David Cronenberg talks about the lure of Freud and Jung in his new film A Dangerous Method.

In Venice, David Cronenberg has unveiled his new film A Dangerous Method, about the fathers of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung and their patient Sabina Spielrein – who for years remained essentially uncredited for the influence she bore on the development of psychoanalysis.

Information about Sabina Spielrein, who eventually became a psychoanalyst herself, came to the fore in the 1970s upon the discovery of her journals and letters and Cronenberg became interested in making the film after seeing Christopher Hampton’s play The Talking Cure, which exposed him to the intellectual, and partially sexual, triangle between the three. The play was based on the book A Most Dangerous Method by John Kerr.

Hampton adapted the screenplay for Cronenberg and Jeremy Thomas (who also worked with Cronenberg on Naked Lunch and Crash) came on board to produce. 

Speaking to ScreenDaily before the Venice Film Festival where the film has its world premiere in competition today (Sept 2), Cronenberg said he found the triangle between Freud, the much younger Jung and their patient Spielrein, with whom Jung would ultimately become involved - the catalyst to bring the great men back to life and also, to show how in a significant way, a relatively unknown woman did influence development of modern psychology.

With the project, Cronenberg returns to working with Viggo Mortensen, who earned an Academy Award nomination for his Eastern Promises after already collaborating with him on A History Of Violence.

The cast also features Michael Fassbender as Carl Jung, Keira Knightley as Spielrein, and Vincent Cassel as Austrian psychoanalyst Otto Gross. Newcomer Sarah Gadon plays Jung’s devoted wife, Emma.

It must have taken courage to take on the story of Freud and Jung, who had so much influence on 20th century thought.

It’s not courage, but a matter of excitement and interest – all of us have grown up in the shadow of Freud and come to grips with that. He was not intimidating but very exciting to deal with as a character, just so intellectually huge. With all the characters — I guess its the nature of biography, and to a certain extent this is a biopic — you have a certain responsibility to your subject unless you have an extreme political agenda and want to destroy them, normally you are wanting to bring them back to life. So there’s affection for them, you are trying to bring them back to life really. Emotionally your ultimate goal is to be as true to them as you can – and to give a feel for what they are like when talking to each other.

What were some of the challenges in doing that?

With Freud, there is only one recording of his voice but there is a lot of silent footage, but that is from when he’s in his later years. The footage is much further away from us [time wise] than what we have of Jung, who was with us into the 1960s and you can see him on YouTube. Jung is barely 30 when we start the movie.

What opinion will we have of Jung and Freud after seeing the film?

Freudians will be happy about Freud and distressed with Jung because we depict the history, but I have to say it is accurate even if no one was there at the time filming the documentary, the story has all been documented in letters discovered in the 1970s -Sabina’s letters in her diaries. The other thing, too, is that Jung, after Sabina, had a mistress for 40 years and his wife tolerated it for whatever reason.

What does the character of Sabina Spielrein, portrayed by Kiera Knightley, whose story went largely unknown for many years, bring to the story?

The film is not really crusading for Sabina. She is just a patient that has a relationship with her doctor and that is a very current topic, we hear about these things all the time. Those things are nothing new. But, she went on to hugely influence two psychoanalysts and became a psychoanalyst herself.

What does your cast bring to the film, starting with Kiera Knightley?

I was so impressed with Kiera and I think she will blow every body’s socks off. When you cast a movie you have to consider so many things beyond who would be best for the role. Casting is almost more important for independent films more than Hollywood films. The pressure to find stars is actually even stronger, especially if the subject is riskier or outside of the main stream. I thought Kiera could be sensational and she is the right age, the film begins with her at about 18 and ends when she is 26. She was very excited and worked very hard, she is a delightful pro and witty and acute and did her homework. I gave her a list of books to read and also said I would like her to have just a kiss of a Russian accent – she had an acting and dialect coach but we also Skyped back and forth to work on it.

You have an established working relationship with Viggo Mortensen, what does he bring to the role of Freud?

Viggo Mortensen is Freud. That is not the obvious casting but that is part of the appeal. This casting will jar images of Freud as we know him from his 80s – white-bearded and enfeebled. He was fighting cancer for the last 17 years of his life, and here you have a 50-year-old Freud, vigorous and in the prime of his life and we get a great sense of his physical and intellectual presence which he brings to Freud. Viggo is scrupulous in his research and had no qualms about altering himself and he gained about 20 pounds and wore brown contacts. Freud himself was incredibly articulate – his writings in German are considered literature, they go beyond psychological examinations.

What did you bring to the story stylistically or story-wise that you’d say is uniquely Cronenberg?

I don’t actually think in those terms. You bring your entire being to a movie, all your experiences as a person, your reading and intellect your visual sensibilities, your ear for dialogue and ability to edit and cut and get the best out of every scene. You can’t hold back – that is why movies are a super art form, you have to bring all aspects of yourself. And musical sensibility as well. So, well, if I brought something “Cronenberg” to the movie, [I think its that] no one would have done it the way I did, Christopher Hampton and I worked on it together, another director wouldn’t have started with that script. So I have no way of relating to any “Cronenberg-ness.”

I did grow up in 1940s with that Freudian language and terminology, the “unconscious” the “ego” and “id” was common and still common in dialogue. So whatever you are, artist or not, Freud is in your dreams. One of the pleasures of doing a movie is you are forced to research it and get into it somehow, the details of costume – [in Freud’s case] that he smoked 22 cigars per day. He ended up dying of jaw cancer. I did feel, in going back to Freud and that era of the early 20th century, it was like going back to something primordial and basic in the development of the human condition.

What is your relationship like with Jeremy Thomas, and why do you work well together?

He is one of the last great independent producers, well I hope he is not one of the last but certainly great of his generation, who actively seek out interesting, difficult material and are determined to work with most interesting directors and writers and also get the films released properly. It certainly has not gotten easier as we all know. He is a delightful person, we love Formula 1 and ride motorcycles and have a playful relationship that has gone on for many years. We share a great joy in filmmaking.

How important is it today’s film business reality to be part of the competition line-up of a major festival? Is it something you enjoy?

I think it is crucial for the type of film that The Dangerous Method is and being in competition is no bad thing either, not that you need to win anything but people are more focused on the film. Today, you don’t have budget to do private jet tours to bring your actors along. In Venice, Cannes and Toronto you have the world coming to you and its important to this kind of filmmaking to be selected among 21 films that have been pre selected by sophisticated film committees, and so it’s a great badge to be wearing. So I would say it’s crucial.

What projects are you working on for the future — after Cosmopolis, that is?

I am constantly working on scripts and happy to say that in the last five or six years my stock has risen again, I guess after History of Violence and Eastern Promises. I think Spider scared people away. I have proven I can do gangster films and it seems to have opened up the logjam… [My current project] Cosmopolis is quirky and I love it and am happy with it. I’ve never been in position where before I finished a project I have to stop and release another project. That is what Woody Allen does all the time, it’s my first Woody Allen moment. I am in post on Cosmopolis and doing some traveling on this one. It’s exciting but exhausting as well. But after these two I don’t have another concrete project at the moment.

What are the films that shaped you as you were honing your own skills as a filmmaker?

When I was a kid I saw all kinds of Hollywood films and westerns – they had an impact, but its the art films of the late ’50s and early ’60s, (Michelangelo) Antonioni and (Akira) Kurosawa and Ingmar Bergman, those were the films that let me know movies can be art – not that any of my films look like those films – but that isn’t how influence works, it isn’t imitation it’s influence.

 What advice would you give young people trying to break into film?

The landscape is totally different. Nothing that I did is necessarily relevant right now. The one thing that I was fortunate in is I could write, it is rare to find both things. The other films, the underground, Warhol was an influence. He said you don’t have to go to film school. Go to Hollywood. That was the ethos of the 1960s but really it’s really the script. It’s in the script. It’s more dramatic to be a director working with actors and technology and exotic locations and before that comes the script, focus on the script.