Unsung Auteurs: Brandon Cronenberg

May 18, 2023
FilmInk salutes the work of directors who have never truly received the credit that they deserve. In this installment: like-father-like-son nouveau body-horror helmer Brandon Cronenberg, who helmed Antiviral and Infinity Pool.

“I embrace in an honest way my own interests and creative impulses,” says Brandon Cronenberg. “To avoid things that I like just out of fear of being compared to him would be to define my career in terms of his career and in opposition to his career.” The him in question is, of course, the great David Cronenberg, arguably Canada’s most compelling cinematic auteur (fans of Atom Egoyan and Norman Jewison may, however, mount a case against him), and the father of writer/director Brandon Cronenberg. Famed and feared for his crazed exploration of surrealism and nightmarish body-horror, David Cronenberg (The Fly, Dead Ringers, Naked Lunch) is a titan of cult cinema, so his filmmaking son was always going to exist at least in some part in his father’s long, dark shadow. The fact that Cronenberg mines very similar thematic and stylistic territory to his father, however, means that he is too often branded a genetically predisposed copycat, and is literally denied the credit he deserves for the boldness of his cinematic vision. So though he certainly has his fans, and has also garnered his fair share of festival and critical acclaim, Brandon Cronenberg still remains something of an Unsung Auteur.

After a series of short films, Brandon Cronenberg crashed violently into feature filmmaking with 2012’s Antiviral, a profoundly disturbing and visually dazzling sci-fi horror meld set in a strange future where a thriving business has been built up around the sale of celebrity illnesses to their desperate fans. Filled with black humour, eye-popping visual set-pieces, nauseating horror, and ideas so big they can barely be contained, Antiviral was alive with the influence of David Cronenberg, but it also spoke of a writer/director very much responding to his own creative impulses. Unfortunately (as we’ve just done here!), Antiviral couldn’t be discussed without mention and comparison being made to David Cronenberg, which was not wholly unfair, but which also diminished the junior Cronenberg’s artistry and originality. “Part of Antiviral is that theme of the divide between celebrities as cultural and media constructs and the human being that’s unrelated to that construct,” Cronenberg told Complex upon the film’s release. “I definitely think growing up around some people who had that and seeing that had an effect on me. It’s not a very novel observation to say that celebrities are people who aren’t really anything like how they’re seen by the public.”

Brandon Cronenberg

After Antiviral, Cronenberg spent eight years making music videos and one short film with 2019’s Please Speak Continuously And Describe Your Experiences As They Come To You. The writer/director finally returned to features in 2020 with Possessor, an icy meld of espionage and body-horror dealing with brain transplants and political assassination. Just as daring and confrontational as Cronenberg’s debut effort, Possessor was again alive with striking imagery and daring themes. Due to the Covid pandemic, however, the film missed its cinematic window and was directed into the home entertainment sphere. “I was not really frustrated, because I was excited that anybody liked the film,” Cronenberg says of bypassing cinemas. “It was my first film in eight years. There was an eight year gap between my two films. I was really spinning my wheels. And so the fact that I even got to make any film was very exciting. The fact that Possessor got a decent response from people was hugely exciting at the time. The release, of course, happened in 2020. I think there were literally no theatres in New York open when it released. So it wasn’t a proper theatrical release. Possessor was just in the peak of the pandemic. I was just happy to have any film with Possessor.”

Brandon Cronenberg now returns with the full-platform release of Infinity Pool, by far his biggest film to date in terms of scope. “It was a bit of a bigger budget,” Cronenberg tells FilmInk. “Not a huge budget, but a bit of a bigger film. I’d say it was a reasonable step up in terms of scope, in a way though. It was slightly bigger. But, again, I’m happy with that. I’m still just surprised that I’m making movies right now and I’m excited about it. It’s just tough for any film. Especially in the indie space, it’s hard to get films financed. It’s hard to get films made. I sort of released my first film, then I kind of fell flat on my face for the better part of a decade and then now I’ve done two more films. It was just the usual indie film problems. We couldn’t get financing together. We couldn’t get cast together.”

Brandon Cronenberg on the set of Possessor.

But despite the slightly bigger scope, Infinity Pool most certainly does not see Brandon Cronenberg heading into more commercial territory. Just as bizarre and deeply unsettling as his previous two films, this surreal slice of body-horror sees Alexander Skarsgard and Mia Goth trapped in a tropical resort soon revealed to be a place of unspeakable living nightmare. “I wrote Infinity Pool before we shot Possessor,” Cronenberg explains. “This was a script that I wrote in that eight year gap. It started as a short story, actually, that I was writing back in 2014, or maybe earlier, and it was just the first execution scene as a story. Someone watching an exact likeness of themself being executed in this place for a crime that the double was believed to have committed…and everything else expanded out of that. I guess I keep getting stuck on the question of what a human being is on a certain level. What it is to be a continuous entity or a continuous idea distinct from other ideas. I don’t think ultimately there is anything at the core of what a person is. I think it’s all a kind of fiction or a collaborative fiction that we take part in. And something about that pricks my brain in a way where I want to write about it for whatever reason.”

Ironically considering Cronenberg’s out-of-the-frame thematic concerns and bizarre visual style, Infinity Pool has hit something of an artistic confluence, with a number of other films tackling class difference and curious holiday resorts. “I get a lot of questions about that,” Cronenberg says. “It’s White Lotus. It’s Glass Onion. Triangle Of Sadness. Old is also a bit related. But film moves at such a glacial pace, you can’t time these things. People are interested in that, because obviously, from a film journalism standpoint, you’re looking for patterns. And so it’s tempting to say it’s the mood right now, because of the economic divide, and people’s anxieties about the future, whatever. But again, I started doing the preliminary work for this back in 2014. So it may not be a coincidence that people are latching on to these kinds of stories. But it definitely was a coincidence that it happened to come out now. Class inequality is kind of a perennial topic as well. I think it might be especially pronounced now coming out of the pandemic, where people are feeling that pain in particular. And I think also, just the way employment works these days, it does seem to be more pronounced, but it’s also always been an issue. And it’s always been played within art.”

Alexander Skarsgard in a scene from Infinity Pool.

The film’s resort setting was actually born out of Cronenberg’s own experiences. “When I was trying to come up with a good environment for this story about characters who aren’t beholden to conventional consequences, I kept coming back to the one experience I had at an all-inclusive resort about 20 years ago, which was in the Dominican Republic,” the director explains. “It was very weird, because they would bus you in in the middle of the night. You wouldn’t see any of the country. And you’d just be dropped into this resort compound, which was in many ways like the compound in the film. It was surrounded by razor-wire fence that was loosely disguised by dried palm leaves. You couldn’t leave the compound. They had a sort of fake town that you could shop in. The Chinese restaurant [in the film] was from that resort. The horrible disco was from that resort. The ATV scene on the beach actually happened at that resort. So it sort of was a real place. And then of course, at the end of the week, they bus you back in the day. And you see that there’s this incredible poverty surrounding the resort compound. You realise that you’ve not actually been in the country. Obviously, the contrast was horrible, but it’s also completely surreal. You never really went to the host country. You were in this weird alternate dimension, this kind of Disneyland funhouse mirror version of reality. I hooked into that because it was the right kind of environment for this story.”

Cronenberg had two very willing co-conspirators in his leading actors, Alexander Skarsgard and Mia Goth, both of whom have a history with confrontational, unconventional films. “They were just actors I really wanted to work with,” Cronenberg says. “Some actors have a certain thing that I respond to viscerally. My casting process is simplistic to the point of maybe being a bit stupid: some performers are immediately exciting when I see them. They’re just stealing every scene, and they make no boring choices. On a core level, I get excited and I find everything that they do so compelling. I just want to take those actors and plug them into my characters. Usually, I’m sort of bored of my characters by the time I make the film, because I’ve been developing it for so long, and they’ve kind of gone to sleep on me. And so I want an actor who will inject new life into the character. I want an actor who will surprise me by taking the character. Mia was shooting Pearl when I sent her the script and X hadn’t come out yet, so this run of horror films was sort of accidental. But I’d been wanting to work with her forever because of all those other films: Suspiria, Highlife, Nymphomaniac… every film she’s in, she’s brilliant. And Alex is just constantly surprising and brilliant. It’s easier to see someone fitting into your world totally if they’re choosing other films that loosely relate to your taste. But I’m not selecting them based on, say, other directors they’ve worked with. It’s my appreciation for their work in those films that is driving it.”

Mia Goth in a scene from Infinity Pool.

While Brandon Cronenberg remains something of an Unsung Auteur, the writer/director believes that filmmaking in general is an extremely process, even more so today. The difficult release of Possessor and the long gestation period of Infinity Pool have made Cronenberg even more cognisant of the fact that films are hard to get made. “Once you have that experience, it sticks with you,” Cronenberg explains. “It’s hard to make a feature. It took about eight years to get to the point where I could make a feature. I thought, ‘Okay, this is it, I have a career’, and then nearly a decade passed. So that will always be a fear, or probably will continue to be a fear for a little while. I’m hoping because I’m now getting a bit of momentum that it might not be as hard, but you never know really. It never completely gets easy. I’m hoping that at a certain point, you start to feel confident that you’ll be able to work again, but I don’t know. It might just be the nature of the industry. It’s so hard to get financing. And you’re essentially freelance.”

 In terms of future projects, Cronenberg has his eye on a possible adaptation of the novel Super-Cannes by J.G Ballard (who his father famously adapted with Crash), and a long gestating, larger scale “space horror” film called Dragon that he’s been working on for a number of years. Do not, however, look for Cronenberg’s name on a Marvel movie anytime soon…though he’s certainly not entirely resistant to the concept. “I mean, it would be very interesting to work on that budget level, just in terms of the toys that you’ve got,” the director says. “I’d be curious to know what that kind of filmmaking is like. But I also hear it’s very much like directing a $200 million TV episode. The look has been set for you already. You don’t have the same creative control. So I feel like that would aggravate me, but at the same time who could completely ignore the possibility of working with that?”

Brandon Cronenberg

Right now, Brandon Cronenberg is just happy that Infinity Pool is out there in front of audiences. “Some people are shocked by it,” the director offers. “Some reviewers who didn’t like it delighted in saying that it’s not as shocking as it thinks it is, which is a weird thing to say. Because how do they know what I was aiming for? There’s been a pretty wide range of responses, which was always going to be the case. I’m surprised that as many people like it as seem to.”

If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs Laszlo Nemes, Ayelat MenahemiIvan TorsAmanda King & Fabio CavadiniCathy HenkelColin HigginsPaul McGuiganRose BoschDan GilroyTanya WexlerClio BarnardRobert AldrichMaya ForbesSteven KastrissiosTalya LavieMichael RoweRebecca CremonaStephen HopkinsTony BillSarah GavronMartin DavidsonFran Rubel KuzuiElliot SilversteinLiz GarbusVictor FlemingBarbara PeetersRobert BentonLynn SheltonTom GriesRanda HainesLeslie H. MartinsonNancy Kelly, Paul NewmanBrett HaleyLynne Ramsay,Vernon ZimmermanLisa CholodenkoRobert GreenwaldPhyllida LloydMilton KatselasKaryn KusamaSeijun SuzukiAlbert PyunCherie NowlanSteve BinderJack CardiffAnne Fletcher,Bobcat GoldthwaitDonna DeitchFrank PiersonAnn TurnerJerry SchatzbergAntonia BirdJack SmightMarielle HellerJames GlickenhausEuzhan PalcyBill L. Norton,Larysa KondrackiMel StuartNanette BursteinGeorge ArmitageMary LambertJames FoleyLewis John CarlinoDebra GranikTaylor SheridanLaurie CollyerJay RoachBarbara KoppleJohn D. HancockSara ColangeloMichael Lindsay-HoggJoyce ChopraMike NewellGina Prince-BythewoodJohn Lee HancockAllison AndersDaniel Petrie Sr.Katt SheaFrank PerryAmy Holden JonesStuart RosenbergPenelope SpheerisCharles B. PierceTamra DavisNorman TaurogJennifer LeePaul WendkosMarisa SilverJohn MackenzieIda LupinoJohn V. SotoMartha Coolidge, Peter HyamsTim Hunter, Stephanie RothmanBetty ThomasJohn FlynnLizzie BordenLionel JeffriesLexi AlexanderAlkinos TsilimidosStewart RaffillLamont JohnsonMaggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins.