Screenwriter Christopher Hampton and Psychologist John Kerr Weigh In on the Method Behind 'A Dangerous Method'

Michael Fassbender as Carl Jung and Viggo Mortensen as Sigmund Freud; Photo by Liam Daniel, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
Michael Fassbender as Carl Jung and Viggo Mortensen as Sigmund Freud; Photo by Liam Daniel, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

It's been thirty years since screenwriter Christopher Hampton first heard mention of a brilliant young hysteric-turned-academic named Sabina Spielrein, who may have played a pivotal role in the birth of psychoanalysis, as conduit between Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. Transfixed by Spielrein's mysterious role in the birth of psychoanalysis, Hampton spent decades sleuthing out the details of her life and her impact on two of the most influential and polarizing figures in the twentieth century. "I had always been very interested in psychoanalysis and Freud and I had always been looking for a subject that would enable me to write about the origins of psychoanalysis," says Hampton, who poured his exhaustive research into a celebrated play on London's West End before translating it to the screen in the form "A Dangerous Method," the new David Cronenberg film starring Keira Knightley as Spielrein, the hypotenuse in the academic and amorous triangle with Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and Jung (Michael Fassbender).

Hampton was not prepared for the groundbreaking discoveries he'd make on his first European fact-finding expedition to the psychiatric institutes where Freud and Jung worked. "I had an instinct there was something interesting in this story but I didn't know what it was until I went to Switzerland and Vienna to do research," recalls Hampton, who managed to convince the curator of the small museum in the hospital where Jung treated Spielrein -- who is largely believed to be the first documented patient to be treated with the "talking cure" -- to allow him to read Jung's original notes about the case. "Though their relationship had  been written about," says Hampton, referring to John Kerr's eponymous nonfiction book upon which the film is loosely based, "what [Kerr's book] didn’t cover was the day-to-day details of the therapy in which Jung described her physical state. Everything that comes in the film between them in therapy was taken exactly from those notes."

Years earlier, Kerr was also surprised by the unexpected discoveries he made about Spielrein's Delphic insights into the human psyche and the flaws in Freud's view of the sources of human misery. "She never gets credit for her contribution, which was a big one," says Kerr. "She questioned why the unconscious would favor sexual drives over all else. Why wouldn’t you repress your hate, your ambition, or your insecurities? Freud’s theory really calls for there to be a repressive force pushing sexuality out of your head and fighting against it. She came up with a theory of why that would be: Sex leads to a theory of dissolution of selfhood. You lose the selfhood. It’s felt as a threat to the self. That’s why love and death have always been equated."

This is the kind of complex, heady material that might drive a less seasoned screenwriter into extra sessions on the therapist's couch. Hampton prepared himself for the task by reading the complete works of both Freud and Jung. "It was like going to university and studying psychology," recalls Hampton. "I’ve always loved Freud. I’ve read Freud like you read a detective novel. I love those case histories. He writes so lucidly. Jung on the other hand I couldn’t get my head around."

The more time he spent immersed in the research, the more the contours of the story began to change. "When I wrote the original screenplay it was called Sabina," says Hampton, who initially wrote the script with Julia Roberts attached to play the lead. "But when it didn’t look like the film was going to get made and I decided to make a play out of it, it dawned on me that Sabina was not the central character. The central character was Jung. I had sort of made a breakthrough with Jung. I found him rather unsympathetic. He wasn’t living as passionately and ambitiously as he could. Suddenly I understood him and completely identified with him. Freud renounced life in favor of work. Jung of course thought Freud was unduly obsessed with sexuality without realizing he was embodying it in some sort of way."

The process of distilling such dense material over such a long period of time took a toll on Hampton. "Toward the end of writing the play I got physically ill because it was so complicated," the screenwriter recalls. "I was in a hotel in Paris trying to finish it and I had to go to bed for three days. It all overwhelmed me. The amount of concentration required to make all that stuff accessible without oversimplifying it was a tremendous challenge. The trick was to avoid having people say to each other, 'I had this idea about archetypes ...'"

The final film, which hits theaters nationwide this month, only glancingly hints at the groundbreaking clinicians' more famous ideas. When Jung says that "nothing is a coincidence," Hampton is alluding to his later interest in metaphysics and the notion of the collective unconscious. Freud is never to be found without a phallic cigar dangling from his lips.

Though much of Hampton's pressure to accurately represent his subjects was self-imposed, he was relieved to learn that the administrators of the Freud museum approved of the play, which would ultimately serve as the basis for the film. No word yet from Jung's camp. "The Jungians are more reserved," Hampton says with a chuckle. "I once had a terrifying moment when I was told I had a call from someone called Fritz Jung, who was very upset about my play. I took the call and about two minutes into the conversation I realized it was Ralph Fiennes. He was brilliant. He really had me going."