by Christine Westwood

When the script for Freud’s Last Session was sent to director and writer Matt Brown (The Man Who Knew Infinity) from producer Alan Greisman, his first reaction was far from enthusiastic.

“It wasn’t even a final draft,” Brown tells FilmInk. “It was just a Microsoft Word first draft and I thought, ‘oh my goodness what is this? You’ve got to be kidding! It’s Freud and C.S. Lewis, I’m not touching this one with a ten-foot pole’.”

Brown could be forgiven for his reluctance. The premise is heavyweight: an imagined meeting between two of the greatest minds of the 20th century, father of psychoanalysis and atheist Sigmund Freud with C.S. Lewis, a Christian and author of the Narnia series of children’s books. The time period is on the eve of the Second World War and close to the end of Freud’s life.

“But then I read it, because it was Alan and it got under my skin,” Brown continues. “I think the themes, mortality and questions all around that just hooked me in. I thought it was a chance to make something visually interesting at the same time.

“I was supposed to be making this other film and the actress became unavailable for a year. Within half an hour, I got a phone call saying Anthony Hopkins wants to do Freud’s Last Session – what do you think? I was yeah – I’m available!’”

Casting Hopkins was a game changer. His characterisation of Freud is mercurial, wide scope and fiercely intelligent.

“I have to say, getting to work with Hopkins was one of the coolest, most educational experiences of my life,” says Brown. “He may be the most creatively generous actor I’ve ever met. He opened up his own life.”

So, what interested Hopkins in the role enough to shoot a physically demanding part where he is in almost every scene, along with Matthew Goode who plays Lewis, with long pages of dialogue as they argue back and forth over issues of mortality and religion?

“I think he was interested in it because he was looking at his own mortality. I think he brought a lifetime to it. I think he cares about a lot of the things that were talked about the war. He lived through the war and has memories of that, and I think that he feels a kinship with the Jewish people. For whatever reason, he’s done a lot of projects where he’s portrayed Jewish people. He feels very strongly about supporting them and talking about issues of the Holocaust.

“He just brought a breadth of knowledge and I got to learn about his craft and how he approaches the making and acting, which was like a masterclass.”

Brown directed a pair of disparate actors, Dev Patel and Jeremy Irons, in The Man Who Knew Infinity, so he has particular experience in balancing two-hander scenes. We asked how that worked with Hopkins and Goode.

“Funnily enough, they are similar in that neither of them want to do more than two takes. They’re those sort of actors. They work fast. So, we would spend part of the day rehearsing it and blocking it out, then the second part would be a mad dash to the end. It helped that we were on a stage set, because we just did not have a lot of time at all.

“I think it was a tribute to Hopkins that the crew were so respectful. You could hear a pin drop on set. There were no producers behind the monitor, none of that. It was a quiet, safe set to experiment in and work through stuff, so that allowed us to do some pretty complicated blocking and work out some pretty fantastic performances. And there was a lot of preparation that went in ahead of time.

“Because Hopkins was so kind and generous, it was easier than it might have been. I think sometimes we underestimate how much actors do in terms of preparation. I mean, his preparation was vast, so we had a lot of time interacting, which took my fear level down to be comfortable with him! But you’re still in awe. But I think as a director, your job is to really be present on set, and because of him, I felt I could. If he’d rolled in with a whole complex, that would have been hard, but it wasn’t that way.”

We asked Brown what he thought about current popular ideas of Freud, and what the film might bring in terms of an intelligent and relevant portrayal.

“I feel like the ‘popular’ ideas are the total sexualised version of him or hyped up on cocaine… I feel that Freud is also dismissed by so many people, who feel like he and his ideas are just passe. I hope the film shows that he was incredibly intellectually curious, so that if it were today, he probably would have thrown half those ideas away and he’d be on to new ideas because that’s how he was.

“I’m looking at him from the point of view of him looking at his life. He’s wanting to examine the possibility of new ideas that maybe would change his mind on something, because he doesn’t want to die and only have his certainty of atheism as true. I think he’s intellectually curious about what somebody as smart as Lewis can bring to the table, maybe he’s got a new idea, or maybe it’s just about Freud interacting on an intellectual idea, right up to the end of his time.

“I took it from the point of view of flawed humans and a therapy session and a look at mortality more than trying to capture Freud from a pop culture point of view, or Lewis either, for that matter. I was almost hoping you could forget they were these two famous people, that they were just two people in a room talking about mortality.

“It’s a curious film in that it requires patience, it requires listening. We’re sort of sitting thinking, why doesn’t Lewis fight back or yell at him, but that’s not who he would have been and it’s not what Matthew [Goode] wanted to do and not what I wanted him to do. This is a film about two people who are listening. It’s one of the hardest things to do in life, it’s one of the things society has forgotten how to do.”

The evocative period look of the film, including a war sequence that was shot in just one and a half days, is a credit to Cinematographer Ben Smithard (The Father, My Week with Marilyn), who Brown praises as “wonderful, really talented.

“We watched a bunch of films together, we talked about it, looked at images, he’s got these giant books he refers to and he draws everything out really well, not like my stick figure drawings. It really helps with the crew too, because his drawings bring it to life in a 3D kind of way. Everything he brings to the table, he’s a delight to work with. I just wish we could have given him more time and more money and the lights he deserved. He’s worked with Hopkins a number of times, which was extremely helpful to me, just for Tony’s comfort level.”

The job of editing the long dialogue scenes was led by Paul Tothill (Pride and Prejudice, Atonement).

“The original cut, we used almost every single scene and that was extraordinary. We were rushing so much that we never got to test the film, so our test audience was at the AFI festival (October 2023). Someone said, ‘if you’re showing it at the AFI, why not show it at the other festivals?’ And I’m going ‘we’re not done’! We’d just done the sound mix and one day later, we’re at AFI showing a film! We had a mad dash at the end, like 10 days at it after AFI. There’s a scene that’s not in the film now that’s making me crazy that I cut!”

Without spoilers, Brown described one of his favourite scenes as “the sequence where Freud and Lewis are standing across the desk from each other and they’re doing a play on a shouting scene. I intuitively felt that we’ve had enough yelling, let’s have it as a quiet, scathing take down of each others’ character. I thought there was something really powerful in that. I remember feeling very proud of it because it felt authentic. You don’t have to scream and yell to be powerful and to get a point across.

“I remember we did a Deadline thing in Los Angeles where we showed the audience that scene and their jaw dropped afterward. It was intense on the big screen seeing these two amazing actors take each other down.

“I like the end too, when they say goodbye and Hopkins puts his head into Matthew’s shoulder. I remember him saying to me at the time, ‘Is that too much?’ and I said, ‘No, I think that’s beautiful’. Because that’s what the film was about, that we can have all these disagreements and actually like the person we’re disagreeing with.”

Freud’s Last Session is in cinemas 18 April 2024