PARK CITY, UTAH - JANUARY 25: Director Brandon Cronenberg of 'Possessor' attends the IMDb Studio at Acura Festival Village on location at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival – Day 2 on January 25, 2020 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Rich Polk/Getty Images for IMDb)

Brandon Cronenberg Dives Into the Infinity Pool

With his latest release Infinity Pool Brandon Cronenberg cements his place in that pantheon of cinematic extremism that questions what it is to be human and what humanity is capable of. Nadine Whitney talks to Brandon about his most recent film and his other works Possessor and Anitviral ahead of the wide release of Infinity Pool in Australia on May 11 2023.

Nadine Whitney: Hello, Brandon. Congratulations on your fascinating new film Infinity Pool.

I’ve noticed across your three features the issue of identity is central – the struggle to keep identity or the willingness to give it up. Can you tell me a little about what that concept means to you?

Brandon Cronenberg: You know, I think films are very often about what it is to be human in one way or another and maybe that subject is approached from any number of different angles but often I think that’s what stories are about, the essence of a lot of art making. My interest in answering that question takes that particular form, it’s an angle that I’m stuck on; what is it in a very essential way to be a continuous entity with an identity throughout time? What is it to perform yourself? What is it to be a character?

I think that part of identity is very creative and narrative in itself and I like the way that mirrors art making and storytelling in the ways that we perform characters for other people and for ourselves in constructing these identities. The fictional aspect of that process – people as fiction. I think that’s interesting but essential to who we are. I guess you just get stuck on certain ideas and they come through as you’re writing.

NW: It’s an abundant idea and you’ve explored it in depth. In Possessor you have Vos (Andrea Riseborough) and Tate (Christopher Abbott) fighting for control of an identity but Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh) in the end is the one puppeteering it all. In Infinity Pool you have James (Alexander Skarsgård) trying to escape with some form of identity despite being replicated again and again but eventually he collapses in on himself. In Antiviral you have Syd (Caleb Landry Jones) literally turning his body into a host for the matter belonging to others, especially Hannah (Sarah Gadon). People in Antiviral consume celebrity meat.

Consumption seems to be another element of your work. In Infinity Pool we have these tourists who are consuming another culture with disregard.

BC: I haven’t thought of it that way [laughs]. I think that’s valid, but I don’t have anything clever to say because I haven’t been consciously trying to anything about consumption. It’s an essential part of culture right now, not just physical consumption but cultural consumption, information consumption. We absorb and we process and what we absorb changes us and builds us. Again, I think a major element of the human fiction is a translation of our environment. I don’t think it’s necessarily something we control and it’s something that’s nonsensical out of context. I don’t know if that makes sense [laughs].

NW: It makes perfect sense. You work mostly with practical effects and in camera effects. You’re not reliant on CGI. You’re using more hand made mediums. You actually build moulds. Can you tell me about that process?

BC: I don’t have anything against digital effects and there are digital effects in my films you just don’t know they’re there because they are usually for cleaning up a seam on a prosthetic or a light stand in the frame or certain kinds of set extensions or expansions. In the hallucination sequences in Infinity Pool there are no digital effects. I think there were a couple of times where we were painting out a couple of things that were stuck to the actors.

NW: The things that you stick to the actors! My goodness!

BC: [Laughs] When you’re doing an orgy sequence you have modesty coverings and protective coverings. To me if you at least start with a convincing practical effect it has a weight and texture to it onscreen. It doesn’t make sense for every effect. If you want to make a realistic dinosaur then maybe digital will be better. I think for instance in scenes of violence if you start with a physical prosthetic or a puppet and then later clean it up or enhance it with VFX, but if you start with something physical it’s always going to have weight to it. I don’t think digital blood ever look satisfying; it just doesn’t work most of the time.

Also, there’s an element of exploration in it that I really enjoy. In the Infinity Pool hallucination scenes a lot of it came from experiments with my cinematographer Karim Hussain. We will spend hours and hours and hours in his living room with various weird lenses and gels and glass and projection feedback – playing with this stuff in a tactile way.

The thing that happens is you experiment, and you don’t get exactly what you thought you were going to get but there is some kind of happy accident which leads to another experiment and you start to go down this path and that thing you stumbled on by accident becomes a central aspect to the look for the film. That process I really enjoy. Maybe it’s the same if you are a digital VFX artist, but I’m not. So to just give someone a scene and say, “This is kind of what I want,” precludes the possibility of exploration on my part and precludes the possibility of these happy accidents.

NW: Infinity Pool is undoubtably an extraordinary looking film. It is mind blowing how it simultaneously embraces beauty and grotesquery. It is, in fact beautifully grotesque.

There have been recently a lot of satires about the ultra-rich getting their comeuppances, for example Ruben Östlund’s Triangle of Sadness, Mark Mylod’s The Menu and Rian Johnson’s Knives Out and Glass Onion. In Infinity Pool they rich don’t get any kind of comeuppance. What made you decide to work with the idea of “This is the monstrosity of humanity” and if people can get away with something terrible, they will?

BC: Because I think that’s reality. I think that’s true. I think the thing about some of these films (and I don’t hold it against them, I think there is some great work being done) is that there is a tendency to want to please the crowd by setting up these villains and then giving them what they deserve, and that’s fine, that kind of filmmaking is fine, but it’s less interesting to me than a downer film. I prefer a downer film [laughs]. I prefer a more cynical ending because that is the way it actually is. In reality the person whose company made grenades doesn’t end up holding one of their own grenades and being blown up by it. That’s a crowd-pleasing fiction and that’s fine but it’s not what I’m interested in.

NW: Everybody loves Mia Goth, and everybody loves Alexander Skarsgård. But as an Australian I’d love to know what it is like working with Cleopatra Coleman who plays Em.

BC: Oh it’s fantastic! Cleo’s absolutely wonderful. A great collaborator who could not be more talented and professional and lovely. I was extremely happy to have her on the film.

NW: Mia Goth, especially is just blowing up all over the place. You did one thing that few people have done of late, you let her use her English accent. And honestly, the way she uses her voice is one of the most frightening parts of the film.

BC: [Giggles] Just her accent as a normal human being?

NW: Well, more the fact that she’s screaming at James in this weird almost little girl voice. She does have an odd voice and it makes Gabby all that more off-putting. It creates a strange dissonance. What was it like directing Mia and Alexander in those scenes?

BC: I should say in the context of Mia as a person her voice isn’t strange. That is her accent but she’s actually a really sweet, lovely person. It may be her natural accent but she’s using it in this incredibly brutal and antagonistic way. That creates the weirdness to her delivery. She doesn’t really scream your name like that!

Both Mia and Alexander were absolutely lovely to work with. They couldn’t have been easier, and it was a hard shoot. We were trying to a lot in a very short amount of time in two different countries and a lot of outdoor shooting. It was a very tight timeline. We were shooting at an active resort with tonnes of people around. So to have great collaborators like that under any circumstances is wonderful and important. Especially on an indie film that was trying to do more with its budget than was probably reasonable. So having actors like that who were just completely on board, who were completely on my side who just wanted to work and were professionals was just really wonderful.

NW: Why should people see Infinity Pool?

BC: I mean… most people shouldn’t to be honest. [Laughs] I don’t have a good answer to that really. I think it’s not an experience that’s similar to a lot of other movies that are out right now. Hopefully it will be something that people will enjoy, but even if they don’t enjoy it that’s maybe worth something also.

NW: Extreme cinema will always divide but it’s worthwhile. I hope people will see it because the themes are uncomfortable and it’s something they need to sit with. Thank you so much for your time, Brandon.

BC: Thank you. It was lovely to speak with you.

Infinity Pool is distributed in Australia by Maslow Entertainment and is in cinemas on May 11 2023.

Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

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