The Proud Cronenbergs

For the first time at Cannes, separate films directed by a father and son are being screened. David, the father, is a master of the ‘body horror’ genre. But Brandon, a debutant director, would rather not be seen as his son
Genes
Brandon Cronenberg
David Cronenberg

Christopher Nolan may be considered a god by every comic book fanboy who has ever had an opinion, and Nolan’s last movie in the much hailed Dark Knight franchise, The Dark Knight Rises, may be considered his supreme creation , but Canadian auteur filmmaker David Cronenberg seems to think differently. For the director, who has himself been considered a god by genre fans for decades now, a superhero movie, by definition, “is a comic book for kids, adolescent in its core”, and he believes that people who think The Dark Knight Rises is ‘art’, “don’t know what the fuck they are talking about”.

Cronenberg made these remarks to a website, NextMovie.com, off the cuff, during an interview about his new film Cosmopolis, adapted from Don DeLillo’s book of the same name. Almost as soon as the director of cult ‘body horror films’—like The Fly, Shivers and Videodrome—said it, his comments were picked up by other websites and newspapers, and like all other things inconsequential to human intelligence, went viral on the internet.

A veteran of over a dozen iconic films in a career spanning more than 40 years, Cronenberg has had enough experience with such pitfalls of celebrity status. But for the past 32 years, another filmmaker has observed the trappings of his fame, up, close and personal—Brandon Cronenberg, David’s son. And this subconscious stimulus over the years has metamorphosed into Brandon’s first full-fledged movie, Antiviral, which premiered at the 2012 Cannes International Film Festival alongside Cosmopolis, the very first time a father and son both had a movie showcased at the festival.

‘David’s son’ is perhaps not the best way to begin speaking about Brandon: the young director is not your typical flagbearer of Hollywood legacy. In fact, till the age of 24, he didn’t even want to venture into filmmaking. It’s not that he disliked the art form; he admits to spending most of his waking time in creative pursuits like writing, illustrating and making music. “I was put off by the idea of getting into films because people just assumed that I must want to get into films since my father is a filmmaker,” says Brandon. “But eventually, I realised that it was not a good idea to avoid them just because I was annoyed by people, especially since it was a medium where I could collect all my interests and do them together. (Laughs) And maybe, I also needed a job by then.”

Antiviral is thus a fitting culmination of Brandon’s unsolicited affair with the culture that forced him to think this way: it is a horror film about a man who satisfies the needs of the celebrity-obsessed by transferring viruses from sick celebs into the bodies of their fans. “I’ve grown up in a culture where Robert Pattinson’s dog cannot go out for a walk because the paparazzi is constantly taking pictures of him, so I wanted to satirise this way of life in a slightly exaggerated way,” Brandon explains. “And I used viruses to depict this obsession because in a certain sense, after sex, illness is the most intimate you can get with someone—it’s something that comes from someone else’s cells and penetrates your cells.”

Being fiercely his own person, and keeping as far away from his father’s shadow as possible, Brandon put Antiviral together almost entirely on his own. It is a surprise, then, that he chose a genre film to make his debut, least of all a genre that his father is an undisputed master of. “It occurred to me, of course, that I would be compared to him,” Brandon says, although rather reluctantly, “but I don’t want my filmmaking and choices to be defined by his. This film is representative of what’s interesting to me, and of course, having grown up with him, our aesthetics have overlapped, but I don’t want to deliberately avoid something because I’m worried about what people would say. So I pay as little attention to his career as possible. It would be paralysing for me to spend all my time trying to do something he hasn’t done, not only because he’s done so much, but also because that would mean not working from an honest place.”

While there may be a few dissimilarities in their cinema and their outlook towards it, this honesty towards the craft is certainly something that Brandon has picked up from his father, David, who has, through his enormous body of work, remained true to the indie spirit and sensibility that characterised his early work. So when he thought it was time to move on from the genres that his work has been considered textbooks for, David went straight ahead and started dabbling in others, and very successfully at that. “I’m not deliberately avoiding genre movies, but I didn’t believe there was a point in going on with them,” David says. “I don’t want to do something that I have done before… I’ve only worked on a film as long as I found a unique idea or concept that I could make my own, and that, in some way, says something about the human condition.”

The movie adaptation of Cosmopolis, a book that had so far been considered unfilmable, is another manifestation of his continued interest in tackling this subject, and just as honestly, although in a way that is distinctly different from anything he has ever attempted. The film is set in the discernible future, where a 28-year-old billionaire businessman rides a luxury car across Manhattan, contemplating his past, present and future as a financial collapse wrecks Wall Street along with everything he’s believed in.

“I’ve enjoyed observing the human condition in all its complexity, along with the themes of human technology and human invention,” David says. “So, in Cosmopolis, I explore capitalism… When you start thinking of money as technology, it makes sense, because then, it’s not so much capitalism but human creation that you cannot control. Money, and hence capitalism, is a Frankenstein’s monster that we invented but cannot seem to be able to control. It’s not as though it’s a tsunami or a natural force—you can fix it if you want to, but you pretend it’s out of your hands and you allow it to take a life of its own. And I like exploring this phenomenon in different ways.”

But whether it is him being a proud father or because he genuinely believes it, David doesn’t think Brandon’s movie has any similarity to anything he has done. “It’s understandable that people are comparing Antiviral to my early films but that’s only because they are both [same] genre films,” he says. “In fact, I think he held on to his own much more in his first movie than I did in mine. He has a very good visual sense as well as a great sense of humour and that has made its way into this film, which I think is terrific.”

David excitedly goes on to mention the fact that it took him 20 years to get a film to Cannes but his son’s very first film found a nomination in the Un Certain Regard [‘a certain glance’ or ‘a particular outlook’ in French] category.

Antiviral is very cinematic, and that’s because Brandon has a very innate understanding of things like the relationship between the camera and dialogue… and I was happy to hear from people I know on the set that he knew exactly what he wanted,” he says.

Brandon, of course, developed this cinematic sense not only in a film school but also from the sets of his father’s films. “In film school, you learn in a very artificial environment, so the main thing I picked up from my father was a sense of filmmaking in the real world, and a sense of the actual process,” says Brandon. “But I don’t have enough perspective to say how similar or different I am [from] him.”

And at the moment, this is the big difference between father and son, both proud men: first-time filmmaker Brandon is hesitant in speaking too much about his father, since his sense of pride and honour don’t let him be identified as his father’s son, but filmmaking legend David is effusive in praise of his son because nothing would make him prouder than being seen as his son’s father.

So, while Brandon only says that his father liked his film, but doesn’t remember a “good quote” from him, David distinctly remembers a good quote and readily provides it: “Brandon and I have always been close throughout our lives and have always been in sync in our thoughts on movies. Though I knew that he’d make a good film, it was only when I saw the film that I realised that he really did have it in him. And so, the first thing I said to him was, ‘Brandon, you really are a director.’”