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Caitlin Cronenberg Continues Her Family Legacy with Debut Feature Humane

The third Cronenberg to take the director’s chair opts for a dystopian chamber drama with just a sprinkle of mouth gore.

by Maggie McPhee

It’s the middle of her press tour and Caitlin Cronenberg has lost her voice. She’s jet setting around the East Coast to attend premiere screenings for her debut feature Humane, and between New York and her hometown Toronto, she’s sandwiched in a stop in Montreal. And with just 24 hours in the city, she has one priority: bagels. As she talks with RANGE, Michael Sparaga, Humane’s screenwriter and creator, is on a side quest to pick up bagels and a t-shirt from St-Viateur. “I already have a tote,” she says. “I just love the logo. It makes me laugh.”

Hers is a markedly lighthearted demeanour for someone who has spent the last five years working on a dark, dystopian, suffocating single-set satire. In Humane’s not-so-distant future, the government has legislated 20% of the population to “enlist” to end their lives as a hail mary solution to curb climate collapse. This larger-than-life premise comes to bear on one dysfunctional uppercrust family, workaholic Patriarch and newscaster Charles York (Peter Gallagher), his second wife and celebrated chef Dawn (Uni Park), and their adult children, anthropologist and enlistment spokesperson Jared (Jay Baruchel), corrupt pharmaceutical CEO Rachel (Emily Hampshire), adopted piano prodigy and recovering addict Noah (Sebastian Chacon) and aspiring actress Ashley (Alanna Bale). 

Across two hours, in the gloom of an austere mansion, the six of them play out the geopolitical intersections of class, race, borders, gender, and media that underpin modern life and its careen toward ecological catastrophe. When the government organisation sent to collect two cadavers for “enlistment” falls one short of their promised goal, the children have to decide who between them will take that second spot. The situation devolves into a bloody battle of kitchen knives and fire pokers, in which the members of the York family sacrifice their humanity in exchange for their life.

Even with the heavy subject matter, Cronenberg’s lighthearted attitude defined working conditions on set, making the 20-day Ontario shoot delightful. Filming in the fall, the team celebrated Cronenberg’s birthday and Halloween, which fall three days apart. Most of the cast and crew had prior relationships, including Baruchel and Hampshire who have known one another for 25 years, and Cronenberg brought on her photography team to help behind the scenes. 

“Coming onto a set that is so supportive and everybody’s there to do the same thing and make the project as great as it can be, that was the move for me,” says Cronenberg. “As Jay [Baruchel] said, make cool shit with your friends. And that’s what we were doing, you know, this idea that your grown-up job can be working with your friends and having a good time. It’s like going to camp and these people become your whole world and your best friends and you think, ‘I’ll never be able to survive a day without you when this is over.’” 

Cronenberg, who has made a name for herself as a photographer specialising in celebrity portraits — including the iconic album cover for Drake’s “Views” — saw directing as a “natural extension of photography.” When Sparaga e-mailed her with the script for Humane, subject line “Have you ever thought about directing a feature?”, she felt ready to take the leap. The 39-year-old had already dabbled in shorts and music videos, and working with actors as a photographer granted her a sense of what made them tick. Those skills translated seamlessly onto the director’s chair, but filmmaking opened the scope of her lens to a broader view. 

“When Michael sent the script to me it felt like a very unique premise with really wonderful characters and something that you could really dig into and spend the time creating this detailed world,” says Cronenberg. “Having come from the photography world, jobs happen very quickly. You’re in and you’re out. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve wanted to have more of an engrossing experience to spend more time actually being in the moment and create something that has the depth that a film does.” 



“Growing up watching my family make films, you understand how long of a process it is,” she continues. “You can’t just do it and be done with it. It’s going to be a part of you, part of the art you’ve created, part of what you’ve put into the world forever, so you have to really care about it. And if you don’t, you’re going to suffer because it’s such a long process.” 

Though her father, legendary Canadian horror auteur David Cronenberg, and brother Brandon Cronenberg, both specialise in visual-forward body horror, Caitlin has only followed their footsteps part-way, opting instead to focus on family drama and satire, while still revelling in speculative fiction and excessive gore. 

Where she truly aligns with her famed family is in their appreciation of independent filmmaking. Cronenberg shares that making a movie is harder than ever these days, with fewer projects greenlit each year and even less money allotted to each budget. As the industry becomes increasingly convoluted and corporatized, filmmakers have to jump more barriers to get to the stage where the creativity can finally take off. 

“I think about my dad in the early days of his career, grabbing friends and a camera and going and making a movie and having that movie feel like a real movie,” says Cronenberg. Like her father, Caitlin Cronenberg knows how to have fun on set while still making a final product with merit. In fact, supportive working conditions engender great filmmaking, and there’s an undeniable correlation between capitalist imperatives and the decline in film quality in the last 20 years.

“There are still people doing low budget, guerilla style films, and often they’re incredible, and that’s wonderful,” she says. “It’s also very hard to get a film made these days, and so I feel pleased and proud that I’ve done it, and I really hope I get the opportunity to do it again.”