Director David Cronenberg discusses A Dangerous Method

Director David Cronenberg takes us behind-the-scenes of A Dangerous Method, Cosmopolis, and more.

Director David Cronenberg has found success in every genre he's worked in. The filmmaker became well known for his horror fare in the 1970s and 1980s (The Brood, Scanners, Videodrome, The Fly) and tackled a variety of different dramas in the 1990s (Naked Lunch, M. Butterfly, Crash, eXistenZ). After decades as a cult favorite, the filmmaker broke into the mainstream with hits A History of Violence and Eastern Promises. The director's latest is the wonderful period drama A Dangerous Method, which explores the unique relationships between pioneering psychologists Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), and Sabina Spierlein (Keira Knightley). I recently had the chance to sit down with David Cronenberg to discuss A Dangerous Method, which arrives in New York and Los Angeles theaters November 23. Here's what he had to say below.

First off, I really enjoyed this film, and I hope it does quite well.

David Cronenberg: Thank you. It's already done quite well in Italy. That's the first place it's been released, and it's now doing very well in Germany.

Do you expect it to do better overseas, than here in the States?

David Cronenberg: No, not necessarily. Psychoanalysis is certainly popular in bigger cities like New York. It's very intriguing, always, to see how a movie does in different territories, whatever kind of movie it is. I would expect there to be a fair amount of interest in the U.S. for the movie.

What I was really taken by, we all know Freud, Jung, and, to some extent, Sabina. We know them as these great minds, but this movie shows these great thinkers succumbing to these basic instincts we all have. I was really intrigued by that.

David Cronenberg: Yeah, well, the thing is, that wouldn't surprise them. Part of what Freud was saying was we are these creatures. We have these demands that are made that are very primitive and animalistic. That was his cautionary tale for his era, no matter how sophisticated we may think our society is, it's only a very thin veneer of civilization and it can be ruptured very easily by these forces underneath. He wouldn't be surprised, actually, that Sabina was a passionate woman, as well as a passionate intellectual. That wouldn't surprise him at all.

One of the things I was curious about was Christopher (Hampton) developed this first as a screenplay, and then it became a play, and then a screenplay again.

David Cronenberg: Yeah, it came full-circle.

Were there elements of his original draft that made it in, or was it a complete overhaul?

David Cronenberg: Yeah, I can't remember, exactly. We legally and creatively had the possibility of incorporating anything from the screenplay. A deal was made with Fox, who had originally commissioned that screenplay. The original screenplay, which was called Sabina, was a vehicle for Julia Roberts, she was more of a main character. She's still a main character, but Jung was not as big a character. When he turned it into a play, when the movie didn't happen, he felt that the proportions had to be adjusted, that he had shortchanged Jung, and that he needed more Jung. That's when the proportions started to change, that you see in our film. In a way, this may be closer to the play, than the original screenplay, but there are other elements that Christopher came across, that we incorporated as well.

I believe you shot this in Freud's actual home, and in the actual hospital. Can you talk about the importance of shooting in these real locations, and what that meant to the production?

David Cronenberg: Well, it was not shot in the actual hospital. It has changed so much, that we just couldn't. The interior of Freud's home we couldn't use, because it's a museum. What is original is the courtyard, the entrance way where the horses come through, and the staircase that Viggo comes down. Those would've been the stairs that Freud walked up and down hundreds of times. The gardens was also original. This is a Canada and Germany co-production, so, though none of the movie takes place in Germany, only in Switzerland and Austria, we shot it almost all in Germany, because of the co-production treaty. This is the thing that you get into. The other thing, historically, is Lake Zurich, does not look like old Lake Zurich, because it's so built up now and so developed. We actually found a better surrogate in south Germany, which is called Lake Constance. That actually looked more like old Lake Zurich than Lake Zurich does, so that was a positive thing. I loved shooting in Vienna, and connecting with Freud as much as we could, but it really only was a couple of days. The rest is, you know, movie magic, with the costumes, the cigars, the feeling. For period pieces, the real locations often don't work, because they get developed, changed, or destroyed.

I was really blown away by all of these performances, but especially Keira. Can you talk about the places you wanted her to go, especially in the earlier scenes, when she is sick. It's a really fascinating arc. She's delirious, and she develops into this great thinker.

David Cronenberg: That's just it. As she says to Jung, 'You cured me with his method.' She did actually say that. Yeah, to me, it's an absolutely brilliant performance. Keira is a great actress, that work was some of the best in the world, and she is right up there with them. Her preparation is incredible, her professionalism is incredible, and she never loses the emotion. You can see, by the end of the movie, where she's so much more in control of her life, and yet, underneath, there's that volatility and instability. You could just feel it. It's a beautifully modulated performance by Keira. She can take intellectual concepts and turn them into physical emotions. The nature of hysteria, and what she does at the beginning of the movie, is very extreme, but it's absolutely accurate. That is what hysteria was, it would result in these facial contortions and all that. We did our research into that, but when I said, 'Action,' it was Keira that had to do it.

I was also surprised at the level of humor in here. It's pretty damn funny.

David Cronenberg: It's very funny, and, one of the things about Freud is he was a lot funnier than our image of him, as this stern old grandfather. When you read his letters and his official writings, he's very witty, and he can certainly use his humor in a cutting way as well, to attack. He had a great sense of humor, and it's evident in his letters. He has some self-evident humor here too, and he wasn't so stuffy or pompous that he couldn't direct humor at himself.

You had a bit of a break between Eastern Promises and this film, and then you have Cosmopolis coming out next year. Is that just your process, or is it just a matter of getting projects together?

David Cronenberg: It's just money. I've worked on a few different things between Eastern Promises and A Dangerous Method, and they fell through. It was not my fault, or not my desire. It's nice that people think that once you get to a certain level in your career, you can just pick and choose. Martin Scorsese and I talk about this all the time. People think, 'Well, Marty can do anything he wants.' No, he can't. There are projects that he simply can't get made, and the same goes for me. We get involved in a project, and it disappears for whatever reason. It has nothing to do with you, necessarily. It was wonderful getting to do two movies back-to-back. That was me being Woody Allen for two years, whereas he's been doing it for 30 years, doing a movie a year. I absolutely enjoyed that, and I would do it again, but, at the moment, I don't have another project that's ready to go that I'm happy with. So, it's really happenstance. It has to do with financing. People would say, 'Why now did you do Dead Ringers?' I'd say, 'Hey, I would'dve done it 10 years ago when I started it, if I could've gotten the money together.' It's just like that, really. It's not part of my process. No, I could do a movie a year quite happily.

Cosmopolis looks really intriguing. Can you talk about the production?

David Cronenberg: It was a wonderful shoot, as was A Dangerous Method, actually. They were both very beautiful shoots, even though they were both quite different in tone, which, for me, is delightful, because, to do two movies, back-to-back, they are both so different. The one similarity is that they're both very dialogue-heavy. That was kind of interesting, but they have very different dialogue.

Do you think this will be the project that really sets Robert (Pattinson) apart from his past, so to speak?

David Cronenberg: I have no control over that, obviously. All I know is, as with Keira, I thought that Robert was very underrated. I mean, Keira has done more work than Robert has, but in England, they're always on her for whatever weird English class reasons. I'm not sure what that is. I always thought she was a substantial actress, and I had no doubt that she could really ace this role. I felt the same about Rob. The fate of the movie, though, who knows. I certainly think this. I don't think that any director who's looking to see what Rob can do, will not be able to see how terrific he is by looking at Cosmopolis. Even if the movie isn't a success at the box office, creatively, as far as I'm concerned, it is a success, and for Rob, it totally is. He's brilliant in the movie, he's fabulous. If nothing else, it will be a great demo film for Rob, for any other director who's looking for a great actor.

Finally, what would you like to say to anyone who's curious about A Dangerous Method, about why they should check it out in theaters?

David Cronenberg: I'm going to let you do that, since you are a big proponent of the film. I'll let you say why.

Well, I think that it's a brilliant look at these three very well-known people, in ways you've never seen them before. I didn't know this side of them existed, and it's a really brilliant portrait of that. I hope it does well.

David Cronenberg: Excellent. Thank you.

It was great to talk to you.

David Cronenberg: It was good to talk to you too. Thank you.

You can watch David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method when it debuts in New York and Los Angeles theaters November 23.