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WRITERS ON WRITING: Christopher Hampton Dishes on 'A Dangerous Method'

As one of the more prolific and emotionally literate writers working today, Christopher Hampton does not shy away from a character-arc challenge. Still, the intense dynamic between the principals—Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung—in 'A Dangerous Method' required him to push himself beyond his writing limits.

 Originally published in Script magazine January/February 2012

Bob Verini is the Los Angeles-based theater critic for Daily Variety, for whom he also contributes features on film, theater and television. Since 2000 he has been a senior writer for Script. Twitter: @BobVerini

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If Christopher Hampton didn’t exist, we’d have to invent him. Who else brings so much skill and insight to such a wide range of artistic endeavors?

The prolific British dramatist’s interests extend from contemporary comedy, to period drama, to musicals. He won Tony® Awards for the book and lyrics of Sunset Boulevard, and adapted Yasmina Reza’s Art and God of Carnage.

 Screenwriter Christopher Hampton

Screenwriter Christopher Hampton

In Hollywood, he is particularly notable for adapting with distinction the novelists no one else has the nerve to touch: Colette (Cheri); Graham Greene (The Honorary Consul and The Quiet American); Joseph Conrad (The Secret Agent); and Ian McEwan (the Oscar®-nominated Atonement).

Perhaps most significantly, his screen adaptations of three of his stageplays endeavor to bring the intellectual revolutions of past centuries to immediate life in our own time. First came 1988’s Dangerous Liaisons, his Oscar-winning dramatization of Laclos’ scandalous 18th-century novel, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, in which the aristocracy’s intrigues and steamy sexuality foretell the ferment that will shortly earn them a quick guillotine.

Fast-forwarding a century, Agnieszka Holland’s Total Eclipse (1995) took a critical drubbing, but is now widely admired for its keen analysis of the doomed romance between poet Paul Verlaine and his Dionysian muse Arthur Rimbaud—an aesthetic dance of death in which can be seen the origins of 20th-century radical art and philosophy.

Now Hampton brings to the cinema his most challenging intellectual investigation yet, that of the complex relationship between the two titans who, arguably, did more than anyone else to define the human animal for those who came after them: Sigmund Freud and his pupil-turned-competitor Carl Jung. Their personalities and philosophies are communicated with typical Hamptonian lucidity in his 2002 stageplay The Talking Cure, a smash for London’s Royal National Theatre, and 2011’s cinema version A Dangerous Method, directed by David Cronenberg.

Also typical of Hampton is that Method is no didactic debate, but a finely wrought emotional drama that begins with a case study of a woman at the brink of despair.

INTERVIEW: Christopher Hampton Dishes on 'A Dangerous Method' by Bob Verini | Script Magazine #scriptchat #screenwriting

Knightley and Fassbender

The young Viennese aristocrat Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), confined to an asylum by her despairing parents, is cured of her “hysteria” (as all manner of mental illness was once termed) by Jung (Michael Fassbender) using the psychoanalytic approach pioneered by Freud (Viggo Mortensen): You talk; I sit behind you and listen.

Hampton goes on to dramatize how the professional triangle becomes intensely personal: a bizarre relationship between analyst and analysand; the celebrated break between disciple and mentor; and the crisis for Jung as another patient—the sybaritic, amoral Dr. Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel)—shakes his conventional worldview and brings the doctor to the edge of madness himself.

Hot stuff, huh? Naturally, notwithstanding all the intellectual leavening, a studio was initially hungry for it. Indeed, Hampton first wrote it as a screenplay for an A-list star.

“I had always been most interested in Freud, though I didn’t know much about Jung,” Hampton says, when his eyes were opened to the dramatic possibilities in John Kerr’s scholarly tome A Most Dangerous Method. Under contract to Fox, he set out to develop the story as a screenplay for Julia Roberts, with whom he had worked on Mary Reilly, but it posed no ordinary research challenge. “There was all the writing of Jung and Freud to get through, and digest, and figure out a line on since Kerr is mostly interested in the analysis and less concerned about the personalities.”

Hampton says his breakthrough moment occurred when he visited the actual Burghölzli Hospital in which Spielrein was treated, an enormous psychiatric clinic in a wooded suburb of Zurich. (The actual building was eventually CGI’d into the current movie’s opening.) “It was and is the public mental hospital. Sabina was very rich, but she was taken there because she was so disruptive in the private asylums. Jung was the assistant director there.

“Up on the top floor was a little Jung Museum where I spent a lot of time in looking at all the exhibits and so on. The curator, an older man whom I fell into conversation with, it turns out had been an orderly during the time of Jung’s internship at the hospital. At some point he asked me, ‘Who are you really interested in?’ I told him a particular patient, Sabina Spielrein. He said, ‘Do you know roughly when she was admitted?’ and I said ‘Roughly? It was the 17th of August, 1904.’

“‘Ah, good,’ he said, ‘let me just close up here ... come with me,’ and he took me down to the basement where I found the hospital archive. Off the shelf he took ‘1904,’ a big, black volume—and there were Jung’s actual case notes: typewritten, with some handwritten annotation.

“‘You have a half hour,’ he said. And I said, ‘Well, it’s quite thick, you know, and it’s in German...’ He said, ‘Look, I’m going to leave you, and there’s a photocopier in the corner.’ And off he went. So, I was able to extract the pages, and there was the first third of the screenplay, right there. Everything in the play, and everything in the film, that deals with the treatment comes directly from those pages.”

(The writer hastens to point out the “Don’t try this at home” corollary to this story, in that even century-old medical files remain confidential. He remarks upon the considerable initial anxiety among the National Theatre’s lawyers until “fortunately, some time around when I was grappling with this problem, it turned out a German Ph.D. student had been granted access to the file and quoted it very extensively in his thesis. So, it was out there in the public domain, and that was a great relief.”)

In 1997, he emerged with a screenplay of which he was “quite proud,” and “Sabina” went right to Roberts and Fox. Who passed. “I was very despondent, as you might expect.” The thick-skinned Hampton reports with some resignation that he has many scripts in his drawer that have not seen the light of day, but this one, the product of over a year of intense investigation and personal investment, seems to have hurt him more than most.

 Production Photos: Liam Daniel Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics

Production Photos: Liam Daniel Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics

“And then one day my partner, Tiana Alexandra Silliphant, said to me, ‘It’s great material. Why don’t you turn it into a play?’ As soon as she said it, a little light bulb went off. Of course!” It was written quickly over several feverish days in a hotel in Paris and staged to great acclaim in 2002 with Ralph Fiennes as Jung.

But Fiennes chose not to do the play in New York, so “I said to myself, well, that’s that.” The play has been done to great success in several European cities and enjoyed one U.S. production at Los Angeles’ Mark Taper Forum. And then, one day David Cronenberg called.

“‘I’ve just read your play,’ he said. ‘Do you think you could write a screenplay from it?’ And I told him, ‘It’s funny you should ask.’”

Asked for his most significant deviation from historical fact in A Dangerous Method, Hampton firmly replies, “There is none. It’s all pretty much authenticated” right down to the moment when the two psychiatrists are boarding a steamship for the United States, and Freud discovers he’s been booked in a second-class compartment while Jung is in first. (“I discovered that, it’s delicious,” Hampton chortles.)

A comparison of the play and film show that both Sabina, and then The Talking Cure, underwent considerable alteration en route to becoming A Dangerous Method. Hampton explains: “The one area that I discussed a great deal with David was the fact that he has really abbreviated the treatment section of the story. He wanted to get through that during the first X minutes of the film, which means that it does slightly seem like a ‘miracle cure.’ In Kerr’s book, his opinion was that the treatment lasted a few weeks. The dusty volume I discovered proved that [Jung and Spielrein] were meeting for six months and that it was slow and it had setbacks. But it’s part of the Cronenberg style, to pare things down.

“A couple of months before shooting, he e-mailed me and said, ‘Don’t be alarmed.’ So, of course, I was immediately alarmed.

“‘I prefer to do the editing before I make the film, rather than after,’ he said, ‘and I’ve done some editing.’ He had cut 12 pages or something, and at first I was appalled. And then I saw that he had done it really, really well. There was nothing truly essential that he had cut—we were still making the same movie. It was beautifully done, and I felt that I had learned something from the extreme economy of it.

“Yet he hadn’t cut a word from any of the Freud and Jung scenes. In fact, there are more Freud and Jung scenes in the movie than there are in the play. So that was obviously what he was really, really interested in, much more than the slow trudge to Sabina’s recovery.”

 Fassbender and Viggo Mortensen as Sigmund Freud

Fassbender and Viggo Mortensen as Sigmund Freud

The Freud/Jung relationship is one of the more fascinating clashes in any of this year’s movies and shares a central connection with Hampton’s previous work. “Somebody pointed out to me—I hadn’t really worked it out for myself—that many of my plays deal with a clash between a radical and a liberal. Sometimes I come out on one side and sometimes on the other, depending on the personalities. Now here, I think of Freud as the radical, and I think I’m really on his side.

“Of course, Freud had a very unconsoling, strictly pragmatic view, not very helpful if you were ill. Which was that the best you could do for people was to make them understand why they were as they were. And this is the fundamental division with Jung. [Freud believed] there is no way to try to suggest to people how they might get better.” Whereas Jung is adamant—in the film and his own writings— that a doctor, any doctor, must try to cure.

“But, it has to be said that Sabina Spielrein was cured by Jung using strictly Freudian methods. He sat behind her, he never said a word, and she got better and rebuilt herself.”

As portrayed by Fassbender, Jung is very much a 19th-century man wrenched into the 20th century by personality and circumstance.

“Jung really struggled. He was sort of shocked, though intrigued, with what Freud was saying. He was very stuffy—his father was a Lutheran pastor—and he was a very conventional young man who married a rich girl and was part of respectable Swiss society. He resisted, for a long time, all these really radical suggestions Freud was making. Though eventually, through his own openmindedness, really, he began to feel that there must be a great deal of truth in them. And that nothing could quite be the same after it.

“And that, in the end, I think, contributed to his own crisis. I think his 20s were very miserable. Because although he’d advanced to a very significant point in his profession—he was obviously the ‘coming man’—he was, all that time, battling all sorts of confusions. Not least of which was he was very, very highly sexed, and very attractive to women. He had to carve a way through that dilemma, as well as all the intellectual problems.”

 Freud and Jung, competitive peers

Freud and Jung, competitive peers

On top of everything else, there is a religious dimension to the two geniuses’ rocky relationship, which Hampton explores with gusto. “I believe I’ve tended to shy away from [religion] in the past. Even in my adaptations of Graham Greene’s novels, I’ve downplayed it because it doesn’t interest me, really. But in this case, with the historical circumstances of the century and the personalities of the two men, I think it’s really significant that two of the characters were Jewish and the other was as Protestant a figure as you could imagine.”

Everybody in Vienna’s
psychoanalytic circles is Jewish.

I don’t see what difference
that should make.

If I may say so, that is an
exquisitely Protestant remark.

“I don’t think Jung had any idea about [anti-Semitism],” Hampton says. “That’s why he was so naive during the Nazi era when he allowed himself to be made honorary president of the Psychoanalytic Society. He just didn’t get it because it hadn’t featured in his life up to that point.”

Jung continued to balk at his mentor’s insistence that everything, but everything, has a sexual root cause, and the screenplay is tantalizingly ambiguous as to whether his resistance is the product of the man’s Puritan background, his genuine intellectual beliefs based on clinical experience, or his perhaps Oedipal jealousy of the father figure. Hampton smiles—this ambiguity is clearly part of his dangerous method—and merely opines, “I think it was a little bit of everything. They were colleagues who became competitive and never transcended that.”

While Hampton professes enormous admiration for Freud’s ideas and stature, there’s no question that his years of delving into Jung’s psyche have struck a personal chord.

“The most attractive Jungian idea for me— which seems to me to fit with life experience as well—is individuation. Roughly defined, it says that it’s not until you’re about 40 that you really figure out your real character and can assume it. And once you assume it, that’s who you are, and you derive an enormous amount of consolation from understanding who you are. Which is not so far from what Freud is saying, but it puts a different spin on it, a positive spin.

“I feel that’s true in my life. Not until that stage of my life was I really comfortable being who I was, and who I am. It’s a question of coming to terms with what you can fix and what you can’t fix.”

Now past 40 and seemingly secure in himself as a man and dramatist, Hampton bodes likely to “fix” many more plays and screenplays, and bring us to even more insight into who we are as human beings, before he’s through—or should we say, before his hour is up.

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