If we learned one thing from watching the premiere of Brandon Cronenberg's "Antiviral" at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival last month, it's that the body horror genre clearly runs in the Cronenberg blood. Infection, decay, transformation -- all the tropes of the genre made famous by his father David's films -- feature heavily in "Antiviral." But the younger Cronenberg's first feature film is more than just an homage to his old man; it's the passing of an oozing and diseased torch and a solid debut for a new Canadian talent.
"Antiviral" follows Syd March (Caleb Landry Jones), an employee of a clinic that specializes in infecting its clients with celebrity diseases and ailments. What better way to connect with your favourite star than by sharing an affliction with them? The more exclusive the disease, the more the clinic can charge its rabid patrons for the privilege of being sickened by it. But when Syd becomes ill with the same virus that takes the life of a young starlet (Sarah Gadon), he soon finds himself a walking, talking collector's item.
The roots of "Antiviral" go back to Cronenberg's time at Ryerson University in their Image Arts program. Having just started film school, the now 32-year-old director figured he should have a feature script in the works and didn't have to look far for inspiration.
"I was very sick one day and I was having this fever dream where I was obsessing over the physicality of my illness; the fact that I had something in my body and in my cells that had been in someone else's body, and how there's a sort of intimacy to that connection," Cronenberg says. "I started trying to think of a character that might be able to see disease that way and I thought of a celebrity obsessed fan who would want Angelina Jolie's cold as a way of getting close to her." The seed of that idea developed into an "interesting metaphor" for discussing celebrity culture.
Cronenberg intended "Antiviral's" vaguely-near-future setting and the sick society it depicts to be a caricature of that culture, but at the same time the film feels only one step removed from our own world. "The film is meant to be satirical and not predictive, but it's only a slight exaggeration," he says. "A friend of mine showed me this clip of Sarah Michelle Gellar on 'Jimmy Kimmel' after we'd shot the film, and she was saying she was worried about singing because she's got this cold and didn't want to get the entire audience sick and the entire audience cheered!"
Things may not be quite as twisted in the real world as they are in his movie, but Cronenberg admitted that he could see society getting to that point.
Asked if he had any reservations about debuting "Antiviral" — a satire of our celebrity obsessed culture — at the celebrity meccas that are the Cannes and Toronto film festivals, the director can only laugh. "It's completely hilarious, but what better place to have that discussion than in the middle of all that?"
As an aspiring filmmaker, it was all well and good for Cronenberg to have a high concept script in the works, but he still needed a cast for his movie. For the role of beautiful starlet Hannah Geist, he needed to look no further than his father's now-frequent muse and Toronto native Sarah Gadon ("A Dangerous Method," "Cosmopolis"). Although Gadon expressed interest in the film, she had other ideas about who she wanted to play in it.Sarah Gadon in "Antiviral."
"She liked the script and she wanted to be involved, but she wanted to play Levine — the film's male antagonist," Cronenberg recalls. "The first time we met I was there to convince her to play Hannah and she was there to convince me to let her play Levine -- and she had some extremely interesting arguments for why she should play that part. If we'd had more time I would have actually explored that."
As for the film's lead, Cronenberg says that he needed someone who could hold the audience's attention in this bleak and clinical world. For Syd March, Cronenberg cast actor Caleb Landry Jones ("X-Men: First Class"), citing Jones' distinctive appearance and nuanced physical acting skills as the reason he won the part. "Even when he's doing something relatively mundane he can be totally captivating and interesting to watch," Cronenberg says. "To me, he's an incredibly exciting actor."Caleb Landry Jones in "Antiviral."
There was a tremendous amount of pressure on Cronenberg with "Antiviral," not only as a first-time Canadian filmmaker but also as the son of one of Canada's foremost directors. Asked if he thought the comparisons between "Antiviral" and his father's early work -- particularly "Videodrome" -- helped or hurt the movie, Cronenberg just shrugs. "I didn't want to think about my father's career while I was making a film, but I knew that whatever I did I'd be compared to him in some way," he says. "It wasn't a deliberate embracing of his form ... I tried to not worry about it and do what was interesting to me."
Growing up in the household of David Cronenberg had to have rubbed off on the filmmaker somehow, though. Although most of the elder Cronenberg's films are hardly appropriate for minors, what was Cronenberg's relationship to his father's movies as a child? "I think I saw 'Fast Company' as a kid a fair bit, but I didn't get into them until later in life," Cronenberg remembers. "They were around, they were aspects of our family history, but I didn't really watch his films until I was an adult."
One thing that definitely made an impression on the younger Cronenberg was his father's affinity for practical effects and special makeup effects -- something that is immediately clear when viewing "Antiviral."
"In our case, it was an aesthetic decision to do all practical effects," says the self-described SFX fan. "Even in really very high-budget films often the CG effects don't have the same texture — there's a little something lacking — you can have a practical effect that is more obviously an effect or that looks less realistic, but it's still very satisfying to look at because it has real weight to it."
"Antiviral" creeps into theatres across Canada on Oct. 12.