David Cronenberg talks to LiC about “A Dangerous Method”

By Jackson Truax – November 22nd, 2011; 10:58 am
David Cronenberg on the set of A Dangerous Method
[Editor’s Note: This is the first of what I hope will be many LiC pieces going forward from Jackson Truax who has previously written for Awards Circuit and Tonight at the Movies and has been a frequent contributor to the podcast over at The Projection Room. He pursued this 1:1 interview with LiC favorite David Cronenberg and I think it’s a perfect way to start off.]

David Cronenberg’s latest film, A Dangerous Method, opens in limited release this week. The film provides modern audiences with a look into how the relationship between Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and their love triangle involving the troubled Sabina Spielrein (Kiera Knightley) gave birth to modern-day psychoanalysis. I sat down with Cronenberg last week in Beverly Hills to discuss his latest film and prolific career. Cronenberg immediately struck me as being a profoundly brilliant human being, though that was to be expected as his filmography includes such intelligent and varied works as Naked Lunch, M. Butterfly, and Videodrome, one of the best original screenplays of the past fifty years. Cronenberg also struck me as incredibly introverted, which was also no surprise coming from the man who made The Fly, Dead Ringers, and Spider. In a press-day setting where many talented individuals take comfort in – or at the least revert to – trading sound bites about their latest film and what it was like to work with this or that star, Cronenberg seemed more comfortable engaging in meaningful dialogues and musings about topics such as the subversive nature of art and his interpretations of Freudian psychology. I felt deeply satisfied with the depth and breadth of our conversation, which appears below, with minor edits for clarity.

Jackson Truax: Throughout your entire career, your films have been filled with Freudian references and themes of all kinds. Where does that interest come from?

David Cronenberg: I think anybody who grew up in the 20th century would have been hugely influenced by Freud whether [they] knew it or not, and any artist who grew up in the 20th century would be hugely influenced by Freud. Now there are filmmakers like Bernardo Bertolucci for example, who says he actually uses psychoanalytic method in creating his movies. And…the surrealists like Salvador Dali who actually use Freud’s idea of the interpretation of dreams to paint these sort of dream-like landscapes… So they are very directly using Freud. I don’t feel that I do that at all. It’s not conscious. But of course, doing something unconsciously is a very Freudian idea, isn’t it? So I would say that it’s not really an interest, it’s just in the air… Freud has such an influence on how we understand the psychology of human beings. And because artists are constantly dealing with the psychology of human beings…it’s inevitable that there should be that influence.

JT: You’ve talked a lot about the subversive nature of a lot of your films, especially the early ones. As your career has evolved, do you think your films have continued to be subversive, and is A Dangerous Method a subversive film?

DC: I think all art is subversive, even art that seems to be innocuous. Because I think it does have an appeal of the unconscious and to things that are sort of aside from the official version of reality that we’re presented with by society. It’s never my intention to be subversive. I think that just by doing art you are… [A Dangerous Method] depicts subversion. That is to say, Freud was considered subversive. He was in an era that was very repressed about sexuality and about the human body. He was insisting on the reality of the human body and bodily fluids and bodily orifices and things that people didn’t talk about. He was considered to be a quite a subversive person and a dangerous person, hence the title… It’s a movie about a subversive person. Does that make the movie itself subversive? I’ll leave you to answer that. Maybe it is.

JT: Many of your characters are on the fringes of society and the victims of their own obsessions. Do you see that being the case with Freud and Jung?

DC: Freud was a medical doctor. He had a profession. He was a legitimate person. Also [Jung] was the head of a very big respectable psychiatric institute. So to that extent they were not on the fringes of anything. They were very much embedded in their society. But within that, they started to develop this new thing, psychoanalysis, which was considered to be a very disruptive force, and something that would perhaps push them out to the fringes. In the movie, you can see that Freud is really concerned about that. He really feels that he knows that psychoanalysis is under attack by the medical profession… And that it is in danger of being shoved to the margins… He wanted it to be accepted as a legitimate medical procedure. So he was fighting for respectability, so that’s really what we’re seeing in the movie.

JT: I know on some of your other films you’ve done extensive rewrites with the writers. Did you do you a lot of re-write work with Christopher Hampton on A Dangerous Method?

DC: Yeah, I did a lot of work… The film was actually a screenplay first. It was written for Julia Roberts. It was called Sabina. That movie didn’t happen. That was about seventeen years ago. So then he turned it into a play. So when I approached him and said, “I’d like to make a movie out of this,” we had the play. We had the early screenplay. We had a lot of new material that had developed since he wrote the play, which was ten years ago. So we worked on it together. It’s not exactly like I rewrote it. It’s not that at all. We shaped it together… And that’s something that he was very happy to do. [Hampton’s] a very experienced…director and screenwriter and [playwright]. We got along very well. But it was a real collaboration. I had a lot of input.

JT: How did the script evolve as a result of the collaboration?

DC: There was so much material, and these people had such a rich life and textured life that you could make a miniseries easily out of just the same material, the same period of time. So it’s often a question of what to leave out. For example, in [Hampton’s] original screenplay…Sabina’s mother and father were characters. I said…“I don’t think we have room in the movie for these characters to really evolve… I think we should just take them out.” So it really is more like just helping [Hampton] to decide what should be in the movie or what should be out. That was my contribution.

JT: Your films all come in tightly, right around 90 minutes. Is that something you’re aware of throughout the process? Why is that important to you?

DC: I do like to have a very short script. I’ve never made a movie that’s been two hours long… If you’re doing Laurence of Arabia it deserves to be more than two hours. But for me, I sort of want to tailor it to the subject. I don’t want it to be too long and too boring. My sensibility is, make it tight, don’t waste time, be efficient. Shoot simply. I’ve really simplified my shooting over the years. That also helps you with the budget. When you’re doing a movie like A Dangerous Method, which is a hard film to finance because it’s a period piece, because people talk a lot in it. It helps if you can say to your producer, “I’m going to shoot this in fewer days than you thought, and bring it in under budget,” which I did. That’s all production stuff. But it does have to do with my feeling that a movie really needs to justify being long. The standard script of 115-120 pages, to me that’s too long… The script for this was 80 pages.

JT: In addition to budgetary reasons, do you prefer shooting in one or two takes for creative reasons as well?

DC: I did the same with A Dangerous Method and the same with my latest movie Cosmopolis. One or two takes…if you’re working properly with your actor and your actor is properly prepared, you don’t need more than that. The idea of doing ninety-nine takes like David Fincher is supposed to have done…it’s a completely different way of filmmaking.

JT: Looking back on over thirty years of making independent films, how has independent film changed?

DC: It all has to do with financing. We in the film business are like frogs… We are the first ones to show the affect of an environmental change. When the meltdown happened and the recession started worldwide, we were amongst the first to be affected by it… It’s very hard to get movies made. And it’s even harder at the moment to get independent films made because all kinds of sources of financing dried up when the recession happened. And a lot of independent distributors shut down, so you have fewer places to go to sell your movies. So it is very hard.

JT: When you were making A Dangerous Method, did it feel any less independent due to the changing nature of financing and having a well-known cast?

DC: No… The well-known cast, they’re actors. They really want to do this movie. Once they want to do the movie, that’s it. There’s no star trip involved… [Producer] Jeremy Thomas and I…as we were standing in the middle of a field shooting some scenes for A Dangerous Method, we were saying, “It’s just us. We have no studio to answer to. We have nobody to answer to.” Any decisions that are made, I made them with [Thomas]. That’s it. There’s nobody else. It’s as independent as you can get.

JT: After making Videodrome and eXistenZ, do you see yourself ever revisiting that world again, maybe tackling the new frontier of reality, that being the internet and social networking?

DC: Not particularly. That’s the answer.

JT: Cosmopolis is slated for next year, which is a return to screenwriting for you and features a stellar cast. What can you tell us about it, in particular Robert Pattinson, who seems a unique choice for a Cronenberg leading man?

DC: I think he’s kind of parallel to [Knightley] really. I think he’s a very underrated actor who’s really good. And so he proved to be. I think he’s fantastic in the movie… He’s really great. You can ask Paul Giamatti who’s said that publicly, because he does a big scene with him. Cosmopolis is based on a novel by Don DeLillo. It couldn’t be more different from A Dangerous Method, except that it to has a lot of dialogue. But it’s a very different kind of dialogue. You’ll have to wait and see.


A Dangerous Method opens in New York and Los Angeles on November 23 with an expansion to follow.

David Cronenberg and Viggo Mortensen on the set of A Dangerous Method