If Brandon Cronenberg looks a little shell-shocked when we convene for an interview at last May’s Cannes Film Festival, there is a good reason. It is not only his first feature, Antiviral, that has got the world’s media buzzing, but also his background.
Not just any tyro filmmaker, he is the son of legendary Jewish Canadian auteur David Cronenberg, who also just happened to be at the festival with his chilly adaptation of Don DeLillo’s novel Cosmopolis. Talk about pressure.
A few months later in London, the 32-year-old newcomer is more relaxed, but still trying to understand what happened.
“Cannes was insane,” he says, smiling wryly. “It was this weird little bubble of an experience that I can’t quite reconcile with the rest of my life. But it was interesting and fun. Being there with my family was, you know, cute,” he laughs, using an adjective that could never be applied either to his own blood-spattered film or any of his father’s edgy offerings, which include The Fly, the controversial sex-and-wrecks drama Crash, and violent London-set thriller Eastern Promises.
In truth, Cannes was the perfect launchpad for Antiviral: a provocative take on modern celebrity that chimed perfectly with film fans’ daily ritual of lining the resort’s main strip to rubberneck stars on the red carpet.
In the movie, infatuated fans buy injections of viruses such as herpes sourced from their idols, eat meat cloned from their bodies, and have celebrity skin grafts. A sick scenario perhaps — and Cronenberg says he was not in the best of health when the idea took root in 2004.
“I was having this delirious fever dream and obsessing over the fact that I had something in my body that had come from somebody else’s body, and how that was an intimate thing, if you look at it that way.”
At the time he was studying film at Ryerson University, in his home town of Toronto, and wanted to write a script. “So I was trying to think of a character who would see disease as something intimate, and I thought a celebrity-obsessed fan might reasonably want Angelina Jolie’s cold as a way of becoming physically connected to her.”
The film taps into a very modern kind of celebrity — first crystallised, Cronenberg believes, in Paris Hilton — where people are famous simply for being famous. If the filmmaker’s vision seems grotesque, it is because the whole phenomenon is grotesque, he says, and we have become inured to it. His response to this was to make Antiviral physically and intellectually unsettling.
“A lot of the time I think it’s through discomfort that you can say something,” he asserts. “We’ve actually become so comfortable with the grotesqueness of celebrity culture that we don’t feel gross about it anymore. So to push it to a place where it’s viscerally disgusting was part of the intent.”
Growing up and watching the way his father was portrayed in the media — as the “Baron of Blood” for example — Brandon came to see from an early age that a person’s media image often had little to do with the human behind it. Celebrity was an artificial construct. Or as someone says in the film, a “mass hallucination”. An atheist, his father would probably say the same thing about God, wouldn’t he?
“Yeah well, that’s my perspective too. I’m definitely an atheist,” he says. “I don’t think I was pushed towards atheism, but I wasn’t pushed towards religion either.”
Interestingly, his father’s Jewishness did not really become explicit on screen until he released At the Suicide of the Last Jew in the World at the Last Cinema in the World — a 2007 short film made as a personal response to a statement by Hizbollah chief Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah calling for the murder of all Jews. Brandon understands his father’s compulsion to make the film.
“Judaism is funny because it’s the race and religious thing — you can identify as being racially Jewish and still be very upset by antisemitism, and be afraid of that current in society, and not at all believe in God.”
Brandon’s maternal grandfather was Orthodox and he says he has an affection for Jewish tradition. “I would go to Passover dinners and stuff like that. So I have that weird nostalgia for those things even though I never was religious.”
Brandon is clearly his father’s son and, inevitably, is having to try and carve out his own course while at the same time dealing with people scrutinising him and his work for similarities. At film school, he consciously tried not to concern himself with such things. “It’s not that I wasn’t affected by any of it in any way,” he admits.
“But I feel like it would have been paralysing, and also impossible to work from an honest place, if I was too worried about my father’s career and what people would think, and the significance of what I was doing.”
Choosing to make his debut with a horror film — territory associated with his father — seems like asking for trouble, though. But Brandon insists, that it is hard to avoid crossing paths with Cronenberg senior, because he has worked across so many different genres.
“But the truth is, the film represents my interests,” he says defiantly.
And what does Cronenberg senior think of Antiviral? “He likes it. I’m very close to my father and he likes my film and I like his film. It’s all very adorable and emotional.”
Of course, being the son of such a famous father meant that Brandon work was always going to get attention, which is what any new film-maker hopes for. However, there was never any guarantee that it would always be the right kind. A mixed blessing, then?
“It’s absolutely a double-edged sword,” he laughs. “But it was a sword that was waiting for me.”