Martin Grove’s Filmmaker Focus – 11/21/11
Behind the scenes on set
“A Dangerous Method” – In theaters November 23rd
Keira Knightley as Sabina Spielrein as in “A Dangerous Method”
“Dangerous” director: The awards season moves into high gear next week when the New York Film Critics Circle announces its winners.
In order to be the first awards group to make headlines with its picks this year, the New York critics will be watching “wet prints” of late arriving contenders right down to the wire.
The group’s awards get Hollywood’s attention, but they’re not necessarily a bellwether for the Oscars. Last year, for instance, the New York critics voted “The Social Network” best picture and its director, David Fincher, was named best director. Academy members, on the other hand, gave the best picture Oscar to “The King’s Speech” and the best directing Oscar to its director, Tom Hooper.
While no one knows what film the New Yorkers will honor as this year's best, it’s a safe bet that one of the contenders will be the R rated drama “A Dangerous Method,” directed by David Cronenberg (“Eastern Promises,” “A History of Violence”) and produced by Jeremy Thomas, an Oscar winner in 1988 for producing “The Last Emperor.”
“Dangerous,” opening Wednesday in New York and Los Angeles via Sony Pictures Classics, stars Keira Knightley, Viggo Mortensen, Michael Fassbender and Vincent Cassel. It started generating an early Oscar buzz this fall when SPC screened it as an official selection at film festivals in Venice, Toronto and New York.
Besides having a good shot at Oscar nominations for best picture, director, actress, actor (Fassbender) and supporting actor (Mortensen), “Dangerous” is also a likely best adapted screenplay contender. Screenwriter Christopher Hampton won the best adapted screenplay Oscar in 1989 for “Dangerous Liaisons” and was a best adapted screenplay Oscar nominee in 2008 for “Atonement.” Hampton’s screenplay is adapted from his own stage play “The Talking Cure” and from the book “A Most Dangerous Method” by John Kerr.
Based on true-life events, “Dangerous” examines the tumultuous relationships between pioneer psychoanalyst Carl Jung (Fassbender), his mentor Sigmund Freud (Mortensen) and Sabina Spielrein (Knightley), their emotionally unstable but beautiful and tempting young patient.
I was happy to be able to focus recently with Cronenberg on the making of “Dangerous.”
- Q: Where did the idea come from to do this?
- A: I remember reading that Ralph Fiennes — I worked with him on my movie “Spider” (2002) — was playing Carl Jung in a play that was written by Christopher Hampton. I had known the work of Christopher Hampton for many, many years since he was a 22 year old wunderkind in London’s West End (theatre district). I thought, “Well, that’s interesting. Maybe I’ll read that.”
I never got a chance to see the play, but I did read it. And when I read it I think I realized that, perhaps, I’d always really wanted to do a movie about Freud somehow. But, of course, to say, “I want to do a movie about Freud” is not to say very much because it’s such a huge subject and he lived such a long time. There’s no dramatic structure there. But suddenly here was a play that had Freud as a primary character and had a beautiful structure. And, in fact, an unexpected one because I’d never heard of Sabina Spielrein before.
This was my first introduction to her and I thought, “Wow, here’s something that really would allow me to explore Freud, the birth of psychoanalysis and that incredible era before the First World War in Central Europe, which was so rich and textured and important. So I phoned Christopher and said, “I’d love to make a movie out of this.” And that’s how it all started.
- Q: When was that?
- A: It was several years ago. Then I discovered that Christopher had, in fact, written a screenplay before he had written the play. It had been written for Julia Roberts. It was for her company at Fox and it was called “Sabina.” It was the same subject matter, basically, but shaped differently. When that picture didn’t happen — and that was, maybe, 15 years ago (or) 17 years ago — that’s when Christopher asked Fox, I think, if he could have permission to turn it into a play, which eventually he did.
Ironically enough, it was a screenplay before it was a play. So once we all agreed that, yes, I would try to get this movie to happen with Christopher, I suggested Jeremy Thomas be the producer. I thought he would be the right guy. I’d worked with him before on “Crash” (1996) and “Naked Lunch” (1991) and I thought he was the perfect guy for this kind of movie.
So we started to generate another screenplay using the original screenplay plus the play plus new research and new ideas that Christopher had. And then, of course, my input as well. Gradually, we came up with the screenplay. (There was) a long struggle to finance, as is normal in the independent world, and so on and so on.
- Q: This is somewhat of a different kind of material for you compared to a lot of your earlier films. Were you as comfortable doing this?
- A: I think that’s a misperception on your part and that other people have because, in fact, the very first film I ever made — which was a seven minute short called “Transfer” (1966) — was about a patient and a psychiatrist.
- Q: Really? I didn’t know that.
- A: Not too many people do.
- Q: They will now.
- A: Yeah. And even in my movie “The Brood” (1979), which is definitely a horror film, Oliver Reed plays a sort of psychotherapist. And when you add to that the fact that “M. Butterfly“ (1993) is a period piece as was “Naked Lunch” as was “Spider.” And “Dead Ringers” (1988) for example, was based on real people as was “M. Butterfly.” So it’s not that much of a stretch for me creatively to do what you might call a bio-pic period piece. I mean, elements of that I’d already dealt with on other movies.
It’s just a lot of fun to work with well known historical characters and to try to get them right, but also to try to show them in a way that they’re not normally shown. Certainly, everybody knows the sort of grandfatherly white haired Jung and Freud, but at this point in their lives Jung was 29, very charismatic, virile and rugged and Freud was 50. He was at the height of his powers and was described by people who knew him at the time as masculine and handsome, charismatic, witty, funny. Not what we normally think of Freud as being.
One of the reasons that I cast Viggo for Freud, which is not obvious casting, is that when you start thinking of Freud as I just described him then suddenly Viggo seems like a much more natural kind of casting choice than you might normally think.
- Q: Your casting of all the key roles here is splendid. Tell me about casting Kiera because Sabina, obviously, has to work or else the film can“t possibly work.
- A: Yes. I’ve always thought that Kiera was vastly underrated as an actress. Of course, when you’re casting you need somebody who also can play the age properly. And I felt that being very dark (haired) she could play a Russian Jewess who is 18 to begin with and maybe 24 or 25 at the end of the movie. In that sense, perfect. I just felt that she had the chops. I really had total confidence that she could do this even though she was doing some things that she hadn’t done before.
Of course, for her that’s a wonderful thing — for an actress. I mean, it’s scary, but actors like to be scared. They need to be scared. It’s not good for them to be comfortable and just keep doing stuff that’s well within their comfort zone. Once I started to talk to her, I realized that she was definitely up for it. And that was really the only piece of the puzzle remaining — would she be up for the challenge? And she totally was.
- Q: What were your thoughts about casting Michael?
- A: Once again, you need someone who has some resemblance to the historical character, which Michael does. And, once again, that’s at the right age and so on and so on. But he has to have the chops. He has to have the bearing. He has to project the intellect. It’s interesting because I watched several of his movies and he’s very chameleon-like. He can do many, many things.
You know, the character of Jung is totally not like Michael as a person. But he’s a superb actor. I saw several things he had done at the time. One was “Fish Tank” (2009) one was “Hunger” (2008) and then there was the bit that he did in “Inglourious Basterds” (2009) where he looked most like Jung because he had a moustache at the beginning of that and was playing a sort of a British officer.
That was the closest character that he played to Jung, I think, for me. There’s not really a parallel, but I could see in his bearing and so on that he could be the kind of Jung that I needed him to be physically. And the other movies showed the range that he had. So, once again, that’s what prompted me to get in touch with him.
- Q: How do you work with your actors? Do you rehearse?
- A: I don’t rehearse. For me, it’s a useless exercise, rehearsing. What I do is, there’s a lot of preparation that goes on before you actually are on the set. Everybody knows directors saying “action” and “cut,” but before you say “action” and “cut” you’ve done a lot of things with your actors. You’ve prepared the location or the set. You’ve worked with them on what their hair will be, their clothes, their glasses. You’ve discussed their accent. You’ve worked all of those things out.
So by the time you come on the set, to me at that point I want to see what the actor will give me. You know, you’ve given them books to read. For example, I certainly did that and discussed many aspects of things. With Viggo, we exchanged maybe 20 e-mails about Freud’s cigars — what kind did he smoke? What he could afford. How many did he smoke a day? It was 22, by the way — every day of his life.
- Q: How old was he when he died?
- A: He was in his early 80s. But it was cancer of the jaw that killed him (in London in 1939) and it was because of his smoking. But even when he had cancer, he couldn’t stop smoking. That was his real addiction. Twenty-two a day. We had to figure out what brand they were, what they looked like, did he smoke different kinds or did he settle on one particular kind and so on and so on. All of these things you decide before you come to the set.
Then when I’m on the set, you see, that’s why I don’t do storyboards — because I don’t really want to tell the actors exactly where to move or sit or whatever. I want to see how they move around the room, how they play with the dialogue. And only then do I decide how to shoot it. If you do storyboards, you decide how to shoot it even before you have actors and to me that cuts the actor out of the collaboration. And I don’t want to do that. I really don’t understand why you would hire and wonderful actor and then not allow him to give you what he’s got. That’s my approach to it anyway.
So in the kind of preparation we do, which is not rehearsal, the first time I actually hear them say the dialogue is when we’re on the set doing that particular scene. I have not actually heard that dialogue before then. And if I think something’s not working, of course, then we figure it out. But usually with really good actors who do their homework, I don’t have to say much at that point. If it’s all working, I just let them go.
- Q: How long did you shoot?
- A: It was 42 days, I think.
- Q: Were you shooting in the locations where the film takes place?
- A: No, actually not. The irony is that this is a Canada-Germany co-production so we had to shoot most of it in Germany. But, in fact, the movie doesn’t take place in Germany. It takes place in Vienna, which is Austria, of course, and Zurich, which is Switzerland. So the only actual locations we shot on were two days in Vienna. We shot at Freud’s actual apartment — not in the apartment, but (the exterior).
When the carriage comes in and they go up the steps of the apartment, that is actually Freud’s apartment (at Berggasse 19, which is now the home of Vienna’s Freud Museum). And at The Belvedere gardens and Café Sperl, all of these things were shot in Vienna — but over just two days.
The rest was shot in the south of Germany and in studio sets in Cologne. One of the reasons was that Lake Zurich, for example, is so built up now that it doesn’t look the way it looked in 1910 whereas the Bodensee, which is also called Lake Constance in the very south of Germany (a lake on the Rhine in Baden-Wurttemberg near the foot of the Alps) does look like Lake Zurich used to look. So it was actually a fortunate thing because even if we could have shot in Switzerland, which because of the co-production we really couldn’t, it would have been a problem. Shooting in Germany was actually a better choice.
- Q: As you look back at production, what were some of the more interesting challenges you had to deal with?
- A: We were scheduled for 45 days and we ended up shooting 42 because we were worried about the boats, basically. You know, shooting in boats is a nightmare. It’s even worse than shooting in cars. And the Bodensee is famous for having these flash storms (where) suddenly there’s lightning.
They actually have these sirens and lights that come flashing that warn you not to go out on the lake because suddenly there’s a lightning storm that comes up. We were worried about that because we had a surprising amount of boat stuff because of the ferry boat and then there are scenes in a sailboat. Those were tricky.
But we lucked out with the weather. You can see, the whole movie is sunny and beautiful. And I didn’t mind that because I felt there was enough darkness in the interior (scenes) so I felt it was kind of okay. The Burgholzli Clinic (the Zurich hospital where Sabina was sent at age 18 to be treated by the then young Dr. Jung as his first patient) was way ahead of its time. It was actually more like a village than one building. It did have orchards and it did have forest paths with gazebos. They would encourage the patients to wander through the forest and commune with nature and look over Lake Zurich and so on. So the natural aspect of the clinic was important, as well, and sort of the centrality of Lake Zurich.
Strangely enough, given that it’s about psychoanalysis and sitting in sort of a Victorian kind of room like Freud’s office and talking about your dreams, there was a real physical component to it, a sort of natural environmental component that was important, as well. And, as I say, we got very lucky with the weather.