Musings from the press junket with David Cronenberg, Michael Fassbender, Viggo Mortensen and Christopher Hampton
Christopher, you have adapted your own stage work for film before, did you feel that your play, A Talking Cure, needed much work to adapt it for the screen?
CH: Well this started life as a screenplay that nobody wanted to make, so at that point – some 10 years ago – I turned it into a stage play. In the stage play, it was more a case of closing it down than opening it up and I was very much guided by David, who had read the original screenplay and the stage play, which I think was more successful really. I think it’s closer to the stage play than it is to the original screenplay. David was quite comfortable, and some directors aren’t comfortable with scenes that run longer than a page.
Michael and Viggo, what was it like portraying such complex men who have such a complex history? Were you daunted by this?
VM: The fact that there is a lot of material that Freud wrote, and a lot of material about him just made it easier. I was a little hesitant, as David knows, to say yes at first because it’s a big stretch in terms of what he looked like physically. It felt like it was a bit of a leap and if it had been another director maybe I would have been more cowardly about it, but with David, I knew I would be in good hands with him and his crew. The fact that Michael was going to play Jung and Kiera [Knightley] was in it… There were a lot of reasons, and many more reasons to say yes and take the plunge. It was an education in terms of acting and using different tools… Speaking a lot more, speaking really well written words, Christopher’s script is like a really well laid out, well manicured garden with very exotic blooms, under the shadow of which, there are really disturbing little creatures [laughs]. That was a lot of fun to play as an actor, and the fact that the character speaks so much, I don’t usually get a chance to do that, even in David’s movies. For once, he didn’t tell me to shut up all of the time, I had to speak. We had a lot of fun. David’s sense of humour seems to me not unlike Freud’s, his wit and intelligence. You could say about David, what The New York Times said about Freud not long after he died which was that he was the most effective disturber of complacency in his time, and I would say David’s right up there, maybe with Noam Chomsky. We had a good time, we had a few laughs along the way.
MF: Well like Viggo said, it’s always easier if there is information available to you and there is a lot on both characters. That’s the fear element; this is someone that has a very passionate and vocal following, so you want to do justice to the character, you want to justice to David and to Christopher’s script. It’s kind of echoing a lot from what Viggo said; the main thing, for me, was to tackle a very eloquent and muscular piece of dialogue which I tried to treat as a piece of music. I spent a lot of time with the text, trying to get the rhythms and get a real power over the dialogue because, again, we are dealing with a period in time when discourse, especially in the academic world, was a weapon. If you are not in charge of it, then you are going to get destroyed, so that was an element that needed work. Then you just put it all together and see what happens. I think that’s interesting when you are dealing with heavy weight characters like this, really revered characters is that you find out that there are human beings under there that have egos and have very basic and obvious flaws, and to play with those elements is also fun.
David, the film felt very sparse in style, compared to your other works, can you talk about the look of the film?
DC: I think I’m evolving an austerity and simplicity in my style and approach to film making, but it is the movie that tells you what it wants. That era was very controlled, the feeling was that everyone knew his place and that you will see by the collars and the corsets; everything was controlled. In a way, the style of the film comes to me from what we tried to create; we tried to replicate an era that’s gone now with the actors, with the costumes with the lighting – is it a gas light, is it an electric light? – all of those things are the things that generate the style of the movie. I don’t come to it with an idea of ‘I must put some particular stamp on it that people will recognise’. I think that would deform the movie. Even in terms of its visual style, it tells you what it wants. For dramatic speaking people, the landscape is incredibly important; the whole blood and soil thing, the Aryan spirituality, all of that was very much in Jung’s head, so the landscape was important visually in the movie, even though a lot of stuff happens in rooms, but outside the windows you are still seeing all of that. That’s where it all comes from; it comes from what the movie is about.
The mood in the film changes halfway through, can you talk about that?
DC: For these people, it was always their intellect and their theories and the evolution of psychoanalysis was always a passionate thing, a personal thing; they wanted to embody these things in their lives and it wasn’t just an abstract concept ‘out there’ somewhere. You can see that with Sabina [Kiera Knightley’s character] particularly, with her desire to give birth to a Wagnerian Siegfried with Jung. Psychoanalysis was a very exciting thing, and the idea that everyone touched by it felt that it would direct you to a way to live your life, a new way of living with a new way of understanding what it was to be a human being. Yet it becomes a sad and melancholy movie. I think what you realise with Jung, who is very controlled and repressed in his own way, that underneath that there is a very deep and profound love for Sabina and for Freud, and that is lost by the end of the movie; he has lost both of those things and the movie ends with him because of that. I like the idea that it’s moving from sex to death. That is the tone of the movie, definitely.
CH: I think most of my scripts try to replicate life; they start cheerfully and end quite badly.
DC: Some people’s lives do not begin cheerfully [laughs]… Nevermind.
David, do you believe that human beings are sexual, violent creatures, hiding behind the thin coating of civilised behaviour?
DC: That certainly was Freud’s understanding. The era that the movie deals with, we might call it Victorian but there had been the Austro-Hungarian Empire for many years and everyone felt that man was evolving nicely from animal to angel and that reason and rationality could conquer everything and solve every problem. Then you have Freud coming along and saying ‘not so fast! There are things under the surface that you should really pay attention to because they are things that can erupt into tribal madness and barbarity and these things need to be acknowledged or they can destroy you’. The First World War just vindicated that attitude that Freud had, it’s hard for us to realise now because we have had so many wars since then and we are rather cynical, but at the time it was shattering. The idea that the super European civilisation could be destroyed so easily was shocking because the idealistic idea of a super European civilisation could be destroyed so easily, and it did descend into that tribal barbarism; it was really shocking to intellectuals of all kinds, who felt that man was really making progress. If you are asking me whether I believe that, well obviously we have evidence of that every day. When I walk down a street that’s very civilised and congenial, you have in your head – from the media – the disasters that are going on everywhere in the world all the time, it seems like a miraculous thing that we could be sitting here and not be violent and barbarous.
MF: It’s not over yet [laughs]
DC: It’s true; I am expecting a punch up before long. [laughs]
Christopher, you originally focused the screenplay on Sabina, then it evolved. Do you think that if it were still focused on Sabina would it be harder to get funding for a film with a female lead?
CH: That’s a very good question. I have written films with central characters who are women, which have been very hard to fund for that reason, but that’s not why I made the change. The script was originally called Sabina and it was commissioned by Twentieth Century Fox and Julia Roberts’s company. Of course, Sabina is the most fascinating character, and it seemed like a good idea to focus the story on her, but with a couple of years distance, it became clear that the real centre of the story is actually Jung because he is at the pivot of the relationship between him and his wife, him and Sabina, him and Freud and Freud and Sabina; he is really at the centre of the whole thing. In fact, the story shook down, as David says; he says the film tells him what to do, the story tells you what to do and it became clear that it was a story centrally about Jung. I wish films that have female central characters were not still facing these absurd restrictions.
DC: I have to say the real problem with financing this movie was because there was a lot of talk, I think that in itself is a problem, more than the gender of the lead characters, frankly. Just so that we don’t slip into a stereotypical attitude here, Christopher 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 supposed to be male and they couldn’t finance it until they changed it to a female. Things are strange out there, and it’s hard to make a blanket statement that will apply to every situation out there.
Michael, your character in Shame would be a great patient for Freud, what order did you do the films in and did the research for one inform the other?
MF: No. [laughs] The order came; A Dangerous Method, X-Men and then Shame, but I was manipulating metal in between [laughs]. It’s funny because when I do something I am in that and it’s a very intense time; the preparation and the filming of it. Then I discard it pretty quickly, so when I was doing Shame I didn’t even think about the parallels, I didn’t even think whether I could take some information from what I had gathered from A Dangerous Method. I might have been doing it subconsciously [laughs] but I certainly wasn’t aware of it.
DC: I have to say that – as I have told Michael before – his performance in Shame is just Michael [laughs] whereas playing Jung was a real performance.
MF: I did get some footnotes from David. [laughs]
David, it’s a great performance from Kiera Knightley as well, how easily was she persuaded to be involved?
DC: As I have often said, casting is 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 is no guidebook to tell you whether two people who have never met will have chemistry on screen for example. I had never seen Kiera and Michael in a room together, I had never seen them in a room together until we started shooting. You just have your own intuition, and that also goes for how well and how deeply an actor can play the role that you are anticipating them for. For whatever reason, I really was fixed on Kiera, I really thought that she was the one to do this movie and 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 – the erotic scenes, the going crazy scenes – which were obviously difficult because they are so far off the normal path of what you do as an actor. She’s incredibly down to earth and incredibly bright, and she does a lot of research… Really deep research, so we could have a very frank talk about how – for an actor when they do sex scenes, for example, they want to know where the camera is going to be and I could tell her – it was a very adult discussion and it didn’t take very long to figure out what we were going to do and how we were going to do it.
Viggo, how much do you enjoy playing characters who are so revered in history?
VM: In the end, no matter how much research you do, how good the script is, how historically accurate – in this case – how interesting the material is, how well known the character you are playing is, in the end you are going to be adding yourself. You are adding your face, you are adding your voice, you are adding your body, you are adding your mind and your feelings to it. People asked me that when I was doing Lord of the Rings; ‘Do you feel a big responsibility playing Aragorn?’ and I would say ‘No, I am just playing this character, and find out as much as I can about it so I don’t make an ass of myself’. The same goes for Freud, I was aware, just on a practical level that I had a lot more dialogue, and a challenge that I really enjoyed was that he had a wicked sense of humour and he appreciated it. The 19th century and the 20th century too were pretty straight laced in a lot of ways; the censorship laws were pretty strict and Freud appreciated wordplay. He appreciated wit, some of his favourite writers were humourists who got around the censorship laws by being clever, by making jokes that, many times, people didn’t realise you were making a joke, and if they did realise, they were probably on your side anyway so you are safe. The character in this case does not out-and-out tell jokes, there is a certain irony to the character, something that we tried to find, that little bit of humour. That was a good challenge that I enjoyed, But no, I don’t feel differently about a character that I imagine almost completely and to play someone that people have a very set idea about where people have a lot of photographs and material about them.
The film is quite accessible, was it a struggle to keep it simple?
CH: It’s always very difficult to make things simple. That is the hardest thing of all, and this material is not easy. I knew quite a lot about Freud before I started, but I knew nothing about Jung, and Jung – admirable as he is in so many ways – is not the easiest writer to grapple with, so first of all the struggle was to understand what they said and then to make it accessible, without making it foolish. You don’t want people saying to each other ‘I have just had an idea about what I might call the collective unconscious’ [laughs] or any of that stuff. It was a long long process writing it, but then making it accessible is down to these people…
DC: It was easy really. We just did the script, basically [laughs] That was the key, that Christopher could compress an incredibly complex subject – the birth of psychoanalysis – and there were hundreds of wonderfully eccentric characters that floated in and out of that world; even to the extent that Emma Jung [Jung’s wife] became an analyst herself, which was something that we couldn’t deal with in the movie – that Christopher could compress that down to five main characters, and still give you the essence and the feel and the texture of the time, that was the art. Once we had the script, it was just a case of playing it out. For me, it was not a problem.
David, how as psychoanalysis influenced your early horror films?
DC: I think my horror films influenced psychoanalysis [laughs]. Apparently they show those movies in psychoanalytic sessions, they show them to patients. I mean, god knows… I don’t get paid for that! [laughs] Really, there are artists like Bernardo Bertolucci for example who says he does apply psychoanalytic methods to his film making and of course the Surrealist Salvador Dali; the idea of dreams and dream interpretation was very important to their art and their approach to art. For me, it is not that conscious really, I think any artist growing up in the 20th Century, as I did, is automatically informed by Freud and his ideas and his understanding of human nature and so on which did not exist in that form before him. To that extent I am influenced by it, but not – as I said – in a direct way. I really think that artists and psychoanalysts do the same thing; that is, to say ‘what’s underneath?’, how do you dive beneath the surface to see what’s really going on, what’s hidden, what’s not understood. A psychoanalyst does that with his patient and an artist does that with society in general, so that’s really the connection.
A DANGEROUS METHOD is now showing in Irish cinemas
Words – Brogen Hayes