With his Oscar-buzz period drama, A Dangerous Method, opening in selected cities today, director David Cronenberg took some time from his busy schedule to talk to EW about the difficulties of finding backing for a movie about Jung and Freud, the black art of movie casting, and his good luck of landing one of the hottest stars of the year, Michael Fassbender. (The next Errol Flynn?)
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: A Dangerous Method seems like it must have been a tough sell when it was time to find financing. How long did it take to get off the ground?
DAVID CRONENBERG: It took some years because the financing was difficult and the economic meltdown affected things. I approached [screenwriter] Christopher Hampton about it maybe 10 years ago. There was some talk of him directing it, so it started and stopped. But at a certain point, when the smoke cleared, we had to think, Okay, who’s going to be in the movie? It’s an interesting thing about chemistry and what I call “the black art of casting.” It’s a hugely important part of being a director. If you’re not good at casting, it can kill your movie before you shoot a foot of film. We talk about the chemistry of people on screen, but how do I know, for example, that Keira Knightley and Michael Fassbender will have this interesting chemistry that is partly sexual and partly intellectual when I’ve not seen them in a movie together and they don’t know each other? It’s the same for Viggo Mortensen and Michael, because it really is a triangle – a ménage à trois. How do I know they’re going to have chemistry? And you don’t. There’s no rulebook. There’s no guide other than your intuition.
Well, at least you already knew Viggo after your collaborations in A History of Violence and Eastern Promises…
Yes, this is the third movie in a row together. Casting Viggo as Freud isn’t obvious casting. That’s part of the pleasure of the time period of this movie. He’s not the stern, 80-year-old grandfatherly Freud. And it’s not the grandfatherly Jung that you can see on YouTube doing interviews in his 70s. This is them in a very different part of their lives, when Jung was only 29 years old and very ambitious and arrogant and looking for his career and Freud was 50. Viggo wasn’t sure that he was the guy to play Freud. And I pointed out to him the way Freud was described at the time – as handsome, masculine, charming, elegant, and funny. And when you think of Freud that way, which is not the way most people think, then Viggo started to say, Yeah, okay.
I saw Michael in only three movies, because when we started to think about him, he hadn’t really done as much as he’s done now. I saw him in Inglourious Basterds, where he first appears with a mustache and military posture and he’s being a British officer. And then I saw him in Fish Tank, which is a contemporary story. And then I saw him in Hunger. And I thought, Well, he has the look and the range. What was really lovely was that both he and Viggo have wonderful senses of humor. It was evident that they had a playfulness about them as people. And I love that on the set. I knew it was suffuse into their performances in the film… and it certainly did.
You’ve compared Fassbender to Errol Flynn — that he’s this swashbuckling guy.
He’s a very playful, upbeat Irish boy. He would ride his motorcycle to the set every day. He rode it from London to Cologne, where we were shooting. That’s his preferred mode of transportation. I’m a biker as well – we had that in common. He likes to party, he’s very playful. And yet he’s totally professional and always well-prepared. He likes a good time and he likes people.
Viggo said that on the set Michael would hop around on one leg with a large red eyepatch to prepare for his scenes. What the hell was that about?
Yes, yes, I don’t know what that was about. You’ll have to talk to Michael about it to get the story. You have to understand that Viggo, being as playful as he is, could totally be making that up.
Fassbender’s had a pretty amazing breakthrough year with X-Men, Jane Eyre, Shame, and now your film. You’re certainly catching him at the right time.
It’s something that we all expected. Let’s put it this way, when I got Jude Law for eXistenZ, it was sort of the same thing. He was just about to burst out onto the scene. But that’s not why I cast Michael. Certainly, for him to play the lead in this movie and for us to get the financing that we needed, he had to have achieved something and people had to feel that he was quivering on the brink of big things. If he was a complete unknown, it would have been hard to get the office equipment financing – especially since he is half-German and we were getting a lot of the financing from Germany. So having him in the movie was really quite important.
Yeah, I mean, that’s a part of casting that people don’t know about. The actors not only have to be good and right for the part, but they also have to support the level of financing that you’re getting. Even in independent films that plays out – you have to have the casting, even if you’re making a film for 15 million Euros or whatever it is. Aside from that, though, it’s all just luck in a way. I knew that he was much sought-after and that we considered ourselves lucky to get him because there were so many things he was being offered. So you had that feeling even before the movies got made. But after that, it’s all just luck. The fact that he’s done so many movies this year and that he’s been getting good reviews in all of them, including even X-Men … It’s great for us because we feel that what he does in this movie is very different from what he does in all of those other movies. So once again, it shows his tremendous range.
What do you think about the way he’s plotted his career – mixing big commercial films like X-Men and smaller indies like Shame and your film?
I think he’s following a very traditional path for a hot young actor of quality. He’s not really concerned with being a star. He wants to be a serious actor. Of course he’s curious about playing the studio game and I completely understand that. It makes sense. There’s no serious actor from Anthony Hopkins to Ralph Fiennes to you name it who hasn’t done that. And there’s no reason not to. It’s a good payday and it’s a lot of fun and it increases your profile in terms of mainstream accessibility. So why not do it? If I were an actor, I would do that too.