Following a press screening of A Dangerous Method at the 49th New York Film Festival, screenwriter Christopher Hampton and star Michael Fassbender (who plays Carl Jung) were joined for a panel by director David Cronenberg in his first-ever appearance at the event.
The film’s somber subject matter -- it centers on the relationship between Jung, his patient Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) and his colleague Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) during the early years of psychoanalysis – was matched by the mood of the room, where a mesmerized audience sat in awe of the legendary director. Cronenberg was quick to diffuse the atmosphere, peppering the discussion with his unlikley humor.
Asked if he feared it would be redundant to turn his camera on Freud and Jung after making so many films about sexual perversion, split personalities and the horror of the body, Cronenberg grinned. “That doesn’t sound like me to me!" he said. "I think that I’ve made a lot of comedies, actually.” The audience roared with laughter. “But I don’t really think about my other movies at all, frankly. When I decide to do something, I’m only interested in realizing that particular thing. I think when I read Christopher’s play – I’ve never seen it performed – I felt, in retrospect, that I had 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 a vast topic and full of … incredible characters. When I saw Christopher’s play it was a fantastic structure that really beautifully distilled the essence of the era and that psychoanalytic movement into, primarily, five characters.”
For Hampton, the film’s realization had been a long road. “Well, it was first written in the mid- to late '90s as a screenplay called Sabina for 20th Century Fox, and it floundered in the way that screenplays often do,” he recalled. “And it seemed too good of material to not take further. So I turned it into a stage play called The Talking Cure, which we did in London at the National Theatre with Ralph Fiennes. And then about a year or so later I had a call from Mr. Cronenberg, in which he said, ‘I think we might make a film.’ So it had a sort of circuitous progress but a happy ending, I think.”
Fassbender went on to discuss how he became involved in the project. “We first met in Toronto. I flew up to have a lunch with David, and that’s really when he started to direct me. I always think great directors are great manipulators,” he continued, as Cronenberg shrugged dramatically. “And he was already planting scenes in my mind then at that lunch about … the story and what he found interesting about these various characters and where he thought Jung was coming from and his background.”
The actor was nothing but complimentary when it came to Cronenberg's direction. “By the time we got on set, I think the one great thing – one of the many great things about David – is he allows you to sort of breathe within it in your own way," Fassbender said. "It’s like, again, with great directors I find don’t necessarily give you a huge amount of direction on the day. It’s really a very sort of collaborative process and one that’s just very sort of free and he creates a very safe place to create and take risks and try things out. And I have to say it was a very humorous set … but everybody had done their homework and came ready to go to work and I think that’s what sort of already the respect that David has sort of demands that of his actors.”
When asked about the historical accuracy of the film, Cronenberg discussed the detail with which the team decided upon accents, and reiterated, “I have to say I think this movie is incredibly accurate in terms of the dialogue and all the historical details, because that was an era – as you can see from the movie – of great letter-writing, and these were very obsessive people, and so they recorded all their conversations and all their moments and all their dreams and analyzed them to death and so on. So we have huge documents, a ton of documents, to back up everything in the movie.”
Hampton also touched upon the relationships between Freud and Jung, as well as the women, in the film, saying, “Well, the men are far more childish, far less mature – nothing changes. I think in the end it was a mighty clash of egos between the men. One of the things you might say about that is one of the reasons we don’t know much about Sabina Spielrein is that her contribution to the history of psychoanalysis is really not recognized because the people she was talking to were busy claiming the high ground for themselves. So there is evidence – Freud, actually … Freud gave her a footnote about the death instinct, Jung – to whom she talked about archetypes … and all that kind of thing – I’m afraid to say never gave her any credit at all.”
So what of Knightley’s emotional and physical development of Spielrein, since she had so little to go on? “Well unbeknownst to me, Keira went to Christopher for advice … [mutters] screwed it all up,” Cronenberg laughed. “It took me ages to undo the damage!” Cronenberg and Hampton shared a good-natured chuckle.
“But he did give her a stack of books to read, as did I,” the director continued. “But beyond that we began with the first scenes, which were the hysteria scenes, and the hysteria was a disease that seems to … have been a kind of a product of that era and sort of the repression of women that was part of the culture. In fact the word hysteria comes from the Greek word that means uterus, and at times they would actually remove the uteruses of hysterical women thinking that that would cure them. So that gives you a bit of the context. However extreme it might seem at the beginning, what Keira does there, it’s actually very subdued compared with what Sabina Spielrein would have presented to Jung. And in fact Christopher’s mentioned that he’s actually seen the notes that Jung wrote on her admission detailing her symptoms, so we knew very well what the symptoms of her particular version of hysteria were.”
Ever the history teacher, Cronenberg described the archival footage he and the cast studied. “There’s actually film footage of hysterical patients at the turn of the century. And so all these strange paralyses and hysterical laughters and deforming of the body and twisting and tormenting your physical posture and so on – all of those are documented,” he explained. “It’s very difficult to watch, it makes you very uncomfortable…but we had to deliver the disease to the audience so that you would understand why she was completely disabled and she was dysfunctional and that’s why she was brought to this institute – because she couldn’t function.”
Cronenberg and Knightley also arrived at an interesting conclusion when it came to where her tics should be centered. “We had to show how extreme it was and I felt that it should really be centered around her mouth because she is being asked by Jung – it is called ‘The Talking Cure’ – to say unspeakable things about herself, about her dreams, about her sexuality, about her masochism…things that you were not supposed to speak about,” he explained. “So the idea that she should be trying to speak – the words try to come out but another part of her tries to prevent those words from coming out, deform them so they’re not understandable, that’s how we did that. And then sort of gradually as she loses the hysteria and becomes more and more confident under Jung’s tutelage…you can see the evolution of the character.”
Knightley took the character and ran with it. “All the prep was pretty much done in these discussions. I mean, a lot of directing happened off the set – it happens when you’re choosing the clothes that you wear, it happens when you’re looking at the locations and by the time we got to the set Keira was there and…it was fantastic, I mean two takes and finished. …I had boarded the schedule to take in account how difficult it might be to develop Keira’s performance – I’d never worked with her before and this was very difficult stuff and it was sort of terrain that was new to her. And she was just so good and so right on that we were finished in no time.”
When asked what his hinge on this particular universe is, Cronenberg divulged, “For me, my hinge into the universe is that I really – as I think Freud did – insist on the reality of the human body. And Freud was insisting on it at a time when people were trying to deny that – the abstract ideas were everything Freud was talking about. Penises and vaginas and excrement and anuses and stuff that no one wanted to talk about or even acknowledge the existence of…he was saying a lot of those things have huge repercussions in our adult life, in our society and so on. …And if you ask me did I prefer Freud to Jung, well I feel more empathy for Freud’s approach to the human condition – I think Jung kind of represented ultimately a flight from the human body into spirituality and really religion, I think, ultimately. But I didn’t really feel the need to demolish him or favor Freud or anything like that.”
And what of an autobiographical quality to the film? “I don’t think it’s autobiographical other than that you know I mean Freud ended up being an old Jew and I’m headed that way,” joked Cronenberg. “So to that I say yes, total autobiographical. Beyond that it’s just really fascinating…an attempt to understand the human condition, which is really what art is all about. What is it to be human, what is society, what are we…and I think an artist and a psychoanalyst do very similar things. You’re presented with an official version of reality and then you say, ‘OK, that’s that but then what’s really going on – what’s going on underneath, what’s under the surface, what’s driving things, what are the hidden things?’ And that’s what a psychoanalyst does with his patient and that’s what an artist does with his society, I think, and his culture. So – to that extent – not exactly autobiographical but a kind of parallel process.”
A Dangerous Method opens on Nov 23.