The focus of director David Cronenberg may have evolved over time—his earlier work explores gruesome body horror, while later films side on naturalism—but the sensibilities are consistent. From Videodrome to Dead Ringers to A History of Violence, Cronenberg has never hesitated to dive deep into his characters' minds, drawing out true terror in both the fantastical and real.
His new movie A Dangerous Method intertwines the lives of three psychoanalysts, Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung and Sabina Spielrein, who exist in a world of science while contending with their intangible emotions. To inhabit the three historical figures, Cronenberg cast a powerhouse trio: Michael Fassbender, Keira Knightley and Viggo Moretensen. I had a chance to speak to the director on narrowing in on these three talented actors, working with them to bring Dangerous Method to life and whether he thinks his career will ever take him back to straight up horror:
The three leads of A Dangerous Method feel key to the success of the movie. What were the qualities Michael, Keira and Viggo possessed that assured you they were the ones for this film?
DC: I suppose, when you’re doing a biopic—and it’s really sort of the first time I’ve done that—you have…it’s interesting: Michael said (and maybe it was at the New York Festival, I’m not sure) that he actually found it easier to portray a well-known historical character than to create a fictional character from the ground up, because you have so much material to work with. And in a way, I felt the same. On the one hand, you want a physical resemblance of some kind between your actors and the characters. On the other hand, you’re sort of dealing with Jung at the age of twenty-nine, and Freud at the age of fifty. And those are not the eras of their lives that they’re most visibly known for. In each case, they’re sort of grey-bearded, or mustachioed, grandfatherly-type guys in their seventies or eighties. Here, we’re sort of finding them in a quite different era of their life. So, you have some flexibility there.
And then Sabina is pretty much an unknown character, physically. I think there are only two or three photos of her extant, and they’re not well-known. But at the same time, you have the age—we first meet her when she’s eighteen. We wanted to cast somebody who convincingly could be a Russian Jew. And she has to be incredibly articulate and verbal, in the sort of period way, and do a Russian accent. So, gradually, these things, these necessities, narrowed down the actors that you might go to. And ultimately, of course, you have to have actors that are really good.
’Have good actors.’ That makes sense.
DC: An in addition, too, there’s the mystery of chemistry. It’s a mysterious part of directing, casting. I often call it a black art. Because it’s so crucial to your success as a director, and yet it’s not something that people see. It’s not you saying, ‘action,’ and ‘cut,’ and so on. You can really doom your movie to failure by miscasting it. And yet, when you think of the chemistry between actors, where do you go to? There’s no rulebook. There’s no guide for you. For example, will Michael and have this interesting chemistry that they have to go through in the movie? They’re not just lovers; they start off as analyst and patient, and so on, and then segue into lovers, and intellectual companions. And yet, they weren’t in a movie together, so I’ve never seen them together. They don’t know each other. And I’m not going to see them in a room together until I’m actually directing a scene.
When I spoke to Keira, she mentioned that her only real pre-filming discussions with you involved finding a “blush of Russian” in her accent, and Skyping with you about faces she should be making.
DC: That’s exactly right! For the rest, it makes me a kind of weird matchmaker. A sort of dating-dot-com kind of thing. The director is thinking that these two people would be perfect for each other. That’s really in a way what I have to do. So, that’s also part of the casting process: your intuition based on what you feel will happen. We’ve all seen movies where we think the actors are good, but they don’t have any chemistry. It’s kind of a scary, but kind of exciting thing, to put them all together.
And then, of course, once again for Viggo, it’s depicting…not an obvious choice for Freud, but that’s exactly what makes it exciting. Because this is a Freud who was described in the literature of the time as masculine, handsome, charismatic, charming, funny, witty. Not normally those things that people think of when they see the picture of Freud when he’s eighty and looking very stern. And so, that was also the challenge there: to present a convincing Freud who was not that well-known, because of where he was in his life at the time.
It’s interesting that you mentioned that Viggo might not be the obvious choice for that role. Having worked with him now three times, what is it about him that makes him both consistently wonderful and malleable in pretty much anything?
DC: Well, talent helps.
He’s just a good actor!
DC: But also, he is an intellect. He loves to do the research. He really dives into it. And he knows how to actualize the research into a performance. It’s not just information. It’s stuff that he can embody—he can absorb it. And it comes out. Even just talking about cigars. We exchanged twenty-five emails about what kind of cigars Freud would smoke. What shape, what size, how many a day did he smoke, would he have smoked a different kind in the evening from the morning, and so on and so on. And can we find the equivalent cigars now that looked like the ones that Freud smoked. All of that stuff. The prep is incredible.
Actually I have to say that Keira—although she might have said she didn’t do much research—in fact, she would come onto set with a binder full of notes and quotes and all kinds of things that meant something to her. And she would have it at her feet when she was acting those scenes, and constantly refer to it. So she had her own wonderful kind of prep. Different from Viggo’s, but obviously very thorough. And once again, it could manifest itself in the performance. It wasn’t just information.
Many of the films that you have directed have been classified by other people as “horror” films. It made me wonder: would you also describe them in that way and does A Dangerous Method fits that description in your mind?
DC: Well, certainly when I made horror films, I wouldn’t quibble about calling them that. The Fly certainly was, and The Brood, and so on. No problem. For me, though, artistically, creatively, that category means absolutely nothing. It doesn’t give you anything creatively. To me, those questions are really marketing, or critical questions. But they are not creative questions. They don’t change my approach to the filmmaking. That’s the thing. To me, there’s no connection. When I’m making a new movie, I don’t even think about the other movies. They’re kind of irrelevant to me, because they can’t really give me anything for this new, unique movie. Even if, technically, someone would say, ‘Oh, it’s the same genre,’ you know, it really doesn’t give me anything creatively to connect them.
Are you interested in returning to otherworldly stories that are less constrained by reality that we saw earlier in your career?
DC: Well, I wouldn’t close the door or anything, really. Because, as I say, I don’t categorize things that way. For example: Cosmopolis, which is a movie I just finished shooting, is…really hard to describe. It’s kind of surreal in some ways. So, it certainly isn’t really based in the way that Dangerous Method is—let’s put it that way. Kind of interesting. So no, I think a director is a fool to close the door on anything arbitrarily. You’re always waiting for a project to come along that will knock your socks off and surprise you. And what genre it is, for example, is at that point really irrelevant. In other words, I’m not worried about going back, and having people say, ‘Oh, he’s going back to the old horror films.’ I would be pleased to do that if it was the right project. It wouldn’t bother me at all.