David Cronenberg on Freud, Keira and pressing the flesh

He calls Keira Knightley ’brilliant,’ Robert Downey Jr. ’glib’—and turned down ’The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo’

Canadian director David Cronenberg is fresh back from Germany, where he just wrapped his latest feature, A Dangerous Method. Scripted by Christopher Hampton (Dangerous Liaisons), it’s a period piece about the fathers of psychoanalysis,  Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender). Cronenberg steps into the limelight this weekend as a star attraction at FanExpo Canada (Aug. 27-29).  The event, which takes place in his hometown, at Toronto’s Metro Convention Centre, draws fans of comic books, horror, sci-fi, and gaming—all domains that Cronenberg has explored in his movies. I interviewed him by phone last week:

Q. So you’re going to be pressing the flesh at FanExpo. Have you done this kind of thing before?

A. I  did go to ComicCon in San Diego when we released A History of Violence, because it had been a graphic novel. And it was really a lot of fun.

Q. What’s the profile of a typical David Cronenberg fan?

A. Well, it varies. Somebody who’s a fan of Eastern Promises is not going to be the same person, necessarily, as someone who’s a fan of Scanners. Even Guillermo del Toro—he’s a fan of mine in general and we’re friends, but he likes the early stuff, the horror stuff. So Guillermo could be a typical fan, if you like: he’s a large Mexican filmmaker who’s very funny and very smart.

Q. Do you actually enjoy getting out there and signing autographs?

I’m ready. I’ve been in isolation for too long. I’ve spent four months doing a movie in Germany, most of it in a studio, a hermetically sealed environment. I thought it would be fun to connect with my past—not that it’s over for me with gore and sci-fi films, but I haven’t made one since eXistenZ. And this is different from doing heavy-duty interviews when you’re selling a film. It should be looser and more fun.

Q. Tell me about A Dangerous Method. You’ve called it a biopic, which surprises me. I can’t imagine a David Cronenberg film cleaving to such a conventional genre.

A. In a way, I think of Naked Lunch as a biopic, or even M. Butterfly, or Dead Ringers—they were all based on real people.

Q. So much of your work is based on making the unconscious palpable, and here you’ve made a film about Freud and Jung, the two towering thinkers who put the unconscious on the map. Are you a fan of Freud or Jung?

A. I’d hate to choose now. My actors would be upset. [laughs] I certainly tend more to the Freud side than to the Jung side. But I did a lot of research into Jung and his relationship with Freud, and he’s really fascinating—a great, charismatic character. It filled out my understanding of the whole psychoanalytic movement. That’s the great thing about making a movie, it encourages you to do deep, deep research. When I say deep, I’m talking about the physicality, the furniture—I have a chair in my house now that’s a replica of Freud’s chair. Freud actually designed a chair for himself to sit in while he was writing. The producers bought me a replica. It looks like a human being. The back of the chair has a head and the arms are like arms. It’s quite comfortable too; it actually has lumbar support, which I was surprised to find. They presented it too me at the wrap party because they knew I admired to chair. It was made by a furniture maker who made the replica of the chair for the museum in Vienna, because the original is in the museum in London. They got him to make me one.

Q. Your films tend to produce artifacts—the flesh gun from eXistenZ, the gynecological instruments from Dead Ringers.

A. The art form is physical. The acting is physical. You’re putting light on objects and humans. And of course, when you’re doing a period piece, the artifacts are critical because it’s the only way you can take your audience back in time with you. Of course there’s some CG sleight of hand that isn’t physical. But for the actors, to put on those clothes and put on those spectacles and pick up that pen at that desk, it’s important for them.

Q. Do we see dreams being analyzed and taking on sci-fi or surreal form?

A. I would say not. But what is amazing is the way these people spoke and thought in such intellectual, learned, abstract ways, and the dialogue reflects that. It’s based on letters and recollections from the time.

Q. What trademarks of yours does the film have? Is there violence?

A. There’s a little S & M. There definitely is a little S & M [laughs]. But I wouldn’t say that’s my trademark. I would say that intellect is my trademark, and there’s a lot of that. What I loved about Christopher Hampton’s script is that there’s no compromise in terms of delivering the intellect of these characters and the way they fought, and how it flowed, and how everything became referenced to sexuality and psychoanalysis, which they thought of as a medical procedure. They were so enthusiastic about it and so protective of it, and there were such struggles. Then of course there was the great split between Freud and Jung.  I wanted to bring these people back to life. I never got to talk to Freud but I got to talk to Viggo playing Freud.

Q. Speaking of Viggo, you’ve now made three movies with him, and there may be a sequel to Eastern Promises. He’s become what the French call your acteur de fetiche. Why Viggo?

A. He wasn’t our first choice for Freud. It’s not the lead role in the movie, for example. We had gone to Christoph Waltz. In fact, Christoph pursued us—because his grandfather was a student of Freud apparently, and he really wanted to play that role. Since the movie was a co-production with Germany, his name meant a lot in terms of raising money—these are really perilous days for independent film—and he copped out basically to do a Hollywood movie [Water For Elephants]. So I phoned Viggo. I said, “I know that you weren’t interested in playing Freud but it’s come up for grabs again and I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you if you wanted to do it.” He said, “Let me look at the script,” and in two days he was doing it.

Q. So who is the lead?

Michael Fassbender [Hunger] plays Jung. He’s about to do X-Men, so he will soon have genre cred. He’s a terrific actor and he and Viggo got along absolutely great. Very light, terrific tone on the set. Keira [Knightley] is a brilliant actress. She blew everyone away. I’m telling you, she’s as good as anyone I’ve worked with, including Miranda Richardson and Lynn Redgrave and Judy Davis. You don’t realize it until you start to work with somebody. It was the same with Viggo when I first worked with him.

Q. She’s got a pretty lightweight reputation.

A. She’s a heavy dude.

Q. So will there be a sequel to Eastern Promises?

A. It’s hard to say. There is a script, a really good script that Steve Knight wrote. It’s the best first draft I’ve ever read of anything. But there are financing issues, issues of Focus [Pictures] survival and Comcast buying Universal and God knows what else. So I’m not sure yet how real it can be. It’s alive as a possibility.

Q. As for FanExpo, which celebrates horror, sci fi, comic books and so on—now that comic books are Hollywood’s blockbuster staple, what does that do to an art form that draws its cachet from being outside the mainstream?

A. It depends what art form you’re talking about. It’s obvious that comics have gotten more sophisticated, more politically aware, more technically sophisticated, and the fact they they’re more attractive to movie makers has helped them become that. I can see that the comic books have gotten better. Whether the comics have made the movies better is a whole other thing. It depends whether you think Iron Man I is fabulous filmmaking, or not.

Q. You must have your own opinion.

A. I have many opinions that I don’t express. Is it top-level filmmaking, is it top-level art? My answer to that is no, it’s not. On the other hand it’s really good mainstream entertainment and it’s pretty clever and intelligent, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s not the art films of the 60s, but I don’t know if we’re going to see that any more.

Q. For someone who enjoys intellect, I imagine Robert Downey Jr. would be on your wish list of actors to work with, no?

A. He has been. But I think he’s probably out of reach now. He’s got three or four franchises going for himself. And I’m not sure that’s been good for him as an actor. I don’t know why I say that because I don’t know him. But you can become glib and you can fall back on some tics, and I’m starting to see a few of those in what he’s doing. Is that because he’s encouraged to do that by his directors, or not? I don’t know.

Q. Do you covet a franchise?

A. I wouldn’t mind doing the first of a franchise that happened to turn into one by accident. The second or third wouldn’t be that interesting.

Q. Are you a Girl With The Dragon Tattoo fan?

A. I was asked about doing that. Then I went to see the movie, the Swedish movie, and I thought, “No, it really should be called Men Who Hate Women,” which was the title of the book in Swedish. Because that’s what it’s about. It wasn’t an approach that appealed to me. Every man in that movie except the lead guy is a rapist and a misogynist, if not a murderer of women. And there’s something that’s not really being dealt with. I don’t know if the novels opened that out but there was something that really didn’t appeal to me. Once David Fincher got interested, they would have gone with him anyway. But there was a time when it was an open assignment and I turned it down.