The Madness Behind A Dangerous Method: A Conversation with Christopher Hampton

Viggo Mortensen as Sigmund Freud/Photo by Liam Daniel, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
Viggo Mortensen as Sigmund Freud/Photo by Liam Daniel, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

British writer Christopher Hampton – who has both a Tony nomination and an Academy Award for his “Dangerous Liaisons” script – speaks with the same linguistic economy demonstrated by his written work. Think John Malkovich's hypnotic repetition of the phrase "it's beyond my control" in 1988's "Liaisons." When Hampton rings up from his London home, his speech is studded with shorthand like "i.e." for the Latin phrase "id est" or "in other words," never once confusing it with its doppelgänger "e.g." or "exempli gratia." In one case, Hampton even has me balancing the telephone receiver on one shoulder as I frantically tear through The Oxford English Dictionary with both hands to suss the meaning of the word "traduce," which he conversationally drops into our chat. The reason for this unexpectedly acrobatic call? "A Dangerous Method," Hampton's adaptation of the book by John Kerr.

Perhaps it's only appropriate that Oxford figures in our conversation as it's that very British university where, in his freshman year, Hampton wrote When Did You Last See My Mother? That play eventually made him the youngest playwright ever to have his work produced in London's West End, a ball he got rolling simply by sending his script to the British theatrical legend who discovered Joe Orton.

"Peggy Ramsay was sort of my second mother," Hampton explains. "She read my first play when I was twenty and took me on, persuading The Royal Court to put it on. She was my mentor, really." But Ramsay was not all mother love. "She was very severe," Hampton says. "She'd ring me at 8:30 in the morning and say, 'Are you up, dear? It's time for you to get to work.'" Ramsay also turned her nose up at film. "She didn't really like them," Hampton says. "The one area of disagreement we always had was my enthusiasm for writing movies. She always thought they were something you wrote to make some money, but the really important work went on in the theater."

But now that the child prodigy is seasoned enough to collect his old age pension, he's seen things come full circle. His first play is still a tightly coiled beast, currently enjoying a revival in the West End that The Guardian compares to "watching a boa constrictor swallow its prey whole and then complain bitterly about self-inflicted indigestion." Hampton is also busy preparing for an entire season dedicated to his work at Minneapolis' renowned Guthrie Theater while simultaneously putting the finishing touches on the book and lyrics for the musical version of Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca, set to debut on Broadway this April.

But the topic today is "A Dangerous Method," which started out life in the late '90s as a script for 20th Century Fox. "It made them uneasy in some way or another," Hampton understates. So he re-fashioned it as a stage play called The Talking Cure, which the director David Cronenberg got his hands on. "He didn't see the play," Hampton clarifies, "but he read it about a year after it was published. Eventually I admitted to him that it started life as a screenplay."

Once Cronenberg got a look at the film script, they both agreed that the play's focus on real-life patient Sabina Spielrein, whose analysis was shared by noted psychiatrists Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, was the way to go. "So the film is much closer, weirdly enough, to the play than to the original screenplay," Hampton says. What would Peggy think? Wasn't she basically opening up a world in which the writer was king and poo-pooing another that was essentially director driven? Hampton is not so sure. He admits he was on set while Cronenberg was triangulating Viggo Mortensen, Keira Knightley, and Michael Fassbender into their doctor-patient-doctor menage, "but there wasn't any input by that stage ... It varies from director to director, but by the time David Cronenberg gets on set, he knows what he's doing. He doesn't need any more input at all. He's completely and absolutely fixed."

Not so Hampton, who admits his process is much more intuitive. "I need to connect with a work in some undefinable, emotional way," he says. "I know pretty much when I read something whether I want to work on it or not. And the criteria is always instinct." That's not to say he's totally flying by the seat of his pants, but though his latest script details the birth of modern psychotherapy, he admits he's never tried it. "I've always been nervous of it," he says. "Whatever irregularities and abnormalities and lunacies I might be harboring, they have done me no harm. In other words, I don't want to be cured."

Whether or not a cure is even possible is a debate that's central to "A Dangerous Method." Hampton's research picked up where what he calls Kerr's "big book about the early history of psychoanalysis" left off when it was published in 1993. "Kerr, for example, didn't know," Hampton says, "or was not in a position to know, whether or not Jung and Sabina had a sexual relationship and opined that they hadn't. He knew that she'd confessed to being masochistic, but he didn't read any of the details of the treatment." Hampton's solution? "I was lucky enough to find the case notes in the hospital in Zurich," he says. "They were Jung's case notes and therefore laid out the whole thing in detail, including her physical ticks that we put into the film."

"There were things that weren't in the book that I had to find," he explains, "but it's really a different process than adapting a novel. And you really have a responsibility when you're dealing with real people. If you take the view," he continues, "which I do, that what really happened is bound to be more interesting than what you can invent, well then, you've got to be careful to make sure that you don't traduce these people. Especially if they -- like all of us, really, from time to time do things that weren't particularly admirable."

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