David Cronenberg: It's as if my old movies don't exist

Salon exclusive: The former horror auteur talks about the "intellectual menage à trois" of "A Dangerous Method"

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published December 3, 2011 10:00PM (EST)

 David Cronenberg
David Cronenberg

There are many reasons why David Cronenberg is a beloved interview subject for film journalists, and of course the quality, vitality and breadth of his movies have an awful lot to do with it. Beyond that, though, the Canadian director whose career stretches from near-experimental horror films like "Shivers" (better known in the United States as "They Came From Within") and "Videodrome" to more recent collaborations like "A History of Violence" and "Eastern Promises" is a genuine intellectual in a realm crowded with poseurs and pretenders. He can talk easily about almost any topic you bring up; if he hadn't turned out to be one of the premier cinematic visionaries of his generation, it'd be easy to imagine him as a writer or philosopher or historian.

I have no personal relationship with Cronenberg beyond our professional conversations, but he's become so prolific during his post-'90s resurgence that I wind up seeing him once a year or so, generally over coffee in some anonymous Manhattan hotel suite or other. This year's Cronenberg movie, of course, is "A Dangerous Method," a rather restrained production by his standards that explores the ambiguous relationship -- an "intellectual ménage à trois," he calls it -- between Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), his idol and rival Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and Jung's psychiatric patient, lover and collaborator Sabina Spielrein (a terrific performance by Keira Knightley). I've already written about "A Dangerous Method" extensively, so I won't belabor any of that except to say that if you belong to the class of people who complain about the dearth of intelligent, challenging and accessible movies for grown-ups, rush out and see it immediately. (The film is already playing in New York and Southern California, and will expand soon to many more markets. See below for a list.)

It might be depressing to reckon with the fact that Cronenberg is now 68 years old, but he appears vigorous and entirely undiminished. A publicist came in to break up our conversation after half an hour, but he'd cheerfully go on talking all day, and similarly shows no signs of slowing down his creative pace. He's already finished his next film (it will be his 17th feature), an adaptation of Don DeLillo's novel "Cosmopolis" that stars "Twilight" dreamboat Robert Pattinson as a young New York zillionaire. Numerous other potential projects lie ahead, including proposed sequels to "The Fly" and "Eastern Promises," along with reported adaptations of Jonathan Lethem's "As She Climbed Across the Table" and Martin Amis' "London Fields."

I spent the first part of our conversation trying to convince him to adapt former Reuters journalist Mary Gabriel's fantastic biography "Love and Capital," about the marriage of Karl and Jenny Marx, and their family and intimate circle. He can carry over the cast of "A Dangerous Method" virtually intact: Mortensen as Marx, Fassbender as the dashing, wealthy ladykiller Friedrich Engels, and Knightley as Baroness Jenny von Westphalen, the provincial beauty who abandoned her Prussian aristocratic family for a life of penury as Mrs. Marx. I'm not asking for any kind of commission here, David. He seemed to like the idea: "Now, having Viggo play Marx, that is good. Then I would only have to get him to play Einstein, and he'd have covered it all."

I recently read Charles Drazin's book "French Cinema," where he talks about the difference between old-school French movies, what they used to call the "tradition de qualité," mostly literary adaptations and historical dramas, and the auteurism of the New Wave, where you had to be a writer-director. It struck me that in your career you've almost gone backward, from the second kind of cinema to the first.

Well, I have a couple of qualms about that. [Laughter.] First of all, I think the initial auteur theory had nothing to do with guys like Truffaut. It had more to do with Howard Hawks and John Ford, guys who didn't write their own stuff but were being accepted as artists even within an industrial complex that produced movies. I know you know that. It's only later that people started to think of the auteur theory -- and I certainly did in the beginning as well -- as meaning that I must write my own stuff or I'm not a real filmmaker.

It was with "The Dead Zone" [in 1983] that I had a really nice collaboration with Stephen King's book and a couple of writers, Jeffrey Boam among them. Then I thought, well, mixing your blood with somebody else actually is pretty good. As I say that, I think of evolution, and, you know, that's the health of the species. Mixing your blood with others, rather than incestuously, can produce a hearty new stock you might not have come up with before.

So I stopped worrying about it after "The Dead Zone," because I was pretty pleased with the movie and the experience of it, and I thought, yeah, a movie can come from anywhere and it really doesn't matter anymore. It could be an adaptation, it could come from a dream or a newspaper article or whatever. That was the moment when I relaxed about it. And I never did worry about the imprint. Creatively, it's a non-issue. When people say, well, "A Dangerous Method" doesn't seem very Cronenbergian -- I always say I prefer "Cronenburgundian" -- it's irrelevant to me. Creatively it means nothing.

As a director you're literally making 2,000 decisions a day, and no one else is going to make those same decisions. So it's definitely going to be your movie, in the sense that everything filters through your nervous system and your sensibility, and you don't have to worry about it beyond that. Whether it's obviously what people think of as a Cronenberg movie or not is irrelevant. And when I'm making a movie I forget all my other movies. It's as if they don't exist, other than the craft and the experience, which of course is there. As I say ad nauseam, the movie tells you what it wants, and you give it what it needs, in terms of style, in terms of what lens you choose for the close-ups -- the classic long lens, or the more interesting wide-angle lens where the camera's closer to the person and the background is more in focus than it would be otherwise.

So for "Dangerous Method" I'm thinking of the feeling, the control of the era, the covering up of the body, the stiff collars and the precision. The way they thought of themselves in Vienna, as the seat of an empire, where things were really in control and had been for 700 years. You know, the emperor was old but stable, all that stuff. It gives me the sense of a style, and then you say, just for example, that a jiggly hand-held style really would not work to deliver that era. It wasn't a jiggly, hand-held era, that's what it feels like. So that gives me the formalism and stability of the style. It's not a schematic thing that I impose and that I think of upfront, in the same way that I don't do storyboards. It's an organic thing that comes out of considering all the aspects of the movie, the costuming, the people's posture, where you're shooting. The formality of the Belvedere Gardens, for example, really contributes a lot.

I know you got to shoot in some authentic locations in Vienna, in Freud's actual apartment, for instance. What about Jung's house outside Zurich? Is that real too?

No, it isn't. You see, this was a Canada-Germany co-production, and we therefore shot it all in Germany, except for two days in Vienna. We didn't shoot in Zurich at all. Lake Constance in southern Germany, which is also known as the Bodensee, stood in for Lake Zurich, and we had to build Jung's house there, both the facade and the interior. We did visit Andreas Jung in Küsnacht [the Zurich suburb where Jung lived] and talked to him, but we wouldn't have gotten permission to shoot there.

I did feel we had to shoot in Vienna. We had to shoot the entrance to Freud's actual apartment, where the carriages come in and so on. The steps that Viggo walked down are the steps that Freud walked down. And we had to shoot in the Belvedere Gardens, with those sphinxes -- there were no other gardens that look like that, and Freud walked there often. We also shot in the Café Sperl, and I can't guarantee that Freud ever went there, but it's the most perfectly preserved one from that era -- the tobacco stains on the walls and the ceiling were incredible! Those are the only three actual locations, and the rest is illusion. Viggo got to be in those places, and in his usual fashion also went to Freud's house, which is now in the Czech Republic, and then to the Freud museum in Hampstead, in London. For an actor to at least taste the reality is pretty important, I think.

You're famous for not doing storyboards, but your actors also talk now about how you don't do many takes. Keira Knightley told me that you generally didn't shoot scenes more than once or twice.

Well, I do fewer and fewer, yes. My director of photography, Peter Suschitzky, has told me that I've changed quite a lot in the way I shoot since 1988, when we first worked together on "Dead Ringers." I think of it in terms of Samuel Beckett, actually -- a kind of extreme asceticism and refinement to the point of near-madness! [Laughter.] Although it may not be visible that way. It actually started before "Dead Ringers"; I started to feel it with "The Fly," actually.

There was a lovely film editor, when I was starting to shoot my first movie, who said, "I only have two words to tell you: Get coverage." He was right, at the time, because as a kid director I didn't know what you needed in the editing room, and it was better to shoot as much as you could. It was only a 14-day shoot on "Shivers," anyway!

So in doing "Dead Ringers," I would cover a scene of dialogue with a long master, a short master, a two-shot, a medium shot, a medium close-up and a close-up, and I'd do the entire scene with each of those setups. Now my coverage would be very sparse, and I wouldn't shoot the whole scene with all those things. I would decide at which point I'm going to come over to the close-up and just shoot that. So for "Dangerous Method" we finished a few days early, partly because of that. And with "Cosmopolis," the movie I just shot, we were four days early, and I did my director's cut in two days. My editor just didn't have that much to work with!

Another thing Keira said was that she got the impression you had the film edited in your head before you shot it.

And yet it isn't quite that way. It's interesting, it's true and it's not true. Until we block the scene, I have no idea what I'm going to do. I bring the actors on the set -- nobody else is on the set -- and we work out how the scene is going to work. That's where the actors have a lot of input. I don't want them to improvise dialogue, because they're not screenwriters, but in terms of where they move, the choreography of the room, that's really important and we work that out.

Then I bring my crew in and we show them the scene we've worked out, like a little piece of theater. My crew is all around the room, and that's when everybody knows what the game is. The props people, the set decorators, the sound guys -- and then I start to discuss how to shoot it with Peter. At that point, it starts to make sense to me, and that's when I start to think about how I'm going to cut it, and how much coverage I need and what I don't need. In other words, it's very non-storyboard-ish, because blocking the scene with the actors comes first, before I'm thinking of editing at all. Whereas with storyboards, you're often doing all those things before you even have an actor cast, which to me is extremely the wrong way around.

I know that Christopher Hampton wrote this screenplay based on his play, which was called "The Talking Cure." But isn't it true that there was another screenplay first?

Yeah, I can give you the etiology. I read the play, and I had heard that Ralph Fiennes was playing Jung in a play by Christopher Hampton. I knew Ralph from "Spider," and I had read Christopher's stuff since he was a 22-year-old wunderkind. When I got in touch with Christopher saying I'd like to make a movie of this, I discovered that it was a screenplay first. It had been written for Julia Roberts about 17 years ago, it was called "Sabina" and it was at Fox.

When that movie didn't happen for whatever reason, he asked them if it would be OK to turn it into a play. They said yes; I'm sure they knew there was no money in that. Once we were going to turn it back into a movie, a deal had to be made with Fox and then we could use, and did use, some of the original screenplay, plus the play. I have heard the occasional comment, "It's rather theatrical," or "It's like Masterpiece Theatre," to which I say: I condemn you to 20 hours of "Masterpiece Theatre." Then come back and tell me it's like that! [Laughter.]

So that means that Sabina Spielrein -- the only one of those three people who's not famous -- was already conceived as a central character, maybe the central character.

Yeah, although when it was a Julia Roberts vehicle you can understand that the weight had been shifted to her. Whereas in our movie I guess technically Jung is the lead character. There was no agenda on my part or Christopher's. It was really just finding the right balance amongst them all. I do call it an intellectual ménage à trois, but certainly the love story between Jung and Sabina is the central relationship.

I've been lobbying pretty hard for the idea that Sabina Spielrein was a feminist hero, or should be one. Both because she became a leading doctor and therapist at a time when that was almost inconceivable, and also because she overcame mental illness and began the honest discussion of sadomasochistic desire, at least within the context of being an acceptable aspect of consensual adult sexuality. There's a direct line from her to Madonna, pretty much.

Yeah, it was apparent. Once again, it was delightfully agenda-free on my part and Christopher's. I mean, we were really trying to be accurate, and because of the letter-writing of that era, we had tons of material. with all these obsessively detailed people recording their conversations and their dreams and what it all meant. We even had dialogue, really, from the letters. Obviously, with Freud, Jung and Sabina, there are many ways you could weight it and preferences you might have, and empathies you might have for one or the other, but for me the project was resurrection. I wanted to see these people as close to what they might have been, despite the compression of it into five main characters. I mean, the cast of characters in Freud's life and Jung's life is unbelievable! Overwhelming! All these amazing, eccentric intellects, it's fantastic. But given the distillation and the compression, I think we were as neutral and as objective in trying to bring them back to life as we could be.

Having said that, it's hard to resist thinking of Sabina as an icon of the feminist movement because of all those things you mention. And she was martyred as well, so it's even beyond that. [Spielrein was apparently killed by the Nazis shortly after the German invasion of Russia in 1940.] The fact that she was Russian and Jewish just adds to the difficulties she would have had to overcome, to do what she did.

I'm curious to hear you describe how you see the relationship between Freud and Jung in dramatic terms. There were so many differences between them, in terms of background, religion, class, money and ideology.

If you look at where Jung came from and where Freud came from, you could see it was a train wreck that was inevitable. It was Freud's desperation to have psychoanalysis be legitimized by somebody like Jung.

As you make clear, Freud really wanted to hand over the business to a Gentile, so to speak.

He totally wanted a Gentile, and Jung was perfect. He was also handsome and charismatic, he was Swiss and German. So it took them right out of Vienna, which was considered rather decadent even at the time. As Freud says of the psychoanalytic movement, "We're all Jews," so it was easy to dismiss psychoanalysis as "Jewish science," which is the worst term you could ever apply. Or worse, as a Jewish conspiracy that was socially disruptive. So exactly the things that drew him to Jung were the things that made it inevitable that they should have this collision, I think. Jung's father and six of his uncles were pastors, and although Jung was dismissive of them as a young man, I think that's what he really wanted to become. He wanted to be a spiritual leader. All the things that Freud could see him heading towards, he did head towards. Jung became a mystical, religious leader.

Right, he was the father of the New Age, almost literally.

Yeah, he was, and it's interesting to see Otto Gross [a young psychiatrist and adventurer played by Vincent Cassel in the film] in that context. Otto Gross was a sort of proto-hippie. He would have fit into the '60s in North America beautifully. And he had a huge influence on Jung; all those impulses that Jung had were encouraged by Otto.

Whereas Freud was so protective of the scientific status of psychiatry, maybe because of the intense vulnerability he felt as a European Jew.

Well, yeah, there was a total vulnerability there. But the other thing was that the essence of psychoanalysis cannot be scientific, because it's not repeatable. I mean, it's as simple as that. The scientific method requires repeatability; you should be able to do the same experiment in Beijing as in Vienna and you should get the same results. How can that be, when you have two individuals who are obviously unique, the psychoanalyst and the patient? There's no experiment to repeat, in fact. I read a great book called "Why Freud Was Wrong" [by Richard Webster]. The title is cheesy, but it's a terrific book. They sort of, Freud and Jung as well, just made up their scientific methodology, when you couldn't really apply it. Neither one of them wanted to be called an artist or a philosopher. That was anathema to them; that would completely subvert their idea of being scientifically valid people, physicians and medical people.

But it's obvious from Jung's Red Book -- this is beyond the scope of the movie -- but Jung started to doodle in a book with red leather bindings, which was suppressed by his family for years, and was only published recently. It's huge and beautiful, and it's almost like an illuminated manuscript done by Irish monks. It's got demons and angels with wings, all these mandalas. He said these were actual visions that he had, dreams that he had. His script is this beautiful Gothic script, and you say, well, this man is an artist. That's why it was suppressed; here's this man of science who is really an artist.

There's a case to be made for Freud, as well, that he was really a philosopher. Both men are considered gorgeous stylists in the German language. Maybe secretly they would enjoy hearing this, but it would terrify them, because it would mean that the whole edifice they had built for themselves as men of science would be torn down.

“A Dangerous Method” is now playing in New York and Los Angeles. It opens Dec. 16 in Chicago, San Francisco and Washington; and Dec. 23 in Albany, N.Y., Boston, Dallas, Hartford, Conn., Minneapolis, New Haven, Conn., Phoenix, Portland, Ore., San Diego, San Jose, Calif., Seattle, and Austin, Texas, with more cities to follow.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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