David Cronenberg and Viggo Mortensen have joined forces again, this time to explore the beginnings of psychoanalysis. Jonathan Crocker talks to them about Freud and hand sanitiser...
Taking cocaine and sleeping with your patients? Psychoanalysis isn’t what it used to be. David Cronenberg’s new film A Dangerous Method reveals the battle of wills between Sigmund Freud (Mortensen) and Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) that shaped modern psychiatry. It’s a film about ego, ambition and spanking Keira Knightley. ShortList sat down with Cronenberg and Mortensen for a spot of therapy.
We have a spluttery cough, so apologies in advance...
David Cronenberg: Oh, OK. Did I already shake hands with you? Sorry, I’m going to wash my hands now. Keep talking, I’m going to use my gel. [Starts rubbing on hand sanitiser.]
Viggo Mortensen: Can I try too? I can’t afford to get sick. [They both sit there vigorously lubricating their hands.] If we put on rubber gloves, don’t be alarmed.
DC: It’s a little examination. We like to make sure of who we’re talking to.
VM: Yeah, inside and out.
So Viggo, why weren’t you initially down to play Freud in the film?
DC: Well, I had a better actor.
VM: He had asked me to do it and I wasn’t available at the time. He found someone else and that person...
DC: Waltzed. Christoph Waltz waltzed.
VM: ...and David asked me again.
Were you worried about playing such a complex character?
VM: If someone else had asked me to play this role, I would have hesitated. But sometimes it’s good to be put in a position you’re not used to, where you’re forced to try something.
DC: The script is the key. There were hundreds of people involved in their lives over 50 years and [Oscar-winning screenwriter] Christopher Hampton found a way to compress that into six years, 99 minutes, five characters. Freud was alive on the page.
And obviously, the beard and cigar helped you…
DC: He had a fake nose and contact lenses, too. But the nose was so subtle that you didn’t notice.
VM: We had some initial fears that we’d lose expressiveness by using brown lenses, but the eyes worked really well. We went by photographs, mostly, and descriptions of a particular kind of gaze or his wit.
DC: As I look at his nose, it appears much more Freudian than it used to.
VM: It’s getting bigger, isn’t it?
DC: Yeah, it is.
VM: They say that as you get older...
DC: Your nose keeps growing.
VM: It does.
DC: And the ears as well.
VM: Ears, too? Really. Hmm.
Apparently so. When we get old, we all look...
DC: Big nose and floppy ears. Well, we should only live so long, that’s the thing.
Was the beard all your own work?
VM: Yes. Well, it wasn’t much work.
DC: Less work actually, as you don’t shave.
VM: Someone asked me that at a press conference once. There were 40 journalists sitting there, from all over the world, and maybe only seven of them got to ask a question. There was a woman from Japan who asked, “Was that your real beard?” I almost said, “Are you kidding? You’ve flown around the world to ask that?” But then I thought, “Well, I’d better give her a good answer.” So I told her there was a beard farm, north of Sante Fe, New Mexico, where they would grow this stubble. And she wrote it down.
DC: And you know what? They’re probably doing that in Japan right now.
Were you worried that audiences might find a film about Freud and Jung boring, with too much talking?
DC: No. For me, it wasn’t a struggle. I didn’t even think that. To me, cinema is a face talking. And the play was called The Talking Cure — there’s gonna be talking! It’s just the nature of the game. Just like in a movie called A History Of Violence, there’s going to be violence.
And you do have scenes of Keira Knightley receiving a spanking...
DC: Not a lot of spanking... Only two shots. But in your mind...
VM: It’s like in A History Of Violence, people thought there were 50 fights and there was only...
DC: ...Like three, or something. [But in A Dangerous Method] there are two shots, literally, of spanking. But the impact of the spanking — not to make a joke of it — is an innate part of what the movie’s about. Speaking things that were unspeakable at the time.
You’ve worked together on three films now. What is it you like about each other?
VM: David pays attention to the little reactions you have: you shift your eyes, a certain tone of voice, body language, so I feel like I can do a lot. Or very little. If it works, he’s going to see it. A lot of directors don’t even see it.
DC: I spend weeks with the actor in the editing room, looking at every nuance. Even the rhythm of their breathing as they speak. It can really reshape a performance. You hear people say, “My performance was destroyed in the editing room.” That can actually happen.
Has that happened to you?
VM: Yeah, a director decided he didn’t like me saying what he shot and took words I’d said in other scenes, and cobbled a new sentence together without my permission. I was stunned.
Have either of you ever been psychoanalysed?
DC: I know a fair number of psychoanalysts, but I’ve never been in analysis. Literally, I say, I have no problems. But I know people who’ve had Jungian and Freudian psychoanalysis and have actually said, “It saved my life.” So you can’t argue with it.
VM: About 20 years ago, I went for a couple of months. At the time, I felt there was no one I could talk to about certain things. I needed someone emotionally disengaged who would just listen. I think the idea of a confession without judgement is a great idea.
What about dreams?
DC: Oh yeah, I have dreams and I just laugh at them. To me, my dreams are so obvious!
Could you share one?
DC: No, of course not!
DC: Just like Freud says in the movie, I can’t risk my authority... Really, I just tell my wife.
VM: Every so often, a dream is funny enough or weird enough that I might write it down, just so I can remember it. But I don’t analyse them.
Freud and Jung are surprisingly funny guys in the film. Was that true in real life?
VM: Maybe Freud had a better sense of humour, but I don’t think Jung was without one.
DC: You can actually see interviews with Jung on YouTube, because he lived until 1961. And he’s charming, charismatic and sweet — and funny, too.
VM: The kind of humour Freud loved was things like, “Everybody complains about the terrible weather. And yet no one does anything about it.” He would also say, without a smile, “Any time spent with cats is time well spent.”
Viggo — we hear you’re a fan of horses. Is it true that you took some horses from Lord Of The Rings?
DC: But he’s a horse thief, that’s why he did that. He basically had sex with all the horses in the movie. That was his way of dealing with it.
VM: It wasn’t great with every single one. But I did my best.
Thanks gentlemen. Should we shake hands again?
VM: [Laughs then starts pretend-coughing] Uh-oh.
A Dangerous Method is at cinemas nationwide from 10 February