On the Cannes Croisette last year it was a treat to walk behind the considerable shadows of Canadian auteur David Cronenberg, 70, and his equally tall son, Brandon, 32, as they headed to deliver a special father-son discussion for the press. Far from riding on his father's coattails, Brandon was in Cannes to present his debut feature, the sci-fi horror drama Antiviral, in the Un Certain Regard program, while his father had his hands full promoting his competition entry, Cosmopolis, starring Robert Pattinson.
by participating in that culture we make ourselves diseased
When I speak with Brandon the following day, he proves to be just as mild-mannered as his father and is polite when the inevitable question is asked. I suggest that Antiviral is more like his father's earlier work, particularly 1982's Videodrome, where videos were inserted into bodies as viruses are here.
“Obviously a lot of people have made that comparison and I am not sure what to say,” he responds, sporting a nose ring and pierced eyebrow and looking far less formal than his tweed-wearing dad. “We are both pretty geeky and technology is very interesting to both of us. We share some interests and that's probably a result of him being my father.”
Spare and clinical, shot in monochrome and with the mostly fair-headed characters living amidst white walls, Antiviral follows Syd March (hip Texan actor Caleb Landry Jones) as he steals celebrity viruses from the company he works for and accidentally becomes infected because his mode of transportation is by injecting them inside his own body. He has, in fact, been infected with the virus of superstar beauty Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon, from his father's A Dangerous Method and Cosmopolis) and it proves particularly sinister.
Initially, Brandon explains how he had resisted becoming a filmmaker and says he was a book nerd, with an interest in music and writing, though ultimately “filmmaking seemed like a good way to focus all that scattered energy into one thing”.
He had worked in the special effects department of his father's 1999 film, eXistenZ. “It was a lot of making umbilical cords and airbrushing lizards,” he recalls with a smile of the film, which exerts its influence here. The inspiration for Antiviral came in 2004 when Brandon, who admits he has “a really bad immune system,” became very sick.
“I have been writing Antiviral since 2004, around the time I started film school,” he notes. “I was having this fever dream and I was obsessing over my body and the physicality of illness. I had something in my body and in my cells that had come from someone else's body and I thought there was a strange intimacy into that connection. You could imagine a celebrity-obsessed fan might want a physical connection to the object of their obsession to the point where sharing something with the celebrity, like transferring their cells, could be seen as a very erotic thing.” (The film needed some sex, he says, so the injection of live viruses became the substitute penetration shots.)
Still, he says that the film is not just about modern celebrity culture but relates to a broader human impulse that you can find in religion and royalty, way back to the time of the Pharaohs.
“To elevate people and then to often tear them apart is a wider human tendency that has existed throughout the ages,” he says. “Now I think technology allows people to put their image everywhere and I think that's part of the process of transforming people into icons.”
While he admits to personally growing up around a lot of famous people, he won't name anyone who impressed him. Perhaps he was immune to such adulation?
“It's easy to imagine that I am completely detached from that and above it. But I think everyone is defined by that culture. Sure, I think having some insight into that has changed my perspective because there is a sense in which celebrities are not really into the people that they are based on; they are cultural constructs. But I didn't mean for the film to be a singular statement against celebrity. I was hoping it would be a bit more of a discussion, but it is critical of that culture and is satirical. So I guess the disease metaphor was that by participating in that culture we make ourselves diseased. It was more about that.”
While clearly cerebral like his academic father, Brandon explains that his dad had nothing to do with the production, apart from watching the movie a couple of times when it was completed. “He was busy promoting A Dangerous Method at the time though offered encouragement.”
Filmmaking is nonetheless a family affair. “We're a close family,” says Brandon, whose sister Caitlin worked on the film in a number of capacities, including as stills photographer. His dad has met their mother, his second wife Carolyn Zeifman, when she was a production assistant on Rabid. Interesting for us is that his Toronto-based Australian girlfriend Jill Krasnicki has her track 'Unity' (from her second EP, A Wave to Wash the World Away) featured in the film. Her music project is Animalia, which she has said “is such a beautiful word, and it reminds us that we are all animals; we all live under the same scientific kingdom, Animalia.” They seem like a good match.
When I ask about his heavy-duty shoes, Cronenberg is excited to tell me that he has just visited Tasmania where Krasnicki is from. “We were going on a walk and I needed some proper shoes. We went up to Cradle Mountain and stayed up there for a few days. It's pretty amazing.”
After Cannes, the film had its North American premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, and by that time Cronenberg had trimmed six minutes off the film. It was necessary to excise one of his favourite scenes to keep up the pace he told The Toronto Sun.
“It kept me up for weeks, even after I made the decision,” he confessed. “I had horrible insomnia because it was agony to take that stuff out. But it's just that, at the end of the day, the new version is a better film.”
Antiviral screens at the Gold Coast Film Festival on April 20 and in select cinemas in Melbourne from April 25.