HOLLYWOOD — Since his first, aptly-titled 1975 feature Shivers, writer-director David Cronenberg has produced a uniquely-personal body of work, including The Fly, Dead Ringers, Scanners, Crash, A History of Violence and Naked Lunch. Exploring areas where few other directors venture, Cronenberg has examined, with a clinician’s eye, themes of biological horror, physical deformity, emotional terror and sexual unease.
Now the Canadian director has once again turned his attention to the two latter areas with his new film, A Dangerous Method. With his usual surgical precision, Cronenberg gets fully under the skin of two titans of the subconscious — Freud (played by Viggo Mortensen) and Jung (Michael Fassbender) — and one disturbed patient (Kiera Knightley) — in his examination of the complicated real-life triangle. Adapted by Oscar-winner Christopher Hampton (Atonement) from his own play, the film is a visual and intellectual treat.
Here, in an exclusive Post interview, Cronenberg talks about making the film, his love of post, and why he’s such a big fan of digital and will be happy to see the demise of film.
POST: What sort of film did you set out to make with A Dangerous Method?
DAVID CRONENBERG: “That’s interesting since I don’t have any idea when I start. I have the script, and here you have the historical characters, but I never visually have a film in my head so I can run that alongside what we shoot to see how close I came. Christopher and I came to it very neutrally. We didn’t have an agenda, or try to elevate Freud at Jung’s expense or vice-versa. It was more, ‘resurrect them and bring them back to life,’ as closely as art will allow and given that we’re squeezing nine years into 90 minutes.
“We did a lot of research and we had a lot of documentation — their letters and diaries — and we just let them speak for themselves. And as it was such an intriguing era, just prior to World War 1, with the invention of psychoanalysis, we felt it would speak for itself.”
POST: Talk about all the locations — Vienna, Cologne and so on. They must have been crucial?
CRONENBERG: “Yes, we went to Jung’s Burgholzli clinic, and I got very excited about that feel for nature. It was very advanced for its time, and then we shot most of the interior scenes on a stage at MMC Studios in Cologne. Then we also shot on location in Vienna, and the outside of Freud’s house. It all helped with getting the tone of the era, the beautiful clothes that were so controlled and restrictive, with their high collars and multiple layers. All that gradually insinuates itself into preproduction and your visual approach and lighting ideas, and informs the whole film.”
POST: Talk about the look of the film, and about working with director of photography Peter Suschitzky for over 20 years.
CRONENBERG: “The look all comes from the weather and time of year, which gives it a certain light. Then you decide — were the rooms lit by gas or electric light? Then it’s, how does that light react with the clothes — Kira’s in particular. Once again, I rarely start a film with visual look in mind. I let the movie express itself, and as we find the locations and costumes and cast, and start building sets, it gradually emerges. Peter’s a profoundly cultured man, very well-read, and this was heaven for him. He belongs in this era.”
POST: Your editor was Ronald Sanders, who’s cut 15 films for you. Tell us about the editing process. Was he on set?
CRONENBERG: “No, and after working together for 35 years this was the first time he wasn’t with me on location. Even when we did Eastern Promises in London, he was there. So this time we did it all over the Internet. We’d send over the digital files, he’d download and then start cutting, and it worked out very well. He stayed in Toronto and cut on an Avid. But we do have a shorthand, and my director’s cut took just a week — because I’m shooting more simply these days, so I give him less footage to work with, but also, we understand each other and he knows immediately why I’ve done this shot instead of that one, or that angle instead of another. So we don’t need to talk about it a lot.
“I don’t ever look at the movie while I’m shooting. I do look at dailies, although to be frank, I’ve almost stopped that too, as you’re watching the monitor. In the old days, the footage you got wasn’t what you saw on the monitors, but today it’s so closely calibrated you can actually judge lighting from the monitor — even when you’re shooting film, not digital, and we shot this on film. So on the set I feel I’ve already looked at the rushes while we’re shooting, and I don’t look back unless I feel there’s a problem or we need to adjust something or need missing coverage.
“If Ron thinks there’s a problem, he lets me know, but it’s very rare. I like to be surprised by the movie and forget what I shot. I learned the value of that a long time ago, on my first film. I was editing every night and I completely lost perspective. I knew things were wrong but not how to fix them. Then I realized I needed to be the one who hasn’t seen all the footage. So a week after I finish shooting, Ron has a cut, and then I can just watch it like any movie, and it’s the only chance I have to be that objective. Then I go into the editing room and work on it. On my next film, Cosmopolis, which I’ve shot already, I did my director’s cut in just two days — a record!”
POST: Do you like the post process?
CRONENBERG: “I like it very much, though I don’t mind it being as short as it seems to be now. Really, the biggest part of post for me now is the sound mix, not the edit. I just don’t spend a lot of time in the editing room.”
POST: Where did you do the post?
CRONENBERG: “In Toronto, at Deluxe. We also did all the sound mixing there too. Since it was a Canada-Germany co-production, we had to spend money in Canada.”
POST: How many visual effects shots were there in the film?
CRONENBERG: “It’s actually my biggest visual effects film so far — we have over 220 shots, all done by Mr. X in Toronto, who have done a lot of stuff for me. Once again, talking about the look and sense of nature, all the Burgholzli clinic interior scenes are sets, so it means that the greenscreen is what your windows are. They’re all greenscreen and then have to be replaced by shots of Lake Zurich and so on, to give the feeling there of that openness, that you can run out of the Burgholzli and be in this orchard. So any time you see a window, it’s a greenscreen shot.
“If you’re moving the camera, it can be quite a complex visual effects shot to get the perspective right and the out-of-focus level proper appropriate to the lens you’re using and so on. Then are all the shots on the trans-Atlantic liners coming to New York, which are combinations of live footage and CGI. I have even more visual effects shots in Cosmopolis.”
POST: Tell us about audio and the mix. How important is it in your films?
CRONENBERG: “Huge, and it’s also the least glamorous and least-covered aspect of the whole filmmaking process. Before 3D, sound gave you that three-dimensionality, so it’s so crucial to have the ambiance right, the footsteps right, the whole tone right. I have a great team I’ve worked with a lot, including my mixer Orest Sushko and sound editors Wayne Griffin and Michael O’Farrell. Orest works in LA, but he has a deal that allows him to always come back to Toronto to mix my films, and he’ll be in Paris when we do the mix for Cosmopolis.
“I’m very involved in the mix, and that can take a long time, but no one bothers me during ADR, say, unless they feel we need to loop something.”
POST: Did you do a DI?
CRONENBERG: Yes, also at Deluxe Toronto. I’ve done a lot of DIs and I love digital. I can’t wait to get rid of film, to be honest. I still remember the first time I saw a Moviola, since the first films I edited were on a Moviola, and this editor showed me how to use one in just 10 minutes, and I said, ‘I can’t believe this is right! It tears your sprockets, it’s so noisy you can’t even hear the sound.’ So when flatbed systems came in, I thought, ‘This is an advance, but they’re still pretty primitive.’ It was so obvious that the film version of word processing was necessary, and though I have an affection for typewriters, I was so happy to get rid of those too. So I’m all for the digital revolution.
“We shot this on film but shot Cosmopolis with the Arri Alexa, the first time for Peter and me. And Peter, who’s not a tech head and is quite a traditionalist, said he never wants to go back to film again.”
POST: So is film dead?
CRONENBERG: “It’s dead. It’s like stills. Who shoots stills? Only stills photographers and fashion photographers and you’re trying to differentiate yourself from everyone else, so you shoot massive Polaroids. Film’s dead — no question.”
POST: So do you think you will shoot digitally from now on?
CRONENBERG: “Absolutely. It was a question of working with Peter, and as my DP he loves digital now. We had this film showing at various festivals, and I remember coming in at the end of one screening and I thought, ‘Oh no — they’re projecting it on film,’ because I could see the weave. The film was moving around and squirming and wiggling, and you just don’t get that with digital. I’ve actually been digital for years.”
POST: Tell us about Cosmopolis.
CRONENBERG: “It’s based on the novel by Don DeLillo, all about this one day in New York, and I have a great cast — Robert Pattinson, Paul Giamatti, Juliet Binoche. We’re doing the post right now and then mixing it in Paris.”
POST: Any interest in doing a 3D film?
CRONENBERG: “I lived through all the 3D movies in the ‘50s, and it worked then — up to a point. So I’m not convinced it’s even necessary, although a few like Avatar really work in 3D.
“The thing that excites me about movies is not what’s enhanced by 3D. But then again I like playing with toys, so if there was a project that might benefit from 3D, I might try it.”