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A Dangerous Method - David Cronenberg interview

A Dangerous Method

Interview by Rob Carnevale

DAVID Cronenberg talks about making A Dangerous Method and why the film and its themes surrounding the birth of psycho-analysis aren’t that much of a stretch for him (as has been suggested).

He also talks about working with Keira Knightley, creating the film’s style and why he feels his early films have helped to inform psycho-analysis. He was speaking at a press conference held during the 2011 London Film Festival.

Q. I suppose people would say that this feels like a departure from many of your films. Were the elements that attracted you to this script and this story similar to the kind of elements that attract you to any film? Or does this feel like a departure?
David Cronenberg: Well, I sometimes have to remind people that the first film I ever made was called Transfer, which was a seven minute short and it was about a psychiatrist and his patient. So, for me this is kind of business as usual. Of course, remember Oliver Reed plays a psychotherapist in my movie The Brood, which was a long time ago, so really when I’m making a movie I don’t really think about my other movies at all. They’re totally irrelevant to me. I think really just about the movie that we’re making and I often think of that the movie is telling me what it wants. It’s telling me what it needs and I try to give it that. I don’t try to impose any preconceived ideas or presumptions on it.

Q. When a Cronenberg film is announced, your fans anticipate a certain visual verve. A Dangerous Method feels very sparse in style. Could you talk about that?
David Cronenberg: Well, I think I’m evolving the austerity and simplicity of my style and approach to filmmaking. But once again it’s the movie that tells you what it wants. That era was very controlled and the feeling was that everybody knew his place. You can see by the high white collars and corsets and stuff, everything was controlled. So, I think in a way the style of the film comes to me from what we were trying to create… we were trying to replicate an era that’s gone now. But with the actors, with the dialogue, with the costumes, with the lighting… was it gaslight? Was it electric light? How does it reflect off the texture of those particular costumes?

All of those things are the things that generate the style of the movie. I don’t come to it with an idea of having to put some particular stamp on it that people will recognise. I think that would deform the movie, actually. So, even in terms of its visual style, it tells you what it wants. For dramatic speaking people, the landscape is hugely important. The whole blood and soil thing, the Aryan spirituality and all of that is very much in Jung’s head. And so the landscape… the forest, the orchard, the lake, Zurich – all of those things were important in the movie visually, even though a lot of stuff happens in rooms. But outside of the windows you’re seeing it. So, that’s where the style comes from – it comes from what the movie’s about.

Q. The movie starts out as something of an erotic romp and then the mood starts to change into something much sadder. Can you say something about that? Is it a move from Eros to the death instinct?
David Cronenberg: Well, I wouldn’t ever have thought of it as a romp, frankly! However, you have your own sensibility, obviously! A romp! But for these people, it was always their intellect and their theories and the evolution of psycho-analysis was always a passionate thing. It was a personal thing. They wanted to embody these things in their lives. It wasn’t just an abstract concept out there somewhere. You can see that with Sabina particularly… psycho-analysis was a very exciting thing and everybody who was touched by it felt that it would direct you to a way to live your life, that was a new way of living with a new understanding of what it was to be a human being.

And yet, as you say, it becomes quite a sad and melancholy movie and I think what you realise, with Jung, who was very controlled and repressed in his own way, that underneath that was really a very deep and profound love for Sabina and for Freud… and both of them were lost. By the end of the movie he’s lost both of those things and the movie ends with him because of that. So, I like the idea of what you’re saying – that it moves from Eros to Death. That is the tone of the movie, definitely.

A Dangerous Method

Q. Do you believe that human beings are essentially sexual, violent creatures hiding behind a thin coating of civilised behaviour?
David Cronenberg: That certainly was Freud’s understanding. I mean, the era that the movie deals with… we might call it Victorian but there had been the Austro-Hungarian Empire for several hundred years, it was an Emperor who was 80 and stable, everybody felt that man was evolving nicely from animal to angel and that reason and rationality could conquer everything and solve every problem. And then you have Freud coming and saying: “Not so fast! There are things under the surface that you really should pay attention to because they are things that can erupt into tribal violence and barbarity and madness and these things need to be acknowledged or they can destroy you.” And of course the First World War vindicated that attitude that Freud had.

In fact, it’s hard for us to realise now because we’ve had so many wars since then that people are rather cynical about it but at the time it was pretty shattering the idea of this super-European civilisation could be destroyed so easily. It was shocking. And it did descend into that kind of tribal barbarism. So, it was really shocking to intellectuals of all kinds who really felt man was making progress. So, if you’re asking me if I believe that, well obviously we have evidence of that every day. When I walk down a street and it’s very civilised and congenial, you have in your head through the media all the disasters that are going on in the world all the time. It seems like a miraculous thing that we can all be sitting here and not be violent and barbarous.

Q. How easy was it to finance a film like this?
David Cronenberg: I have to say the main problem with financing a film like this was because there was a lot of talk. It’s intelligent and I think that, in itself, is a problem more than the gender of the lead characters frankly. But just so that we don’t click into a stereotypical attitude here, Christopher [Hampton] and I were just talking about a movie directed by Philip Noyce called Salt, that starred Angelina Jolie, and in fact that lead character was originally meant be male and they couldn’t finance it until they changed it to a female played by Angelina Jolie. So, things are strange out there and it’s hard to make a blanket statement that will apply to every situation.

A Dangerous Method

Q. It’s a tremendous performance from Keira Knightley. How easily was she persuaded and cast?
David Cronenberg: Well, as I’ve often said casting is a kind of a black art. It’s a huge part of being a director that’s rather invisible and you really only have your intuition to guide you. There’s no guidebook that tells you whether two people who have never met will have chemistry on screen, for example. I had never seen Keira and Michael [Fassbender] in a movie together, I had never seen them in a room together until we were actually shooting. So, you just have your own intuition. And that goes for well and how deeply an actor can play the role that you’re anticipating them for. So, for whatever reasons I really was fixed on Keira and I really thought that she was the one to do this movie. By the time I talked to her, she was pretty much convinced herself that she should do it.

It was obviously a great role. It did require some extreme things. There were some erotic scenes and the going crazy scenes were obviously difficult because they’re so much off the normal path of what you do as an actor. But she’s incredibly down to earth and incredibly bright and does a lot of research – really deep research. So, we could have a very frank talk about how… for an actor, when it comes to sex scenes, for example, they want to know where the camera is going to be. It’s a very straight-forward thing but I could tell her. So, it was a discussion of a very adult nature and it didn’t take long to figure out what we were going to do and how we were going to do it.

Q. How did you keep the intelligent material as simple and accessible as you have?
David Cronenberg: It was easy, really… we just did the script. I mean that was the key that Christopher [Hampton] could compress an incredibly complex subject – the birth of psycho-analysis… and there were hundreds of wonderful, eccentric, strange characters who floated in and out of that world, even to the extent that Emma Jung became an analyst herself, which is something we couldn’t deal with in the movie. So, that Christopher could compress that to basically five main characters and still give you the essence and the feel and the texture of the times… that’s the art. So, once we had the script it was just playing it out. So, for me it wasn’t a problem.

Q. How has psycho-analysis influenced your early horror films?
David Cronenberg: I think my horror films have actually influenced psycho-analysis. Apparently, they show those movies at psycho-analytic sessions and they show them to patients. I mean, God knows… and I don’t get paid for that! But really, there are artists like Bernardo Bertolucci, for example, who says he does apply psycho-analytic methods to his filmmaking and, of course, the surrealists like Salvador Dali – the idea of dreams and dream interpretation was very important to their art and their approach to work. But for me it’s not that conscious.

Really, any artist growing up in the 20th Century, as I did, and been informed in the crucible of the 20th Century is automatically influenced by Freud and by his ideas and his understanding of human nature and so on, which did not exist in that form before him. So, to that extent I’m influenced by it, but not in a direct way. I really think that artists and psycho-analysts in a way do the same thing, which is to say you’re presented with an official version of reality, which is the surface reality, and then you say: “OK, that’s nice as far as it goes but what’s underneath? How do you dive underneath the surface to see what’s really going on and what’s hidden and what’s not understood?” A psycho-analyst does that with his patient and an artist does that with society in general, I think. So, that’s really the connection.

Read our review of A Dangerous Method

Read our interview with Michael Fassbender and Viggo Mortensen