With his debut feature Antiviral, writer and director Brandon Cronenberg looks to establish a name for himself as a thoughtful stylist. His suspense thriller – which played earlier this year at Cannes and TIFF, where it would share the prize for best Canadian debut feature – takes a stark and only slightly futuristic look at a world where celebrity culture has become so prominent that even the viruses and illnesses of the rich and famous become big business and widely traded.
Conceived while he was sick, Cronenberg spent many years getting his vision off the ground. The Ryerson University graduate then set a course to get the film made while he was still studying for his MA and for a long while after the initial disease that sparked his creativity was over. After crafting the short film Broken Tulips (which also played TIFF several years ago), Antiviral became part of a slate of films developed by Rhombus Media (home of Hobo with a Shotgun and many of Paul Gross’ productions) designed to help first time filmmakers with clear visions to work without limitations.
Oh, yeah, and David Cronenberg is his dad. That’s the one thing we didn’t talk about with Brandon shortly before the TIFF debut of Antiviral inside a boardroom at the Rhombus offices since pretty much everyone on Earth was asking that. Instead, we talked about how illness can inform creativity, celebrity culture as a form of sickness, and the film’s tightly controlled and coloured production design.
Dork Shelf: One of the things that I found most interesting about the film that I found out while I was reading up on it was that you came up with the movie while you were sick, and I know that for me personally some of the best and most creative work that I do comes when I’m either feeling sick or hungover because that sense of creativity really forces you to focus on something else rather than feeling awful. Was that sort of a similar feeling that you had and what was it like trying to work through that? Was it kind of like a fever dream almost?
Brandon Cronenberg: Yeah, I get that. In this case it was more one specific thought that I was having. I guess it was sort of like a fever dream. It was a flu fuelled obsession with the physicality of illness. I was lying there sick because I had something physically in my body and in my cells that had come from someone else’s body. At the time I found that to be an incredibly intimate connection. So that was kind of the basis of it, then the rest of it was another idea I had. I do agree with you, though, that sometimes being sick or even hungover like you said, your perspective gets kind of skewed and that habituation that you kind of force upon yourself can be a great source of creativity.
For this it was the actual obsession with this disease that I had, and that kind of seemed like an interesting thing to explore; the intimacy of disease. Then eventually it seemed like a good metaphor for celebrity.
DS: This is your first feature film and I remember reading that you said you were a bit panicked going in, but you were also making a film that has elements of a suspense thriller and a mystery to it. Do you think that your own personal feelings helped out to heighten the tension of the film in any way?
BC: Maybe. I don’t know. I wouldn’t say I was panicked going in. I would say that I had generally high anxiety. (laughs) Kind of like any human being, I guess. But weirdly, I think I worked out all my anxieties in the film pretty early on. I feel like I shouldn’t be comfortable making films, but for some reason maybe being on set is just such a different alternate reality that it makes me feel comfortable.
DS: It’s also a set where you get a chance to create an alternate reality for yourself and for the audience. You’re stepping into a world of your own creation every day. It’s one thing to write and direct your own thing, and it’s a different kind of recognition when you see it there in front of you for the first time. What was that feeling like?
BC: It’s pretty magical. I hated being excited by it because it seems so clichéd and lame. (laughs) But it is pretty exciting because I had been writing it for eight years, and to finally start putting faces to characters and to be able to touch the machines that I had written was pretty exciting.
DS: Once you’ve set this world up for these characters to be in, you set up an interesting take on the corporatization of celebrity culture in this semi-futuristic film, but a lot of the concepts in the film – like people bootlegging viruses and trying to get closer to their favourite stars by eating meat made from their skin cells – seem thematically and symbolically plausible today. Especially today with the internet now and with the availability of information seems to be forging what some people might think is a biological connection. Was the internet ever something that was on your mind when crafting this world?
BC: Yeah! I think especially the imagery today like seeing nude photos taken from someone’s phone. I think that definitely the internet has made that sort of thing way more invasive and way more personal. And, yeah, I think the film plays sort of like a future world, but I thought about it more of being an altered sort of present; a slightly caricatured version of our culture.
DS: Celebrity culture really can be taken as sort of an illness or a mental imbalance on both the side of the fan and the person being idolized. It’s kind of a form of infectious madness at times. Was that something that was really driving the use of a virus to forward a sense of closeness?
BC: Yeah, that’s one of the central metaphor; that by participating in this culture we make ourselves diseased and it affects and changes us. With our main character he has this sort of detachment that he has to have to keep up appearances and his job, but he has this virus that he can still allow him to feel somehow superior while he’s deteriorating. He’s completely tied into this culture now.
DS: The production design is fascinating and I have no idea how you kept the whites as perfect as you did because I can imagine that could be a pain at times…
BC: (laughs) Sometimes, yeah. Actually, very interestingly, it led to three different versions of the colour correction on the film. We were working with this great colourist, Jim Flemming, and we shot this on film just as it was sort of on its way out, and it’s interesting when you’re colour correcting when making a film print that you can’t really get pure whites. Even when you’re correcting a digital version made from the negative, you still have to work with the actual way the film looked. First we went through it for film and all the whites were a little blue or a little yellow, so we went back for the video version and we completely balanced it to get the whites looking pure so when it’s screened for digital it has this sort of whiteness that you just can’t get for film.
DS: With Caleb Landry Jones he also has sort of this freckled face that offsets him against the whites all around him ever so slightly, but with Sara Gadon who plays someone usually in hotel rooms and surrounded by extra colours she’s made to look as pale as possible. Was that more of your vision or more the casting process?
BC: I definitely wanted paleness in the actors for that reason, and, you know, the sickliness of the look around them is something you can run with as an aesthetic choice. With Caleb, it was a little bit of both, plus he has red hair so there’s that red and white again that the design does. We set it up that way initially and then Caleb came along and it just sort of happened nicely that this was the end result. With Sara, I think the reason you’re seeing that paleness is because the whole film is desaturated a little. That worked out really well, and we did have some great make-up artists, but the desaturation when you’re looking at already pale people makes it stand out, but really I think it was only about 25% of the colour that we took out to really emphasize that.
DS: It isn’t a very big budget film, but what sort of limitations did you have between what you envisioned and what you were capable of doing?
BC: Budget wise there wasn’t too much I had to work around. I mean, there’s no sci-fi big budget epic version of this script kicking around. (laughs) I always meant for it to be slightly magical, but not huge and bombastic. This is the third big first time feature production that Rhombus has done, and part of what they’re trying to do for these productions is provide them with a great deal of resources. I think we had $3.2 million or so, which was great for a first time feature. We had some limitations, though. We still only had 21 or 22 days of shooting…
DS: Which even that is pretty good…
BC: (laughs) Yeah, it really is. Compared to major films it’s not, but compared to other films of this size it was grateful that I had a lot to work with.