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Caitlin Cronenberg isn't spooked by her dad's horror legacy with debut film 'Humane'

TORONTO — Her surname is synonymous with cinematic nightmares, but Caitlin Cronenberg says she doesn’t feel pressure to live up to her famous father's legacy as she steps into the director’s chair.
Filmmaker and photographer Caitlin Cronenberg poses for a portrait as she promotes her directorial feature debut “Humane,” in Toronto, Tuesday, April 16, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

TORONTO — Her surname is synonymous with cinematic nightmares, but Caitlin Cronenberg says she doesn’t feel pressure to live up to her famous father's legacy as she steps into the director’s chair.

The Toronto native’s debut feature film “Humane” opens Friday, and she’s well aware it will invite comparisons to the darker work of Canadian horror pioneer David Cronenberg, whose more grotesque visions include "Rabid," "The Fly" and "Dead Ringers."

“I'm sure there are certain expectations that people have of what kind of filmmaker I'm going to be, what kind of film I'm going to put out,” the 39-year-old says during an interview in Toronto.

“I try not to think about that too much or worry about it because I feel pretty confident in myself as an artist. I know what I'm trying to do. So, I'm sorry for the people who will be disappointed that it's not more of a body-horror film or more sci-fi, but you can't please everyone.”

“Humane” has its moments of gore, but Cronenberg says she wasn’t trying to follow in the macabre footsteps of her father or brother Brandon, who made his filmmaking debut in 2012 with sci-fi horror “Antiviral.” She describes her movie as a “satirical, dark horror-comedy-thriller” about fractured family dynamics.

The film is set during an ecological collapse that forces world leaders to take drastic measures to curb overpopulation. Peter Gallagher stars as a patriarch whose plan to "enlist" in the government’s newly implemented euthanasia initiative pushes his children — played by Jay Baruchel, Emily Hampshire, Alanna Bale and Sebastian Chacon — into a violent dispute.

In "Humane," Cronenberg largely avoids the gross-out elements often associated with her father and brother's works, prioritizing dark humour instead.

“We're very different, all of us,” Caitlin says of the Cronenberg brood. 

“I'm happy to be influenced by the family that I grew up in, as I think everybody is, for better or for worse. But for me, it's really just about what I'm trying to create in the world. I’m happy that it’s different.”

Cronenberg has already made a name for herself as a photographer, with her celebrity portraits appearing in publications including the New York Times, Vanity Fair, Variety and Esquire. She also shot the much-memed cover for Drake’s 2016 album “Views,” in which the Toronto rapper is seen sitting on top of the CN Tower. 

She’s dabbled in directing before. In addition to helming several music videos, she co-directed the 2018 short film “The Endings,” which was based on an elaborate photobook she co-authored with set designer Jessica Ennis and featured actresses including Julianne Moore, Keira Knightley and Tatiana Maslany embodying lovelorn characters. She also produced and shot 2021’s “The Death of David Cronenberg,” a surreal, one-minute short that her dad directed and starred in. 

Cronenberg says entering the world of feature film felt like a natural progression. She was already entertaining the idea when “Humane” screenwriter and producer Michael Sparaga emailed her the first draft in 2019 with the subject line, “Have you ever thought about directing a feature?”

While David and Brandon write and direct, Cronenberg says she imagines things visually before she thinks of them on a page.

“Obviously, my father and my brother have incredible senses of visual style as well, but I think it's just an order of operations: I go visual first and they go script first,” she says.

What struck her visually about the “Humane” script was how detailed she could get with the set — most of the film unfolds during a family gathering under one roof. It was shot in a Hamilton mansion over four weeks in 2022.

“Something very important to me was the way that the light tells a story early in the day, when it's more of a family drama,” she says.

“The light has one specific kind of tone and feel (earlier), and then the second half of the film is a very different, darker tone and feel, which is a very deliberate lighting choice that we made.”

The film takes a bloody turn when government contractor Bob, played by Enrico Colantoni, swings by the house and introduces a sinister stipulation to the euthanasia initiative, forcing the siblings into a gruesome clash.

David Cronenberg had a cameo as a neighbour but the scene was ultimately cut.

“It was not (because of) his performance. He did great. It was really just an editing decision of timing a sequence that unfortunately meant he hit the cutting room floor,” she says.

While her father provided notes on the film, Cronenberg says they were minimal.

“I think my dad trusts that I'm prepared for what I'm trying to do. I don't think he was too worried about it,” she says.

“He's a supportive father, whether he's a director or not. So, it was really fun to have him on site and to show him early cuts. I'm a parent as well, and I think you get excited when your kid is doing something that they're happy with. I think (he’s) just happy that I'm happy and proud that I'm doing what I love.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 24, 2024.

Alex Nino Gheciu, The Canadian Press