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David Cronenberg Discusses the "Intellectual Menage à Trois" of "A Dangerous Method"

Director David Cronenberg's new film, starring Keira Knightley, Michael Fassbender and Viggo Mortensen, looks at the relationship between Freud, Jung, and Sabina Spielrein.

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And yet it isn’t quite that way. It’s interesting, it’s true and it’s not true. Until we block the scene, I have no idea what I’m going to do. I bring the actors on the set — nobody else is on the set — and we work out how the scene is going to work. That’s where the actors have a lot of input. I don’t want them to improvise dialogue, because they’re not screenwriters, but in terms of where they move, the choreography of the room, that’s really important and we work that out.

Then I bring my crew in and we show them the scene we’ve worked out, like a little piece of theater. My crew is all around the room, and that’s when everybody knows what the game is. The props people, the set decorators, the sound guys — and then I start to discuss how to shoot it with Peter. At that point, it starts to make sense to me, and that’s when I start to think about how I’m going to cut it, and how much coverage I need and what I don’t need. In other words, it’s very non-storyboard-ish, because blocking the scene with the actors comes first, before I’m thinking of editing at all. Whereas with storyboards, you’re often doing all those things before you even have an actor cast, which to me is extremely the wrong way around.

I know that Christopher Hampton wrote this screenplay based on his play, which was called “The Talking Cure.” But isn’t it true that there was another screenplay first?

Yeah, I can give you the etiology. I read the play, and I had heard that Ralph Fiennes was playing Jung in a play by Christopher Hampton. I knew Ralph from “Spider,” and I had read Christopher’s stuff since he was a 22-year-old wunderkind. When I got in touch with Christopher saying I’d like to make a movie of this, I discovered that it was a screenplay first. It had been written for Julia Roberts about 17 years ago, it was called “Sabina” and it was at Fox.

When that movie didn’t happen for whatever reason, he asked them if it would be OK to turn it into a play. They said yes; I’m sure they knew there was no money in that. Once we were going to turn it back into a movie, a deal had to be made with Fox and then we could use, and did use, some of the original screenplay, plus the play. I have heard the occasional comment, “It’s rather theatrical,” or “It’s like Masterpiece Theatre,” to which I say: I condemn you to 20 hours of “Masterpiece Theatre.” Then come back and tell me it’s like that! [Laughter.]

So that means that Sabina Spielrein — the only one of those three people who’s not famous — was already conceived as a central character, maybe the central character.

Yeah, although when it was a Julia Roberts vehicle you can understand that the weight had been shifted to her. Whereas in our movie I guess technically Jung is the lead character. There was no agenda on my part or Christopher’s. It was really just finding the right balance amongst them all. I do call it an intellectual ménage à trois, but certainly the love story between Jung and Sabina is the central relationship.

I’ve been lobbying pretty hard for the idea that Sabina Spielrein was a feminist hero, or should be one. Both because she became a leading doctor and therapist at a time when that was almost inconceivable, and also because she overcame mental illness and began the honest discussion of sadomasochistic desire, at least within the context of being an acceptable aspect of consensual adult sexuality. There’s a direct line from her to Madonna, pretty much.