Since early masterpieces like Videodrome and The Fly to more recent hits like A History of Violence, director David Cronenberg has been getting under people’s skin through his psychologically disturbing works of cinema. His latest film, A Dangerous Method, takes the subject of the psychological and the physical body directly, as it follows the story of Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortenson) and their early work, as well as patient of Jung’s, a hysterical Russian named Sabina Spielrein (Kiera Knightly). Although it seems like a departure for the director—a period piece that’s more talking and without any disturbing violence—A Dangerous Method is dealing with many of his favorite subjects. During the New York Film Festival, Mr. Cronenberg sat down with screenwriter Christopher Hamption (Atonement) and Mr. Fassbender to discuss the bold new project.
The gestation of the project and its different forms
Christopher Hampton: It was first written in the mid to late 90s, as a screenplay called Sabina for 20th Century Fox and Julia Roberts’s company. It floundered in the way screenplays usually do, but it seemed too good of material to not take further. I turned it into a stage play called The Talking Cure, which we did in London and the National Theater with Ralph Fiennes. About a year or so later, I had a call from Mr. Cronenbeg, who said “I think it might make a film.”
On the material changing from the original script to the final version
CH: To start with, the film was called Sabina because it was mostly focused on Sabina Spielrein. But in between the original screenplay and the stage play, it dawned on me that it couldn’t be Sabina, but had to be Jung. So there was quite a shift on emphasis. The work that I did with [Cronenberg] had to do with refining it and sharpening it and honing it.
On working on another film about sexual perversion of the body
David Cronenberg: That doesn’t sound like me—I think I’ve made a lot of comedies actually (laughs). I don’t really think about my other movies at all, frankly. I don’t think about what I’ve done at all. When I decide to do something I’m passionate about it, I’m only interested in realizing that particular thing. I don’t think about if it fits in with anything or if I’ve done it or not.
I think when I read Christopher’s play—I’ve never seen it performed—in retrospect, I’ve always wanted to do something about Freud and the birth of psychoanalysis. But to say that isn’t to say anything really because it’s such vast topic full of incredible characters that surrounded the birth of psychoanalysis, all of them really eccentric and wonderful. What I saw in Christopher’s play was this really fantastic structure that distilled the essence of the era and the psychoanalytic movement into primarily five characters. That was a structure that could allow me to play with that topic. I also have to point out that the first movie I ever made, Transfer, was about a psychiatrist and a patient.
How Michael Fassbender became involved
Michael Fassbender: We first met in Toronto. I flew up to lunch with David, and he started directing me right there. I always think great directors are great manipulators, and he was already planting seeds in my mind then about the story and what he found interesting about these various characters, where he thought Jung was coming from and his background. We had a really nice lunch and then we talked motor racing, which we both share a passion for.
By the time we got on set, one of the many great things about David is that he allows you to breathe within it in your own way. Great directors don’t give you a lot of direction on the way—it’s maybe a dinner you had two nights before or a week before. Just little hints and nudges that sway you in the right direction. It’s really a collaborative process and one that’s very free and creates a safe place to take risks and try things out.
On the film’s accuracy
DC: This movie is incredibly accurate in terms of the dialogue and the historical details. That was an era, as you can see from the movie, of great letter writing and obsessive people. So they recorded all their conversations and dreams and analyzed them to death. They have huge documents to back up everything in the movie; it’s really quite accurate actually.
On choosing what type of accents to use in the film
DC: I sort of asked Michael if he could do any accents besides this strange accent, his Irish thing. He said, “Well I could do sort of an English one” so I said “Okay that’s good” (laughs). It was very interesting research to do. Did Freud have a trace of a Yiddish accent when he spoke German? Did he have a Viennese accent, since he wasn’t born in Vienna? Would he have spoken High German instead? Jung too—did he have a Swiss-German accent or would he have spoken High German?
There are some recordings of Jung in English; you can see them on YouTube since he died in 1961. There’s only one recording of Freud speaking English and he speaks German at the end, so I asked our German producer whether he sensed any Viennese accent and the answer was no. So I felt they would speak High German to each other since seriousness was important to these guys, they wanted to be taken seriously as physicians, as medical men, as scientists. So they would’ve dispensed with any regionality, even in their writing and their speaking. They’re both considered to be beautiful writers of German…Well how does that translate into English? So we decided that would be what’s called “received English,” which is kind of a Standard English accent, not too posh but not East End Londoner either. For Kiera, because she was a Russian, and there were no recordings of her, [we thought] she would’ve spoke German with a Russian accent. So we asked her to do a bit of a Russian accent.
MF: We at first discussed mid-Atlantic at first, but we realized we don’t know what that means.
DC: Because you’d sink into the middle of the ocean and it’s cold.
MF: Actually that first time we had lunch we first discussed it. That great thing about that received pronunciation is when you’re doing a period piece, it sort of helps you disappear in the role. Anybody in the academic world wouldn’t be taken seriously if they didn’t speak High German. We took little difference between Vigo’s accent and mine own, so I don’t go very high with my English and Vigo chose to go more clipped with his accent.
On keeping the story minimal in terms of other psychoanalysts at the time
DC: Well you see Sándor Ferenczi on the boat, when Jung and Freud travel to America. And in the scene in the hotel where they are arguing, I carefully cast every character there to look like the people who were actually there. It’s just for me, and those who care. But there was no room for them in the drama; you could make more than a miniseries with their stories.
The role gender plays in the film between, notably the relationship between Freud and Jung and a key sequence between Sabina and Jung’s wife, Emma.
CH: The men are more childish, and far less mature. In the end, it was a mighty clash of egos between the men. You might say that one of the reasons we don’t know anything about Sabina is because her contribution to the history of psychoanalysis is really not recognized because the people she was talking to were playing the high ground for themselves. There is evidence; actually Freud gave her a footnote about the death instinct…Jung, who she talked to about archetypes and the anima and all that kind of thing, I’m afraid to say, never gave her any credit at all. Actually, the last scene in the film which might not have happened.
DC: WHAT? You lied to me! (laughs)
CH: I believe the two women would have had that kind of relationship—very adult and very understanding of what was going on./
DC: I think it should be said that Emma Jung was a very interesting woman herself. She wrote a couple of books about mythology and ended up being a psychoanalyst herself. The idea that they should talk that way makes sense. Christopher’s original draft of the script actually alluded to that, but it came at the end [of the film]. But it was such a potent point that she had ambitions herself to become a psychoanalyst that we just took that reference out. But it is true. It seems that everybody that came in contact with psychoanalysis became an analyst themselves. It was just irresistible. They couldn’t just stop when their analysis was over; they wanted more. And the way to do that was become an analyst.
Research on Sabina and creating Knightley’s very physical performance
DC: Unbeknownst to me, Kiera went to Christopher for advice, and he screwed it all up, and it took me ages to undo the damage he did (laughs). But he did give her a stack of books to read, as did I. But beyond that, we started filming with those hysteria scenes. Hysteria was a disease that disappeared; it seems to be a product of that era and the repression of women that was part of that culture. Actually the word hysteria comes from the Greek word for uterus and sometimes they would remove the uterus of a hysterical woman thinking they could cure them. So that gives you a bit of a context.
However extreme it might seem at the beginning is actually very subdued from what Sabina would have presented to Jung. Christopher has actually read Jung’s notes from her admission and her symptoms. So we knew very well what her symptoms of her hysteria were. Then there’s actually found footage of hysterical women at the turn of the century, and the doctor who influenced Freud. So all these strange behaviors—partial paralyses, hysterical laughter, deformations of the body, and the twisting and turning of physical posture—are all documented. So for me, it was to decide how high we could pitch that. It makes you uncomfortable and it’s very difficult to watch, as it would, but we had to deliver the disease to the audience, so you could watch how she was completely disabled and that’s why she was brought to this institution because she couldn’t function.
So we had to make it extreme and I thought it should be centered around the mouth because she’s being asked by Jung through the talking cure to say unspeakable things about her dreams, her sexuality, her masochism, masturbation, that she’s not supposed to speak about. So the idea that she should be trying to speak—the words try to come out but another part of her body tries to prevent those words from coming out. And another thing, as she loses the hysteria, as she becomes more confident, you see the evolution of the character. But as Michael was saying, all the preparation happens in these discussions, and off the set. It happens when you choose the clothes, when you look at the locations. By the time we got to the set, Kiera was there, and she was fantastic. Two takes, and finished!
MF: Just to add to that, we were four days ahead of schedule two weeks in.
DC: After five days, we were three days ahead. I have made the schedule to account for how difficult it might be to develop Kiera’s performance. I had never worked with her before, and this is difficult stuff and it was new terrain for her. But she was just so good, and so right on, that we were finished in no time.
On Cronenberg’s own influence or autobiographical details factoring into the film at all
DC: You should ask Christopher first—he wrote it!
CH: I’m very interested in psychoanalysis but I’ve never been analyzed, so make of that what you will.
DC: I too have not been analyzed, except by Christopher and Michael (laughs). I don’t think its autobiographical—Freud ended up being an old Jew, and I’m heading that way myself (laughs). To that extent, yes, total autobiographical. Beyond that, it’s just really fascinating to understand the human condition, which is what it’s all about. What does it mean to be human? What is it to society? And in the terms of psychoanalysts, you do that very same thing. You see what’s going on, but then you think about what’s going on underneath that: what’s under the surface, what’s driving things. And that’s what an artist does with his subjects, so there’s that correlation.
On Cronenberg’s own take on the characters
DC: My feeling with the play was that it was very neutral. Making a movie is a process of resurrection—to get these people back to life and hear them and smell them and feel them. It was also to resurrect this era, which is so fascinating, because Vienna was the scene of the Austria-Hungarian empire which had lasted 700 years and a 80-year-old emperor who everyone thought would last forever. They thought that man was evolving beautifully from animal to angel, that reason would conquer all, and that everyone knew his place in society. You can see it in the clothes, the high stiff collars and the corsets. And yet it was the eve of the First World War, which blew it all to pieces and the European high civilization. I wanted that to be as accurate as possible. I didn’t have an agenda, and I don’t think Christopher had an agenda either. It was to present these people as accurately as they were. I’ve gotten all kind of reactions from this movie: people who think Freud comes off as pompous ass, others think he comes off magnificently; others who think Jung is a scoundrel and a terrible person, which only applies really to Michael (laughs). I like that—it’s a personal response to the movie, and if some see Sabina as a feminist icon, that works too. So I had no agenda except to bring these people back to life and feel the passion that they had for their ideas, which were no abstractions—they incorporated them fully into their lives, their sexualities…And if you ask me if I prefer Freud or Jung, I would say I feel more empathy for Freud’s approach to the human condition; I think Jung represented a flight from the human body and toward spirituality and really religion ultimately. But I didn’t feel the need to demolish Jung or favor Freud or anything like that. It wasn’t part of the process.