By definition, a virus is a small infectious agent that can replicate only inside the living cells of an organism. It may be a far-removed thought from your mind when you’re in the throws of sickness, but those tiny agents attacking your healthy cells once lived inside of someone else—be it a stranger or someone in close contact. "These physical little virons have travelled into your body and infected your cells, and that’s why you’re sick," says director Brandon Cronenberg, whose nauseatingly great debut feature Antiviral investigates the idea of disease as a marketable and desirable product for consumption.
The first time I watched the film was in the wee hours of the morning. I fell asleep as the credits rolled and woke up with nosebleed. Granted, I happened to be quite ill myself, but I like to attribute my nasal hemorrhage to the intensity of the film—which establishes Cronenberg as more than just the spawn of one of cinema’s most mind-bending directors, his father, David Cronenberg. Antiviral is a well-crafted and intelligent first feature that’s as inventive and thought provoking as it is grotesque and visually thrilling.
But this idea of disease as a sought-after consumerist dream is wrapped in an extremist view of a celebrity-obsessed world that, frankly, isn’t too far off from our future. Focusing on a young man named Syd March (played with absolute perfection by Caleb Landry Jones), Antiviral exists in a world where biotech firms see bodies as a commodities and patients pour into their clinics to have themselves injected with the infections of their favorite celebrities. And although modification allows for the diseases to not be contagious, it’s the mania surrounding celebrity that proves to be the real illness here.
As the head technician for Lucas Clinic, Syd injects disease into his clients as well as himself, using his own body to smuggle viruses onto the black market. And in case you’re still hungry, there are even butcher shops where celebrity cell steaks are grown and doled out by the pound. But of course, things go awry when Syd injects himself with a virus living inside the most famous and beloved celebrity of them all, Hannah Geist (played wonderfully by Sarah Gadon). Things grow increasingly more emetic and dangerous when Geist suddenly dies, leaving Syd to find out what killed her in order to save himself.
Besides the stark and sterile sets in juxtaposition with the thick red blood and microscopic details, the visceral and trance-inducing music, and a story that keeps unfolding bit by painful bit, the best part of the film lies in the performances of its talented young actors. Jones, a pale, freckled, and handsome man, plays Syd with an incredible intensity as if he was physically in pain every moment in front of the camera. With his translucent skin, fiery red hair, and menacing look behind his eyes, he barely has to say a word—the way he moves his body and tenor of his voice says it all. He’s fantastic alongside Gadon, whom you’ve seen before in both Cosmopolis and A Dangerous Method, who now brings a humanity and softness to a woman that people are literally dying to be close to.
On Tuesday afternoon, I sat down with Cronenberg—and interrupted his sandwich eating—to talk about the inception of the idea for the film, the cultural construct of celebrities, and where his film falls on the horror movie spectrum.
I watched the film when I was pretty sick, and I have to say it made me quite uneasy. This idea of a virus growing inside someone else and being passed on inside of you is pretty gross when you really think about it. How did the idea for the film come to you originally?
Also through being sick: I had a fever, and became obsessed with the idea that I had something in my body that had come from someone else’s. These physical little virons that were produced by someone else’s infected cells travelled into your body and infected your cells and they’re physically in your body, and that’s why you’re sick. In my feverish state, that seemed like a big deal, like something very intimate. And it is intimate if you think about it that way—even if it’s not, in the sense that you’re often physically removed from the other person and you don’t know who got you sick. I was trying to think of a person who would see it with intimacy and thought a celebrity-obsessed fan might want that from someone they’re obsessed with.
And you began writing the movie a while ago when you were still in film school?
Yeah, in 2004. It was about eight years from when I started writing it to when I got to make it.
That idea of a person who would find this intimate, is that how the celebrity angle developed for you?
It seemed like that character made sense, that you could imagine fandom pushing someone to see disease as something desirable. So that struck me as an interesting metaphor discussing that culture, and it developed into an interest in that.
I love how in the film you describe celebrity as a group hallucination, especially when there’s an entire culture surrounding an idea that we’ve attributed to certain people for absolutely no reason. It was interesting that you even chose not to reveal what the celebrities in the film were famous for—was that something you intentionally wanted to do from the start?
Yeah, because fame is so removed from accomplishment. Sometimes the two go hand-in-hand, but increasingly the celebrity industry is becoming something very insular and not related to accomplishment. Nowadays celebrities are mass-produced through reality television and other means, and a huge amount of money is made off of that. So I was picturing one extreme end of it. There are digital celebrities in Japan that aren’t even based on real people—that’s the complete extreme, where people are no longer even in the picture. But this is just one version where there’s no other interest in that world, everyone is watching celebrity news and they’re famous for no reason, and it’s about the consumption of fame.
It’s one thing to be obsessed with an actor because you love their movies. It’s another thing to be consumed by what they wore to the grocery store.
Exactly. It’s true. I think there’s a line there. To be a fan in the sense that you like what someone’s doing and you take an interest in where that comes from and what they’re up to next—that’s totally healthy. But there’s a tipping point, and when you’re just focused on the details of their life and fetishize them, that’s when it becomes a kind of mania.
Did you want the set design and physical world of the film—this very white, sterile environment—to echo the inhuman side to what the characters were doing?
Well there are two elements to it: one was that it was just a way of playing with the eye of the audience, because if you have a totally white set, anything that’s not white will pop. So the faces on the walls have an extra physical weight to them and the blood really stands out. But also, one of the themes in the film is that divide of celebrities as cultural constructs or media constructs that exist purely in the public’s consciousness, almost completely unrelated to the human being. And then the human being is the body and we don’t like to look at our bodies very closely. And then is so unrelated to the celebrity and it dies and the celebrity exists on. Like the Tupac hologram, more and more you don’t need a body to have a career. So reflecting that in the design and having those really inhuman sterile things and then contrasting them with the dirtier sets and microscopic body stuff is what we wanted to do.
And when you wrote the script, did you plan out all the visual elements as well like the machines or those very striking scenes of Syd when he gets really sick.
It was all written in the script and then developed in the process. For instance, the machines, I had long paragraphs describing them and the faces on them and the way they worked, but then making that real was a collaboration with my production designer. So it all was essentially there in the script but developed through collaboration.
Tell me about casting Caleb. He was so perfect for the role, and I can’t imagine anyone else playing him with so well. He was terrifying the amount of absolute misery he looked in made you feel a little endeared. I mean he really looked like he was constantly in pain—
Which I think he is. Well, I’d seen him in X-Men—
Yeah, that’s slight different than this.
Well, I wasn’t think of him from that because it was very different, but his agent had worked with my producer and so we were asking around and I saw clips from things he’d done. And it was really exciting because he’s a great actor but he also has that hard to articulate special quality that some actors have where they’re really fascinating to watch, and it’s in his movements and his intensity and his appearance—he just has this thing. But he’s not what I was picturing while I was writing. The character was actual written older in the original script but it was just so exciting when we found him that we thought, better to plug in someone really exciting than try and just find someone just to cling to this old image of the character. Now I can’t see him any other way.
And did you two talk about the character a lot before hand? What was directing him like on set?
He made it really easy for me because he brought so much to the film. He’s a really intense actor and what we did was talk a lot before shooting—what he was feeling, the development of the character—and got into detail. Then we would shoot and I’d give him some notes but he had such a handle on it right from the start that it’s not like I had to drawn it out of him in some agonizing process. It was really an exciting thing where he would give me more than I needed and I could pick and choose and say, let’s go this way with it. Even by the time it came to editing we had so much interesting material and variations that we could have cut the character drastically different.
Sarah had worked with your father before, so did you know her beforehand? I thought she was great because she seems to be very human and very sweet but she’s also so beautiful that she could play this perfect woman.
I agree. I hadn’t met her before but I had seen her in A Dangerous Method and thought she was really great, and that was a big contributing factor. But also, it’s exactly that—we needed someone who could be believable as the biggest star in the world but also someone who had real acting talent and in those moments where you see her as an actual human being, could be very frail. In a way, the whole thing rested on that because in that moment, if she wasn’t believable as a human being it would have fallen apart and we would have lost a lot.
And before you went to film school you were working in other creative mediums?
I was trying to be a fiction writer and was doing a lot of drawing and visual art and playing music and really doing way too much at once.
So as a filmmaker, do you draw your inspiration from literature and art more so than other films?
From everything really. Literature definitely quite a bit. I’ve gotten a lot more into film since I’ve been making films, weirdly. I wasn’t a cinephile growing up. I was more of a book nerd.
Can you tell me a little about the music for the film? It was very visceral and really made me feel uneasy.
Especially if you’re sick. E.C. Woodley is the composer and we just talked about a lot of stuff—first very theoretically about what we wanted the music to do and that it should be more about his internal state than about what’s happening around. I had had this idea that I wanted something that was electronic mixed with acoustic instrumentation and he knew this musician who had this huge bank of analog synths, and they had done these experiments where they ran orchestral chords through the synths. So he had been waiting to use that for something and it seemed like the perfect time. It looked like an old operator switchboard, it was all patch chords into different nodes and they put in a bunch of instrumentation and it was hard to control what came out of it, it would just be a bunch of different wave forms and rhythms.
And do you want to keep making these darker films and stick closer to this genre?
I wasn’t specifically making a horror film. I can’t really think in those terms when I’m working, I’m just paying with idea and what comes out of it.
Is it exactly a horror film?
At first I was not calling it a horror film because I think there’s a mainstream conception of horror films that they should be terrifying and this thrill ride of fun. This is not a fun movie. My DP was saying, stop calling it "maybe not a horror film" because it is a horror film, like people that are into horror have this broader idea of what horror is and it does fall in that and if you say it’s maybe not a horror film everyone’s going to think you’re an asshole and trying to say it’s like above horror. And it totally wasn’t that.I don’t feel like horror is a low art at all, I feel like it’s a great genre, I’m just bad at categorizing things.
And naturally when you make a film like this, or probably anything you would have made, there will be comparisons to your father. Were you worried at all about establishing yourself as your own filmmaker?
People have been comparing me to my father before I was evening film. I would draw things and people would say, ‘That’s such a Cronenbergian drawing," and people love to make those connections. So it was a combination of my own interests fueled by a desire that people have to impose that narrative or exaggerate that. I knew that was going to happen and decided to not worry about it and do whatever was interesting to me. And first of all, he’s had a really long and interesting career. A lot of people are like, well this is a horror film and your dad’s a horror director, but he hasn’t really made a straight horror film in quite a long time. Also, I didn’t want to define myself in opposition to that stuff because that would be purely defining myself in terms of his career and I don’t think I could work for an honest place if I was doing that.
Do you pay attention to what people have been saying about the film thus far?
Just a little bit. It starts to wig me out if I see too much, I feel too exposed. But it’s been getting the full spectrum of reviews from the most loathing and hatred to appreciation beyond what I think it deserves and everything in between.
So what is it about film that you love in comparison to literature or drawing, what made you want to really focus on this?
I like that it contains those other things. And collaboration can be horrible if it’s going wrong, but there’s something about collaborating and finding your material on the day, in a moment that’s very appealing because you discover stuff and sometimes find something that’s better than what you were thinking. It’s kind of exciting to just point a camera and work on something with a bunch of people and see what comes out of it.
Visually, did you have any influences on how you wanted the film to shot or the overall aesthetics?
A lot of my influences are indirect, so it’s usually more unconsciously. In pre-production we got really excited about Romanian New Wave and about Dogtooth and Alps, but I don’t really think those influences ended up being visible. Originally we thought it was going to be a bit more naturalistic and then once we started shooting it was obvious that having a more stylized, like almost noir thing going on, that was the stuff that was working and I wanted to go where it wanted to go and not fight that.
Did you watch your father’s films growing up?
I saw Fast Company quite a bit because it was about car racing and not a horror film but I didn’t see most of his other films until I was a teenager or into my 20s. And I still haven’t seen all of them. I guess they weren’t exactly appropriate for Cronenberg family movie night.