Antiviral, writer-director Brandon Cronenberg’s debut feature, posits a future in which celebrity culture has mutated to an extreme that is at once a high-tech and a profoundly intimate nightmare.
It is also a return to the themes of body horror as ushered into light so many years ago by his father, David Cronenberg. There is something of Shivers and Crimes of the Future certainly in the subject matter explored, but from a different generational perspective, with different eyes and hands creating this not-too-distant future state as either a warning or a certain prediction. Cronenberg recently sat down with Dread Central to offer some remarks on the filmmaking process and the origin of the film’s themes and subtext.
The genesis of Antiviral was brought on by a real-life circumstance of the writer-director. “Well, I was sick,” Cronenberg remembers. “It was the beginning of film school, 2004, and I was obsessing over the physicality of my illness and the fact that I had something physically in my body that had come from someone else’s body and how that was an intimate thing if you think about it that way. I was trying to think of a character who would see disease as something intimate, and a celebrity-obsessed fan might reasonably see disease desirable if it came from somebody they were obsessed with and want that disease as a way of being physically connected to them. So it kind of developed into a metaphor. I thought it was an interesting frame to talk about that culture. Once I started thinking about celebrity-obsessed fans wanting diseases, it kind of shifted into that kind of discussion of that culture.”
That dystopian culture is not quite so far off as one might prefer to think Cronenberg reports. “The technology is a real thing…You could, so easily, take a cell off of Britney Spears and grow it, so it’s a small step to imagine—for all I know, someone’s tried to do this for kicks already. And I just liked the idea of celebrity consumption being literal consumption.” The ritually cannibalistic, transubstantiative aspects of Antiviral’s central conceit suggest themes beyond merely the technological and the physical. “Celebrity obsession relates to religion. You look at sainthood; it’s the same thing in a way, the way people are elevated almost to the status of gods, and the repetition of images and the physical fetishism of the relics and people claiming to have finger bones from such and such saint…”
Antiviral’s lead, Caleb Landry Jones, gives a striking performance as an increasingly desperate man seeking to solve a mystery and to save his own life. Cronenberg is effusive about his lead actor: “I can’t say enough good things about him. His agent had worked with my producer on a past film, and when we were searching around for people, he said, ‘Oh, hey, why don’t you take a look at Caleb?’ And so we saw a bunch of clips from things that he’d been in, an audition he’d done for another film. He’s just so exciting. He’s just one of those actors that have that special something and you look at him and he’s immediately interesting. Even if he’s doing something totally mundane, he somehow turns it into something interesting, and so we wanted him.”
According to the director, Jones’ acting is informed by the actor’s passionate love for film, especially German Expressionist and comedies from the early days of cinema: “He consumes films at a huge rate. He’s way more knowledgeable about film than I am, and he’s ten years younger than me. So he’s coming from a place where he does a lot of that old silent film thing. You can see it in his acting; he’s a very physical actor. Directing him, we talked a lot before we started shooting about the character, and he’s very dedicated and would read and re-read the script and catch things that even I’d forgotten about!”
“For example, there’s one shot, I remember, we were about halfway through the shooting, and after we did the take, he said, ‘Brandon did you like the word I chose? What do you think about me twitching my eye on that word?’ And I was like, first of all it was a wide shot, so I didn’t see that his eye twitched, but I didn’t realize… I mean, as we went on, I realized just how much control over his body that he had. He was picking points in the dialogue to have this little tic and so he had a very detailed technique to take his acting to a strange and wonderful degree. It made it easy to work with him because he just gave me tons of stuff. I would say a little, ‘Do this, do that,’ give him a little direction between takes, but it wasn’t like I had to draw this performance out of him or anything. He’s just really good.”
Cronenberg’s stimulating collaborative experience didn’t just involve those in front of the camera but also included those behind the lens. Like his director father, David, Brandon prefers to keep the shooting process fresh and improvisatory, which makes maintaining a clear connection with his crew essential. “I never storyboard because I don’t like to have that specific an idea before I get there because I feel like it’s more fun to find it. Also once sometimes you have an idea and then you get there and when you’re with the actors and the sets, it changes everything anyway… [Cinematographer] Karim Hussain came into town like a month before pre-production, and we meticulously went through the script and created a very theoretical shot list because we had no actors or anything, but it was just a way of creating the rules, and we were discussing how and what we wanted to do with it. So we had this general idea, and every night we would have dinner with Karim and [First Assistant Director] Rob Cotterill, and I would say, ‘Here are the shots that I’m kind of thinking of,’ and ask if they had any better ideas that they wanted to add.”
Cronenberg finds his collaborators to be a vital resource not only for creative ideas, but also for practical ones: “I mean, I think you need a strong sense of what you’re going to do, but at the end of the day it’s about making the film as good as possible, and if you’re working with good people, sometimes they come with great ideas and you should be open to that. Or there were practical things. I would say, ‘Let’s do fifty shots,’ and Rob would say, ‘Um, we’re going to run out of time so why don’t we prioritize and…’ We referred to Rob as ‘The Adult’ because he understands adult things like that.”
DP Hussain played an essential role in achieving the distinctive look of Antiviral: “He’s a better made Swiss Army knife of cinematographers…He’s technically very skilled so there’s no problem there, but he also strikes a good balance where he has his own good ideas but uses them to support your ideas. He gets very quickly, in my experience, what I was talking about, and it was like, ‘Oh, okay, here are all these other amazing ideas that are linked to that aesthetic and stuff that we can talk about.’ So he was just a great collaborator. He wasn’t a passive technician, but at the same time he wasn’t overbearing and trying to impose his own will.”
With Antiviral Cronenberg establishes himself as a challenging and provocative new writer-director, one interested in using the medium to explore uncomfortable social and psychological terrain. “I wanted to become a filmmaker partly because I needed a job. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I was writing and drawing. I wanted to be a visual artist. And I wanted to write novels and be a musician, and at a certain point I realized that was a very bad approach because you can’t get good at all of that stuff so I thought that film would be a good way to collect all of that. So I went to film school.”
“I think that there’s part of film, and the making of film, that reflects what we do in our day-to-day lives that we take these various experiences and we sew them together into narratives and we see causality in the world, but we’re not really seeing causality directly; it’s all in our heads. And that I find really interesting—that if you take two images, which are shot at different times, and are actual documents, because, even when you’re not making a documentary, every time you’re filming something, you’re documenting it. And the fact that you can cut those documented moments together and they connect to each other and the mind fuses them into some kind of causal narrative is pretty interesting to me. So I’m interested in the fact that it’s an art form based on the play of documented moments in order to trick the mind.”
Antiviral (review here) stars Caleb Landry Jones, Sarah Gadon, Malcolm McDowell, Douglas Smith, Matt Watts, and James Cade.
Antiviral follows Syd March, an employee at a clinic that sells injections of live viruses harvested from sick celebrities to obsessed fans. Biological communion – for a price. Syd also supplies illegal samples of these viruses to piracy groups, smuggling them from the clinic in his own body. When he becomes infected with the disease that kills super sensation Hannah Geist, Syd becomes a target for collectors and rabid fans. He must unravel the mystery surrounding her death before he suffers the same fate.
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