Imagine you are David Cronenberg, a filmmaker but also a parent. You tell your kids that your job is making movies; naturally, they want to see one. So which do you show them? “Scanners,” with its exploding heads? “Rabid,” where porn-star Marilyn Chambers drinks human blood? Or maybe “The Fly,” where Jeff Goldblum transmogrifies into a gnarly-looking insectoid creature? Maybe not.
For director Brandon Cronenberg, it was “Fast Company,” a forgotten director-for-hire B movie about car racing: “I saw it when I was very young and watched it a lot of times on an old VHS tape, because it was just cars and fun. Going back to it now, it’s hilarious. I’ve seen most of (my father’s movies) now, but I still haven’t seen all of them, and I started watching in my teens. But it wasn’t a big deal, I didn’t obsess over them.”
Many filmmakers talk about how, after having a few acclaimed films, they feel the pressure of expectations to live up to their previous work. That must be even worse when you come to a project with the name Cronenberg attached.
“Yeah, people approach me with a lot of preconceptions,” says the younger Cronenberg. “But that’s been the case since even before I made films, I would get that when I was doing drawings; people would be like, ‘Oh, this is very Cronenbergian!’ (Laughs.) Part of that is from my upbringing, but partly it’s because people are interested in pushing those connections. When I got into film I made a conscious decision not to worry about it. That was the only way I’d be able to function.”
So what if a critic were to call “Antiviral” “body horror,” the genre defined by Cronenberg senior, which it clearly resembles?
“It’s up for other people to make those connections,” says the director. “I’ve come to terms with it, I just want to do what’s interesting to me; people will say whatever they’re gonna say regardless.”
Of course, the surest way to avoid comparison would be to move in a different direction altogether, such as a romantic comedy perhaps. Cronenberg laughs: “See, I think this is a romantic comedy.”
“It is,” chimes in his leading man, Austin-born actor (and musician) Caleb Landry Jones, who plays the sickly Syd. “We laughed our asses off.”
Jones is endearingly nervous, content to throw around one-liners but tongue-tied when it comes to explaining his craft. Just try asking which comes more easily to him, acting or music.
“They’re very similar,” he says. “It’s this giant f-cking puzzle that you have to solve, and you can solve it in this way or that. Music is all about pacing and time, and I feel like acting is pretty much the same. Music is more comfortable because you’re in the privacy of your own home, recording or writing, not being filmed. Yet they’re both just as personal in a way. But music gives me an instant gratification that acting doesn’t.”
Cronenberg praises Jones’ ability as a “really nuanced physical actor, with a lot of control over his body. We played around with the character on set; sometimes we’d get (the take) and be like, OK, let’s just try something. We had options with things to work with in editing — different Syds, really — because Caleb was generating this whole range of material.”
Jones enjoyed the process, although he says that the scene where he eats the celebrity cell-steak was not a high point. “It tasted horrible; I spit it out against the wall.” The “steaks” were made of gluten, and Cronenberg admits, “That was made by the props department, and I think it had been sitting in the truck for a while.”
“Antiviral” features several scenes of people receiving injections, and I take the opportunity to ask Cronenberg what is it with directors and skin-pop shots; it seems like no one can ever pass up a big wince-inducing closeup of needle into skin.
“Well I can’t speak for other director’s needle shots,” says Cronenberg, “but in this one it was all about penetration. There’s an eroticism to celebrity obsession, but it’s one-sided, given the nature of the relationship. So these were definitely the sex scenes in the film.”