Taking cocaine and sleeping with your patients? Psychoanalysis sure ain’t what it used to be. David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method reveals the fascinating battle of wills between the two great minds – Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung – that invented modern head-shrinking. It’s a movie about ego, intellect and ambition. It’s a movie about spanking Keira Knightley. It’s also Cronenberg’s third film in a row with Viggo Mortensen, concreting one of modern cinema’s most fearless, fascinating partnerships. The two men sit down together on the couch. Let today’s therapy begin.
We’ve got a spluttery cough, so apologies in advance…
David Cronenberg: Oh, okay. Did I already shake hands with you? Sorry, I’m gonna 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 too, don’t be alarmed.
DC: It’s a little examination. We like to make sure who we’re talking to.
VM: Yeah, inside and out.
So Viggo, why weren’t you initially down to play Freud in his 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 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 all that into six years, 99 minutes, five characters. Freud was alive on the page.
And the beard and cigar helped?
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 fear about using brown lenses, that we’d lose expressiveness, but the eyes worked really well. We just went by photographs, mostly, and descriptions of a particular kind of gaze or his wit.
DC: As I look at his nose, it’s looking much more Freudian that 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 only should 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, 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 probably 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 film about Freud and Jung might be a boring? 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 getting spanking…
DC: Not a lot of spanking… Only two shots. But in your mind…
VM: It’s like in History Of Violence, people thought there were 50 fights and there was only…
DC: Like three or something. There are two shots, literally, of spanking. But the impact of the spanking – not to make 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 three times now. What it is 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: Has that happened? Yeah. I’ve had extreme things happen, like a director decided he didn’t like me saying what he shot and taking words I’d said in other scenes and cobbling an entirely new sentence together without my permission. I was stunned when I saw it. That’s hard to take.
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 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 with. I needed someone emotional 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. Is that true?
VM: Maybe Freud had a better sense of humour but I don’t think Jung was without one.
DC: You can see interviews with Jung on YouTube, because he lived till 1961. And you can see, he’s very charming and very 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.’ Things like that. He would also say, without a smile, ‘Any time spent with cats is time well spent.’
But you’re a fan of horses, we hear. 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 gentleman. Should we shake hands?
VM: Haha! [Starts coughing] Uh-oh…