David Cronenberg’s “A Dangerous Method” – an adaptation of Christopher Hampton’s stage play “The Talking Cure” – is a look at the relationship between Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and the woman that came between them, Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley).
Honor Roll is a daily series for December that will feature new or previously published interviews, profiles and first-persons of some of the year’s most notable cinematic voices. Today we’re revisiting an interview we did with David Cronenberg who just made the 11th annual list of the year’s best Canadian films as deemed by the Toronto International Film Festival.
The film’s gained a considerable traction since its debut at the Venice Film Festival earlier this year. Admirers include Indiewire critic Eric Kohn, whose review suggests “Method” as an excellent starting point for anyone new to Cronenberg’s work.
Sony Pictures Classics will give audiences a chance to do just that as the film expands across the country. In the meantime, Cronenberg explains his “Method” via this interview with Indiewire during the film’s U.S. premiere at last month’s New York Film Festival.
So what initially drew you to this project? Had you seen Christopher Hampton’s play?
I had heard that Ralph Fiennes — who I worked with in “Spider” — was in a play playing Karl Jung. Then I realized it was Christopher Hampton’s play. I’d known of Hampton’s work ever since he was this 22-year-old wunderkind and made “Total Eclipse” and all that. The combination was pretty interesting.
So I bought the play and read it. I’d never seen it performed. And I got very excited about it. In retrospect, I think it made me realize I’d always wanted to something about Freud and psycholoanalysis. Though to say that isn’t saying anything really because it’s such a vast topic. There’s so many amazing people in Freud’s life and in psychoanalysis. You need a structure. You can’t just do it.
So suddenly here was this great what I like to call “intellectual menage-a-trois.” I’d never heard of Sabina until I’d read Christopher’s play. And that was really it. I’ve only begun to realize now that people ask that the first movie I ever made was called “Transfer” and it was about a psychiatrist and a patient. It was this seven-minute little film I made in undergrad. So it sort of came full circle, in a way. Back to that subject, and that era.
It was quite a critical era in the history of European civilization, basically. Because it was just before the first World War. Of course, they didn’t know that was coming. But a really fascinating, culturally intense period. And to have the challenge of recreating that. To resurrect that and resurrect these people and bring them back to life, was something that excited me.
Did it feel daunting? Humanizing a society you’ve never existed in and actual people who you’ve met?
It’s a huge challenge. Just think of it for an actor. You need to dislocate yourself in time and space. Not only do you have to become another person, which is what actors do. But you have to become another person in another era where just the way people thought, the way people spoke, the way people stood was all quite different. Just because it was over 100 years ago. It’s terrifying but exciting. And if you can pull it off, it’s terrific.
As for your actors — how did you go about directing them in that same context?
When you are working with experienced professionals, for me as a director I want to see what they’re going to do. So I help them. I mean a lot of directing happens off camera and before you even start shooting. When you discuss their history and what accent they are going to use and why they would do that accent. How would they walk? How would they stand? What clothes would they wear?
All of these things are directing. But they are not what most people think of directing. Because you’re not saying “action” and “cut,” you know?
So by the time they get to the set, they will be — and I’m talking about pros — very well prepared. They will have read stuff. They will have read the letters of Freud and Jung and Sabina. They will have understood where the lines of dialogue have come from and what their meaning was. For me, it’s all in the prep. Once we’re on set, it’s really just figuring our the choreography of the scenes and that’s when you get into the subtlety of the dialogue. But at that point it’s just working out the details in a normal kind of way. I want to see what my actors come up with given the prep that they’ve had. I’m happy to have them surprise me. I don’t really want to micromanage them.
And if they do they’re homework, you don’t have to.
On this movie, it was a beautiful shoot and they were very efficient.
What is it about Viggo Mortensen that keeps you going back to work with him?
We really love each other. We’re really close friends as well as colleagues in film. But having said that, I just did a movie without him — “Cosmopolis” — because you really aren’t doing an actor a favor by miscasting him. So in fact, casting is one of the main strengths a director can have that people don’t know about. It’s really crucial that you know how to cast your movie because it’s more than half the battle. If you make a huge casting error, it can destroy your film before you’ve shot a single scene.
You’re juggling tons of things. Do you want this actor? Can he do it? Can he do it beautifully? Does he want to do it? Can you afford him? Is his fame such that it will support the budget you have? Does he have the right passport? This movie was a Canada-Germany co-production. So we have technically no Americans in the movie. Viggo has a Danish passport, so he’s a Dane as far as the contracts are concerned. All of these weird things that people don’t know about, and they don’t need to know about it, but it’s something that a director has to do. Especially in independent film, which is financed in a very strange, patchwork kind of way.
Nonetheless, Viggo as Freud: Not obvious casting. But I thought well, we all know the old Freud and the old Jung in their 70s and 80s. They’re kind of frail and grandfatherly. But where we see them in this movie, Freud is 50 and at the height of his power and he’s described by his contemporaries as handsome and masculine and charismatic and witty. All of these things don’t fit people’s ideas of what Freud was. So I’m thinking, well, rather than do some obvious casting of Freud. So I talked to Viggo about it and he was up for it.
The other thing is, having done two movies with him before that I had great understanding of his talent and his ability to transform himself. So, there’s that.
What about the characters related to you? Not only as a filmmaker, but as a person?
Frankly, when I got excited about it I didn’t think about that. I don’t come to a project with an idea about what my filmmaking is or where it should go or any of those things that I think critics sometimes think I might have. I don’t have a checklist of themes there must be in a project before I do it. So it’s really all after the fact analysis, let me put it that way.
It’s intuative, it’s instinctive, it’s like — boy, this is fascinating stuff. These people are really interesting dramatically because they are cultured, they are educated, they are very articulate and very obsessive. They’re also very physically attractive. And they are very intense and very ambitious. So this is all great stuff for a dramatist.
I don’t really think about it related to my own life. But if you ask — and you have asked — I think a psychoanalyst does with his patient what an artist does with society in general. That is to say, you are presented with an official version of reality by your patient and then you say, “Okay, let’s go underneath that. Let’s go underneath that. Let’s see what’s driving us, what’s hidden, what’s not spoken, what’s not understood yet.” And an artist does the same thing, only with society. You dive underneath it and you explore. You try to understand what the human condition is. So I suppose that’s why I’m always interested in scientists and doctors in my movies. Because I feel in a way I’m doing the same thing.
While it’s 100 years ago, a lot what’s going on in the film remains very relevant and controversial today.
Absolutely. Freud was revolutionary. And a lot of what he said has become so much a part of the culture that’s it’s almost invisible. They think it’s always been there, but in fact the understandings of ego and the unconscious and a Freudian slip and all that. None of it existed before Freud, obviously. So he was very revolutionary. And he was very disruptive and very threatening to the society that he emerged in because it was a very controlled, very repressed kind of Victorian society that worked very well. It functioned really beautifully. And they thought they were en route to a super civilization in Europe.
I hadn’t been to Vienna before this movie, and it was surprising to me. It was obviously built by people who recognized it as the capital of an empire. An empire that existed for 700 years. And they really felt that they were kings of the world and that they had it all understood. Rationality and order and reason and government. They had it all down. And here was Freud saying “Well, that’s just a thin surface of ice over the turbulent waters. There’s stuff going on underneath that you are not controlling and if you do not acknowledge it, it could really destroy you in an instant.”
Nobody wanted to hear that. It was threatening. And then of course the first World War proved it was right. Suddenly this wonderful super civilization descended into tribal barbarism and incredible violence. So he was proved right quite quickly.
People still aren’t quite listening, it seems.
The problem is you can listen, but that’s not enough. It’s not enough to stop us from being what we are.