David Cronenberg: A Director, Now Less Dangerous

Bill Phelps

The man reviled in Canada's parliament, whose films were so troubling that Martin Scorsese was afraid to meet him, is a bookish intellectual whose new period piece, "A Dangerous Method," might be among his best yet.

In early 2010, David Cronenberg's dream of filming A Dangerous Method -- the real-life story of Sabina Spielrein, Carl Jung's lover, Sigmund Freud's follower and both men's patient -- came crashing to a halt.

The Canadian director learned by e-mail that Christoph Waltz was pulling out of playing Freud to shoot the much-bigger-budgeted Water for Elephants, even though Waltz had urged Cronenberg to cast him.

It was the second time a star had exited the movie (Christian Bale withdrew as Jung a year earlier), the kind of upheaval that would give most directors palpitations. But not Cronenberg.

"Waltz waltzed, and Bale bailed," he quips.

At 68, Cronenberg has become the essence of mellow -- helped by the fact that Method not only got made despite those stars' disappearances, with Keira Knightley, Viggo Mortensen and Michael Fassbender in the leading roles, but also because the film is gaining awards buzz as one of the director's strongest in years. THR critic Todd McCarthy called it "precise, lucid and thrillingly disciplined," adding that it "breathtakingly [embraces] the dramatic dualities within humans."

On Sept. 2, the $20 million film premiered at Venice (where it gained an impressive 80% positive response from critics, according to RottenTomatoes.com) before set to screen Sept. 10 at the Toronto International Film Festival. And Sony Pictures Classics, which bought the movie for a Nov. 23 domestic release after seeing an early cut in March, clearly believes it has a winner on its hands.

"The depth of character and subject matter is astounding," says SPC co-president Michael Barker. "It's an amazing film -- very accessible, very intelligent, but also a major entertainment."

Casually dressed on this late August day in jeans and a black T-shirt, with graying hair, Cronenberg leans back in a comfortable chair in his windowless Toronto editing room (where he's already putting the finishing touches on his next movie, Cosmopolis, adapted from Don DeLillo's novel), untroubled by Method's history.

If he's relaxed, it's understandable -- not only because of the film's completion, but also because his nature is as calm and dispassionate as his films can be disconcerting.

The man who was reviled in Canada's parliament for his "disgusting" work, who was lambasted by critic Alexander Walker for making a movie "beyond the bounds of depravity" (1996's Crash), who became notorious for horror films showing exploding human heads (1981's Scanners) and stomachs with vagina-like maws (1983's Videodrome), who is arguably the most provocative and shameless director of our era -- Lars von Trier apart -- in real life is the epitome of gentility.

This is the same person whose films so troubled Martin Scorsese that the Oscar-winning director was afraid to meet him. "He said he was terrified," remembers Cronenberg. "He was serious. He had seen Shivers and Rabid and thought they were devastating. I said, 'Marty, you're the guy who made Taxi Driver!' "

He's unruffled by questions about whether he is the incarnation of evil, as he once jokingly urged a journalist to describe him. Or whether he and his wife, Carolyn Zeifman, who "runs the business," as Cronenberg describes his family life, had sex in front of the cast of 2005's A History of Violence, as Mortensen claimed. (No truth to it, he insists.)

Meet Cronenberg in person, just a short distance from his Toronto home, and his sheer courteousness -- making sure there's food and water for this reporter, concerned that a lightning storm the night before might have affected his flight from Los Angeles -- is in striking contrast to the director's work. That has veered from his stomach-churning horror films of the 1970s and '80s; through experimental work like 1988's Dead Ringers, 1991's Naked Lunch and Crash; to more accessible narratives such as 1986's The Fly, Violence and 2007's Eastern Promises.

Now he's taking a leap forward with his first turn-of-the-century drama, Method, an almost classical period piece whose greatest shock value comes in its revelations about Freud's and Jung's private lives.

There are no people having sex in crashing cars, no macabre twins, no gigantic centipedes or husbands shooting their wives. In their place are three intellectual giants locked in a complex relationship.

"It's essentially about people who are very intelligent, ambitious to be remembered and make their mark and also may be vulnerable to the point of being paranoid," observes Mortensen. "David doesn't shy away from the academic."

Indeed, the film -- Cronenberg's most thoughtful, based on a script by Christopher Hampton -- might be closest to the ruminative figure he has been for decades, the man producer Jeremy Thomas calls "a professor."

"I was always an intellectual," says the director, a science student at the University of Toronto who switched to English and won awards for his short stories and who cites Fellini and Bunuel among his favorite filmmakers. "I was cerebral, a little bit arrogant. But I feel a complete smooth continuum from there to here."


Cronenberg first heard of Spielrein -- who became Jung's patient at Switzerland's Burgholzli mental hospital in 1904, when she was about 19 -- after reading about Hampton's 2003 West End production The Talking Cure.

Hampton drew on John Kerr's 1994 biography A Most Dangerous Method: The Story of Jung, Freud, and Sabina Spielrein, one of a slew of publications and films that followed the discovery of Spielrein's papers in the '70s.

Back then, the emergence of hospital records and a cache of letters shook the psychoanalytic establishment with the revelation that Spielrein, a young Russian, had embarked on an affair with the 29-year-old Jung after becoming his patient. Equally remarkable was the discovery that she had contributed to Freud's idea of Thanatos, a "death instinct," pivotal to his work, before dying during the Holocaust, shot in her native Rostov-on-Don by an SS death squad.

Intrigued, Cronenberg called Hampton (Dangerous Liaisons) and asked to work with him on a film. At first, the British writer hesitated, partly because he wanted to direct it himself and partly because of other commitments, before agreeing to write the screenplay. "I said, 'I'm not sure I can start right away,' " recalls Hampton, "and he said, 'Oh, I'll write it for you!' -- a wonderful method of galvanizing me."

Cronenberg wasn't the first filmmaker who'd been piqued by Spielrein's story. In addition to a documentary and biopic, 20th Century Fox had jumped on the bandwagon, commissioning Hampton to write a screenplay, Sabina, for Julia Roberts before he even wrote the play.

"When they saw it," Cronenberg notes wryly, "They said, 'There's no way Julia's going to do this!' " Indeed, the screenplay includes nudity and episodes of full-scale madness.

While the script Hampton would write for Cronenberg was substantially different from his Fox project, he still needed to get the underlying rights back before he could proceed.

After a lengthy negotiation with Fox, Hampton and Cronenberg began to develop their new work, which Cronenberg slashed from 94 pages to 80. At the same time, producer Thomas embarked on a protracted search for money.

"These films that go to festivals, they have a very difficult birth, especially in terms of getting the resources to make them on a [large] scale," he notes. "The pursuit of excellence for its own sake isn't easy."

Raising the money was even less easy given the timing.

"This all came during the big financial meltdown everywhere; everyone was saying, 'That changes the landscape forever,' " Cronenberg says. "It was quite devastating. Even when we started shooting, there were documents still to be signed. It's like a Frankenstein quilt: 15 entities were involved, and they all had to sign at the same moment."

Bale's exit, followed by Waltz's, didn't help.

Cronenberg is more understanding of the former, who called him in person to apologize and who withdrew without ever being formally attached. But the director's mellowness is shaken just the tiniest bit by Waltz.

"Christoph [had] pursued the project," he explains. "He came to me to convince me to take him as Freud; his grandfather had been a pupil of Freud. [After] Inglourious Basterds, all the German money was built around him, and when he bailed, a lot of that money went as well."

Still, he says: "I've been through this before. There's no movie I've done where there hasn't been something like that."

With Fassbender on board to replace Bale as Jung and Knightley cast as Sabina, Cronenberg called Mortensen and asked him to take the part of Freud, which he had initially turned down while handling "problems with my parents' health and because I didn't picture myself playing Freud," the actor says.

This time he said yes. "The Freud in the story is not the Freud most people are accustomed to, the very thin, disease-ridden old man," he explains. "He was 50 and quite robust."

Mortensen believed he could pull him off, and so did the director. "That's the magic of casting," Cronenberg quips. "It's a black art."

Financing now came from three separate German entities; from presales arranged by Thomas' HanWay Films; and from Canada's Telefilm and Universal Germany, among others -- though all deals were still in play when shooting commenced.

"Having the film start when you know you haven't closed the finance, and greenlighting it when you are still in a nervous state, that is a very difficult, lonely moment for a producer," Thomas notes.

A 42-day shoot began May 26, 2010, in Cologne, Germany, using Lake Constance to stand for Lake Zurich, with some exteriors shot outside Freud's home in Vienna. Cronenberg was three days ahead of schedule just two days into filming, and the 99-minute film wrapped July 22.

"The shoot itself was a delight," he says. "The financing was a nightmare."


Cronenberg has had other nightmares, far worse.

With one of his first features, Scanners, he had to witness the deaths of two women who had paused to watch filming from a highway. "They slowed down, and the guy behind them didn't," he recalls. The man's car went straight over theirs. "My grip jumped over the fence and pulled the women out of the car, but they were dead, and that was our first day of shooting. I thought if I could survive that, I could survive anything."

In the case of Crash, which equates sex with violent car crashes, Ted Turner was so upset, he did everything to kill the movie's release.

The mogul, who owned the picture's distributor, New Line, "wanted to destroy it," Cronenberg says. "He and Jane [Fonda, his then-wife] had apparently screened the film and were appalled. But they wouldn't tell me at New Line. I was planning to come down to do publicity and they said, 'Don't get on the plane. We're going to delay the release.' I said, 'Are you kidding me?' " Turner would relent.

With Total Recall, adapted from Philip K. Dick's short story We Can Remember It for You Wholesale, he went through 12 drafts with screenwriter Ronald Shusett before realizing they and producer Dino De Laurentiis were on a different page. "At the end, Dino said: 'You know what you've done? You've done the Dick version. We wanted to do Raiders of the Lost Ark Go to Mars.' " (The 1990 picture, directed by Paul Verhoeven, earned $263 million worldwide.)

Cronenberg has frequently adapted the work of novelists like Dick, J.G. Ballard (Crash) and William S. Burroughs (Naked Lunch), but mostly his adaptations have been drawn from avant-garde work the major studios would never be interested in. He has studiously kept his distance from Hollywood, preferring to live in his native Toronto and turning down films like Flashdance, Top Gun and Interview With the Vampire.

All this has added to his struggles, which have included the personal as well as the professional -- such as a bitter divorce from his first wife, Margaret Hindson, in 1977.

He won't talk about that, even though it spilled over into 1979's The Brood, where a character based on her is strangled -- something he once said he found "very satisfying." Today, all he admits is: "That was very difficult. I like being married and I take marriage seriously. That was a pretty disastrous thing to happen in my life."

For the past three decades, he has been married to Zeifman, who drew acclaim for her movie about the making of Violence. His sister Denise, a costume designer, and daughter Cassandra, an assistant director -- one of his three grown children -- work on his films.

Family-oriented as he is, there's a distance he maintains, an "objectivity that is maybe not what most people have," he says. "I am emotional, but I loathe sentimentality. In my life, I'm not as cool as all that."

Really? He hesitates. "Yes, no, yeah -- I think I'm as emotional as anybody else."

The son of a musician mother and journalist father who cherished books and even owned his own bookstore, he grew up in a heavily intellectual environment before entering film in the late 1960s when he formed the Toronto Film Co-op with Ivan Reitman and others.

"My father was one of the first people to have pieces of Ulysses in Toronto, because it was banned. He owned a bookstore during the Depression, called the Professor's Bookstore." Because his father sold "real books" as opposed to practical volumes, "he was a total failure as a businessman. We were very [much] at the lower end of the middle class in terms of money. But there was always music; we would have opera singers in the house, violinists."

His anarchic filmmaking "certainly didn't come from rebellion against my parents; they were very encouraging and very artistic and very cerebral," he says. "It was rock 'n' roll: The Eisenhower era was a very conservative, repressive era -- Elvis was very threatening to this, and I see parallels between that and Freud. Freud was considered so anarchic because he was saying, 'This is all a facade. Civilization is repression.' "

That's a notion Cronenberg doesn't dispute, though he says he hasn't personally experienced psychoanalysis or any kind of therapy: "I've never felt the need."

He is fascinated by Freud (despite the fact that some may find him arrogant and monomaniacal in the film) and might be amused to learn Mortensen drew on Cronenberg himself, to some degree, when he came to create Freud. Both men, the actor says, are driven by a strong work ethic and are "calm and able to make jokes -- whether you get them or not."

Cronenberg in fact is at his most emotional when he recounts Freud's twilight, as portrayed by the writer Stefan Zweig.

"It's heartbreaking, it's touching, because here's Freud in the last year of his life. He's got an artificial palate. [Zweig] expected to find him in bitterdom and depressed, but he was more excited and happy and exhilarated than he had ever seen him."

Rather like Cronenberg today.

The one-time pariah has become exalted in his own country. The man whose film Turner tried to annihilate has been lionized by the international moviemaking community and is adored by those who work with him.

He bicycles, rides a Vespa, loves nature, expresses revulsion at the idea he might deliberately set out to shock or offend. Indeed, when Cannes president Gilles Jacob told him he wanted Crash to "explode like a bomb" in the middle of the festival, it was the antithesis of Cronenberg's own notions.

"I don't think, 'I want my films to explode like a bomb' -- I don't think in those terms," says this iconoclastic filmmaker, who's the least iconoclastic of human beings. "I don't need to be reviled in order to feel vindicated in my outsider-ness."


  • A Place in the Sun (1951)
  • Seven Samurai (1954)
  • La Dolce Vita (1960)
  • (1963)
  • Don’t Look Now (1973)