The Inverse Interview

Flesh and Blood

Humane director Caitlin Cronenberg reflects on following her famous father into genre filmmaking, confronting fears of mortality, and finding just the right amount of blood.

The Inverse Interview

Genre filmmaking is in her blood.

But for director Caitlin Cronenberg, Humane came about not only as an opportunity to follow in the footsteps of her father, the legendary horror filmmaker David Cronenberg, but also as a chance to pursue a premise she couldn’t get out of her head to its terrifying endpoint.

“There’s something sort of delectable about exploring people in crisis, because it’s the time we, as human beings, are the most ourselves,” she tells Inverse. “It’s harder to hide behind some visage of who you want to be when you are in crisis. It’s true of your friends, too. As soon as you’re in crisis, you see who your true friends are. And you meet your true self.”

In Cronenberg’s ruthless dystopian satire, now in theaters, a widespread ecological collapse has led world leaders to take drastic action. Their directive: reduce the world’s population by 20%, in order to conserve resources, allow the Earth to heal, and avoid humanity’s extinction. Governments agree that no population should be exempt from making the ultimate sacrifice, though the system — which involves a voluntary euthanasia procedure — is predictably set up to disproportionately impact the poorest among us.

This all means that, for the wealthy York family, it comes as a shock when the family patriarch, recently retired newsman Charles (Peter Gallagher), announces that he’s decided to volunteer for the procedure, along with his celebrity-chef wife, Dawn (Uni Park). Inviting his four adult children home under the guise of hosting a family dinner, he can announce his decision and go through with the procedure with them nearby to make their peace with his passing. But Charles is unprepared for his plan to go terribly awry once Dawn gets cold feet and disappears.

Soon, his children — Jared (Jay Baruchel), a public advocate for the euthanasia program; Rachel (Emily Hampshire), a pharmaceutical executive; Ashley (Alanna Bale), an aspiring actor; and Noah (Sebastian Chacon), a recovering addict and piano prodigy — are forced into a nightmarish hypothetical by the arrival of Bob (Enrico Colantoni), a sinister yet oddly genial employee of the Department of Citizen Strategy (D.O.C.S.).

Enrico Colantoni stars as Bob, tasked with carrying out the euthanasia procedure ordered for the York home. "Enrico is the soul of the picture," Cronenberg has said. “He’s the most incredible character in the film. His lines are complex, and he just delivers them so effortlessly. And then there were takes when the entire cast would break out in applause afterwards.”

Courtesy of Steve Wilkie. An IFC Films & Shudder Release.

Tasked with administering the procedure, Bob has two body bags at the ready, and not meeting his quota is the only option he’s not willing to consider. So begins a long, dark night of the soul for the York family, who’ve all internalized the belief that some lives are more valuable than others, leading to a satirically cutthroat display of sibling rivalry with deadly consequences as they decide who should take Dawn’s place.

Cronenberg is better known as a photographer; she shot the iconic cover for Drake’s Views album, and her photography series “Poser” and “The Endings” both captured explosively emotive, carefully arranged means of human expression. The pivot to feature filmmaking involved collaboration with longtime acquaintances, including screenwriter Michael Sparaga and stars Jay Baruchel and Emily Hampshire, along with discovering her own sharp, mordant voice as a filmmaker away from the body horror that both her father and brother, Infinity Pool director Brandon Cronenberg, are most commonly associated with.

“Being the third Cronenberg to take on feature directing comes with a lot of pressure, especially about selecting the right projects,” she said in her director’s statement. “Humane has everything I’ve been looking for in a feature, including just the right amount of blood. My family likes blood.”

Jay Baruchel, Emily Hampshire, and Alanna Bale in Caitlin Cronenberg’s HUMANE.

Courtesy of Steve Wilkie. An IFC Films & Shudder Release.

Ahead of the film’s release, Cronenberg spoke to Inverse about what attracts her to depicting people in crisis, how her own family dynamics influenced her approach to Humane, and — yes — what she means by “just the right amount of blood.”

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Humane is your feature filmmaking debut, but you’re renowned as a photographer, specializing in celebrity portraits and artistic compositions. Your second book, The Endings, made with art director Jessica Ennis, was cinematic, casting actresses like Julianne Moore and Keira Knightley, giving them backstories involving the fallout of various romantic catastrophes, and then snapping photos of them in character. Do you see the feature filmmaking you’ve done as an extension of the storytelling you’ve done as a photographer?

It’s actually great and helpful that you reference The Endings, because I always say that’s the type of art I make when left to my own devices. I’ve had an amazing creative partner in Jessica Ennis, and the two of us just decided to do it. We had no clients, no one to please, no one to impress. Eventually, we brought on our publisher, but they very much let us lead that process. Then, they had to tell us, “You can’t make a 17,000-page book,” which was when we had to start pulling back. [laughs] Actually, that was a good exercise.

I think my experience with The Endings is what made me feel confident in working with actors in a directorial role. Even though we were not recording video, nor were we recording any dialogue, this idea of creating a space for actors to play in, giving them that backstory, and letting that unfold for the camera, that all began on The Endings. It gave me this feeling that working with actors, and having creative collaborations with them, is joyful.

Actress Juno Temple appears in The Endings: Photographic Stories of Love, Loss, Heartbreak, and Beginning Again.

Photo: Caitlin Cronenberg

Stepping into filmmaking feels like a natural progression when you’ve been working in an entertainment space for so long. You get actors. You know how they like to work, in some ways. I’d had experiences working with Jay Baruchel and Emily Hampshire in the past, in a photography capacity. When I had this idea I could take this next step, I felt very ready, having done this photography career. However, dialogue is really hard. And that’s when you get actors who can handle a script and a script that you love. And the rest is up to them — and me, but much more up to them.

Humane and The Endings share a fascination with love and loss. You directed your father in a short, “The Death of David Cronenberg,” in which he gets into bed with a corpse of himself, kissing and embracing it. Both of you explore the metamorphosis between life and death in your art, and so I’m curious to ask you about where that interest comes from, for you.

This is an insight I feel like I should pay you for, as a therapist, because I didn’t necessarily know this about myself but, as you say it, it makes a lot of sense. I do think I’m fascinated by the harder moments in life, the feelings of how you as a human being react in a situation that’s not what you anticipated or that’s different than you have planned for. Maybe this comes from my own anxiety and desire to feel like I’m in control of my own situation. I’m a person who doesn’t like surprises. It’s fascinating to meet that head-on, look at yourself, and say, “If this is the end, how will I act? What will I do?” Obviously, beginnings are important, too, but endings…

David Cronenberg appears in “The Death of David Cronenberg,” a short film directed by Cailtin Cronenberg.

Caitlin Cronenberg

Humane depicts a world in the midst of collapse, and that setting infiltrates the social dynamics on display; the family falls prey to this belief that some lives are more valuable than others, and their sibling rivalry escalates to a dark, violent endpoint as a result. Tell me about setting this story inside a family unit and making their relationships with each other so ruthless and amoral.

I’ll throw Michael Sparaga, who wrote this film, into the mix. He didn’t write the sibling dynamics, but he comes from a family of four siblings, so I will say that he certainly set the tone. I personally have a very different relationship with my siblings than this family is portrayed, but I do think there’s an element of leaving your family home then coming back that brings out this childish version of yourself. You tap into who you were, as a child, the most pure version of yourself, when you’re back in your family home. In this instance, it’s very funny, because they’re having their sibling rivalry with knives and weapons; as children, they would normally be pushing each other and calling each other names. You can see the way that it obviously escalates, as adults coming back.

I can see it less so for myself now, going back to the house I grew up in, because it’s quite different… I don’t need to get into that. But, as soon as siblings are with parents, you forget that you’re also an adult. You have your mom and your dad again. You are who you are. There’s something very pure about that. These are the people who’ve known you for your entire life. They know you better than anyone. Even if you don’t have an adult relationship with your siblings, they saw you during your formative years. There are people who have very fraught relationships with their siblings, too, and may not have such a hard time deciding which one they’d like to kill. [Laughs]

Alanna Bale, Sirena Gulamgaus, Peter Gallagher, Uni Park, Emily Hampshire, and Jay Baruchel in Caitlin Cronenberg's HUMANE.

Courtesy of Steve Wilkie. An IFC Films & Shudder Release.

On the contrary, their thought processes are cold and logical.

[Smiling] Cold and logical is my favorite.

You’re the third Cronenberg to make films, after your father and your brother, both of whom are associated with body horror. But something I see less often discussed about your father is how darkly funny all his films are. Dead Ringers is hysterical, even before Cosmopolis, Maps to the Stars, and Crimes of the Future, which are more overtly satirical. Based on Humane, you seem to share a certain sense of humor.

Crimes of the Future is hilarious! Don McKellar is so funny in Crimes. I was blown away by it, but I’m not at all surprised. My dad and my brother are hilarious. At our house, it’s a yuck-fest. I feel very lucky to have grown up in an environment where we were very free to talk about funny things, to have jokes. My brother cracks me up more than any other person in the world — always has, and always will — so I think there’s something that comes naturally to the family: there’s humor, with an underlying interest in darkness.

Obviously, if you met us as people without knowing what our jobs are, the art we’re putting into the world, you wouldn’t necessarily have any concept of what’s coming out of our brains. Everyone’s pretty well-mannered. We’re quiet people. We’re not loud and outrageous people, in any way, which is interesting. A sense of humor can’t be taught, I don’t think. It’s one of these things you’re exposed to in your life. You grow up thinking things are funny, or repeating the puns that are being fired at you by your dad across the dinner table, because he loves puns.

“Obviously, if you met us as people without knowing what our jobs are, the art we’re putting into the world, you wouldn’t necessarily have any concept of what’s coming out of our brains.”

It gives you this freedom to allow characters to be funny in a dramatic setting. One of human beings’ main responses to fear, to the unknown, is to be funny: to hide behind it, to feel comforted by your own sense of humor or the sense of humor of others. That’s something that really came across with Jay’s character. I thought that the way he brought humor into the Jared character, it’s almost as though Jared doesn’t even realize he's being funny, and that feels so human. Especially in extraordinary situations, cracking jokes is the go-to, because you don’t know how else to respond to the fear.

Emily Hampshire in Caitlin Cronenberg's HUMANE.

Courtesy of Robin Cymbaly. An IFC Films & Shudder Release.

With Humane, the darker the story gets, the funnier it becomes. You need that humor, as a storyteller, to confront death and mortality in such a violent, absurd way. You made this film’s script darker as you were developing it, which is perhaps part of why Humane resonates with modern times. There’s gallows humor in the culture, in response to the predicaments we’re in.

It’s gotten so absurd in real life that we have to just crack jokes about it. The freedom to be funny is something that unites us. You think about these old Jewish comedians who joke about mortality and death, and how that’s a tale as old as time. Those are the people I grew up with. We were never shying away from discussing death but instead talking about it openly. We were talking about darkness. It’s not that we were trying to, but that’s just the way it is; that’s what comes out. Tapping into that, and bringing it to the forefront, allows you to go darker, because then you get a reprieve from the darkness as well.

Humane intersperses its social satire with these bright splashes of blood. While the film’s set in a very different vein from Possessor or Crimes of the Future, did you ever discuss that alchemy of finding the right balance of blood, and making it cinematic, with your father or your brother? Is this a conversation topic in the Cronenberg household?

You know, it isn’t in common parlance. We don’t just bring it up. But I definitely did walk around on the set of Possessor to take photos, as part of my job [as a unit stills photographer]. And I walked past a set decorator literally mopping up buckets of blood. And I hadn’t obviously seen the film. They were still in the process of making it. But my brother was basically talking about how he couldn’t believe what they’d just gotten away with. [Laughs]

I think that there’s something stylistic, especially about my brother’s last two films, that are taking this kind of violence to an unholy level — in a good way. He’s really pushing through it. This is part of the show for him, in those films, and he pulls it off beautifully. He’s an incredibly brilliant person, writer, and director. I love the art that he puts out into the world.

I intended with Humane to find a more realistic blood level. People certainly said, “Oh, I would have thought that this would have killed them!” And I always say, “Have you seen Home Alone?” [Laughs] It’s common, in a movie, for an injury to not kill you when it may in real life, and that has to be OK for us, too. But there was an idea of this level of realism versus this insane, outrageous, surrealist level of blood. That’s not to say I would never explore more blood. But we were on a blood budget. [Laughs]

Jay Baruchel, Peter Gallagher, Alanna Bale, and Enrico Colantoni in Caitlin Cronenberg's HUMANE.

Courtesy of Steve Wilkie. An IFC Films & Shudder Release.

You had a blood budget?

I mean, good blood is expensive! I will tell you this one story about my father, though. I went to a small elementary school. As a child, there was a call for parents to submit recipes to a cookbook that would be sold, just for the school. Everyone was submitting recipes for cookies and soup. And my dad submitted a recipe for fake blood. He called it “Movie Blood,” and it’s in this school cookbook that I still have on my shelf. And the secret ingredient is coffee. Dark, black coffee makes the blood look more real.

What was the response from the school?

I wouldn’t have even known, because I was so young. I was just like, “Yeah, of course. This is normal.”

Humane is now in theaters, from IFC Films and Shudder.

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