INTERVIEW: 'Antiviral' Director Brandon Cronenberg Discusses Fame & Father
A word of advice: Don't go to see Brandon Cronenberg's unsettling Antiviral if you're getting over a cold or have recently undergone a medical procedure that involved the withdrawal of blood or a skin biopsy. The 33-year-old filmmaker's debut feature makes such effective use of hypodermic needles and flesh samples that I left the screening room on unsteady feet, feeling like I'd just donated a pint of my own plasma. But do go see the movie.
In a world in which Jay-Z and Beyonce's trip to Cuba can hijack a news cycle that should be focused on gun control, sequestration and the false positives of our current economy, Antiviral is a squirm-inducing corrective for our obsession with celebrity that resonates long after the closing credits. The premise alone is perversely brilliant: Cronenberg has brought to life a queasy world in which preoccupation with fame has metastasized to the point where civilians pay good money to be infected with the copyrighted STDs of their favorite celebrity and to dine on pale, gristly cuts of meat grown from their tissue cells.
At the center of this story is Syd March, played by Caleb Landry Jones, a dour salesman of celebrity sickness who, behind his employer's back, is infecting himself with his company's offerings so that he can extract his own bootleg versions to sell on the black market. Phil's extracurricular dealings leave him constantly sick, but when he becomes infected with the most sought-after celebrity virus of all, things get much, much worse.
I sat down with the thoughtful, soft-spoken Cronenberg in New York on Tuesday to discuss Antiviral and his own encounters with celebrity as the son of Cosmopolis director David Cronenberg. He had some particularly interesting things to say about critics who contend that his film is too similar to his father's early work in the horror/sci-fi genre.
Movieline: One of the messages I took away from Antiviral was that the lure of celebrity is irresistible, no matter how horrific or deadly it becomes.
Brandon Cronenberg: The character of Syd definitely sees himself as superior to that culture and removed from it, but it has actually totally defined him and he can’t escape from it. We’re all products of our environment, and it’s hard not to be affected by that stuff in a certain way. But I wouldn’t say it’s impossible to resist. I want the film to be partly an active resistance.
It does work as a corrective, especially if you are celebrity obsessed and squeamish about hypodermic needles.
I think we can change the part where we’re not complicit in creating that kind of culture and supporting that industry by engaging with it in a certain way.
Antiviral also works as a metaphor for how celebrity has infected news reporting and even our government. Jay-Z and Beyonce are in the news today because of their trip to Cuba when there’s so much more important stuff that should be dominating the news cycle.
In the film, no one’s famous for any reason. It’s purely the industry of celebrity going as far as possible — or almost as far as possible because there’s still some loose connection to real human beings. In Japan for instance, there are purely digital celebrities, and I think probably the most extreme level would be when human beings are abandoned altogether. Then it becomes an industry that fabricates digital celebrities and prints money because people are willing to do anything to feel somehow connected to these creations even if they’re not real.