Interview: David Cronenberg on the Essence of Cinema and a Battle of Ideas

David Cronenberg filmmaking tips
By  · Published on November 26th, 2011

Ever since its debut at Venice, some have discredited A Dangerous Method as not being cinematic. The film is 99 minutes of nonstop conversations ‐ and not at a brisk pace ‐ regarding psychoanalysts and the collision of different ideas. Those conversations are acted out by Viggo Mortensen, Michael Fassbender, Keira Knightley, and Vincent Cassel, and directed by David Cronenberg.

I don’t see how that’s not cinematic, and neither does Cronenberg.

Just because there’s no body horror involving Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud (although that would be extremely fun to see) doesn’t mean this isn’t a “Cronenberg film,” a tag that the director himself seems annoyed by. When someone is capable of making films as vastly different as Videodrome and A Dangerous Method, all bets are off about what type of filmmaker you’re dealing with. There’s a thematic through line in his distinct works, but they’re mostly their own beasts.

Here’s what director David Cronenberg had to say about damaged psychoanalysts, a dramatic conflict of ideas, and why the human face talking is the essence of cinema:

One thing I took away from the film is the idea that psychoanalysts are just as messed up as their patients. Would you agree with that sentiment?

[Laughs] I think that’s almost a bit of a stereotype, and I’m hardly the first one to portray something like that. Maybe it comes from the “it takes one to know one” kind of routine. You know, I think people get interested in psychotherapy because of their own problems, and that’s not an uncommon thing. It’s not the only thing, obviously. When you think of it, the therapeutic relationship, it was a relatively new one. It was basically invented by Freud, it never existed before that. The relationship between an analyst and the patient ‐ I mean, you go to a stranger and the stranger asks you to tell him stuff, and you tell him the most intimate things about your life, your fears, your sexuality, your dreams and everything, and the analyst is completely nonjudgmental, he’s just sort of assessing it. That’s a very unusual relationship, it’s endlessly fascinating. The first film I ever made, a seven minute short film called Transfer, was about a psychiatrist and his patient. I guess this is coming full circle for me.

A lot of the drama from the relationships in the film, mainly Freud and Jung’s, comes from a clashing of ideas. Thematically, did you find that appealing?

As George Bernard Shaw said, “Conflict is the essence of drama,” and of course it can be physical conflict, but it can also be intellectual conflict. What I loved about these people, who are of course historical characters, is that they were incredibly articulate, really intelligent, and very well-cultured. They really were well read in all of the classics and stuff. They were also very passionate and obsessive. It wasn’t like these were abstract ideas they played with, they really felt these were the keys to how humans should behave and heal themselves. They tried to incorporate the things that they discovered into their own lives. To me, that’s pretty fascinating. In movie terms, it’s actually kind of rare to see characters like that.

I feel like you could almost compare Jung and Freud as filmmakers, with the former being young and ambitious and the latter being more cynical and wanting to stay safely in the mainstream. I know that’s a loose comparison, but I’m curious if you relate to one over the other, in terms of their ambition?

Well, you have to realize where they were, in their careers, at the time. Freud was 50 and he had crated this thing, this psychoanalysis, which involved a huge group of very difficult, complex people. He was under assault, because he and his group were Jewish, and this was a very anti-Semitic society. Plus, he was under assault in general, by the medical profession because they felt they were being threatened by this there, where instead of giving people drugs and treatment, you’re just talking to them. Freud was very embattled, and he felt they needed to present a unified front to the world.

When Jung ‐ who he really wanted to take over as his successor, primarily because he wasn’t Jewish, as it’s discussed in the movie ‐ started to talk about all kinds of spiritual, mystical, and religious things, you can understand why Freud was resisting that. When you look at Freud’s writings over the many years he wrote ‐ 60 years of work ‐ he was constantly refining and changing his theories. It’s just that we are meeting them at a certain point, where Jung is 29 and trying to establish himself as an individual, while Freud has got this vested interest in this thing he created, which is being threatened. So I don’t see it the way you see it, but this moment in the film it might seem that way. Therefore, if you ask me, I feel closer to Freud than Jung. Jung basically went exactly where Freud was afraid he would go, into mysticism and religion.

I probably should’ve said that Freud’s more “realistic” than “safe.”

Yeah, Freud was very aware of everything. He said, “The way to health is to accept what we really are and see what we really are, and not pretend we’re going to be angels, gods, and everything else. We’re humans, we have these flaws, and these animalistic tendencies, and we really need to acknowledge those and don’t pretend they don’t exist.”

You mentioned how obsessive Jung and Freud are, when it came to their work and exploring human nature. I’d say a lot of your films explore similar themes about humanity ‐ violence, sexuality, etc. ‐ so do you relate to that obsession of searching for answers about human behavior?

I myself am not obsessive, I’m just curious. Personally, I just don’t automatically relate to someone just because they’re obsessive. In other words, I don’t identify with that. Although, I am interested in passion, and especially passion that has to do with ideas, and I think that’s an extremely uniquely human thing. I mean animals don’t have ideas they get passionate about, but humans do. It’s very interesting, to me, to connect the way people’s thinking controls their lives. Sometimes, of course, I’m showing how it controls their bodies as well. To me, the mind and the body are the same thing, so it’s not that different.

I’ve seen a lot of interviews where you’re asked about how to make “talking “cinematic, which I find odd. When you have this type of material and these actors, do you even see that as the challenge some paint it as?

Often people talk about things being theatrical, and they often think lots of dialog is automatically theater, like a stage play. You know, as a filmmaker, the thing I photograph most is a face talking. To me, that’s ultimately the essence of cinema: the human face talking. If you have a fantastic face saying fantastic things, you’ve got real movie-making. I never worried about that with this movie. Of course you’re always casting to find wonderful actors who have to be able to portray this articulateness, the passion, and the intellect these characters had. When you do that, it wasn’t hard after that. The hard part was setting it up, but after that it does itself.

And you shoot all of the conversations in a very invisible manner, instead of a more flashy approach. Did you just see that as meeting what the material required?

I’ve often said you give the movie what it wants and the movie will tell you what it needs, and you give it that. It’s a mistake to impose on the movie some outside idea of what it’s supposed to be. Or, perhaps, the idea of what people think of you as a filmmaker. Nothing drives me more crazy than somebody saying, “Well, this isn’t really a Cronenberg film.” I say, “Well, I made it and nobody else did, so it’s a Cronenberg film.” [Laughs]

They have an idea based on some of my early horror films or whatever, and they think that’s the essence of movie. They have no idea of what the essence of me is, of course. To me, it’s as if I never made another movie. When I’m making a movie, other than that I have confidence in my craft and know how to make a movie now, it’s as if I’ve never made another movie. My other movies are irrelevant to me, when I’m making this movie or whatever it is.

Something I’d say most of your films do have in common, though, is that they rely heavily on visual storytelling.

Sure, that’s an interesting point. When I started, I felt I had a pretty good grasp of dialog, but I had no idea if I had a visual sense. There are some directors who don’t [have a visual sense], and they’re really dependent on their cameraman or production designer for the visual element. There are some stage directors who are very good with actors, but they don’t have a sense of a camera or what a certain lens does. Filmmaking is a really complex thing. You find the people who will help you with the thing you are not strong in. For example, some people have a great visual sense, but let’s say they don’t have a good sense of music or sound. I mean, sound is incredibly important to a movie, and sound is what gives a movie three-dimensionality, and before 3D. When somebody’s walking into a room, the feeling of the sound gives you depth into the room. Obviously there are some directors who are not sensitive to that, so they need to have really good sound guys and really good mixers. You can find people to help you strengthen those aspects of filmmaking you’re not strong in.

When you’re working on a film, do you subscribe to the “auteur” theory of wanting to get every element the exact way you see it, or are you open to spontaneity and finding the film throughout the process?

Well, yes, sure. I want contribution from everybody, and partly because I’m lazy, but partly because, why would you hire great people and then not listen to their suggestions? That doesn’t make any sense, does it? It’s the same with actors. For one, that’s why I don’t do storyboards. If you do storyboards, you’re kind of cutting out a huge contribution by a lot of people, particularly the actors. So when I block a scene with the actors, I do so without thinking about it visually. Once we’ve worked out the scene dramatically with the actors, only then do I start to figure out how to shoot it. I’m totally open to suggestions from the actors. I’m not talking about improvising dialog, because I don’t expect them to be screenwriters, you know? I’ve taken suggestions from every member of my crew; from gaffers to dolly grips to you name it.

If it works, I don’t care where the idea came from. I’m not threatened by that, but obviously some directors are threatened by suggestions from other people, so they shut them out. To me, that’s a huge mistake. Why not incorporate a great idea? It doesn’t matter where it came from. Ultimately, you are the director who says “yes” or “no” to it. You might hear 20 ideas that aren’t yours, but ultimately you have to say “yes” or “no” to them. There can only be one captain of the ship, for sure.

To wrap up: You usually get your actors to go to some tonally tricky places. What creates that bond, where they can trust you to make something that may seem odd work, and vice-versa?

Well, it’s something you develop over time. When I began, I didn’t realize you could really collaborate with actors, trust them, and get their trust. Ultimately, that’s a wonderful thing to do. When it works out, it’s great. You do your research with actors. Honestly, if I do research about an actor and find out he’s very self-destructive and incredibly difficult to work with, I’m probably not going to work with that actor, although I would double-check it. There’s a certain kind of challenge that an actor can give, which is creative and perfectly legitimate, but there’s another kind that has to do with ego and power, and that’s totally destructive and disruptive on a set. When you get the actors that you want, then it’s like a love fest.

A Dangerous Method is now in limited release.

Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.