack for memorable imagery. While sorting through the daze of what was a very special evening, Cronenberg took the time to discuss the film’s origins, how filmmaking was not necessarily in his genes at first and how “Antiviral” evolved from its initial form.

How did the film come about?

It came about in 2004 when I was extremely sick. I was obsessing over the physicality of illness and how there was something in my body and in myself that comes from another person’s body. Afterwards, I was in the first year of film school and I was trying to look ahead to write a script and I started to think about a character who might see illness in that way as an intimate thing and that a celebrity obsessed fan might want a disease from the object of their obsession to have that kind of physical connection to it. From there, it just seemed like an interesting metaphor for talking about that culture in general.

You’ve said you initially envisioned Sid as an older character and Caleb Landry Jones certainly has a world weariness about him, even as a young man, but was it a big change in the story to cast someone younger?

It was interesting because I wrote it for a character in his early 30s and then when we saw Caleb, everyone was really excited about him. I wanted to cast him and adapt the character a bit to make him younger, but really, I don’t even think that we had to. We tweaked the script a little bit. It was originally meant to be a bit more higher up in the company or a little more like the right-hand man of Dorian, but the way Caleb played it, I actually got all of the stuff I wanted out of the older character. As you say, he doesn’t come off as a young kid or inexperienced.

Since Sarah’s character Hannah Geist appears largely in visions and scenes separate from Caleb, I understand much of it was shot first – did you have to go back and recalibrate?

It did. I had a really specific sense of what I wanted – I wanted to be like [what it ultimately turned out as], but a little different, being a bit more naturalistic and then when we started shooting, not just the stuff with Sarah, but even the first day or two of shooting with Caleb and the other actors and getting a sense of where the juiciest spot to be working from was, the approach changed as the film took on its own life. I wanted to run with what was feeling good and not fight it.

Sarah’s appeared in a couple of your father’s films and your composer E.C. Woodley is a cousin. Was there sort of a family that grew out of your actual family on this film?

I have this joke that I have a cousin bucket. There’s also Meredith, who worked in the art department, and it’s like every time I need something I’ve got a cousin for the job. But it wasn’t really a family affair. Not to get cheesy about it, but [it was more] the Rhombus family. My dad wasn’t involved in the production and it was more Niv [Fichman] of Rhombus doing this series of first-time feature films. He had this network of people that he knew that were all young but experienced, so he introduced me to people like [cinematographer] Karim Hussein or [first assistant director] Rob Cotterill, like great people and great brains to rub up against. So there is a sense of family with the first-time Rhombus features these days because a lot of those same people are all meeting each other and he’s breeding this community, which is exciting.

How did you get interested in filmmaking?

I was 24 years old and needed a job. [laughs] And it seemed like a good job. I was very scattered at the time — creatively scattered — and I was interested in writing prose and illustrating. I was drawing and painting and playing in bands and doing way too much and not focusing enough on any one thing. At a certain point, I realized I couldn’t do all that stuff well enough to get really good at it and if there was going to be any chance at getting good at something, it needed to be one thing that I could spend decades really focusing on, so film seemed like a good way to collect those interests into one artform that I could really just roll with and spend 40 years trying to make films and exploring that medium as a means of expression.

Was science fiction a genre that always appealed to you?

I grew up on a lot of sci-fi, both books and films and television. I have a very nerdy past of that stuff, but I wasn’t setting out specifically to be a sci-fi filmmaker. A lot of my creative impulses begin with growing up with that stuff and I’d lean towards science fiction and horror. I don’t think I’d want to make epic sci-fi films, but I like science fiction that uses the sci-fi elements to discuss other things.

“Antiviral” opens at the IFC Center in New York on April 12th and at the Downtown Independent in Los Angeles on April 19th. It will also be made available nationally on VOD on April 12th.

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