David Cronenberg's recent work has, compared to his earlier efforts, or even something like "Crash," seemed relatively sedate on the surface. The psychological drama "Spider," which dealt with schizophrenia, and two crime thrillers, "A History of Violence" and "Eastern Promises," might seem straightforward at first, but dig a little deeper and you'll find that the director is just as concerned with the subjects that have always been present in his work -- the human body and mind, sexuality, violence -- as he ever has been. And that's just as true with his latest film, "A Dangerous Method."
At first glance, it's his least Cronenbergian film to date, a costume drama based on a stage play about Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), the mental patient-turned-practicioner who caused a rift between the two founding pillars of psychoanalysis. But on viewing the film, it's as clear as day that it's a David Cronenberg work, with everything that goes along with that affiliation, even if the veneer is a little more respectable.
"A Dangerous Method" finally hits theaters on Wednesday, and we were lucky enough to talk with Cronenberg last month at the New York Film Festival, picking up plenty of details on the film's inception, how he came to cast the leads, and much, much more. Read on below.
"A Dangerous Method" is based on writer Christopher Hampton's 2002 play "The Talking Cure," which starred Ralph Fiennes, Jodhi May and Dominic Rowan. But Cronenberg told us that the project actually started off as a screenplay, one intended for one of the biggest stars in the world. "[Christopher] had written a screenplay for Julia Roberts called 'Sabina' and it was for Fox," the director said. "I think that was 17 years ago and it didn’t happen for whatever reason, and he then asked them if he could have the permission to make a play out of it, so it was really a screenplay first and it was based on many things."
A key tool in Hampton's research process were the actual letters written between Freud & Jung.
It's always tricky making a film about historical figures, but Hampton had an advantage in the wealth of material from the characters in question. "Christopher actually went to the University of Geneva where he saw the suitcase that she had left behind with all of her letters when she went to Russia. Actually saw the reports that Jung had written about this patient of his and what her symptoms were, so we really knew pretty much what she looked like with her hysteria attacks," Cronenberg said.
Indeed, with letters being delivered so frequently at the time, it was almost like having access to an e-mail correspondence between Freud and Jung, something captured in a key sequence in the film: "He speaks German, Christopher, and he did his own translations of the letters. It was an era of letter writing and there were 5-8 mail deliveries every day. If you wrote to somebody in the morning you expected an answer in the afternoon. So we have luminous letters and of course these were very obsessive, detail-oriented, so the letters do contain details about conversations that were had, meals that were eaten, dreams that were had. So we have an unusually detailed record of the way they spoke, what they said, how they said it and when they said it...what is said on screen is pretty accurate."
Set in the lead-up to the First World War, much of the appeal of the film to Cronenberg came in the blend between the story of Jung, Sabina and Freud and the wider story of what was happening in Europe at the time, both with the coming war, and the position of Jews, like Freud and Sabina, in society. "It was a really fascinating era," the director told us, "a time of the real belief in the progress and culture and civilization and the civilization of Europe, and that man was evolving from animal to angel and it was all going according to plan, and rationality would be able to solve any problem, and so on, and yet there was incredible control. The collars and the corsets and everybody was very constrained and controlled, and here is Freud jumping up and saying this is just an illusion. This is a very thin veneer, our civilization, and it can be destroyed easily."
Freud was vindicated, in part, by the cataclysmic events in Europe in the first half of the twentieth century, not just the First World War, but also the treatment of Jews by Hitler (Freud was forced to flee Austria in 1938, while Sabina and her children were killed by the SS in 1942). As Cronenberg says "Of course World War I proved all that. And also anti-Semitism, Freud was very aware of course of his Jewishness and his position in Viennese society which was very welcoming to Jews, up to a point. But you couldn’t be in the military, you couldn’t be in government, just because you were Jewish, so there were many restrictions and it was crucial in terms of his desire to have Jung be the figure to psychoanalysts. Jung was not Jewish and he says that. He wanted an Aryan, Swiss German as perfect, he would be proper, he would be accepted and some psychoanalysts couldn’t be dismissed as Jewish Science, which was a very derogatory term of it. And so all of this was not just background but foreground."
With its period trappings and relative lack of taboo-breaking sex or violence, it's arguably Cronenberg's most accessible film, and certainly his most restrained. Some have speculated that this comes from the fact that Hampton adapted his own stage work, but Cronenberg insists otherwise, saying "[The restraint] has nothing to do with the play. It’s the stiff collar, it’s the corset. I mean, here’s the thing, you give the movie what it wants. The movie will tell you what it needs to work. And you cannot listen to that and impose something on it because somebody has told you your style is this and you must put your imprint or your thumbprint or whatever on it, but I feel that that’s false, and besides, I don’t really, I don’t care about my other movies frankly in terms of this movie. So you listen to the movie and its style suggests itself."
Not that Cronenberg's gone soft, however; a number of sex scenes, not in the stage play, were added.
Few directors use sexuality to tell a story as brilliantly as Cronenberg (witness the contrasting love-making scenes in "A History of Violence," for instance), and "A Dangerous Method" is no exception. A number of somewhat voyeuristic sex scenes between Jung and Sabina were included in the film, but they're far from gratuitous "It's just the aesthetic that I felt was right for the movie," Cronenberg told us. "I had in the back of my mind the idea that they were always watching themselves. I mean they were, in one scene she’s watching herself in the mirror while they’re in this sort of sex play that they….you can tell by their letters there’s no way you were going to have sex with each other and not talk about it and discuss it at length and in psychoanalytic terms and historical terms and mythology terms, you know, that’s the kind of people they were, which I found fascinating. So I guess without, without really being schematic about it, I guess I felt that the voyeuristic aspect of those scenes worked for their own psychology."
Sabina is easily the most challenging role that Keira Knightley, an actress who hasn't shied away from tough choices, has ever had to face. As such, she took a little persuading. The director says of his star "Keira was obviously crucial, and I was really convinced that she was the right one to do it, and there were several things about the role that would have intimidated her. One is that she’s never played a scene of that kind of intellect before, or philosophical or cultured. She didn’t even know at that time that I was going to ask her to do a Russian accent on top of everything. And then, then there were the sex scenes which were, I mean they’re not, they’re literally two shots and they go on for less then a minute total, but for an actress it’s a moment of vulnerability and she’s going to want to know where the camera is and how I’m going to want to shoot that"
Fortunately, she welcomed the challenge, but Cronenberg was so committed to landing her that he was prepared to sacrifice 'crucial' sex scenes to get her on board. "I think at one point I said 'Keira I would like you to do this role so much that if the sex scene, or the S&M scenes were what was keeping you from doing it, we won’t have it.' And she was shocked at that, the idea that she would be responsible for censorship. I mean, for me, Sabina’s sexuality was, as she herself put it, was very tied up with being beaten by her father and having to come to terms with the fact that it sexually aroused her. And I couldn’t, I couldn’t see that it wouldn’t be part of their sexuality. I said it is important but there are ways that we can allude to it, as in fact in the play." Knightley wouldn't hear of cutting anything, however, and the scenes make it to the film that will hit theaters.
Arguably the film's highlight is the surprisingly light, funny take on the founding father of psychoanalysis by Viggo Mortensen, a world away from his efficient killers from "A History of Violence" and "Eastern Promises." This version of Freud, not exactly the traditional take on him, was key to Cronenberg's approach to the material. The director explains, "Stefan Zweig wrote a book called 'The World of Yesterday,' this is a writer, very famous and he knew Freud well and he described him as handsome, masculine, charismatic, witty, charming, laser-like. I thought this is not the old cancer-ridden Freud in his ‘80s but this is Freud at the height of his powers, he’s 50-years-old, he’s leading this very difficult psychoanalytic movement that is emerging out of a society that’s anti-semitic, that is very conservative, and he must have strength. So I started to think, you know Viggo could really, could be terrific casting for this."
That the director and actor had a shorthand, after three films in a row, only helped matters: "We trust each other incredibly. I know he’s going to do incredible research that we will collaborate on, that we will send each other 40 emails about what kind of cigars he smokes, complete with pictures, and so on. It is a collaboration and the more help you get, that’s exciting, the better it is for everybody."
Whereas Mortensen immersed himself in the research, Fassbender, who was cast as Jung, took a slightly different tack, focusing on the material. "His approach is different up to a point," Cronenberg said, "Michael reads and reads and re-reads the script, you know he focuses on, I think jokingly said he just read an Idiots Guide to Carl Jung and that was enough for him, but it’s probably true because he goes on his intuition a lot. But he’s got enormous technique. This is the thing he’s not improvising or anything like that. It's a beautifully modulated, very solid performance, very accurate."
It can sometimes be challenging to bring actors with different approaches to their work on to the same page, but for Cronenberg, it's one of the pleasures of the job. "It’s fun, actually, because all actors work in different ways. When you’re working with experienced actors as I was on this movie, they know how they work, you don’t have to teach them, as you might with an actor who is very inexperienced or very young. They’re not looking for me to tell them how to act, they’re looking for me to give them what they need for the movie and I just have to find out what each one needs and that’s actually kind of fun."
The filmmaker identifies more with Freud than with Jung.
Most people in the psychology field find themselves drawn to either Freud or Jung, and we couldn't resist asking Cronenberg which he most identified with while making the film. The response? "Definitely Freud, because I knew where Jung is going. It’s a bit of a cheat but Jung, to me, ended up becoming kind of a spiritual leader, and you see that at the end of the movie his desire to help the patient sort of self-realize, or realize, his spirituality. It became a much more religious thing, I think. Freud remained, in my terms, pinned to the human body and all the reality of the human body and I think Jung was a kind of a flight from the human body."
Interview by RP