The world-renowned director describes the work that it took to bring well-known figures Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung to life on screen in his new drama, A Dangerous Method.
Filmmaker David Cronenberg
Tavis: David Cronenberg is an award-winning director and writer whose previous projects include films like “A History of Violence” and “Eastern Promises.” He’s once again teamed up with actor Viggo Mortensen for the film, “A Dangerous Method” in theaters November 23. So here now a scene from “A Dangerous Method.”
Tavis: I was just whispering to you that doing a period piece work is a different kind of animal. You enjoy the experience?
David Cronenberg: I do, I do. It’s not just that it’s a period piece, but that it’s based on historical characters who are very well-known. I mean, I’ve done period pieces before, “Naked Lunch” and “Spider” and “M. Butterfly,” but those were fictional characters.
These were very well-known people, iconic Freud and Jung, and then a woman who no one had ever heard of, Sabina Spielrein, who sort of forms this intellectual ménage a trois, the way I think of it.
What’s interesting is that you have tons of material. You know, this was a letter-writing era in Vienna at the time, which was 1910, let’s say. There were somewhere between five and eight mail deliveries a day, so if you wrote somebody in the morning, you expected to get an answer in the afternoon. It was like their internet, basically email.
So we have tons of information about them and they reported in great detail things that they said to each other, what they ate, what they dreamed, because this was the material of psychoanalysis.
For me, it was a process of resurrection. I wanted to make them come back to life so that I could see them and feel them and smell them, and that was exciting.
Tavis: There are two things you said now that I want to go back and get you to unpack for me.
In no particular order, one, since you made the distinction between this kind of a period piece and period pieces you’ve done before and the primary difference being that these real life characters, two of them at least very well-known, what’s the challenge in bringing these real life persons to the screen versus fictional characters?
Cronenberg: Well, of course, with fictional characters, they are serving the plot and each other, but you have a lot of freedom even in casting, whereas if it’s people who are physically well-known, you’re limited.
You’ve got the age range, you have the physical stature, but what is interesting in this movie is that most people who know Freud and Jung know them as men in their 70s or 80s.
Tavis: Yeah, Viggo’s a young guy, yeah.
Cronenberg: Yeah, with gray bears, very grandfatherly. In Freud’s case when he was in his 80s, he was suffering from cancer and he was very frail.
Here we have Freud who’s 50 and he was described in the literature of the time as being handsome, charismatic, masculine, witty, elegant, funny. These are not things that people normally think of when they think of Sigmund Freud. So once you start to think of them that way, suddenly Viggo Mortensen seems not so odd casting after all, and the same with Jung.
You can see YouTube video interviews with Carl Jung when he was in his 70s ’cause he died in 1961 and he’s very charming and sweet and grandfatherly. But here he’s 29 years old, very hardy and intellectual and somewhat arrogant, very different period in his life.
So the challenge is sort of to not only bring them back to life, but in a way that they really were that’s not familiar. That, too, was pretty exciting.
Tavis: Let me get to the second question now which is right into the heart of what the narrative here is all about. Tell me more about the territory that you traverse in this film that is unfamiliar to the rest of us?
Because to your point now, we think of Freud, we think we know everything there is to know about Freud, so tell me about the story line.
Cronenberg: Well, Freud had a group of people working with him in Vienna creating a new what they wanted to be considered a new science. It was psychoanalysis and it was exploring uncharted territory in terms of what the human mind was and the way peoples’ minds work and what dreams were and were dreams significant and so on.
This was happening at a time that we had considered Victorian. It was very repressed and very restrained. Everybody was very proper. Everybody knew his place in society and there were things you didn’t talk about. You didn’t talk about the body, you didn’t talk about bodily functions, you didn’t talk about sexuality.
Women were put up on a pedestal as goddesses, but that’s not a great place to be if you’re a human because they were worshipped in a way, but they were not really allowed to be sexual, to be intellectual, to be well educated and so on, which is why you’ve got many women suffering from what was called hysteria.
We use the word hysterical, but then that was a sort of clinical term for a disease and it was considered to be a disease of women. The word hysteria comes from the Greek word meaning uterus and they would actually remove the uteruses of women to cure them of this historical state of mind.
Basically, now I think we see it as a product of repression of women in the era and the way that their sexual energy and many other things had to come out in the form of this disease, which they called hysteria.
Freud was examining what the meanings of these things were in a way that was very disturbing to that society at the time. You know, he was talking about things that you did not even mention in polite society, you didn’t even want to think about those things.
Tavis: I want to come back to the Keira Knightley character that you referenced a moment ago.
Tavis: But first, Viggo Mortensen, whose name has come up a couple of times in this conversation – I like Viggo. He’s been a guest on this program before – but more importantly, you must like Viggo because you are reunited with this guy again for what purpose?
Cronenberg: I love this guy. Well, this is our third movie. We did “A History of Violence” together. That’s where we met and then “Eastern Promises” and now “A Dangerous Method.” I suppose this is the most unusual casting of Viggo, you would think, casting him as Sigmund Freud. But he’s a fantastic collaborator, you know.
He’s a beautiful guy and he’s a wonderful actor, but he’s a real colleague, a comrade in arms. I mean, he brings things to the set. He brings research and always in the sweetest way, never with any agenda, never with any strings attached.
He will decorate your set. I mean, he would come here and he would bring you other water bottles that he found that he thought maybe you would like. If you said I don’t like those, though, he’d say, fine, no problem. So he will be your set decorator, he will do your costumes.
We exchanged about 25 emails just about Freud’s cigars. How many a day did he smoke? It happened to be 22, which is why he got cancer of the jaw eventually. But what shape were they? What kind were they? Were they expensive? Could he afford the kind he wanted? Did he always smoke the same kind or did they shift somehow? Did he sometimes smoke smaller ones, bigger ones?
All of this research that we would together, which is very exciting, and it might seem trivial, but it isn’t really for an actor.
Tavis: Sounds like Viggo to me. You know him better than I do, his love of books and publishing books. He’s into the details, yeah.
Cronenberg: Yes. In fact, he found incredibly rare books that he bought himself with his own money and brought them to the set. These were things that Freud would have actually had in his office which our props department had not been able to find.
Viggo traveling around Europe, he went to the Czech Republic which is where Freud’s birthplace is actually, and found these books that no one else had managed to find and offered them to us as set decoration really. I actually don’t know any other actors who do that.
Tavis: Speaking of actors, the Keira Knightley character that you referenced earlier is the third part of this triumvirate, the person that we know least well historically. Tell me more about that character.
Cronenberg: Well, in 1977 at the University of Geneva, a suitcase was discovered that had letters that were left behind by a woman named Sabina Spielrein. She was Russian, she was Jewish, at that point, she was a psychoanalyst and she left for Russia in order to start to bring the science of psychoanalysis to Russia.
In this suitcase were discovered these letters that she had written to and from Freud and Jung and it was understood only from these letters that she had had an affair with Carl Jung after being his patient and that she had contributed a huge amount to the theories of both Jung and Freud, which she’d never got credited for. I mean, actually, Jung never gave her any credit; Freud gave her a footnote.
So Christopher Hampton who wrote the script for this movie discovered all this and started to put together a play called “The Talking Cure” based on the three of them.
Reading that play was the first time I’d ever heard of her and I thought, wow, this is an incredible structure that I could use to explore Freud and the birth of psychoanalysis and that whole era before the first World War in central Europe that was so crucial.
Tavis: This is an over-simplified question which I hate to ask, but I do want to get to this point, which is when we get a chance to see the film, what is the takeaway for the audience with specific regard to psychoanalysis and Freud’s contribution to the subject matter?
Cronenberg: Well, I think it might be very revealing in terms of the potency of Freud and what he created. I think we’re not through with Freud now. I mean, a lot of people say, oh, well, Freud, you study psychology now and they hardly mention Freud.
But in fact Freudian analysis is apparently huge in China now. You know, now that there’s a middle class that’s evolving in China and people are starting to think about themselves and their families and their inner lives, they’re finding Freud to be hugely valuable. I think it’s kind of interesting that suddenly Freud is rising again in the east.
Tavis: We have a Freud renaissance here now [laugh]?
Cronenberg: I absolutely think so.
Tavis: Well, that makes the timing of the movie good then.
Cronenberg: Well, I think so.
Tavis: It’s called “A Dangerous Method,” its director is David Cronenberg. Good to have you on the program.
Cronenberg: Thank you for having me.
Tavis: Anxious to see this.
Cronenberg: Thank you.
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