Canadian writer-director Brandon Cronenberg came out with a unique first film this year, Antiviral, about a man who works for a company that harvests diseases from celebrities and then injects them into paying clients.
A bizzare, surreal but a very well done and confident take on celebrity obsession, Antiviral premiered in the Un Certain Regard category at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival.
It has subsequently travelled across the world, winning the Gold Hugo award at the Chicago International Film Festival and the Best Canadian First Feature Film Award at the Toronto International Film Festival. In an exclusive interview, Brandon talks about making a fantasy horror film, the intimacy of illness, and his father, legendary filmmaker, David Cronenberg.
You mentioned in an interview that you decided to explore the celebrity obsession through illness because it’s more intimate than sex. Can you elaborate?
If you look at it in a certain way, illness is at least as intimate as sex in that, you know, it’s something that comes from someone else’s cells that penetrates your cells, and goes from their bodies into your bodies, so it is very sexual and very intimate. But I think we don’t see it that way because you often don’t know what it can do to you, so there’s a nervousness and there’s anxiety, but if you look at it in a certain way, you are passing something from one body to another body.
So if I just exaggerated the celebrity obsession phenomenon very slightly and connected it to the intimacy of illness, and talked about it with this new perspective, I thought it would be an interesting way of seeing things. So while I do think that Antiviral is a fantasy, it’s not very far-fetched in the sense that it’s sort of like our world, where we do comment on celebrity culture all the time, but it’s exaggerated very slightly, and I think that’s an interesting way of putting it.
What gave you the confidence to explore the subject within the limitations of indie budgets? How did you know the subject was good enough for your first film?
(Chuckles) Well it was the only script I had written at the time that I had the opportunity to make into a film, which is why I chose it. I mean I had a number of ideas and I’ve made some short films before, but this is the first full-fledged feature script I had written. But yeah, the subject is just something I found very interesting and I thought that the script turned out good, so I just went with it. And I think, you know, you just have to have confidence in what you are doing or hope for the best. Or else you become paralysed and can’t do anything. I fortunately had a lot of good people I was working with, so that made me more confident that we could do it together.
Apart from being a writer and director, you are also a painter and a musician. When you are writing a film, are you combining all these elements in your head, or do you tackle one beast at a time?
It’s a little of everything, I guess. When I’m writing, I just leave it open. Sometimes, I have a very specific image in mind, and sometimes I have very specific music in mind, and so I try to have as clear a sense what I want, as much as it’s possible. But when you start to make the film, everything changes, you know, because you suddenly have actors and they have their own interpretations, and it takes on its own life. So I try and be as clear in my mind as I can when I’m writing, and then I try not worrying too much if there are better things.
When I went to film school, this is actually the best advice I got at it: that at every stage of the film you look at what you have and you’ve got to make the best film you can with that. So, you know, you write the best film you can and when you have your script and when you have your actors on the sets, you look at that and you sort of shoot it in a way without worrying if you deviate too much, or if you come up with other ideas or certain other obstacles. And then you take the footage and keep looking at it at every stage with fresh eyes and letting it evolve until you have your final film.
Now that you mention it yourself, it’s curious that you felt the need to go to film school at all, since growing up with your father, David Cronenberg, one would assume he was all the film school you’d need.
I think, unless you are making a very specific kind of film, you can’t do it on your own. You are going to need to be plugged into a community, so a film school was a way of, you know, teaching yourself filmmaking because unless you have people to make films with, the process is very difficult. Film school gave me a period of time where I could meet other people who wanted to make films so we could all experiment with the equipment, and that’s why it was very important.
On the other hand, a lot of the films people make in films school haven’t really succeeded in that industry because ultimately, we’re learning in a very artificial environment. I think learning in an academic environment you can only teach yourself so much, but you actually have to learn filmmaking by simply doing it. So for me, going to my father’s sets or working on his film – I worked on Existenz in the special effects department – I think I got a sense of filmmaking and a sense of the process in the real world, and that was an advantage.
Since you’ve attempted horror with Antiviral, which is a genre done so well by your father, were you at any time worried about the fact that you’d be compared to his work?
Yeah, it occurred to me that would happen but I tried to ignore that because first of all, the film is representative of what’s interesting to me and what I wanted to do. So my filmmaking cannot be defined his filmmaking. Also, it would be difficult to do something he hasn’t done because he’s just done too much! And secondly, you know, he’s my father and we have love some of the same things, and I grew up with him, so it’s obvious our films, interests and aesthetics would overlap to a certain extent. So, for me, if I’ve got into a film, I have to worry about people as little as possible.
So is your father a proud dad after he sees your work, or does he get technical about it?
(Chuckles) Oh no, he was a very proud dad. But also, you know, in our family, I see early cuts of his films and I showed him my film, and since my mother’s a filmmaker and my sister’s a photographer, we all show each other our projects in advance.
How much importance do you give to external opinion for your film? I read that six minutes of your film was cut after its premiere at Cannes.
Well, the 6 minutes we cut was less because of outside feedback and more because we were rushing the film to get it done for Cannes, and we hadn’t had a chance to step away from it. And then we saw it again with fresh eyes, and noticed that there was obviously a part of it that we felt could change. But yes, the external point of view is a tricky thing. When you’ve tried to have a certain effect and communicate certain things, then at a certain point you need to start showing other people and seeing if they are getting what you are trying to say. Because if nobody understands what you are trying to say, then you should be worried and take that feedback back to your film. So it’s not so much trying to make everyone happy but trying to gauge whether or not the effect you are trying to have is working.
So what do we see from you next? Something lighter?
I’m not really interested in making a light film. I may do it eventually, but to me that’s not very interesting. Because I’m not interested in filmmaking just as a form of entertainment. For me, filmmaking is an art form and I’d like to do things with it people haven’t done before.
Does that mean we’ll never see you making a superhero film?
(Laughs) Well, I don’t know! I think that with a very large budget you start to lose control, because there’s too much money invested, so I think there’s sort of good middle ground where you have enough money to do what you want but you don’t want to answer to too many people and that’s how I’d like to stay. So I’m probably going to remain independent because I don’t think I can work inside the studio system unless I’m very, very established because I don’t ever want to give up control over my filmmaking.
Since you are both a writer and a director, would we see you working on projects that are not conceived by you?
I wouldn’t want to write for anyone else because if I invest that much time in a script, I would want to direct it myself. Of course, I would direct something for someone else if I found the script interesting. But I like working on a film from an early stage, so it will have to be a script that I could connect with, and it would have to be in line with my sensibilities.
Nikhil Taneja is doing a year-end series of interviews with the people behind some of the most interesting indie films of 2012. Coming up next is a conversation with Australian director, Wayne Blair, on his film, The Sapphires. You can tweet good, bad and even ugly comments (if you *must*) to the piece to Nikhil on Twitter: @tanejamainhoon.