Horror director Brandon Cronenberg tells us secrets of his vacation nightmare, Infinity Pool.
Whew. How to discuss writer/director Brandon Cronenberg's latest feature Infinity Pool? The film, which just premiered in the Midnight section at Sundance, stars Alexander Skarsgård and Mia Goth and comes with all kinds of warnings for gore, sexual content, and "other subject matter that could be offensive to some viewers."
If you know Cronenberg's work, you know he also directed Possessor (another trippy hit from Sundance 2020) and Antiviral. You also probably know he's the son of horror icon David Cronenberg. So what else would you expect?
The story follows failed author James Foster (Skarsgård) and his wealthy wife Em (Cleopatra Coleman), who are on vacation in the fictional Li Tolqa. The beachfront resort is walled off, guests kept under guard and protected from whatever dangers lie outside. They meet Gabi (Goth) and her husband and are quickly lured off the resort grounds. Disaster strikes. James is arrested, but learns that instead of accepting punishment, he can pay to have a "double" of himself created. The clone will be executed in his place.
What happens when you witness yourself die violently? When you realize you can commit crimes without repercussions?
Infinity Pool is a massively disconcerting movie. You come out of it feeling like you've just watched something you shouldn't have, like you broke some rule. You feel a little shellshocked, much like Skarsgård's character late in the film. Li Tolqa is fake and off-kilter enough to throw off your balance, but still familiar enough to seem real. At the same time, the film is utterly confident in its tone and visuals, and it features some amazingly unhinged performances.
Is it the most visceral and disturbing movie at Sundance this year? Probably! Did I enjoy it? I mean—yes, as much as you can! I'm definitely still thinking about it!
So when I got the chance to speak with Cronenberg on Zoom after the premiere, I was still fairly scrambled but ready to hear his advice. How did he get those wild performances? What about those hypnotic visuals? And what tips does he give? Find out below.
Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
No Film School: What does your process as a writer look like?
Brandon Cronenberg: I usually try to start with an outline, actually. When I was first starting out I would just sit down and write and that ended up taking a much longer time and I found it kind of awkward. I ended up settling into more of, at least on a first pass, a kind of conventional board, and a kind of three-act structure. So I do a kind of beat board and I do sketch out the films that I write that way before getting into the script, because I find it just helps give me an overview of the structure even if I then end up throwing it away and deviating from it as I'm writing.
NFS: And you usually spend quite a while developing those ideas, is that correct? Because I know that there's been a pretty good chunk of time between your projects.
Cronenberg: Yeah. To be honest, it's more financing than anything else. It's still, it's very hard to get an indie film financed, and after my first film, I didn't really have anything else that I developed because it took me about eight years to get that film made. And I was really just focused on that and I didn't have any sort of career, so after that, I suddenly had to start developing something else from scratch. And it just takes such a long time, especially at the start, to get financing together and to get casts together because it's so driven by financing, and driven by money, and you really have to demonstrate to people, or trick them, maybe, into imagining that they can trust you with the money.
NFS: You mentioned cast there, and the cast in this one is amazing. They get to play in such wild spaces and go to these extremes. As a director, what is your process for shaping those kinds of manic performances?
Cronenberg: Honestly, a lot of it is in the actual casting. There's certain actors who just have this incredible thing where they sear through the screen and you can't take your eyes off them. There's certain actors, I find, who are just so immediately compelling and fascinating. And I always mainly want to target those actors.
It's, I guess, a kind of stupid visceral casting process, but I want to take someone who does that thing to me when I watch them and plug them into my character and then give them enough freedom to explore the character and sort of wake the character up for me, because after years of development, I'm kind of bored with my script and I'm bored with my characters, and so having someone who can surprise me and bring life back into my writing is really important.
Cronenberg: From a directing process, at that point, if you have someone who's game and who's excited to explore with you, it's mainly, in my experience, a question of giving them enough space. I mean, obviously, you need to give direction, and you want to shape the performance, and you need to be editing your scenes in your head as you're shooting because you want to make sure you're getting what you need. But I think if you've cast someone exciting like that you also don't want to clamp down too hard on them and try to force something on them. It's good to give them some room to really go off and go big, and see where they'll take it. You can always tone something down and you can always shape it in the edit, but you can't make it go bigger and you can't make it more deranged.
NFS: I did want to ask about the editing, because I know that you had a cut of this that was NC-17 that you had to cut back, and I'm sure that's difficult to cut away at something that you've already finished. Can you talk about what that looked like?
Cronenberg: Sure. I mean, it's interesting. The two versions aren't hugely different, to be honest, and I'm happy that I supervised both cuts. I'm still happy for people to see the R cut in theaters, but it's a specific to the U.S. problem, generally, just because of the way your NC-17 rating works.
So I go into it starting with the film that I want to make without any restrictions but understanding sometimes it needs to be massaged a bit for U.S. theatrical. And that process usually involves going back and forth with the MPA a fair bit, making some changes. They screen it, and if it doesn't get an R rating, they give you notes back and there's some back and forth. We went through an appeals process with them at one point where you have to actually go in person and screen.
NFS: How do you make decisions in the edit? Is it really difficult, or do you find by that point you have the film that you want?
Cronenberg: Oh, yeah. The edit's always very difficult. I mean, usually what happens is my editor will start with an assembly where they're cutting a version of the film specifically to the script as I'm shooting, just so that at the end we can kind of see if it's working and if there are any particular problems that they find during the shoot. I like to give the editor a chance to play with the material without me looking over their shoulder. Afterwards, we start from scratch and recut everything. I'm sure it's really annoying, but I am there usually every day in a kind of obsessive way and we go shot by shot. I like to watch all the material, every take, compare takes and lines, and shape the scenes that way.
I find at the beginning it's often a question of wrangling the tone, because you can really change the tone a lot in the edit, and so shedding things that don't really fit tonally, or stuff that just didn't quite work in the beginning is very easy because you just know what feels good to you and you know what doesn't, and so you throw out the stuff that you don't like. That's a kind of satisfying process because it's making the film something that you like more. At the end, it gets a lot harder because then you start to show people cuts and there are things that you thought were working that weren't working, and there are things that you didn't really like that surprise you.
The hardest cuts are usually towards the end because there's usually some stuff, there's a scene you really like or there's part of a performance that you really like, someone's good work, whether it's an actor, or a production designer, or a great shot that you're clinging to because you like it out of context that you then have to get rid of because you just realize the pacing in that section is wrong, or there's something conceptually wrong that's throwing people. The narrative isn't working with that scene. And so you do towards the end, in my experience anyways, lose stuff that you wish you could have kept in the film, but in context, it just was making it a worse film.
NFS: Your visuals are also always so striking throughout all of your projects. How do you start creating that visual language? I know you worked as an artist.
Cronenberg: So at the start—before we have any sets or actors, just based off the script before we have anything concrete—my cinematographer, Karim Hussain, and I usually go through scene by scene and create a kind of theoretical shot list. So we break it down not knowing anything about the reality of the film, but it ends up being a good way to talk about the visual language, what kind of lenses we want to use, what kind of lighting we want to use. It helps Karim build a camera package for us. Then we tweak that, of course, as we get the actual locations, as we're scouting, as we get the actual actors, that comes into focus.
In terms of the more hallucinatory stuff, it's usually a long process. Those hallucination sequences in Infinity Pool, as with Possessor, are entirely practical in-camera effects, and so some of that we have to figure out beforehand what kind of materials we want to use. It's often, for us, a lot of gels, and glass, and projection, and flares, and ways to deform the image using practical materials, which is a fun exploration because you're not coming up with a concept and just handing it off to someone. You really discover stuff by accident, and I like that. I like finding the look-through process with someone like Karim who is so exciting to work with, and stumbling onto these happy accidents.
Then—sorry, this is a very long answer, I'm realizing—then for these last two films at least, what we do is we amass a bunch of material on set using, say in this case, we built mirror boxes. Zosia Mackenzie, my production designer, built these sort of mirror box sets with reflections and a kind of pinwheel of light through a one-way mirror in the back reflecting into a box that gave it this kind of floating spinning light rig. So she was very instrumental in the onset stuff, as was Dan Martin, our makeup effects artist. And then after taking a lot of that material, after the shoot, Karim and I spend a huge amount of time projecting it and then photographing it through additional glass, and gels, and so on. And so we come away with a mountain of footage, probably way too much footage.
I remember standing in Karim's living room for 16 hours just wiggling gels and glass in front of the lens, driving ourselves insane, and then having to sort through that footage on weekends to kind of cut it down to something manageable. After all of that, I then embarked on what could be maybe described as a completely deranged editing process with James Vandewater, my editor, because those sequences were built sometimes frame by frame, almost like stop motion. We were selecting individual frames and pairing them. And the ordering of frames, when you're working frame by frame like that, really changes.
It's quite interesting. There's an interesting alchemy there, because sometimes you put two frames together and one of them pops, but if you reverse them, the other one pops and it's not always the first image. Sometimes it's not the one you're expecting. There's something about the ordering of the frames that really changes how you perceive them. So it was weeks and weeks with James driving ourselves insane with all the footage we've built.
NFS: I love hearing about that, and the results are so beautiful. What is your advice to any up-and-coming filmmakers?
Cronenberg: I don't think there's blanket advice you can give to any up-and-coming filmmaker. I think that the main thing is you have to find something that works for you, and who you are as an artist, and what your situation is. There's no one right path to being a director—which on the one hand can be difficult because you can't just say, okay, start here, be a PA, rise up their ranks. I don't think it really works like that. I think you have to find a way to do it. Whoever you are, whatever you're doing, you have to find some way to demonstrate what you're about as a filmmaker before you're established, and that's always difficult. But there's also something liberating about it because you don't have to follow one path if that doesn't work for you. You necessarily are free to define it for yourself.
And so I think in the early stages, whatever you have, work with that. Whatever the technology is, whatever, even with limited financing, you can come up with something interesting if the concept is there, and I think the most important part when you're starting out is to find a voice and do something that is conceptually and formally striking within the context of what you can achieve.
Don't try to be Quentin Tarantino, or don't try and make a lower-budget version of a Hollywood film, because those films only work because they have massive stars and $200 million dollars. I think if you have a voice and you demonstrate that you are doing something that other people aren't doing, or can't do, that will stand out.
And then make short films, try to get them into festivals, build a bit of a name for yourself that way, because eventually, you have to get people to trust that you know how to do the work and that you're going to deliver something that doesn't burn all of their financing.