Humane caitlin cronenberg jay baruchel emily hampshire

Caitlin Cronenberg’s debut film Humane is a psychological thriller set after the climate collapse

We spoke with the filmmaker about setting an intense family drama against the backdrop of the apocalypse and getting Jay Baruchel to play a Jordan Peterson-esque asshole.

Set in a not-too-distant future amidst a total climate collapse, the feature debut by Caitlin Cronenberg (yes, she’s David Cronenberg’s daughter) is a violent psychological thriller about a family implosion.

Shot in Hamilton, ON, but set in a vaguely nondescript North American suburb, Humane takes place over a single night. The patriarch, Charles York (Peter Gallagher), hosts a family dinner to make an announcement that will send the family into chaos. As his wife Dawn (Uni Park) prepares a gourmet meal, his four children slowly pour in: Jared (Jay Baruchel), Rachel (Emily Hampshire), Noah (Sebastian Chacon) and Ashley (Alanna Bale). Unfortunately for Charles, they’re all massive disappointments, but he’s ready to fix that.

Humane is concerned not just with the textures of living through the apocalypse but the nature of legacy and goodness. It’s a film that channels how, as individuals or nations, being perceived as good or noble is often more important than actually being those things. When the four children are presented with an impossible choice by their father, all illusions of respectability fall away, and their true natures come through. As the film progresses, the way it engages with questions of class and influence as modes of navigating social and environmental collapse increasingly come to the forefront.

Humane Peter Gallagher Caitlin Cronenberg

At its best, Humane is a great showcase for performances. Even minor characters are imbued with complexity and rich inner lives. They all seem to have a strong understanding of the film’s dark tone that balances pitch-black comedy with a satirical apocalyptic thriller. 

Before presenting the film in Montreal as part of a special screening on April 25, Caitlin Cronenberg sat down to speak about Humane. 

Justine Smith: While the setting for the film remains somewhat ambiguous, I couldn’t help but see it as extremely Canadian. In particular, Peter Gallagher’s character’s obsession with being perceived as “good” or “noble” is more important than actually being those things. Do you see this film reflecting your experiences or views on Canada? 

Caitlin Cronenberg: Michael Sparaga, who wrote the film, never decided necessarily if it was set in Canada or America. He said that because it has a department like the Department of Citizen Strategy, it leans more American, at least in vocabulary. But, you know, we are Canadian, and we made a Canadian film in Canada, and it’s hard to keep our Canadian-ness out of the film. This idea of the government being more aggressive skews more on the American side. That’s something that we see more of there. Our government, being as liberal as it is, does not necessarily use the same kinds of fear tactics as certain Americans. We explored the characters as written, and I think there are certainly elements of it that do feel American in some ways. 

JS: Was creating cohesion among the characters and performances challenging by having them play a family?

Caitlin Cronenberg: We only had 20 days to shoot, and it was a challenge for the actors to bond with each other. Luckily, Jay and Emily have been friends for 20-plus years, so their bond is real, strong and true. Having them together anchored the family unit. We created this clique of two older siblings, and the younger siblings also clicked. The disconnect between older and younger was purposeful as well. We thought of them as two separate groupings within the family unit. One of the things that worked really well was that we shot the second half of the film first — it worked. The actors getting into the violence and doing combat practice, all this choreography, as opposed to the heavier parts of dialogue gave them a crash  course in trusting each other in different ways. Then we shot the first half of the film with heavy dialogue, the dinner table scenes and the introduction to all the characters, so they all felt comfortable with each other. They knew each other more. 

JS: This is a relatively small film, and you’re working with limited means. How do you focus on world-building when you have little time or money? 

Caitlin Cronenberg: We’re certainly limited in world-building. Of course, it would be fun to have sweeping footage of glaciers melting and horrible forest fires, all sorts of things that show the collapse. But, in another way, it was a fun challenge to figure out how to get the messaging across within this house and this world we built. We’re only outside of the house for a couple of scenes. The experience of living through COVID was that you can walk outside of your door and feel like everything is normal until you see people hoarding toilet paper at the corner store. It’s still the world. In this case, the collapse of the environment hasn’t necessarily seeped into neighbourhoods. But we depended so much on television and radio chatter in the background and posters and commercials. I think it’s fun because you can pay as much or as little attention to all that as you want as a viewer. The harder you listen, the more detail you get. You can just watch the film, not pick up on any of it, and still understand the concept. Or you can watch and rewatch and find all the easter eggs. 

Humane caitlin cronenberg jay baruchel
Caitlin Cronenberg and Jay Baruchel on the set of Humane

JS: A bit related to an earlier question, but I’m curious about Jay Baruschel’s character, Jared. Especially when he first appears on TV, his characterization is unmistakably a lot like Jordan Peterson. It departs a bit as we move on through the film, but is that intentional? 

Caitlin Cronenberg: I would say he’s an amalgamation of many talking heads who show up on the news with sweeping, big ideas. He’s not modelled after Jordan Peterson specifically, but I see where you’re coming from.

JS: Maybe it’s just Peterson’s Canadian cadence that feels especially prominent to me. When I hear him speak, all I hear is that Canadian accent. Of course, Jay, being Canadian, has it, too. I don’t know if Americans pick up on it.

Caitlin Cronenberg: I don’t think they do, based on their reaction last night in New York.

The thing with Jay is that it’s sometimes hard to separate him from being Jay. He’s so good at acting that you can separate and see him as his character. He’s the nicest guy, but Jared is this huge asshole.

JS: Do you struggle with making films in Canada when there’s always this fear that the audience might reject the film just on that basis? 

Caitlin Cronenberg: It’s a challenge to be an artist in Canada. It always has been, even as a photographer. Yeah, it always felt like I had to leave and become successful elsewhere and then come back.

JS: But did you enjoy your experience making a film in Canada?
Caitlin Cronenberg: I did. I’ve worked in unit stills for a decade plus. Being able to have crew members who I loved working with in another capacity be crew members on my set was wonderful. We have such good crews in Canada. There are so many talented people in every department. I loved being close to home, too. Hamilton’s an hour from my house, so I’d stay in Hamilton during the week and come home on weekends. There is something comforting about being at home. Jay, too, was so excited to make a movie at home. It’s part of what gets an actor excited. When he’s someone like Jay, who is very busy and gets a lot of offers, he’s going to make choices based on the experience. He said, I think, “Make cool shit with your friends at home,” and that’s what we did. It was such a good vibe on the set, really positive, and supportive — great cast, great crew, great everything. ■

Humane (directed by Caitlin Cronenberg)

Humane is now playing in Montreal theatres.

For our latest in film and TV, please visit the Film & TV section.