David Cronenberg Discusses His Dangerous Method
We talk with one of modern cinema's great directors about his latest work, his fascination with psychiatry, and his approach to contorting Keira Knightley's face.
You've now done three films in a row with Viggo, which is a relatively long actor collaboration for you. What is about Viggo that works so well with you?
We've become close friends, and that's interesting, because I don't have too many actors who are actual friends -- who I would go out to eat with, and would want to see, even if we weren't talking about a particular movie. And that's just happened by accident. We seem to mesh in an interesting way and we have great affection for each other. On the other hand, you don't do an actor a favor by miscasting him -- so he's not in Cosmopolis. But on the other hand -- yet again, on the other hand -- I feel that I have some insights into him that maybe he doesn't have, because of our closeness. He didn't think he was right for Freud. He turned me down at first, but eventually I convinced him by pointing out the kind of Freud that we were creating.
Which was Freud at the age of 50, not at the age of 80. Not the stern, grandfatherly Freud, but the Freud who was described by Stefan Zweig in his book World of Yesterday as being masculine, handsome, charming, witty, funny... you know, and when you start to think of Freud that way, at the height of his powers, then suddenly Viggo's not such strange casting -- as it proves, I think, in the movie. We're showing a Freud that is not normally thought of, or depicted.
And then he really got into it.
Well the thing is -- and this is a thing I knew about Viggo -- once he commits, he's committed. He's incredibly loyal to the project, to the character, to the movie. Once he committed there was never any going back; it was full on, "Let's do research of the Viggo kind" -- which is very deep, to say the least. He'd send 25 emails of Freud's cigars, you know, with pictures going back and forth: "What kind were they?" "How many did he smoke a day?" "What shape were they?" "What strength?" "Would he have ever varied the kind during the course of the day, or did he always smoke the same kind?" "Could he afford them?" "Were they expensive?" You know, it went on and on and on.
It really is a great pipe and cigar movie -- sometimes comically so, with all that teeth clacking and puffing -- which obviously comes from that research.
Well this is the thing, I mean, not only was it an era of smoking, but Freud smoked 22 cigars a day. He never was without a cigar. Of course, it gave him cancer of the jaw, but even then -- he had to smoke. He tried to stop smoking for week; he said, "I could not work. I could not think." In German, the word for "food" is lebensmittel, meaning "life stuff," and he said that cigars were his arbeitsmittel -- meaning "work stuff." He couldn't work without them, and he preferred, almost suicidally, to continue smoking cigars rather than to not think and work. So that was his true addiction. These are intriguing things that we learn when we do the research. You understand that every scene in the movie, except one, he will have a cigar. That is accurate. So in this case it's not -- and I know what you mean -- "let's give him glasses and a pipe and that'll mean he's intellectual," no, in this case it was actually, physically accurate. And the same for Jung.
There's a line in the film that Freud speaks as they arrive in America -- "Do they know we're bringing them the plague?" -- as though psychiatry was some kind of virus being introduced.
Well he felt that it would alter American society. He felt that. His view of American was the view of many Europeans, which was that it was very naïve -- psychologically very naïve, sexually very naïve, very innocent and not sophisticated -- and they were bringing them something that the old world had developed, along these lines that would really shake them up, that would disturb them. And it certainly did.
Keira initially seems like an odd choice for the Sabina role. I actually found her first scene very uncomfortable to watch -- not in a bad way, but just... unnerving.
Mmm-hmmm. Well, it was supposed to be.
It was almost like watching a Rick Baker transformation, the way she was contorting. How did you two achieve that performance?
Right. Cheap special effects. [Laughs] Well, it's a very accurate portrayal of hysteria. The French psychiatrist Charcot, who was a big influence on Freud, specialized in hysteria; that was a disease at the time, which has sort of disappeared because we feel that it was generated by the sexual repression -- or the general repression -- of women at the time. It was considered to be a disease of women. The word "hysteria" comes from the Greek word for uterus. They would actually remove the uteruses of women to cure them, which is kind of hideous when you look at it. Photos by Charcot and footage of sufferers of hysteria are totally unwatchable and very uncomfortable, almost comedic at times -- women distorting themselves, and mutilating themselves. And we had the 50-page analysis of Sabina, done by Jung, describing her symptoms -- her face ravaged by tics, for example. So we talked about it, and I said "I think this is all about the mouth and the jaw -- this is the Talking Cure." For the first time this women has been asked to speak these unspeakable words about being sexually aroused by her father's beating her, and so on. For a woman of that time, that class, that was unthinkable and unspeakable. She desperately wants to say these words but she cannot say these words; she's afraid to say these words so she's trying to bring them back. She's trying to deform the words so that they can't be understood. That was the basis of the performance. And, as I say, very accurate. These women were acting out. They were acting out their repression, intellectually and sexually, and they would go into the most grotesque things. Incredibly uncomfortable to look at.
I think we're out of time.
A Dangerous Method opens in theaters this week.