David Cronenberg isn’t the squeamish type. Thirty years ago, the prodigious filmmaker was racing his vintage Ducati motorcycle when he got in a nasty accident. He was admitted to a local hospital and told that his shoulder was separated. When the doctor offered him a general anesthetic, he flatly refused. “What about just a local?” asked Cronenberg. The doctor replied, “We could, but most people kind of freak out when they feel the screw being screwed into their shoulder.” Cronenberg looked the doctor dead in the eye and said, “Have you seen any of my movies?”
The Canadian director, 68, developed a reputation early in his career for what film scholars have dubbed “body horror”—movies concerning the graphic transfiguration of the human body. Cronenberg’s third film, Shivers, about a sex-inducing parasite epidemic, was so controversial that it was debated heavily in that Canadian Parliament, which believed its sexual and violent content could pose a threat to the social fabric of society. Arguably his most famous film, 1986’s The Fly, concerned an eccentric scientist (Jeff Goldblum) who accidentally mutates himself into a fly. And Dead Ringers featured a woman with abnormal genitalia who comes between a pair of twin gynecologists, played by Jeremy Irons.
“I consider myself an existentialist and an atheist, and I think that body is what we are,” Cronenberg told The Daily Beast. “That’s not diminishing it to me, it’s just accepting the reality of it. So, if the human body is the first fact of human existence, then immediately you see why I focus on the body.”
While the psychological—along with the physical—has always been explored in Cronenberg’s oeuvre, ever since 1996’s Crash, a highly controversial NC-17-rated film about paraphilic people who derive sexual pleasure from being in car accidents, the director has veered away from corporal violence and toward why people commit such atrocities, as in his last two films: A History of Violence, about a small-town family man lured back to his violent past, and Eastern Promises, which followed one man’s struggle for power in the Russian mafia. His latest film, A Dangerous Method, could be seen as the culmination of his subconscious-self trilogy. Written by Christopher Hampton, who adapted his play The Talking Cure, the film is set on the eve of World War I, and centers on novice psychiatrist Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), who forms a bizarre, psychosexual relationship with his patient, Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley)—a sexually abused young woman. This then forms a rift between Jung and his mentor, renowned psychiatrist Sigmund Freud, played by Viggo Mortensen.
The film marks the third collaboration between Cronenberg and actor Mortensen, whose turn as a tattooed mafioso in Eastern Promises earned him his first Academy Award nomination. It’s a rarity for a director who, prior to Mortensen, had rarely worked with an actor more than once.
“I would love to have Viggo in every movie I do because we get along so well and he’s such a great collaborator,” says Cronenberg. “Viggo playing Sigmund Freud is very not obvious casting, but I started to think: OK, Freud in this movie is not the old, ailing, cancer-ridden Freud everyone seems to know. He’s a 50-year-old who’s described in the literature of the period as being handsome, masculine, and humorous. When you think of him in those terms, and that Viggo is exactly that age, it starts to make sense.”
Mortensen, as it happens, wasn’t the first choice to play Freud. Before Fassbender and Mortensen came onboard, Christian Bale was set to star as Jung, and Christoph Waltz, who had “really pursued the role,” according to Cronenberg, was to play Freud. However, Bale had to back out of the project due to scheduling conflicts, and Waltz, despite campaigning for the role, opted to star alongside Robert Pattinson in Water for Elephants instead—a decision that seemed to rub Cronenberg the wrong way.
“I guess he got a big payday, and he did like the role,” says Cronenberg. “C’est la vie. There’s no movie I’ve done where something like that hasn't happened—someone jumps from your movie for a payday, he’s behind on his house payments, whatever. That’s reality and you have to accept it.”
Cronenberg, meanwhile, jokes: “I’ve been trying to sell out for years, but nobody’s been buying.” At one point, he was passed over by George Lucas as a potential director for Return of the Jedi. He even spent more than a year developing Total Recall, but left the project due to creative differences with producers, who wanted a more action-packed film instead of something more loyal to Philip K. Dick’s short story. And a couple of years back, Cronenberg was all set to direct an adaptation of The Matarese Circle for MGM, with both Tom Cruise and Denzel Washington in the starring roles. He had met with the two actors and completed several script drafts, but then the studio went belly-up, and the project was canned.
But perhaps it was all for the best. A Dangerous Method was a truly independent film with no studio involvement. Instead, Cronenberg busted his ass raising the money from what he calls a “Frankenstein quilt” of 14 entities—made up of countries, governments, and private citizens. Since the film was financed independently, Cronenberg was afforded vast creative freedom. “There’s nobody to answer to, you don’t get notes from anybody, and you do the movie that you want to do with great enthusiasm and gusto,” says Cronenberg. The director pauses for a moment, and adds, “Maybe I’d have a horrible time making a big, Hollywood movie. I don’t know.”
One thing that did require a bit of work was persuading Keira Knightley to play Spielrein. Initially, the actress had some trepidation about a handful of S&M sex scenes between herself and Fassbender.
“On the one hand, it’s very straightforward, like, ‘Where’s the camera going to be? Are you going to be pointed at my ass, or not?’” says Cronenberg. “And on the other hand, it’s, ‘Why are these scenes going to be in the movie?’ Keira was just wondering if she could bring herself to do it, and allow herself to do it. I told her it was going to be quite clinical. These were people who, even when they were having sex, they were observing themselves having sex because they were so interested in their reactions to things. That’s why I have her looking in the mirror in one of these sex scenes. Once we started to talk about it in those terms, it started to be less terrifying.”
Some reviewers were critical of Knightley’s performance in Method, particularly early in the film when Spielrein is in hysterics—characterized by frenzied jaw-jutting and shortness of breath. Cronenberg, however, says that those were all accurate symptoms of hysteria that were accounted for in Jung’s notes.
“Jung wrote down what they were—her tics, spasms, laughing spells, body deformations, and distortions,” says Cronenberg. “Of course it makes people uncomfortable, and they have to account for that by saying it’s bad acting or overacting, but it’s totally accurate acting.” He adds, “For a young girl of that era to talk about masturbation and her father beating her as being sexually arousing, these are unspeakable things, so part of her is trying to speak, and part of her is trying to deform the speech so the words don’t come out.”
Another young actor whose acting ability has polarized critics is Twilight star Robert Pattinson, who stars as a millionaire enduring a limo-driven odyssey across Manhattan in Cronenberg’s next film—an adaptation of Don DeLillo’s novel Cosmopolis.
“I think that [skeptics] are being critical of the Twilight series; they’re not being critical of him,” says Cronenberg. “He’s just a cog in that machine and they’re confusing the nature of that project with him. He’s a terrific actor, trust me. I’ve directed some of the best in the world, and he’s terrific.”
After admitting that he’s never been in therapy—“I’m problem-free!” he says, laughing—the singular filmmaker confesses that the real reason he was intrigued by the psychology of A Dangerous Method was that it took him back to his longtime fixation: the body.
“I think one of the reasons that I liked Freud right from the beginning was because of his insistence on the reality of the human body,” he says. “He was functioning at a time when the body was covered up—you had those stiff, white collars and corsets for women—and here was Freud talking about penises, vaginas, anuses, child incest, and things that were considered very shocking and unacceptable at the time. But Freud said, ‘Look, this is the reality of what we are. As bizarre as it sounds, all these orifices in our body have huge impacts in our lives as adults and how we interact with each other. We should acknowledge that, and if we do, we’ll have a much greater understanding of what the human condition is.’”