By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood November 26, 2011 at 9:58AM
There's a lot going on in David Cronenberg's provocative period biopic "A Dangerous Method." Cronenberg ("A History of Violence") and Christopher Hampton ("Dangerous Liaisons") conduct a brainy, controlled examination of the intense relationships between the pioneers of psychoanalysis, elder Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and younger acolyte Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and two well-educated but neurotic patients (Keira Knightley, Vincent Cassell) who challenge their ideas about sexuality and societal constraints. Cronenberg got hold of Hampton's West End play and immediately told him "I'd like to make this into a movie." (My Q & A and trailer are below.)
While this dialogue-rich movie is more accessible than, say, Steve McQueen's transgressive Fassbender-starrer "Shame," Cronenberg is not pulling audiences into a fine romance. After all, orgasm via vigorous spanking is part of Fassbender and Knightley's lovemaking. Some reviewers reject Knightley's brave all-stops-out performance as an hysteric who learns to behave within societal norms. Cronenberg chose a sexy star over an actress who might have brought more depth to the role (say, "Contagion"'s wondrous Jennifer Ehle), but Knightley brings welcome sparks to Cronenberg's talk-fest.
"A Dangerous Method" raises issues about how doctors and patients, husbands and wives, and professional rivals should behave. If Freud analyzed his patients through a prism of sexual repression, Jung sought to give them tools for finding a path toward happiness. Both men and their followers had a huge impact on our evolving society, how we treat mental illness, and look at ourselves.
Anne Thompson: How much did you and Hampton change and fictionalize this true story?
David Cronenberg: The most brilliant thing that Christopher did was to distill into about five characters the ethos of that whole era. Because there were many, many wonderful, eccentric, strange and interesting characters who floated around the psychoanalytic movement. And you could really get lost in Freud's life alone, which was long and complex. And Christopher managed to distill it to a manageable dramatic structure, and in particular an intellectual menage a trois between Freud and Jung and Sabina. But given the compression of art that's involved in the script, I think it's really very accurate. Because this was an era of incessant letter writing. In Vienna at the time, there was somewhere between five and eight mail deliveries every day. So if you wrote someone in the morning, you expected an answer in the afternoon. It was email before email.
They were very obsessive and very focused on recording accurately everything about their lives. Not just their sex lives, but their dreams, what they ate, what they said and what other people said, who wrote what. So we have a ton of documentation. And Christopher actually found in the basement of the Burghölzli clinic the actual admission papers that Jung generated for Sabina. There were about 50 pages. A record of all processions and what was said, in Jung's handwriting—the notes he wrote about Sabina—her symptoms as a hysteric, for example, which I think people find very difficult to take at the beginning of the movie. But it's absolutely accurate—that is what she was doing. Speaking the unspeakable, she was really saying that she masturbated because her father's beating her sexually excited her. In that era, it was totally unacceptable for a woman to be thinking or saying or experiencing that.
So I said to Keira, 'it really should be around the mouth, this deformation that hysterics demonstrated.' They kind of were mutilating themselves by penalizing themselves and deforming their bodies and folding down and laughing hysterically and so on. If it was a disease, it seems not to exist anymore. The word hysteria comes from the Greek word that means uterus, and it was considered to be a disease of women, and in fact they used to remove the uteruses of women in order to cure this disease. Which I think now we might see as resulting from the repression of women in terms of their intellect and their sexuality, so it's a complex thing. But I can say that Keira's performance, we felt, was rather subdued compared with the reality of what her symptoms actually were.
AT: So what kind of changes did you make from the play to the movie? There's a lot of talking, but you put beautiful scenery behind them; it doesn't play at all like a chamber piece.
DC: Well, the play was a screenplay first. It actually was written for Julia Roberts to play Sabina, and it was called "Sabina," and it was Julia Roberts's company that brought the book to Christopher. And once he wrote the screenplay, for whatever reason, the movie didn't happen. So he asked for permission to turn it into a play. I didn't know that when I read the play. So we had the play, we had the screenplay—the rights to use the screenplay. A deal with Fox had to be made. And then we had new research and new thoughts to create a new screenplay that had elements of both of those but was quite different. But I have to say, it's ironic when people talk about the movie's theatrical roots, because it's roots were actually cinematic. But to me, talk is not innately stagey or theatrical. As a director, the thing that you are shooting the most is people talking, humans, faces talking. To me that's very cinematic. So I had no idea when making it about worrying about the theatricality of it.
AT: Why cast Keira Knightley? You could have gone any number of different ways with that character.
DC: Well, casting is really a black art. It's a huge part of directing and it's the most invisible. It's one that people don't really think about or talk about. But you can really destroy your movie by casting it badly before you've shot a foot of film. And yet there are no guidebooks for it, there's no rule book to tell you how to do it. It's all your own experience and your own sensibility and your own intuition. For example, people talk about the screen chemistry between actors. I'm thinking Michael Fassbender, Keira Knightley—I've never seen them in a movie together because they've never done one together, they've never met each other, I will not get to see them in a room together until I'm actually making the movie—how do I know it's going to work?
AT: Why can't you, though? Why can't you put them together?
DC: Because they're doing other movies. It's too expensive to fly them back and forth. There are an innumerable number of reasons. And then when an actor has reached a certain level of stardom and professionalism, you can't say, 'well, I'll put you in a room with this guy and see if it works.' It's awkward, especially if you say, 'yeah, you don't have chemistry. I don't like either one of you.'
AT: You both suck!
DC: You can sort of see why it's not a good idea. In this case it just wasn't going to happen. And you also have the fact of age. How old was she? Well, she was 18 when she came to the Burghölzli and she was only about 25 or 26 when they're moving in. So she has to be an actor who can play that age, she has to be able to convincingly play a woman who's Russian-Jewish, etc., etc. And she has to have the bearing, she has to be articulate, and she has to be very intelligent. These people are all ferociously articulate, well-read and cultured and so on, and she has to be able to do that. And then there's that mysterious period piece thing, where some actors really cannot seem to dispose of themselves into another time. There's just something about them that's so contemporary that they're never really convincing when you put them in a movie that's supposed to be 100 or 200 years old. So there's that element as well. You put it all together, and I'd seen Keira in many, many movies, I really thought that people underestimated her, for one thing, and I was totally convinced that she could do it.
AT: It's a brave performance. From the start she pushes us into the middle of this maelstrom, and you don't pull back. I was struck that you have her in the carriage at the beginning and again at the end, almost as a framing device.
DC: Yeah. Well, at the end it's a car, which tells you that that was the era where cars started to supplant carriages.
AT: Because we follow with her, she goes an incredible distance, as we figure out that she's in fact equal to these men who treat her, in a sexist society, with a great deal of respect.
DC: Well, you can criticize Freud and the patriarchal elements in his theory, but you have to consider the time. It was what we consider the Victorian Era in central Europe, it was the Austro-Hungarian empire that had existed for 700 years and that old, stable emperor, and they were really thinking that things were evolving rather nicely. This is a super civilized European culture, humans were evolving nicely from animals to angels, rationality and reason could control everything and every conflict could be solved through reason. And here was Freud saying, 'not so fast. Underneath all that are energies that are violent and destructive and uncontrollable and you have to be aware of them or they can just tear everything to pieces.' Which of course the First World War did. By the Second World War, everybody knew that people could be hideous and barbaric in the middle of Europe. But you have to realize what a shock that was then to them. Their idealism about where human civilization was going was completely destroyed by the realities of the war, showing that Europeans could be as barbaric and terrible as anybody else.
AT: And the sadomasochism is quite explicit. How much fun were you having with that, and how delicate was it for you?
DC: I had a lot of fun. I'm not so sure about Keira. Well, of course, we weren't really hitting her. But it was difficult for her, and she was worried about it, and almost didn't want to do it because of that even though she knew it was a wonderful role for her. And at a certain point, I said to her, 'well, I'll tell you what. I want you to do this so badly that we'll just drop those scenes.' And she was shocked. She said, 'no, no, we need those scenes.' I said, 'I know, but…' So really it was a question of ultimately, where is the camera going to be. I mean that is what an actor wants to know in a sex scene for example or a nude scene, and it was really a discussion. We had a very frank discussion about what would disturb her, what she was comfortable with, and so on. She was never comfortable with it, but comfort was not my main thing.
AT: Well, you pulled back a little when she's nude. You're not right on top of it, so much.
DC: No, but there's a voyeuristic element involved in S&M and one of the reasons that I had her looking in a mirror is because these people were always observing themselves. There's no way they would have any sexual experience without writing down what their responses were. So that voyeuristic element was from them as well. It was the nature of this new creature, this psychoanalytic beast that they were creating, that they would watch what they were doing as human beings, because you are of course your own first subject if you are a psychoanalyst.
AT: You often philosophize about Science vs. Art and God. How do you feel about what happened in the battle between Freud and Jung. Who won out?
DC: Well, they were both very successful, and you could say they both won, essentially. There was Jungian analysis and there was Freudian analysis, and both of those forms of analysis are in use. There are many offshoots and you will find psychology students who will say, 'well we don't think about Freud, Freud's totally passé.' And then you'll read an article in the New York Times that says that Freudian analysis is huge in China. There are analysts in America who are Skyping sessions of analysis with Chinese patients. Because as the middle class develops in China, they start to think about their own mental health and about their family life and all the things that they couldn't have had the time or money to think about before. And Freud has made a comeback in psychology in the last 15 years, along with the advent of MRI brain imaging. I have a friend who's a social psychologist who said, 'they can see that there are thought processes going on in the human mind, that the person having the imaging is not consciously aware of. And yet it's absolutely thought.' And they like to call it now, instead of unconscious thought, the way Freud called it, they call it non-conscious. It takes the curse off of it. But it seems that Freud was really quite right when he was positing thought that was going on and makes you do things and motivates things that you do that you're not aware of. So I don't think we're through at all with Freud yet.
And Jung was hugely popular in the '60s. You can see some lovely interviews with Jung on YouTube because he lived until 1961, I think, and did a lot of interviews. He was very sweet and very charming and grandfatherly and humane. So I don't really think it's a question of who won. I wanted to be very, very neutral with this movie. That was my goal: to not bring an agenda. The goal was resurrection—I wanted to bring them back to life as they really were, and let the chips fall as they may. And because we had the documentation of so much to do that, that was the joy of it—to resurrect the era and the tone of what was going on. Because really, they were inventing modern relationships as we know them, which are, as you consider them in that very repressed Victorian era, the letters between Jung and Freud are astonishing. They're so intimate. Two professional men talking about bodily functions and sexuality and the erotic elements of dreams and all is quite startling in its modernity. And Sabina was part of that. Here was a very attractive woman who was speaking to these men in exactly the same way. Modern in many ways including the fact that she was a woman and was not forced by the powers of psychoanalysis to be subservient or to be a goddess. In that era, women were put on a pedestal, but that's not a great place to be if you're human. Goddesses are not supposed to be sexual, they're not supposed to be well-educated, they're not supposed to be political, and so on. So it was a kind of gilded cage situation.
AT: Vincent Cassel is almost like a creature from the '60s, a Bohemian wild agent that makes all the chemical experiments explode.
DC: Yeah. Well, Otto Gross is a real character, and that's very accurate. In fact, his father was the guy who invented forensic science—he invented fingerprinting and blood typing and everything else, and he was a very intimidating guy, and yes, he did want to put his son in jail immediately because he felt that many people should be in jail who weren't. He was that kind of father—quite a monster. And Otto was a perfect '60s child, a flower child—a vegetarian, believed in free love and polygamy, believed in taking drugs to expand your consciousness and so on. And really, it's kind of interesting. He said those things to Jung that he said in the movie, basically. The psychoanalytic relationship that I just mentioned was being invented, and at that time, if Otto says, 'well, why do we assume it's bad to have sex with a patient, what if it's good? What if it actually is therapeutic and why do we think it's a bad thing?' And at the time, it was not a crime for a doctor to sleep with a patient and it was up for grabs defining the purpose of what that relationship is. And that's another reason why Otto is fascinating.
AT: But did you have therapeutic experiences yourself? Have you been shrunk?
AT: Interesting. Why not?
DC: I have no problems.
AT: You work it out in your art.
DC: See, I don't think that's truth. I don't think of art as therapy at all. It's quite a different thing. Strictly speaking, you have something wrong or something that hurts or you're trying to exorcise it or you're trying to get rid of something that's damaged, but for me, art is an exploration of the human condition to see what's going on. In a way, it's like what psychoanalysis does. An analyst is presented with an official version of reality by his patient, and then he says, 'let's see what's really going on, let's see what's under the surface that you're not able to access. Let me help you access that.' And I think art does that with society, too. You have the official version of reality and you say, 'that's great, but what's really going on? What's really making things happen and why do things go wrong when they go wrong?' And all that. So there is that connection. But for me, to go to an analyst, it would be sort of like taking antibiotics when you didn't have an infection. That's the way of thinking about it. It's a metaphor!
AT: I've always thought of your films as provocative. You throw things at people to see how they're going to respond—you don't mind poking people a bit.
DC: I do poke myself actually. If God liked to think of himself as a puppeteer and reality was the puppet, and he was manipulating and pulling the strings and making you jump when he wanted, that's one approach. I've never understood that, exactly. I think that I'm sharing my experiences with the audience. I'm saying, 'well, I find this fascinating, and it's something I never knew anything about, and I find it very revealing when you start to explore it,' and I'm inviting the audience to have that same experience. I don't think it's sort of a confrontational relationship.
Audience member: Why did you have Keira Knightley speak with an accent, when you didn't have the men speak with an accent, although they were German?
DC: Well, she was a Russian, and she would speak German with a Russian accent. This was a long discussion that we had. There was only one recording of Freud's voice, for example. He speaks a little bit of English, and he speaks a little bit of German. And I had my German co-producer tell me—I said, do we know what kind of accent, in German, that Freud had? Did he have a Yiddish accent, did he ever speak Yiddish? Did he have a Viennese accent, because he wasn't native to Vienna, he was not born in Vienna. Likewise Jung, he would have had a Swiss-German accent. How did they speak to each other? And through our research and imagining, we felt that they would speak high German to each other, which is a kind of formal German, because they were men who wanted to be taking very seriously. Professional men. They were speaking professionally and very intellectually, and so they would speak high German to each other. Alright. Well, how do you translate that into English, because we're making a movie in English. We felt that I would be what we call the 'received' English accent—a very specific, sort of standard English. Not too posh, like the aristocracy, but it's also not east end London or cockney or anything like that. So there we established the baseline for Freud and Jung, how they would speak to each other in English as representing what they would say to each other in German. Now you bring in Sabina. She was born in Russia, she spoke Russian. There's no way that someone raised in Russia can speak German without a Russian accent. She would have to have a Russian accent. So i said to Keira, 'I would like you to have just a kiss of a Russian accent,' because I felt that Sabina would have that. And there are cases of her writing in German with traces of Russian mistakes. Interestingly enough, all of the men are doing accents, because Viggo's accent is of course American, and he's doing an English accent. Michael Fassbender's native accent is Irish, even though he has a German name.
AT: And he was born in Germany, and he speaks German?
DC: He speaks fluent German, but he was raised in Dublin and when he talks, he has an Irish accent. And Vincent Cassel, of course, is French, so they were all really doing accents. But it was very carefully considered how we could bring this into English in an accurate way.
Audience member: One thing I observed in the movie that made me think: Jung showed his vulnerability and pain. Did that make him a better psychiatrist?
DC: Well, I think that if you're really going to be a wonderful psychoanalyst, you would have to bring everything you've got to it. The more understanding, the more compassionate you are, the more empathetic you are, the more likely you are to understand your patient. So I would imagine that, yes, that would be the case. At the beginning of the movie, he's a psychiatrist, and one of the things at the Burghölzli, which was an incredibly advanced institution for its time—I visited it, and it's enormous, more like a village than a building, and they really do have orchard groves there, and they do have trails through the forest overlooking Lake Zurich, which they encouraged their patients to use to walk through and contemplate and meditate. Nothing like, let's say, Bedlam in England, where they were locked up like a criminal. But the one thing they didn't do was listen to their patients, because they were crazy, right, so why would you listen to them? That's why the talking cure of Freud was so revolutionary. He was saying, listen to what the crazy people are saying, because in that is encoded what's wrong with them, where they came from, and how you can cure them. It was quite an extreme thing, and at that point, Jung started going from being a psychiatrist, dispensing, as psychiatrists do today, psychotropic drugs to cure their patients, and in that case, giving them cold baths and that kind of stuff, he was segueing into being a psychoanalyst of the Freudian style, where you actually listen to what your patients are saying, and you have a dialogue with them.
Audience member: Can you talk about locations versus stage?
DC: One of the things that is a controlling factor in any movie, especially in any movie and a co-production, is what are the passports of the actors and what are the passports of the locations. This was a Canada/Germany co-production, and that's ironic because none of the action takes place in either country. It's Zurich, Switzerland and Vienna, Austria. We were shooting at a studio in Cologne, and most of the interiors were sets, and then we used green screen for the windows to show what people would see outside the Burghölzli, which is to say, Lake Zurich. But the only location that was accurate was we had two days only in Vienna because it's not Germany, so we couldn't shoot there very long. So the Belvedere gardens that you see, those wonderful geometric gardens that Freud walks in, that was in Vienna. The entranceway to Freud's apartment is the actual entranceway to Freud's apartment where the horses go in, and when you see Freud coming down the stairs, he would walk up and down those stairs hundreds of times. The Café Sperl, which is a beautifully preserved cafe from that era, where they have their discussion about Jews in Vienna and so on, that happened in Vienna. And then the lake was actually Lake Bodensee, Lake Constance, in the south of Germany. And really, it looks more like old Lake Zurich than Lake Zurich does, because Zurich is now much more built up than it was 100 years ago. So actually it was a great place to shoot it. It was historically more accurate, strangely enough. So that's basically the shape of it. But there's no B roll. We just shot one film.
Audience member: In watching the movie, I noticed that the faces of the primary actors told one story as their words told another, very Freudian-like. Was that directed or coming from the actors?
DC: Well, I did direct the actors, but of course they brought a whole lot of themselves to the movie. I think frankly that's what people normally do. They don't say—well, it's that whole Freudian slip joke. A Freudian slip is when you say one thing, but you mean your mother. People aren't always direct, and people have many things going on. And in fact, all of these characters were incredibly articulate, but their ideas that they were so passionate about, they weren't abstract ideas to them. They were real, physical things. They wanted to embody these ideas into their lives in a way. When Sabina is talking about Siegfried and giving birth to a hero out of sin, she meant, 'impregnate me.' That's what she was saying to Jung—'give me Siegfried, I'll carry your baby.' It wasn't just theory for her, it wasn't just Wagnerian mythology. But to hear you say that, what I think is there was so much going on with these characters that the actors had to absorb all that—the backstories to all of these characters.
AT: And you have a lot of Wagner—Howard Shore put a lot of Wagner in the score.
Audience member: How you reach the heart of a really complex scene with multiple layers going on in the conversation? How do you approach the scene from the very first moment you see it?
DC: People ask me if I see the movie in its entirety before I make it, and I always say, no, absolutely not. I don't see anything. I mean I read what I read and I get a feeling that this is really juicy, textured, deep material and that it'll be exciting to film, really. You do a lot of preparation when you're looking at locations or looking at the clothes. A lot of directing happens off the set, before you every shoot anything. It's talking to the actors. And the actors' bodies as an instrument, everything that deals with your body and your voice, it's part of creating the character. So when you're talking about the clothes that they're wearing, what glasses, how their hair will be, that's really preparing a lot. And for example, the kind of accent they might have. And I exchanged maybe 25 emails with Viggo about cigars. How many cigars did Freud smoke? Well, he smoked 22 a day. Which is why he died of jaw cancer. But we talked about the shape of the cigars, where you could get ones that looked like Freud's, could he afford the best kinds? It went on and on. So by the time I'm on the set with the actors, a lot of that stuff has been done and I don't have to talk to them about it. I can tell you how I work: very simply. At the beginning of the day, I clear everybody off the set except me and the actors, and then we block the scene, like a piece of theater. I want the actor's input—that's why I don't do storyboards, because then you think too much about it. It's like, 'let's see how you will play the scene.' And I let the actors have free rein. We figure out the shape of the room and how they'll move around the room as their acting the scene, and only then will I bring in the crew. We sit around and watch this, and we perform what we just did like a piece of theater. And it's only then that I start to talk to my cameraman about what lens we might use, how we might light it, how we might shoot it. I don't know until I've actually seen it. For me, directing is very physical and very sculptural. You don't bring in a sort of pre-conceived schematics to the set. For example, people often talk about, 'how do you put your imprint on the movie or whatever?' I don't even think about that. I'm only listening to the scene and the movie, and the movie tells me what it wants. And I try to give it what it wants. It's a very specific thing. It's as if I had not made any other movies. I don't think about any of the other films that I've made.
AT: And yet your films are always David Cronenberg films. Your next is Don DeLillo's "Cosmopolis," which is in post-production with Robert Pattinson playing a millionaire. Why did you want to make that one?
DC: This is me doing Woody Allen—one movie a year, except he's done it for 30 years and I've only done it for two years. It's kind of interesting to be promoting one movie, 'A Dangerous Method,' while finishing another one. I've never been in that position before and I kind of like it. It's Rob Pattinson, Paul Giamatti, Juliette Binoche, Samantha Morton and Mathieu Amalric, and it's based on the Don DeLillo novel called 'Cosmopolis' set in New York, and we shot it all in Toronto, of course. Maybe next year at this time we'll be talking about that.