David Cronenberg, the talented Canadian directer behind everything from The Fly and Scanners to A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, has a new movie coming out and it isn't quite what you might expect. In A Dangerous Method, hitting theaters November 23rd, Viggo Mortensen plays Sigmund Freud, Michael Fassbender plays Carl Jung and Keira Knightley plays Sabina Spilrein, the woman whose case came between them. Based on a Christopher Hampton play about the true and unheralded story, the movie is a distinct, thought-provoking and un-Cronenbergian piece of work. Last month we sat down with the director for a lengthy, wide-ranging discussion of everything from his long-standing intrest in the world of Freud, how before it was movie based on a play A Dangerous Method was almost a Julia Roberts vehicle (!), the time he tried to make a Dead Ringers TV show (!!) and what it was like working with Robert Pattinson on his next movie, based on Don DeLillo's Cosmopolis.
Watching A Dangerous Method, I was struck that if I were flipping channels, I wouldn't necessarily think, 'Oh! This is a David Cronenberg movie!' Was that was by design? No, it has nothing to do with anything really. Frankly, when I"m making a movie my other movies don't exist, I just forget about them, because each project is unique. Once I decide to do it, I don't really think of it in those terms because it's irrelevant. What you've done before is absolutely irrelevant to me. As a critic, of course, you're looking at all this, the arc of the career and all that stuff. For me, not, it's just like, "Okay here's a movie." I've decided to do it for whatever reason and now I give the movie what it wants. I listen to the movie and it tells me what it wants.
This movie says there's a certain classical style that's required because the people of that era, the tone of that era, was very controlled and very precise. Even though it was full of revolution and passion and all kinds of things, and it was on the eve of the first World War, but of course they didn't know that then. The style of the writing and the style of the people themselves is what determines what I do with the movie. So stylistically, as I say, you have to give the movie what it wants. You don't impose some arbitrary thing.
So it emerges. I'd gone to the set—well of course you've prepared because you've cast the movie, you've found locations, you've designed the costumes and all that stuff—but when I go on the set I still don't know how I'm going to shoot it. I'm like that. Now in terms of the movie being not obvious, of course, but when you think of it? The first movie I ever did was about a psychiatrist and a patient. It was called Transfer. It was a seven minute short, I wrote it and it was my first movie. Then of course in The Brood you have a psychologist, or a psychiatrist, played by Oliver Reed. So in a way you could say I'm coming full circle.
Watching A Dangerous Method I was reminded of a line about the broadcast in Videodrome, "It has a philosophy. And that is what makes it dangerous." That's a good connection because Freud was considered dangerous. Extremely dangerous. And he knew it. That era was one of great control and propriety and appearance. You see the stiff white collars and the many layers of waistcoats and corsets and stuff. It was very controlled, everybody knew his place in society. They really felt that it was a perfect civilization. The European civilization. And it was the seat of the Austro-Hungarian empire that lasted 700 years and had an 80-year-old emperor, literally. It was the empire.
When you go to Vienna—to me it was shocking to see how big it was, how monumental the scale was. You realize that the people who built this city felt that they were the capital of an empire. So for Freud to come and say the things that he said, I mean it was totally body repression. Women were goddesses. They were perfect, dainty, lovely creatures. And here's Freud talking about penises and vaginas and anuses and excrement and incest and women's sexuality and masturbation. This was totally shocking! Completely unacceptable. And worse, they felt that this was the evolution of civilization to it's highest peak and that rationality and reason could control and govern everything. Here was Freud saying, "No this is just a thin veneer that's easily destroyed. And underneath that are all these barbaric, animalistic, unreasonable id things that can destroy us.
So of course the first World War proved that he was completely right. The first World War was a big shock for a lot of people because they could absolutely not believe that Europeans would do those things to each other. By the second World War, of course, they weren't so surprised because they had had the first World War. But that was a shock! They had had 40 years of peace in Europe. 40 years!
No one was really prepared for trench warfare. No, the hideousness of it and the barberism of it was unthinkable. And yet it happened. So Freud was dangerous and there were many reasons for both sort of the sexual, body ones and, once again, there's your hook into Cronenberg-ness, if you want one. Freud really insisted on the reality of the human body, whereas this was a society that was trying to repress the reality of the human body and control it.
It was impressive that in this film with none of your usual special effects you still managed to get Keira Knightley to do something like that with her jaw. [Ed.: when Knightley is undergoing therapy in the movie her jaw appears to have a life of its own] Yes! The cheapest special effect ever!
Did you know she could do that with her jaw? No, I didn't. But the discussion was hysteria, which was a disease of the era, it's disappeared basically as a clinical category. It came out of the repression of women but the word hysteria is based on the Greek word that means uterus. In fact, they also would remove the uterus of hysterical women thinking that would cure them. So this was primarily a disease of women—although men did have it, too—and it involved weird paralisis of weird parts of the body and deformations and weird laughing fits and strange ticks and twitches and repetitive movements and all that kind of stuff.
Christopher Hampton actually went to the University of Geneva where all of Sabina's papers were left in a suitcase when she left for Russia. He saw Jung's notes on what Sabina's symptoms were when she was admitted to the hospital, to the Burghölzli and so we had great detail about what she would have looked like and felt like. Also, there is footage of hysterical patients—silent films from the era and photographs—so I know that some people thought she was very extreme and over-the-top but we thought we were being very subdued compared with what you would have seen because it is very difficult to watch. It's really difficult to watch these people doing that stuff. I said to Keira that I felt that because she was—she's trying to speak the unspeakable things about her passions, her masochism, her father, her sexuality, her masturbation—these are things she can barely speak but she has the desire to force them out of her mouth. But other parts of her are trying to stop them from being spoken. So that's where I felt that around the mouth is really the focus of her particular version of hysteria and that's what she came up with.
Was this an adaptation where you saw Christopher Hampton's play first? I've never seen it. I read it. I had heard that it was playing in London and Ralph Fiennes was in it playing Jung and of course I had worked with Ralph in Spider. Christopher Hampton's work I've known since he was a 22-year-old sort of wunderkind.
He made a splash. Yes, he did. I was very curious and the subject matter was very interesting to me. I had never heard of Sabina until that play. Then I started to get very interested in it and then I read the book it was sort of based on called The Most Dangerous Method. I got in touch with Christopher and that's where it started. Reading the play just made me realize that I probably always wanted to do something about Freud and that era in Europe. But to say that isn't really to say anything because it's really such a huge topic. His life was full of hundreds of amazing, eccentric characters and there's no structure there. Suddenly here was a play with a beautiful structure. The genius of Christopher in particular was to distill this very complex era and moment in time around Freud and Jung's life into basically five characters. Suddenly there was this wonderful, what I think of as an intellectual menage a trois, which I hadn't known about because I didn't know about Sabina. Here's a beautiful structure, beautifully written on which I could base a movie on those things that I'm interested in.
How do you explain to backers, "Hey, I want to make a movie about an intellectual menage a trois?" Well I don't say those words! [laughs] We say, "This is a really sexy movie about shrinks!" I think that the irony is—and you run into it and people say, "It's really very theatrical because they're talking a lot"—that it was a screenplay before it was a play. It was a screenplay written for Julia Roberts to play Sabina and it was called Sabina. Now that was 17 years ago and it didn't happen, for whatever reason.
Well I guess Roberts did Mary Reilly with Christopher instead. Yeah! So it didn't happen and he asked Fox if he could have permission to turn it into a play. Of course they said sure, because there's no money in it and they don't care. So ironically, as I say, it was a screenplay before it was theatre.
The screenplay you shot, I assume, was completely different from his initial one? Not completely. We had the rights to it. We could use whatever we wanted to. There was some of the screenplay, there was some of the book and there was a lot of new stuff as well because of ongoing research that Christopher was doing. He actually came up with other things that he was interested in. So it's an amalgam of things but as I say, I suppose when you're looking for backers, that would be one thing that they would be worried about. If it's a play, is it going to be too theatrical? Is it going to be this or that? But for me, talking is the thing that you mostly shoot when you're directing a movie. People talking. You're shooting human beings, you're shooting the human face, the human body is your subject and it is mostly speaking. So for me it was very cinematic, I didn't have any worries about that aspect of it.
Michael Fassbender and Viggo Mortensen in A Dangerous Method (Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)
So this is your third movie in a row with Viggo Mortensen. Yeah. It's coincidence in one way and in theory I'd love for him to be in every movie that I do. But I just did Cosmopolis, which he's not in. You don't do an actor a favor by miscasting him. If I hadn't thought he was the right guy for these roles, I wouldn't have cast him. Even though we're close friends, he understands that. It's understood in the business that you can't always work together even if you want to. So it's a fortunate coincidence that these movies could work.
Still, it was somehow surprising to see him as Freud. I'll tell you, right from the start, one of the interesting things for me about the movie was when in their lives we meet Jung and Freud. We all know the 70, 80-year old Jung and Freud. You can see interviews with Jung on YouTube anytime you want. He died in 1961 and he did a lot of interviews but he's in his 70s and he's a big, old grandfather, the Jung that we love. And the same with Freud—not that there's footage, there are no interviews that way with Freud—but there are images and he's in his 80s and he's cancer-ridden and frail. But in the time of the movie, Freud was 50 and he's in the height of his powers. He was described by Stefan Zweig, a Viennese writer who knew Freud, in his book "The World Of Yesterday" as his usual masculine, handsome, charismatic self. This is his understanding of Freud. Likewise Jung was 29 and considered really very imposing and very handsome and charming and charismatic. They were both leaders of psychoanalytic movements at a time when there was a lot of negativity aimed at them, so they had to have that strength and that charisma. I'm showing us a Freud and Jung that we're not used to seeing, basically. Once you start to think of Freud in those terms, then Viggo is suddenly not such an unusual choice.
I didn't want it to be obvious casting because I thought that the obvious casting is actually wrong. You're taking the old Freud and making him a little bit younger but you're still casting a guy who's an old, Jewish grandfather—not that Freud wasn't, ultimately, an old, Jewish grandfather, because he was—but this is Freud in full armor.
Did you shoot with Michael Fassbender before he did X-Men: First Class or after? It was before. He went right from us to X-Men.
Viggo Mortensen, Magneto, and a movie with Rob Pattinson next, with all that Twilight hoopla around him. You don't mind stars with franchise baggage it seems. It's like with Viggo with The Lord of the Rings, frankly. We've talked about this a lot. He wouldn't have been a candidate for A History of Violence if it hadn't been for Lord of the Rings because he wasn't well-known, he was really kind of a B actor, character actor before Lord of the Rings made him a star. Therefore, he would not be somebody who could get you the financing that you need. It's something about casting that people don't think about but as a director, you really have to think about it because your producers make you think about it and so do your distributors. You say, "I want this guy," and they say "Forget it! Nobody knows who he is and we can't build a campaign around him to release to movie." So not only do you have to get the right guy, you have to figure out who that guy is creatively but he has to want to do it to, you have to be able to afford him, he has to be available at the time you want him and he has to have the star power to get your movie financed. It's very tricky casting a movie and for a director it's a huge part of what you do, to weave your way through this mine field and end up with the right guy in your movie. Because if you make a huge miscasting mistake, it can kill your movie before you've even shot a foot of film.
Have you ever made any huge casting mistakes? Yes, but I won't talk about them! [laughs] But not enough to kill the movie, I must say. There are only one or two that I would maybe have rethought. But you get lucky sometimes and sometimes the right person not only says yes and sometimes the right person says no. In other words, for some reason you've decided to go with somebody and you later realize, "Thank god that guy didn't do the movie because this guy is the right guy." But about Rob Pattinson, yeah, of course, if it weren't for Twilight I don't think we could have financed the movie around him because he wouldn't be known. But aside from that, that was a good thing not a bad thing and of course I have to think about all that.
Especially with a movie that's so focused on one character. Absolutely. You make a bad choice and you've killed your movie right away or at least you're staggering through it trying desperately to compensate for what's not there that should have been there. I felt really lucky to have Rob, he's fantastic, and I think people will see that it's obvious. I don't think it's going to be a surprise.
In A Dangerous Method you were working with a Christopher Hampton script but you wrote the adaptation of Don DeLillo's book for your next film. It is your first script since eXistenZ. Do you prefer working with words you've written yourself? In A History of Violence I did a lot of writing, but the uncredited kind, so it's not like I haven't done writing. Not so with A Dangerous Method, that's all Christopher, but I did act as an editor. I would cut pages and scenes or suggest changes and all that. So it's not as though...it totally depends on circumstances. I can write, I know I can write, it's great, I don't have to have a writer hanging around on the set because if there's something that comes up that needs a change I feel perfectly qualified to do it. In fact, Christopher reminded me of this, he said he didn't think at a certain point he had time to write the screenplay and I said, "Okay, I'll do it." And that terrified him and immediately he found time. It motivated him. But I would have, if he hadn't been available.
You'll notice that a lot of directors who start off writing their own stuff—and I include Coppola and Brian DiPalma, for example—end up not writing much stuff later because the momentum of their career as a director takes them places. You would have to really be strong to say, "I'm going to take two years off to write an original screenplay," because it might take you that long. At the end of it, you might not be able to get it made—or you might not like it yourself—and then you've spent two years when you were "hot," let's say, and you kept turning stuff down because you were going to write your own screenplay. So it's really hard to do that, even for directors who can write. I must say it's fairly rare that directors can write.
The "auteur theory" as it's understood in France, has nothing to do with actually writing your own screenplays because guys like Howard Hawks and John Ford didn't do that. The idea of being the author of the movie, as a kid that idea really appealed to me. I thought, "You have to write your own stuff or you're not a filmmaker." But then I realized when I did The Dead Zone that actually there's a kind of great mixing of blood with somebody else that's really pretty interesting and pretty exciting. It can take you to some places that might not go only on your own and you don't have to worry about "is it mine or is it not mine?" I think as you get to be a mature filmmaker you stop worrying about that stuff. Just like—and I'm literally not being sarcastic—I wouldn't worry whether A Dangerous Method looked like my movie or not. It is! I mean, no one else would have made that movie.
Do you ever go back and watch your old movies? I do not.
Total "no?" Nope.
Okay. Well, In terms of things that you've done in the past, there's talk about making Scanners into a TV show again. Yeah, I have nothing to do with that. As my producer Pierre David pointed out, "David, you didn't have a lawyer then." [laughs] I have no connection with any of the Scanners sequels and I probably don't have any rights. So I have nothing to do with that.
There's been sort of a change in television in the past 15-20 years where there directors and producers are doing long-form, mini-series, telling stories on TV that you can't really tell on film. Would you ever be interested in doing that? Well long ago I tried to get a Scanners TV series made, actually. I've had quite a few go arounds with various people. Bruce Wagner and I had a series called Firewall, which was sort of a fictionalized version of Bill Gates versus Steve Jobs and stuff like that. Bruce is a wonderful writer so I tried to get that off the ground. I would have loved to have done that series. Scanners was long ago. There was an attempt to do Dead Ringers as a series, too.
Um...okay...[laughs] I know! It was viable, it was. Of course they would have to be alive rather than dead, but still. So it's not that I haven't tried but every time you do it they say television is changed and much more open and much more willing to do extreme, edgy stuff and blah blah blah. It never has seemed to work out for me. It's not by my choice, but it's never worked out. I have tried.
Are there any genres that you've wanted to do, like a longing to make a musical? No. I mean, people have said, "you should do a comedy!" And I say, "I sort of do them, really." Most of my movies are funny. So no, I don't really think in terms of genre, actually. I wouldn't say I want to do a western. I might say, "Gee, this script is great and it happens to be a western." I just, for some reason, don't think in those terms.
When you go out to the movies do you have genres that you like? Yeah, I mostly watch DVDs, I have to confess, or movies on Satellite TV. It doesn't break down into genres. It really has to do with specific things. When I was making low budget horror films I was very interested in seeing what other directors in other countries did with low budget horror films but that was more of a learning process. To know what I was competing with or what you could do in terms of special effects in those movies. It wasn't really because I was obsessed with the genre or anything like that. So now I see a movie if it's interesting, it's not genre specific.
I know that you've worked with your sister, in terms of costumes, in pretty much all of your movies. Do you try to keep a lot of your crew generally? My editor I've worked with for over 30 years and my director of photography Peter Suschitzky I've worked with since Dead Ringers in 1988, he's done every one. Howard Shore has done almost all of my movies maybe except for a couple. Carol Spier has done production design for most of my movies. She hasn't done the last two but she has done most; availability kind of thing. Stephan DuPuis is a special effects guy, he won an Oscar for The Fly and he's worked on A Dangerous Method doing Viggo's nose, basically, and straight make-up as well, which he's really wonderful at. So yeah it's my film family as well as some of my real family.
There is often some desire in Hollywood to get whoever is "hot." Which cinematographer just won the Oscar? Let's get him. But the European approach—and I do see this in Hollywood as well—is to stick with the same people because you don't get in a rut. It's not like if you work with them they'll be no excitement and you'll just be bored with each other. Every project is do different—as I was saying to you—that you're not really thinking about the movies that you've done together. You have those as a reference, if you need it, but you're excited about the challenge of this movie. For example, Cosmopoilis couldn't be more different than A Dangerous Method except that they both are very dialogue heavy but other than that, they're a whole different ballgame. From my editor, different thing. From the director of photography, completely different thing. From Howard, a completely different kind of music.
Michael Fassbender and Keira Knightley in A Dangerous Method (Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)
Right now you are doing press for this movie and post-production on Cosmopolis. How far do you plan your movies in advance? Well this is unusual for me. This is me being Woody Allen, you know? Doing a movie a year but only for two years. It varies incredibly because you can be working on a project and it goes belly up for whatever reason. I was working trying to do Matarese Circle at MGM and then MGM went belly up! Then it got bought and it's like...okay. Not much I can do about that. You spend a year working on it and wrote a couple drafts of the script and if it had happened everything would have been different. But it didn't. So you can't really...I mean people say, "Why now have you chosen to do this?" And you say, "Because I could get the money!" I mean really! Dead Ringers took me ten years to get made.
If A Dangerous Method had presented itself as a potential project 15 years ago I would have done it then. Of course I would have been different then and it would have been different as a result and Michael Fassbender wouldn't have been old enough to play the role at that point! So it really has to do with when you can get it to happen, pretty much. In other words, you don't just pick and choose and say, "Now in this particular arc in my career I think I should do this." It would be great! Maybe Spielberg could do that.
On top of everything else you do, you occasionally do some acting. Including one of my favorite random movies in Last Night.Last Night was terrific and I was very happy to be a part of that.
I'm guessing you're not going up for auditions. Are these people calling up favors? No, I don't audition. I mean, I wouldn't even say I wouldn't audition depending on what it was, frankly. It's totally legitimate if someone says to an actor, "Well, I've seen you in these five movies but I haven't seen in any of them the stuff that I need from you for this movie. So will you please audition?" You'd be surprised at how many fairly big stars are willing to audition for certain things.
Or certain directors? Or certain directors, yeah. But yeah, these roles just come along. Doing Nightbreed with Clive Barker was the most serious role, in terms of acting time, because I was in London for three months shooting that. That was like being a real actor. On location, without your family, alone. I didn't know how to deal with it, frankly, because when you're not on the set there's nobody around. Whereas when you're a director, there's always stuff going on, you're constantly doing stuff. When you're an actor and there's down time, it's actor time.
Knowing that experience, does that change the way you deal with actors in any way? I'd like to say absolutely not and if someone says, "Does that give you more sympathy for actors?" I say, "No! No! On the contrary!" But in fact, it does, because it's not so much the time spent, that's irrelevant. A professional actor will have gone through that many, many times and they know how to take care of themselves. Just in terms of the vulnerability of an actor.
When you're acting you're maybe ten feet away from where you are as a director but it's a completely different ball game, a completely different role. I think of it in terms of body stuff. If you're a director you could have a cold sore or be unshaven and none of that matters. As long as you can say "action" and "cut" you can still be a director. But if you're an actor, your body is everything, it's your instrument. Your voice, your posture. The vulnerability that you have. So it has been illuminating for me in terms of what an actor's experience on the set is.
What do you want people to take out of A Dangerous Method? Whatever they like. Truthfully. When I'm making a movie it's a voyage of discovery. I'm trying to resurrect these people in that era as accurately as I can and seeing fascinating, interesting things about them. Then I'm just basically sharing that whole experience with the audience. I don't have an "agenda," particularly, other than to say this is really amazing and interesting and I think you might find it interesting.
In this one you're dealing with real people and so many of the actor's lines are coming form letters—how much are you worried about the audiences expectations or pre-knowledge about these characters and their work? Well you worry about it. I think it's conceivable that you might know nothing about Freud or Jung and the movie still makes sense. You see this as Jung, an ambitious doctor, trying this new psychoanalytic method. Then he meets this guy, who within the movie is famous, and invites him home...you know it should work even if you've never heard of these people, I think. Just dramatically.
Yeah, I don't know? Well I don't know either but you do want there to be enough of a context for your audience and on the other hand you don't want to overwhelm everything. In fact, my cutting...it's such a rich period and there are so many rich characters that my main contribution to the script was to cut it down artfully. For example, in the original script, Emma Jung became an analyst herself. She was quite a substantial woman and she wrote some books on mythology, which her husband said he stayed away from. I think it was Mercury, she wrote about about Mercury. Or Apollo, the figure of Apollo I think it was. Jung stayed away from that subject, even though it interested him, because his wife was working on a book on it. She published the book and became a psychoanalyst herself. There was a hint of that in Christopher's original screenplay and I said, "you know I just don't think we can absorb that." We either have to really do it and resolve that and show something or just let's not mention it. So it was more like that.
The actress who played Emma, who I didn't recognize, really held her own against lots of famous people.Sarah Gadon, she's my discovery. She's in Cosmopolis as well.
Good discovery! Yeah, she's terrific.