If Brandon Cronenberg is behind a film you know you’re going to get something extremely unique, bold, and packed to the brim with next-level daring performances. He delivered just that with his feature directorial debut, Antiviral, his second feature, Possessor starring Academy Award nominee Andrea Riseborough, and now the same is true of his third film, Infinity Pool with Mia Goth, Alexander Skarsgård, and Cleopatra Coleman.
Skarsgård and Coleman lead as James and Em, a couple on vacation at an isolated resort. While there, they meet another couple, Gabi (Goth) and Alban (Jalil Lespert), who encourage them to break the rules and leave the safety of their gated getaway to visit a nearby beach. On their way home from the illegal excursion, James hits and kills a pedestrian on the road. The penalty for such a crime in the fictional location of Li Tolqa? Death. But, there is a way out. James can clone himself and have his double be the one who’s put to death.
With Infinity Pool screening at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival ahead of its January 27th nationwide release, Goth, Skarsgård, Coleman, and Cronenberg also visited the Collider Studio presented by Saratoga Spring Water in Park City to discuss their experience making the movie. You can watch the full conversation in the video at the top of this article or read the transcript below.
There's a lot going on here. What was the starting point, idea number one that kicked it all off? And then also, do you remember the last part of the story you came up with that brought it all together?
CRONENBERG: It started with the first execution scene. I was writing a story actually that was just set entirely in that scene where someone's watching themselves being executed in this fictional state and relating to this double of themselves and maybe wondering which version is real. What is the last — I have no memory of anything that happened since then and that was 2014.
CRONENBERG: As you were either writing or going through the production process, is there anything that came up organically along the way that you never realized this story needed when you first started writing it?
CRONENBERG: That's a good question and probably there was a lot of it [laughs], but I just can't remember. I think that happens constantly. You're writing, you start with an outline, or I do, you kind of stick to it, but the characters start to do surprising things and you run with that.
Very understandable. I want to go back to something you brought up when we were talking about Possessor, the idea of having such a bold story and being able to convey what you want to achieve to people like producers and financiers. Was there any particular part of this story idea that was the most challenging to convey to the necessary parties?
CRONENBERG: It was kind of weirdly easy. I was working with a lot of friends. Film Forge from Toronto, they're all people I'm really close to, and then Neon had put out Possessor, so I don't know if they just were too embarrassed to tell me that it was a terrible idea or what was going on there, but they essentially ran with it pretty quickly.
For the cast, again, big bold story, a lot of really big swings here. When you're gearing up for production after reading this script, what would you say is the biggest burning question you had for Brandon in terms of who your character is or where they fit in in this whole scenario?
COLEMAN: Em is the only one reacting normally to the crazy, horrific things that are going down, so for me, I was curious about the levels and really just trying to find the truth of every scenario and make it feel as natural as possible.
SKARSGÅRD: I was spending a lot of time trying to figure out this relationship, between James and Em, because it's a married couple and you meet them in the beginning of the movie on this resort and they are not in a good place. James is struggling as a writer. He's got writer's block and they've gone down there for him to find some inspiration, and ironically, it's this not very inspiring environment because it's like a fake resort. It’s a little bubble so you don't really see the culture around it. They're very sheltered. But we spent a lot of time talking about, and obviously with Brandon as well, about figuring out that relationship because it has to obviously feel real even though it's broken now. There's got to be something in figuring out that backstory, how they got together, because that informs where we find them and who James is. Once the action kicks off post the first execution, ironically, that felt easier to me. That came quite naturally to descend into that abyss.
CRONENBERG: That says a lot about you, I think. [Laughs]
SKARSGÅRD: It kind of does!
Mia, I want your answer as well, but just to stick with that relationship for a quick second because this is something that crossed my mind; Cleopatra, had you ever considered how this story might have progressed if she was at the wheel of the car at the beginning?
COLEMAN: That’s a very good question. Damn, I don't know. Em is kind of a buttoned up person and there's this really pivotal moment in which Mia's character has to convince us not to take the traditional route of going to the police and reporting it. It's very scary for Em, so it's possible that she would've done the same thing, but I don't know if she would've been as corrupted as James ends up being.
That's a very fair answer right there. I'll go back to my original question for you, Mia. Biggest burning question about your character, her backstory, or what is happening?
GOTH: There wasn't just one big burning question. When I first read the script, Gabi, my character, she even fooled me, right? I thought I was being presented with one woman and she just took me on this journey and just left me completely baffled and intrigued and just really very impressed with her. And so I had a lot of questions about her and how she presents herself and how, at first, we're confronted with her persona, the person that she thinks James would want her to be. As the film progresses and she takes off that mask, we're confronted with — to me, Gabi represented and really embodied these deep animal urges that we all have. We spoke a lot. It was an ongoing conversation and, really, Brandon just filled me up with so much confidence in claiming my character and allowing me to really make it what I wanted. So whatever felt right for me in making sense of the world that I was in, then he was like, ‘Go with that,’ and that's one of the things that I really loved about working with Brandon is just that there are parameters, but they're so wide and within the space you're able to be so free and explore this character as I wished.
With that in mind, Brandon, what did your cast bring out of your own script that you didn't even realize was there to begin with?
CRONENBERG: It’s hard to articulate, but really, a lot. For me, by the time I'm actually shooting, I’m kind of bored of the characters as written because I've been with them for too long. I'm not really looking for someone to embody the thing that I thought the character was gonna be from the start. What I do is, there's certain actors who are incredibly viscerally exciting in a kind of hard to articulate way where you just sort of see them, they have whatever that thing is, none of them are making boring choices. There's an energy to every scene. They, in any context, light up the film in a certain way. I think we all know who those actors are.
You tend to work with a lot of them.
CRONENBERG: All of these people at the table here are quite good at acting. So I like to take people like that who have that energy, who have whatever that thing is, plug them into the character I've written and give them enough space to wake the character up and come at them from an odd angle that sort of surprises me and gets me excited again about the characters.
When you're casting, what are you specifically looking for in the people that you could potentially work with that signals to you that they have those qualities?
CRONENBERG: Sometimes there are particular parameters, age, gender, a character might for narrative reasons have to be a certain type of person, but I think you end up watching everything that they've done, getting excited. You've seen one performance by one actor that sparked with you in some way, then you go back and you watch their stuff [and] you go, ‘Wow, they're really consistently exciting. This is really amazing.’ It's just kind of that. I don't know how to explain it. It's a gut instinct about certain performers because they have that incredible thing.
Whatever that gut instinct/secret sauce is, you have it.
I want you three to sing his praises for a little bit because when you're dealing with material like this, I imagine you need a leader and someone who can set a certain tone and environment on set to make you feel safe and supported when taking big swings. What did you notice Brandon doing that gave you that feeling that you really appreciated?
COLEMAN: I think something I noticed right away is how much he enjoys doing what he does, and I think that really comes through. Personally, I love being on sets. It's my favorite place in the world and it was really nice to share that enthusiasm with someone who's also damn good at what they do, and has such an amazing imagination. Reading his script, you just never know what's going to happen, and it was incredibly immersive and unusual and strange and tonally hard to pin down, which I think is exciting.
SKARSGÅRD: One of my favorite things was Brandon collaborates with a lot of people that go back to short films 15 years ago, and to see Brandon with his team of close friends and collaborators and Karim [Hussain], our DP, to see the two of them be so playful and have so much fun on set creates an environment that’s just great for creativity for all of us in front of camera because you see that there's so much joy and happiness and curiosity from Brandon and Karim. Also, the visceral quality of it. There was nothing done in post. A lot was done in post, but no CGI. It was all in-camera effects and like little kids playing with LEGO, to see Brandon and Karim play with stuff and different lenses, and obstruct the view of the camera in different creative ways and playing around with these weird prosthetics that they had, and again, just to see that and to be part of that playful, fun environment was just really exciting to me.
I feel like sets should always feel that way.
SKARSGÅRD: That’s, unfortunately, not always the case on set. Sometimes it feels like paint by numbers and this was so playful and fun and everyone wanted to be surprised and discover new things and that was extremely exciting to me.
GOTH: I had been a fan of Brandon's work for a very long time and when I received the script, I was actually filming Pearl at the time in New Zealand and we were on this intense shoot, we were doing six-day weeks, 15, 16 sixteen-hour days, and I get this email and I saw the title of the film, and then I saw Brandon's name and I just thought to myself, ‘Oh my gosh.’ I couldn't actually believe it. And I really wasn't open to reading anything, but on my one Sunday off, I got my coffee and I started reading the script and I knew three, four pages in, I knew that this is special. I have to be a part of this.”
Makes all the sense in the world.
Brandon, I’ve been dying to ask you about the rating on this movie. That system tends to be very confusing and not very consistent, so can you give us a peek behind the curtain on how it goes when you get a certain rating and you want to adhere to your original vision for a story, but also have to make certain concessions to, I guess, make sure it has the widest possible audience based on that set of standards?
CRONENBERG: The US has a sort of particular issue because of the NC-17 rating. NC-17 was an attempt to rebrand the X rating, but they didn't do it successfully, and it came with all this stigma. You can't actually market a film if it's an NC-17 rating. So specifically in the US that means that you can't really have a theatrical release of any size. But I knew that going into it, and it's not a problem everywhere and usually there's a plan to release the full film. The R-rated version isn't hugely different, I should say. I would love people to just see it in theaters and not worry about the versioning. It's fine. But I think film is, on some level, a very pragmatic art form. There's a lot that you have to deal with. There's a whole industry, and so you just do everything you can creatively to satisfy yourself, but then you understand that they're just aspects of the industry that you have to deal with and that kind of comes with the terrain.
It's a very diplomatic approach to that.
CRONENBERG: Thank you. [Laughs]
I think you said something like, MaXXXine was the best of the three scripts and I was wondering if you could tease what makes it the best of the three? Because you know how much I love X and Pearl so it's hard to imagine getting something better.
GOTH: What can I say? It's just such a fun film. Ti, really, I don't know how he does it. He's just able to come up with these worlds. It’s just the biggest of the three movies. The stakes are the highest and Maxine has been through so much at this point. And she's just such a badass character and is not the kind of person that you want to cross the wrong way, and so she's gonna protect what she has. I don't know. I really don't know what I can say without — but it's my favorite script of the three.
You probably can't answer this, but I'll at least try because you used the word ‘big.’ Do you mean in terms of scope because the other two films felt so contained to that property?
GOTH: Yeah. It’s the biggest stakes, the biggest world. I really don't know. I should have ...
I feel for you right now so much!
GOTH: No, I should have probably thought about this a little more, but I'm very excited. I'm in the middle of prep and I'm having a lot of fun with that.
I have all the faith in the world. I'm so excited for that.
I'm also excited for a certain someone's directorial debut. Given all your acting experience, how has that influenced the casting process on your movie? Is there anything that you've experienced in an actor-director relationship that now you’re looking for in actors you’re gonna work with as the director? I should have said the movie, The Pack.
SKARSGÅRD: It's an ensemble piece so it's obviously about finding the right group and the right chemistry, and my goal is to cast people I love and some of my close friends. It’s been interesting being on this side of the casting process. I've learned a lot. Sometimes it's quite disheartening in terms of people's value, and some of those conversations are a bit — with financiers and everything, it's like when you start to understand that model of foreign territories. So if someone's value and someone you think is amazing and you think would mean a lot for financing doesn’t, and then someone, the opposite, means a lot and you don't get why. So it is that, like Brandon said, I think you're gonna have to make a lot of compromises, but you’ve got to choose your battles. When it comes to casting, obviously, it's crucial for me to do it with the actors I want to work with and find that chemistry and that group, otherwise, it's not worth it for me. I'm pretty content being “just an actor,” so it's not that I feel like I have to segue into directing. I was high on painkillers and had hubris and thought I could direct this for a second, and maybe that was a mistake, but we'll see. [Laughs]
I don't believe that for a second. And it is an achievement in and of itself to get the go-ahead to make your feature directorial debut, so I will say an early congratulations on that.
SKARSGÅRD: Thank you.
Cleopatra, Rebel Moon. I’m a big fan of Zack’s and I know that that story idea was originally a Star Wars pitch so can you tease what fans of those types of movies will get from Rebel Moon, but then also, what is something that makes it different and stand out from other sci-fi fantasy films?
COLEMAN: This is tough.
I saved the hardest questions for last.
COLEMAN: There’s really not much that I can say, but I will say that Zack is another director that really enjoys what he does. He comes at it with such enthusiasm, he's camera operating, he’s in the trenches with everyone, and it's a fantastical world that he's created. I think people are gonna really love the action. The actors worked extremely hard on the stunts and it's going to look really beautiful. It's gonna be epic. That's all I can really say. I can't give it away. [Laughs]
Special thanks to our 2023 partners at Sundance including presenting partner Saratoga Spring Water and supporting partners Marbl Toronto, EMFACE, Sommsation, Hendrick’s Gin, Stella Artois, mou, and the all-electric vehicle, Fisker Ocean.