Written By November/December 2011 : Page 30
Written by F.X. Feeney Generous Portrait by Jilly Wendell W e briefly caught up with the director of A Dangerous Method, to get the other side of the writer-director equation. According to Christopher Hampton, it helps relations that David Cronenberg is an accomplished writer himself— he’s scripted many of his own films, including brainy originals Videodrome and eXistenZ, as well as a number of crystalline adaptations, such as Wil-liam Burroughs’ Naked Lunch and the forthcoming Cosmopolis, from the novel by Don DeLillo, which Cronen-berg had just completed filming before touring with A Dangerous Method. 30 • WG AW Written B y NO VEMBER/DECEMBER 20 11
F. X. Feeney
Portrait by Jilly Wendell
We briefly caught up with the director of A Dangerous Method, to get the other side of the writer-director equation. According to Christopher Hampton, it helps relations that David Cronenberg is an accomplished writer himself— he’s scripted many of his own films, including brainy originals Videodrome and eXistenZ, as well as a number of crystalline adaptations, such as William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch and the forthcoming Cosmopolis, from the novel by Don DeLillo, which Cronenberg had just completed filming before touring with A Dangerous Method.
F. X. Feeney: Your films abound in characters that invite a radical transformation in themselves and for good or ill embrace the consequences. The characters in A Dangerous Method do this at a very elevated level. Is that what sang to you in Christopher Hampton’s play, The Talking Cure?
David Cronenberg: I try to be very unconscious when choosing or structuring a project. It’s only after the fact that I find the analytical aspect interesting—I enjoy that after the fact, but I don’t find it creatively productive. What “sang” to me is that it was a wonderful script. Freud is a fascinating figure. Everyone who has grown up in the past century has been influenced by Freud, whether you know it or not. If you’re making a movie about, say, Alexander the Great, the challenge is to transpose yourself into a completely different way of thinking about human beings and their interactions. Such an effort is incredibly difficult. The greatest hurdle would be that the mindset is “pre-Freudian.”
People would ascribe their more contradictory motives and actions to the gods.
Exactly. People today will talk about doing something unconsciously or refer to somebody’s ego. So it’s fascinating to think about an era where these ideas were not only beginning to have some reality, but there were people who wanted to embody that reality. Sabina didn’t just think about Aryans and Jews and Siegfried and the birth of something heroic, she wanted to live it. She was willing to bring it into her life. The same was true of Freud. When you read their letters, they’re so completely intimate. They talk about everything. They admit everything. They talk about bodily functions. They talk about their sexuality. They talk about their dreams, they interpret the dreams.
You see that in the movie. But that wasn’t common. A professional man didn’t talk like that! It seems so modern to us now that Freud and Jung were creating a new relationship between professional men. What’s more, psychoanalysis was creating a brand-new relationship between people, a brand-new relationship between doctor and patient. The psychoanalytic relationship had never existed before. It’s a very strange one, an intensely intimate one. It’s so odd. They were trying to feel the parameters of it.
“Right and Wrong” were up for grabs.
We can say right now, “Having sex with your patient is definitely wrong,” but in those days people were questioning that. You could say, as Otto Gross did, that having sex with your patient is actually good therapy; that it’s not taking advantage of them, that it’s not an abuse of power, as we think of it now.
One of the most heroic things about Freud is that, when he noticed patients were falling in love with him, he regarded it scientifically, coining the term transference. He wrote in his diary, “It can’t be ME they’re falling in love with. It’s not as if I’m some paragon of Animal Magnetism.”
Yet, Stefan Zweig, a writer of the period who knew Freud, tells us in his book The World of Yesterday that Freud was masculine, charismatic, witty. In other words, the direct opposite of the decrepit, cancer-ridden Freud, who is our primary historic image. Zweig knew him at the height of his power, leading an extraordinary worldly movement. He definitely had some kind of magnetism. But what he was conscious of was exactly what I’m talking about: This new, even unprecedented relationship. “Why are these patients responding to me this way? Why have I suddenly become their father or their mother?”
A great part of the conflict between Freud and Jung might boil down to that battle between a modern mindset and the one being overthrown. Jung’s preoccupation with archetypes puts him closer in attitude to the gods of Alexander the Great.
Absolutely right. If you look at his ideas about the Collective Unconscious, you might say, as one social psychologist did to me, “It would have been much better if he’d dealt with the Collective Conscious.” Jung’s idea, derived from Plato, was that if every human being on Earth died, these archetypes he was exploring would still exist. This is, ultimately, a religious concept, which is exactly where Freud feared Jung would go, away from science and into mysticism.
Freud insisted on the reality of the human body. This was courageous, at a time when such reality was very repressed. Everybody knew his place. Everything was ordered, and the body covered up—stiff collars on all the men, corsets on all the women— and here is Freud, talking about penises, vaginas, anuses, excrement, and incest! These things were absolutely taboo, not to be talked about, but he was saying, “No! This is our reality!” He could see that Jung was escaping the body, fleeing from the body, in talking about “spiritual self-realization” and so on. That’s one way of looking at the split between Freud and Jung. It’s too easy to say that Jung couldn’t accept that sexuality is the source of all neuroses. It was much more complex than that.
One bond between them was that both Freud and Jung desperately did not want to be called artists or philosophers because They felt that would diminish them as scientists and physicians. Yet, by its very nature, psychoanalysis cannot be, strictly speaking, a science. Because it’s not repeatable: You’ve got a particular psychoanalyst and a particular patient, and you cannot repeat that situation somewhere else, with other people, and get the same results. You can’t “repeat the experiment,” as science requires.
The Scripted Hour
In an oddball alignment with the theme of taboo and things better-left-unsaid, the art of storytelling is powered by what you leave out. Have you a general philosophy regarding script editing?
I cut about 14 pages out of Christopher’s script altogether. I got it down to about 80 pages. This makes producers nervous, but I love short scripts. When I adapted Don DeLillo’s novel Cosmopolis, it ran 77 pages. I love to be incredibly tight. Everything that is in a script should be what you are going to want. And do you know? In all my years of writing or directing closely Edited scripts, there is always, always something extra that will, still, eventually, hit the cutting room floor—even going in with 77 pages! But I’m conscious of money and schedules and very protective of that. As a director I want to be concise. I can readily accept that other filmmakers have other ways of working. You can say, “We’ve got 140 pages, let’s shoot it all, see what works best, and then cut.” That’s a legitimate way of working, if you can finance it. It is obviously a lot more expensive than the way I work. But I prefer to work my way, and as a writer think of Samuel Beckett, of his tautness, his asceticism. You can be that ruthlessly economical yet end up with a movie like A Dangerous Method, which is lush and beautiful. It ultimately comes down to knowing what you want.
Given that Christopher Hampton had already done the major staking out of the dramatic boundaries among Sabina, Jung, and Freud, how did you approach the further selections, editing his screenplay?
I know Christopher has talked to you about the flash-forward that we cut—a very powerful moment in the play when we look ahead to Sabina’s death. I encouraged him to include it in his first draft, but when I read it, I felt, This is wrong. It will derange the whole movie. It’s so powerful, it’s so upsetting, that I don’t think the movie would ever recover from that. Also, for me, this is ultimately a project of resurrection. I had no agenda in bringing these people back to life. I just wanted to hear them, see them, and in my own way interact with them.
Am I correct that you cut this line of dialogue? “If you still love him, it’s because you haven’t understood the hatred he deserves.”
Yes. There was so much wonderful stuff. Nothing that Christopher wrote was anything but great, but there is always a place where you can say, “You know what? We don’t need this.” Christopher was very relaxed in a way that impressed me.
Going in, I didn’t know what to expect. Would he be incredibly protective of his stuff? Would he be neurotically protective of his stuff, and would that be something I’d have to deal with? Or, as it happened, not? Obviously, Christopher questioned me: “Are you sure we can cut this or that? Are you sure we don’t need this, because it adds this and this.”
One of his questions was about the very line you point out. My approach was strictly logical: “We get that elsewhere, from here and here—and here.” And Christopher would say:
“Yeah, I can see that.” Because I have found, whether I have written something myself or not, that stuff that seems absolutely essential on the page is in some way, later, made redundant by the way the other scenes come together. Suddenly you realize that the actors are giving you this, and it doesn’t need to be encoded in dialogue or require a separate scene to be put across to the audience.
Christopher was completely open. Part of that is that he’s directed himself—he’s worked with actors, onstage and in film. We only needed to meet two or three times in our collaboration. Most of what we needed to do together could be accomplished over the Internet. He was certainly welcome on the set when we were filming.
Stephen Frears wanted him standing by on Dangerous Liaisons, in case there was need for a last-minute fix.
The way I work, last-minute fixes are already provided for in the script. Once in awhile you have to make an adjustment— for example, there is a key moment when Jung tells Freud, “My wife is quite wealthy.” In The Talking Cure, as well as in the shooting script, the line read: “My wife is quite rich.” Michael Fassbender challenged this when we were about to shoot. “If we use the word rich, here it sounds vulgar—like too much of a put-down.” I completely agreed with him, and we changed it to wealthy. A solid screenplay sets a tone, and when problems like this arise, you can make small changes that strengthen a line without violating the author’s intention. What matters is that you not betray the tone.
You’ve written a number of your own films. Given that you’re a fierce editor of your own stuff, how do you shut off the internal censor? How do you get out of your own way, so as to better access your unconscious?
That changes from project to project. Adapting Don De- Lillo’s Cosmopolis, for example, I worked quickly, even by my own standards—but that’s because of Don’s brilliance, not mine. I so love his dialogue that I simply transcribed it, without putting in any scene description. Then I reread it and asked myself, “Is there a movie here?” And I thought, Yeah, there is definitely a movie here. So I went back and put in the scene descriptions. The whole process took six days.
Are you mostly a visual thinker when you write? You’re certainly a visual storyteller.
I can still remember not knowing if I was. I can remember thinking of myself, back in the 1960s, as a potential novelist and a writer—not as a director. I was drawn to filmmaking by the influence of the New York underground: “Grab a camera, make a movie.” I remember feeling confident of my ear for dialogue, but I had no clue whether I had a viable visual sensibility. “How will I know, when I’m on the set, if it’s the right shot?” So I made a couple of underground films that I shot myself, and what I discovered was, if a shot was wrong, it felt horrible. It was a visceral, physical feeling. If a shot disgusted me, I would adjust the lens, shift my position, fix the lighting—until it felt right. But writing was the thing I knew I could do.
How about a film you’ve written start to finish, like eXistenZ? Do you begin with words or an image you can’t get out of your head?
All I remember about eXistenZ was that it began with an abstract idea, that of “creating an alternate reality” but as a game rather than a work of art. I had an interesting problem with that script. At first, the protagonist was a man, and it just did not work, would not come together until I made her a woman. I have no idea why.
I feel that film is a twin sister, thematically, to Videodrome, not that you saw it this way. But I was struck that both protagonists are exploring similar realms, at equally tragic risk of getting lost in their own mazes. Perhaps your unconscious mind was barring you from too close a repetition.
When you’re choosing a new project or creating one from scratch, my philosophy is, Forget your other movies. I’m never interested in my other movies when I’m making this film that is in front of me. I’m focused totally on this. Other films don’t interest me at all. That’s how you get out of your own way. When I’m directing, there’s always the society of the set: the cast and crew, the extras, the people in the street, the publicist, and even a few journalists from other countries who have come to hang around, friends, and relatives. It can get very hairy. My job is to concentrate purely on that next rectangle of film. That’s all that counts. That’s all the audience is going to see. Outside of that frame, there’s nothing that’s real.
The same is exactly true of writing. You have to concentrate on that blank page or that blank screen. The circumstances are never ideal. I love reading about other writers who have an island someplace, where they don’t have any phones, and it sounds perfect to me, but I don’t manage that. I adapted Cosmopolis at a place in the country, sitting at a kitchen table. My kids were all around. They’re grown up now and had their friends with them, and I was typing, looking up, pausing to make conversation. Mind you, I was protected by the brilliance of Don DeLillo’s novel. I was mostly transcribing; but even as I was shooting Cosmopolis, I would take lunches in my trailer and work on a sequel I have in mind for The Fly. I have no idea whether it will ever be produced, but I had an idea I liked—and that’s the other thing about writing. If you have an idea, see it through whatever’s happening around you.
You ask me about thematic continuities in my work. One thing I enjoy about going on tour with a movie is that you end up analyzing what you did, and that is something you could not have done before. People have said to me, about A Dangerous Method, “This is a very different sort of project for you, isn’t it? It’s quite unlike your other stuff.” But you know, my first movie was a seven-minute short called Transfer, and it was about a patient and a psychiatrist. It’s not something I thought about when I read Christopher’s play, but, interestingly enough, it’s not that big a departure for me.
The intriguing alliance of writer Christopher Hampton and director David Cronenberg
Portrait by Tom Keller
If you still love him,” says Sigmund Freud, “it’s because you haven’t understood the hatred he deserves.”
This deeply emotional death-sentence is pronounced close to the heart of Christopher Hampton’s stage play The Talking Cure (2002). The line is, fascinatingly, absent from A Dangerous Method, the film adaptation Hampton has written of his play for director David Cronenberg. This omission is revealing of the rich alchemy between any writer and director who can bond and work together in the best faith. For the unpredictable combination of love and hate, bewilderment and understanding expressed in Freud’s line are present in each of the film’s confrontations. In gesture, in atmosphere, in the silent tensions made possible through the visual grammar of the close-up, the idea behind the line is brought to life onscreen.
“What finished him for me,” Freud tells his listener, and this line remains in the film, “was all that business about you, the lies, the ruthless behavior.”
The great analyst is talking of his former friend, fellow psychiatrist, and ex-apostle—you might even say Freud’s former son—Carl Jung. The woman to whom he speaks is Sabina Spielrein, a loyal former patient of both men, herself a future psychiatrist, whose highly dramatic recovery and selfempowerment drive the play from beginning to end. She is a source of deep fascination to both men, a central figure in the birth of psychiatry, and, until she was brought to Hampton’s attention, almost entirely lost to history.
“It is not a question of sides,” Spielrein tells Jung, when he insists she side with him against Freud. “Your differences are not as great as you both think. If you could find a way to advance together, it would be the most immense benefit to all of us.”
Her words not only form a succinct and emotion-charged thematic key in this superb drama of ideas, they describe the bond that must be reached between any writer and director, if a film is to be any good.
The Collective Unconscious
Film history abounds in fiery anecdotes about the bitter divides between writers and directors—no need to repeat them to a readership of working screenwriters! Drama is conflict, after all. Lines inevitably get blurred among the dynamic personalities here in the drama business. What goes uncelebrated under these fireworks is the simple reality that collaboration in movies is, far more often than not, harmonious and proactive, even when heads are being butted and creative sparks fly. The process of making films is so arduous that, strictly speaking, the only films that get made well are those in which the writer and director are working toward the same goal. Disagreements are only sustainable if they’re useful. Differ uselessly, and somebody will get fired—usually the sleepless, coffee-stained wretch at her or his laptop.
What of those great collaborations where writer and director succeed in supporting each other? Where the two not only get along but become allies? The examples are rare, but the films are unforgettable: Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder (The Lost Weekend; Sunset Boulevard); Paddy Chayevsky and Arthur Hiller (The Americanization of Emily; Hospital); Paddy Chayevsky and Sidney Lumet (Network); Robert Towne and Roman Polanski (Chinatown); Robert Harris and Roman Polanski (The Ghost Writer); Charlie Kauffman and Spike Jonz (Being John Malkovich; Adaptation). By all means, name your own favorites.
To these we must add Christopher Hampton and David Cronenberg. Although Hampton is primarily a writer (Dangerous Liaisons; Total Eclipse; Atonement), he has also directed. Although Cronenberg is mostly known as a director, he has also written his own films (Videodrome; eXistenZ) and worked extremely well with other writers, such as on Eastern Promises, written by Steven Knight. The mutual respect between Hampton and Cronenberg is evident in their remarks, providing a fine textbook in miniature on the two-sided art of checking one’s ego at the door while standing one’s ground for the film itself.
I interviewed Hampton at the Guild’s theater after a Writers Guild Foundation screening of A Dangerous Method.
F. X. Feeney: Somebody once asked Harold Pinter to define drama. Perhaps in irritation, he replied: “Two people are talking in a room and a third one enters.” That remark keeps coming back to me as I try to analyze what you’ve done so well in A Dangerous Method. Freud and Jung fill such a gigantic room in one’s historic imagination. It would take an extraordinary third person to enter that room and bring them out in a coherent drama. Sabina certainly does this indelibly. Were you already interested in Freud and Jung when you discovered her? Or did you find her first and let her lead you to them?
Christopher Hampton: The whole thing was a very long process. In the mid-’90s, I was under contract to 20th Century Fox for a couple of years. It’s the only regular salary I’ve ever had in my life, and we were desperately scratching our heads searching for material. One of the things they had was this book by John Kerr, called A Most Dangerous Method. Julia Roberts’ company had acquired it, with the idea that she would play Sabina Spielrein. Now, I knew all about Sabina Spielrein because I had read another book by an Italian psychoanalyst, Aldo Carotenuto’s A Secret Symmetry. This describes, like a Victorian novel, the extraordinary discovery of a suitcase containing Sabina’s diaries, her letters to Jung, her Several essays and pieces of writing, all in an attic in Geneva. It was a sensational discovery that Carotenuto had put into this interesting book. So I knew about her, and I knew about Freud, just because I had been interested in Freud for many years.
So I jumped at this project. I then discovered that the information in Kerr’s book was rather thin about the ins and outs of Sabina Spielrein’s personal relations with Jung and Freud. Kerr had other fish to fry. His book is a very important study of the early, early history of psychoanalysis. So I went to Vienna and then to the Burgholzli Hospital in Zurich, which is so brilliantly CGI’d at the beginning of the film. There was a little Jung museum at the top. It’s not there anymore. I got there toward the end of the day. There was no one else in the place but the curator, an older man who had been an orderly in his youth. He had known Jung and worked with him. We got to talking. He asked, “Is there a particular patient you’re interested in?” I said, “Yes, I’m very interested in someone called Sabina Spielrein.” He asked, “Have you a rough idea when she was admitted to the hospital?” I said, “Roughly the 17th of August, 1904.” And he replied, “Come with me.”
He locked up the little museum, led me down to the basement, took a huge black tome off the bookshelf, and gave it to me. In there was Jung’s case notes on Sabina Spielrein. John Kerr had not had access to any of this. He thought she had only been Jung’s patient for a few weeks. He also thought she Hadn’t had an affair with him. This volume made clear that she’d been his patient for six months at least. The curator told me, “You’ve got half an hour.” I said, “Well, this, it’s all in German and there’s quite a lot of it.” He told me: “I’m going to leave the room. There’s a photocopier in the corner.”
That unlocked the whole thing. Here was the first chunk of the story—verbatim. They were very detailed notes. Jung had even handwritten notes in the margin. And so a door opened for me. Alongside of this, I was pursuing a rather head-scratching perusal of the works of Jung, which are very fascinating but hard to understand. They have none of the lucidity of Freud’s work. They’re very mystical and numinous and all those words. It was a struggle for me to get to terms with Jung.
From there, I wrote a screenplay called Sabina, which— you won’t be amazed to hear—20th Century Fox and Julia Roberts’ people felt was not entirely what they had in mind. So that was the end of that. I didn’t know quite what to do. I Had spent such a lot of time researching it; I was very disappointed. Then my partner Tiana Alexander Silliphant, who’s associate producer on this film, asked me: “Why don’t you turn it into a stage play?”
That seemed like an inevitable idea. It opened at the National Theater in London in 2002 with Ralph Fiennes playing Jung. A decent run; I was pleased. All that work hadn’t gone to waste. But again, I thought, That is that. A year later I was working on something here in Los Angeles when David Cronenberg called to tell me, “I just read your play. Is it possible you think there’s a screenplay in it?” A mere nine years later, here it is.
Sabina tells Jung, “Only the clash of two destructive forces can create something new.” Later, she reiterates this idea in a deeper vein to Freud, regarding a theory she’s hatched about the sex drive. It is “demonic and destructive,” she argues, “but at the same time as being a creative force, in the sense that it can produce, out of the destruction of two individualities, a new being.” This is such a lucid distillation of what Freud and Jung were already thinking about and arguing about. Coming from Sabina, it frames the emotional violence of the drama between these men and her. Did these lines originate directly in the case notes you found, or is it your own filtering of their thinking?
What you’ve just mentioned was the basis of Sabina’s doctoral thesis. She was studying incest and various other catastrophic forms of sexual relationship. And her conclusion was that, as often as not, the sexual relationship was in itself destructive, yet a relationship out of which something eventually positive emerged. Jung didn’t agree with her at all. Still, one of the pleasures of exploring all this was to find out what a remarkable figure she was. She did steer Jung in the direction of the idea of the archetype and in the direction of the idea of the anima and animus, none of which he ever acknowledged, but it’s quite clear that she did start him thinking in these directions. Likewise, she started Freud thinking in the direction of eros and thanatos and sex and death. Being a gentleman, he actually acknowledges her as one of his sources for this when he deals with the subject himself. Later, she then decided to specialize in child psychology, which was a more or less virgin field at the time. She became a celebrated exponent of it, trained further in Switzerland, went back to Russia after it had become the Soviet Union, and trained two very famous Soviet child psychologists whose names I will not attempt to pronounce.
Then the whole business of psychoanalysis became disgraced in the Soviet Union in the ’30s. Sabina’s two brothers were killed by Stalin. She withdrew with her husband to her hometown, Rostov, where she quietly practiced ordinary medicine. But Rostov was on the early track of the Nazi invasion and she and her daughters were killed by the Nazis. There is a legend I put into my play: that she was killed by A Nazi guard because she stepped out of line to protest. The guard was beating a child. She told him, “That is something that must never be done.” And so he shot her.
That scene comes in the end of the play’s first act, as a nightmarish counterpoint to the love scene that just preceded it, yet it’s not in the film. Why?
David Cronenberg wanted me to keep it in at first. “Please,” he said, “it’s very powerful. I like it.” So it was in the first draft. Later, when we met in Toronto to discuss the first draft, he’d come to a different conclusion. “I’m thinking of doing the film in a certain style, and this scene just won’t fit. We’ll just have to leave it out.” He was absolutely right. The approach he’s chosen is austere, simple. Stepping out of that reality for a moment to jump into the future and back again would not have worked. Curiously enough, you’d think that would be cinematic, but it isn’t.
Once David Cronenberg and I got to working together, I gave him the earlier screenplay I’d done. He felt the play was better. For a very simple reason: because that earlier script was called Sabina, I had written it with Sabina at the very center of the story. This was because it was for Julia Roberts, and of course she should be at the center of everything. But by the time I’d come to reconsider and write it for the theater, I realized my mistake. The central character is more naturally Carl Jung, because around him are not only Sabina, but his wife, and Freud, and Otto Gross as well. But this was an inevitable mistake, because back at the start Jung was the most shadowy of all the characters—the one I knew least about. It took a long time for me to feel totally identified with [Jung].
David Cronenberg once remarked in an interview we did years ago about Videodrome that if he perceives a throughline in his own work, it’s the challenge of transformation. That he’s interested in people who consciously invite a metamorphosis, receive it, but then have to live with both the positive and destructive consequences. This applies to Scanners and Eastern Promises and could be applied to A Dangerous Method. Did this ever enter your discussions?
David is absolutely wonderful to work with, just the director a writer dreams of. All of our conversations about the script were without exception technical. All were to do with the links of scenes: what to cut, what to include, what to expand.
We made a number of interesting experiments. One day he asked, “Can we write a scene with Sabrina’s parents?” It was her parents who’d brought her to the Burgholzli asylum, which was a public lunatic asylum. They had to. They were very rich but she was so disruptive and so difficult—and so scary—that no private hospital would accept her. David said, “I would love to see her parents. Could you put them into the script?” I did; it was a rather interesting thing to do. David then said, “I’m very pleased we went through this but I’m going to take them out again.” They weren’t material. They Weren’t central. David’s instinct is always to cut, cut, cut, cut, cut, cut. When we first met, he told me, “I like a script of 87 pages.”
For all the verbiage that flies back and forth, the real movements of both the film and the play emerge from things that happen in silence. Am I right to think that when you’re cutting, you’re specifically moving toward those moments?
A film enables you to do what you can’t really do in the theater. You get to look closely at faces and reactions, in moments of silence and reflection. The science of cutting scripts, by the way, is something Cronenberg is a master of. I did learn from him. I even had a shock because, far from delivering 87 pages, I delivered a 103-page first draft. Our discussions caused it to expand a bit further, but we cut right back. Finally, a few weeks before shooting, he sent me an email: “Don’t be alarmed,” he wrote. Of course, those are always the words you dread. “Don’t panic but I really prefer to do the editing before I make the film. Take a look at what I’ve done and let me know what you think.”
There it was: 87 pages. And? He’d done it brilliantly. I was impressed by the way he’d just shaved it. Having been prepared to be indignant and upset and all the rest of those things writers are so good at, I actually wrote back to him and said: “You know? I have to congratulate you. This is really, really interesting work that you’ve done. You’ve focused it.” I then said there are just three things I miss. I listed them. I said, “I’d be very, very grateful if you could consider putting them back.” About a week went by, and I got an email back saying, “I’ve thought very hard about your suggestions: No.”
What is your particular writing method? Do you work steadily every day or ruminate and then work in a fever?
Rather the latter. I take a lot of time with a notebook. On The Talking Cure at least a year, I think, just jotting things down. This is especially vital if you have a huge amount of reading to do, which I did for this. Just getting a mosaic and gradually working that into a shape and gradually choosing what the scenes are. Then I like to write in a frenzy, as fast as I can. There’s absolutely no justification or logic for this at all but my superstition is that, if you write in a tremendous fever of energy, some of that energy will get transmitted through the actors to the audience. That’s just my feeling. In fact, when writing The Talking Cure for the stage, I was so excited that I had fixed what was radically wrong in the first screenplay that, when I went to a hotel in Paris to write it, I actually physically collapsed 10 pages before the end. I went down to have dinner. I got taken ill in the middle of dinner, and I had to go to bed for several days before I could get up and finish it. I’d become so excited I had no idea what I was doing to myself.
Were you on the set throughout the filming? Were there any last-minute fixes you were called in for?
As you know, directors differ in this matter. Stephen Frears has it in his contract that you have to be on set all the time, “just in case.” Joe Wright, who directed Atonement, was on the other hand uncomfortable having this old geezer hanging about. Cronenberg is absolutely courteous and said, “Come whenever you like.” The entire film was shot in Germany. I went for a week at the beginning in the studios, then for a week on location toward the end. I watched the last scene being shot.
It’s a different matter going on a Stephen Frears set. There, you go on as a participant. You will be called on at a certain point to rewrite a scene that he’s in the middle of shooting. Cronenberg, by contrast, is as I imagine Hitchcock or Bunuel used to be. The entire movie is cut in his head. He always finishes early.
You’ve directed your own screenplays, of course: Carrington and The Secret Agent and Imagining Argentina. What if anything do you take away from observing these other directors?
You learn certainly as a director, but I learned as a writer from David. He is a very good writer and actually has written the majority of his films himself. In fact, there was a delicate moment, early in our talks, when I told him, “I’m not sure I can adapt The Talking Cure right now. I have a commitment and am not free for six months.” And he said, “Well, I’ll do it.” Then I said, “Well? I think maybe a gap may open up in my schedule.”
How do you relate to actors, as a writer? What are you hoping to give them so that they can bring the most to the piece?
It’s actually very helpful to have in your head a particular actor, particularly if you like and admire them and you’ve spent a lot of time watching their movies. It’s helpful to have a voice in your head. Now, it’s often the case that you will write a part with a particular actor in mind, and that actor will not be available or not want to do it or whatever. It doesn’t matter. The actor will have done his job by providing his voice in your head. Whether he or she actually plays the role or not is neither here nor there.
You’ve often written about actual historical figures.
Whatever happens in real life is inevitably and always more interesting than what you invent. With my biographical pieces my aim is never to invent anything. If you are diligent enough you can usually find all this stuff. Of course, there’ll have to be a certain bit of speculation here and there, but what’s interesting about these peoples’ lives is that you couldn’t possibly invent them. You couldn’t invent Sabina Spielrein. Her relationship with Jung and Freud is one of those fascinating collisions of different personalities that history throws up from time to time, and your job is to find your way to that basement in Zurich and get the goods.
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