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AICN HORROR talks with Brandon Cronenberg about his sickly excellent film ANTIVIRAL!

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Greetings, all. Ambush Bug here with another AICN HORROR: ZOMBIES & SHARKS column. A while back, I had the privilege of talking with Brandon Cronenberg, son of David Cronenberg and a talented writer/director in his own right; proven in his first feature film ANTIVIRAL which has shocked and awed film festivals and is finally making its way to video on demand and select theaters now. Here’s what Brandon had to say…

AMBUSH BUG (BUG): I actually have watched ANTIVIRAL twice now. I watched it once last week and once this week. Both times it just really blew me away. It’s really a fantastic film.

BC: Thanks, man.

BUG: Right after watching it I caught a cold and I don’t know if that’s psychosomatic or what it was. Have you had that complaint from others who saw the film?

BC: We developed technology that can actually transmit disease through light, so we hit some particular frequencies to make you sick.

BUG: I guess it was. I don’t know if anyone else had complained about that after watching your film. So let’s get right into it. Is there a way you can explain this film to someone who has never heard of the film before? It’s a pretty complex movie. How do you explain it to people who have never heard of it?

BC: I guess it’s a satire of celebrity culture. The diseases from the celebrities themselves are sold to those that want to be infected.

BUG: There are all kinds of undertones and themes in there. It feels a little bit like 1984. It seems like it’s a social commentary a little bit. It definitely feels like a body horror film. How do you feel about that term, “body horror?”

BC: Fine, I guess. (Laughs) I don’t know, I’ve never been fully clear on the definition of body horror actually, because I think a lot of horror has some kind of biological element to it, but sure, I guess I’ll take everyone’s word for it.

BUG: Okay. Has this film been something you’ve been working on for quite a while?

BC: Yeah, it took me about eight years from when we had the idea to when the film was out, but also through that time I was going through film school and so a lot of it was writing it through film school and after.

BUG: And this is your first film, correct?

BC: First feature film, yeah.

BUG: It’s just amazing, especially from a first feature film from somebody. How did you get the cast that you had for this film, starting with Caleb Landry Jones. He was just amazing in this film.

BC: Yeah, Caleb is really, really great both as an actor and as a human being. I can’t say enough good things about him. He had actually worked with my producer on a previous film, so during preproduction I was looking around for actors and just seeing who was out there and who might work for it and they talked. They sent me Caleb’s reel or some snippet of him and we all got really excited with that stuff, because he has “that special thing,” that’s hard to articulate that some actors have that makes them just incredibly fascinating to watch even when they are doing the most mundane things.

BUG: He has an intensity about him. Does he ever just crack jokes and smile? It seems like he’s always in a really dark place.

BC: As a human being? Yeah, he’s very funny. He’s a really sweet guy.

BUG: Very cool, and how about the rest of the cast? I mean you had Malcom McDowell in there. How did he become involved in the project?

BC: I mean we had a role that we thought we could pitch to him. It’s a good part and it’s one of my favorite characters in the film, and it contains one location, so it wasn’t going to require a huge number of shooting days or any of those, so it was reasonable to try to get a big actor for that part. Yeah, we just pitched it to him and we were lucky enough that he said yes. He’s very supportive of young filmmakers and first time filmmakers and that kind of thing, so he was up for it. It was great.

BUG: I first heard about this film back at Fantastic Fest. Is that where you first premiered it?

BC: That’s the American Premiere, yeah.

BUG: What was it like just during the premiere? What was it like just seeing it with an audience and seeing what kind of reactions you got from it?

BC: It’s varied. We’ve seen a large number of reactions. It depends on the audience. For me it’s meant to be a pretty funny film and some audiences get that and they laugh all the way through. The first time we screened it… It premiered actually in Cannes actually and the first audience was a Cannes audience and nobody laughed at all throughout the entire film and I was sitting there thinking that they were going to lynch us afterwards and “they must completely hate it.” But then it actually got a decent reaction. We got some applause at the end and stuff, but to me the fact that no one was laughing meant it was bombing. (Laughs) So the reactions vary and it’s one of those films where some people love it and some people hate it.

BUG: Well at least they have a reaction, that’s a good thing. Well I also wanted to talk about the horror aspects of this and how you came up with the look of the cell garden and other types of imagery. Who did you work with to come up with those looks?

BC: There were a few people. Arv Grewal, our Production Designer was one and Trason Fernandez did the effects and then some aspects of it were culminations of the people in practical. So it was a huge collaboration with quite a few people involved.

BUG: The alien like look of the cells and everything, where did you come up with those images? What inspired you from that?

BC: I guess… It was ultimately inspired by actual technology. You can take any cell of a human body and you can put it in a nutrient rich environment, it will divide and grow on its own. You can have a muscle cell and it will grow and become this twitching sheet of muscle or brain cell will grow into a small weird brain in a jar if you keep feeding it. (Laughs) So it was partly based on real technology and then partly stylized in the film. I don’t think there’s a fundamental difference between animate and inanimate things. I think the human body is more of a very complicated mechanical thing. It’s not unlike other inanimate objects, so it was combining those elements and having something biological, but geometric. That was key.

BUG: Your father was very prolific in doing VIDEODROME and things like that. This seems like it could actually happen, some of this technology. How close are we to have some of the stuff that happens in this film?

BC: Some of it I think… It’s meant to be satirical rather than predictive, so I wasn’t trying to predict the future, but some of the technology is based on real technology. For instance, the cell steaks, that’s based on an actual technology that’s being developed. I mean the intention isn’t to create human steaks; it’s to create cow steaks and grow meat basically, which doesn’t require live stock. That would be incredible if they could get people to a point where they would actually want to eat it. So I think we will see that in the not too distant future as a real thing that you can buy at the store and eat. It’s only a small step to imagine human steaks. I mean it’s entirely possible that someone has actually done that, as far as the research goes.

BUG: I don’t want to get too psychological like this about yourself, but you coming from somewhat of a celebrity family and this is a movie all about celebrity and how it can really be perverse. Does this kind of reflect your own views on celebrity as a whole?

BC: Yeah, I would say it’s pretty indicative of my own views. I don’t think it’s horrible to be a fan of someone in the sense that you respect their work, but I think that celebrity culture is becoming… Well first of all fandom beyond a certain point becomes a kind of madness when you are so crazy about someone that you feel like you have this personal direct relationship with. That represents a loss of perspective and a sort of deliria. Also I think celebrity culture is becoming more and more insular and more… I don’t think fame has ever been inherently tied to accomplishment. I think those things can go hand in hand, but they’re not bound to each other. I think more and more there’s a celebrity industry that mass produces fame, because they can make money off of people who get obsessed with someone who’s on a reality show or where their job is being famous for a year or two years and then they sort of drift into obscurity.

BUG: It seems like science fiction does such a great job of encapsulating truths of the moment like that. Were there any science fiction films that you looked at in coming up with this film?

BC: Nothing in particular. I mean it was probably more in terms of existing scifi that was influenced by Phillip K. Dick’s novels. It’s hard to say. I know I’ve been influenced by a lot of filmmakers and other artists, but it’s not a really direct thing for me. It’s usually more of a subconscious thing where I just absorb stuff that I like and it some how gets processed and turned into other things.

BUG: I know you’ve been asked millions of questions about your father, but what was his first reaction to the film once he saw it?

BC: He liked it. He was happy with it. I guess I get asked that question a lot, so I wish I had a quote or something. (Laughs) I don’t remember exactly what he said.

BUG: Sure. Was there any advice that he gave you in going into this project that you found useful?

BC: That’s the other one that I can never answer. We’ve talked about filmmaking before, but it’s not like there’s just one. It’s not like he said “Just remember, do this one thing.”

BUG: Was there ever a time where you just didn’t want to do anything with filmmaking, just rebelling against the profession that Dad has? Or did you always want to be a filmmaker?

BC: No, I think most of my life I kind of rebelled against it. I wasn’t like a huge cinephile or anything, so it wasn’t like I was harboring this secret desire to study films, but I definitely grew up being approached by people who had a lot of preconceptions about me and would assume that I must want to direct films and it kind of put me off.

[Both Laugh]

BC: But eventually I kind of realized that I wanted to do something.

BUG: In watching the film, I think a lot of people would try to compare you to your father just because of the subject matter, but I sensed a lot of Stanley Kubrick just in the fact that it is a slow burner, there were a lot of really quiet shots of Caleb and just him going about his life in just very meticulously clean environments in contrast to very dirty environments. Is that a fair assessment?

BC: It wasn’t conscious. I totally get what you’re saying and people have mentioned that to me, but I didn’t… I like Kubrick, but I’m not like a huge Kubrick fan. I wasn’t really trying to nod to him or anything. I think it’s more just that he’s had such an influence on the language of cinema in general that it’s hard, especially if you’re making a particular kind of film to get away from that. It wasn’t deliberate in any way or anything.

BUG: Okay. How have people reacted to the ending? I mean it goes really dark and by the end, I don’t want to reveal it too much for those who haven’t seen it, but how have people reacted to the way this film wraps up?

BC: I think it depends whether they like the film in general. People who hate the film definitely hate all of it. (Laughs) I remember one review I read said it was “such a vampire film,” he thought it was going over the top with making it a vampire film and by the end it was “We get it, Brandon. We get it. It’s a vampire film.” I thought that was a really weird reaction, because I didn’t really try to make it that much of a vampire film, although it has some vampiric elements obviously. But then people who liked the film tend to be… I’m trying to think of one of the better parts… I don’t know (Laughs). We just get so many varied reactions. We’ve been getting reviews from all across the spectrum, from extremely negative to extremely positive, so it’s hard to generalize.

BUG: I also wanted to talk about the salesman aspect, Caleb’s sales pitches to people. It was almost like he was seducing them into buying his product.

BC: Yeah. I forget exactly what I said, but it was meant to be a seduction and it was meant to be this kind of alter ego salesman alter ego rather than something that was at the core of his personality, but it was a collaborative process. I mean he really had… We talked in general terms about everything beforehand, but he really brought this intensity to it and all of this great stuff to it and then as we were shooting… I forget what direction I gave him, but we tweaked stuff.

BUG: There’s a scene where he takes a Q-tip swab sort of thing and puts it all the way down his nose. It looked so real. Was that real? Or was that just movie trickery and great acting?

BC: I wish I could leave it alone and say it was real, but the DP let it slip on the commentary track that it was slight of hand. It was really great. I had no idea… I mean I had some idea about how we were going to shoot that, but that ended up being way better, because he was able to pull this great move and we were able to shoot it from an angle that I didn’t think we were going to be able to shoot it from. Caleb deserves a huge amount of credit for that.

BUG: Well he convinced me. It was definitely one of the more memorable scenes and it’s so subtle, but it definitely hit me on that visceral level. So what do you have coming up next?

BC: I just started writing again, but I’m still in the early stages of it, because even though we finished the film about a year ago, I’ve been doing a lot of traveling around supporting it and I’ve been doing publicity and stuff, so just in the past couple of months I’ve started writing again, but I can’t say anything about it, because it’s not well formed enough.

BUG: Okay. So are you still interested in horror? Are you interested in branching out and doing other things?

BC: I think I’m just going to keep doing whatever happens to be interesting at a given time. I mean, I think given the stuff I’ve played around with, I think there will be some horror elements and some science fiction elements in the next one, but I don’t usually think in those terms when I’m writing. I don’t target a particular genre or anything, I just write what seems to work and what’s interesting to me.

BUG: I do a regular horror column and I just happened to watch SCANNERS in the same night that I watched ANTIVIRAL and it was really interesting to see both you and your father’s films just right back to back like that. It was really amazing. I want to commend you on a fantastic film. Best of luck to you. I hope it’s very successful for you. When is it coming out?

BC: In the states it’s coming out Friday in New York and then I think next week it’s opening wider.

BUG: Okay, great. Well I’m going to try to get this interview up as fast as I can and get it transcribed. Thank you so much for your time, I really appreciate it. Best of luck to you.

BC: Thanks. It was good to talk to you.

BUG: Look for ANTIVIRAL on Video On Demand and in select theaters now. Below is my review of the film.

Available on Video on Demand and in select theaters now!


Directed by Brandon Cronenberg
Written by Brandon Cronenberg
Starring Caleb Landry Jones, Sarah Gadon, Lisa Berry, Joe Pingue, Nicholas Campbell, Sheila McCarthy, Wendy Crewson, Nenna Abuwa, Lisa Berry, Malcolm McDowell,
Find out more about this film here and on Facebook here
Reviewed by Ambush Bug

More people these days know about Kim Kardashian than Albert Einstein. TRL and E! NEWS are the main place many get their news. Culture has become obsessed with celebrity to the point of ridiculousness, fawning over the newest shot of a diva drunkenly getting out of a car or who’s screwing who this week. All of the best science fiction is able to comment on things that are occurring in the here and now. Choosing something to expand on that is happening right now, as David Cronenberg (Brandon’s father) chose to do with VIDEODROME and man’s fascination with technology, is the best way to make your science fiction film relevant and, if you do it well enough, downright prolific. Brandon Cronenberg has done both with ANTIVIRAL, a new sci fi body horror film.

The story follows Syd (the uber talented Caleb Landry Jones from THE LAST EXORCISM and X-MEN: FIRST CLASS), a salesmen and clinician for The Lucas Clinic which specializes in acquiring samples of diseases stars contract and infecting their high paying clientele with them. Jones is absolutely amazing as Syd who seduces his clients into buying his product with a smooth and whispering voice that clients can’t say no to. Syd is also smuggling diseases out in his own body by infecting himself with the diseases to make money in the black market, but in this excellent character study of a film, Syd’s behavior is not solely for profit. It seems Syd shares his client’s obsession with his product and this obsession takes him to dark, dark places.

The true highlight of this film besides the imaginative plot is the performance by Caleb Landry Jones. Jones has an intensity in his demeanor that I haven’t seen in an actor since River Phoenix. He’ll definitely be one of those stars who will be going to big places and Cronenberg allows the actor space to shine here with this performance. As the diseases he smuggles out of the clinic begin to tear away at his body, Jones twists his body and stutters his speech in ways that are palpably painful to watch. And though he lives in a secluded, orderly, and sanitary lifestyle, Jones is able to show the weakness underneath that shirt, tie, and whispery voice. The role here requires Jones to be sympathetic, but flawed. He’s the good and bad guy here and Jones is able to pull it off with nuance few actors have.

The idea of making celebrity addictive and contagious and that someone would actually infect themselves with a virus a super star has is out there, but given the amount of obsession with celebrity, it isn’t any more far fetched than anything Cronenberg’s father said about cancer in THE FLY or technology in VIDEODROME. Here cell gardens grow meat from celebrity cells which are literally consumed by their rabid fans. Diseases have faces, as seen through the warped lenses of the machinery used by the Lucas Clinic technicians. These are bizarre and twisted designs, the stuff of good horror, but not anything that isn’t feasible given the celebrity obsessed culture of the film. The final moments as organs and blood is harvested from the corpses of celebrities is a haunting revelation as are Sy’s actions when alone with the superstar leftovers. It’s an ending that will be too much for some, too literal for others, but sat just right with me.

ANTIVIRAL is a slow burner of a film, allowing us to sink into the world Cronenberg presents us. The viewer is supposed to absorb what makes this particular world different than ours by showing us a lot of things that are similar. The sterile blank spaces, reminiscent of Kubrick’s interiors in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE and the spaceship in 2001: A SPACE ODDYSSEY make for a strange world, but one which decompensates as the film goes on into less clean locales. In many ways, the setting, like the lead character, becomes infected with disease and it is reflected as such toward the end.

There’s a lot to love in ANTIVIRAL, Cronenberg’s first feature film. Cronenberg seems to have inherited his father’s unique ability to make films that crawl under the viewer’s skin and twist and squirm in places that are frustratingly just out of reach.

Ambush Bug is Mark L. Miller, original @$$Hole/wordslinger/writer of wrongs/reviewer/interviewer/editor of AICN COMICS for over 12 years & AICN HORROR for 3. He has written comics such as VINCENT PRICE PRESENTS THE TINGLERS & WITCHFINDER GENERAL, THE DEATHSPORT GAMES, & NANNY & HANK (soon to be made into a feature film from Uptown 6 Films). He has co-written FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND’s LUNA: ORDER OF THE WEREWOLF (to be released in 2013 as a 100-pg original graphic novel). Mark wrote the critically acclaimed GRIMM FAIRY TALES PRESENTS THE JUNGLE BOOK from Zenescope Entertainment & GRIMM FAIRY TALES #76-81. Look for GRIMM FAIRY TALES PRESENTS THE JUNGLE BOOK: LAST OF THE SPECIES available in February-July 2013 and the new UNLEASHED crossover miniseries GRIMM FAIRY TALES PRESENTS WEREWOLVES: THE HUNGER #1-3 available in May-July 2013! Follow Ambush Bug on the Twitter @Mark_L_Miller.

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