Freud’s Last Session Director Matt Brown Talks Designing a Debate Between Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis

Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis were trailblazers in their respective fields. Freud was the founder of psychoanalysis, which irreversibly changed how we think about matters such as sexuality, behaviour, and the subconscious. While Lewis’ name has proven eternal as the author of The Chronicles of Narnia, along with his other works in Christian theology. The two men made monumental strides in a time of significant change, and their accomplishments have greatly impacted the very nature of faith and self. And although they never met, many were tantalised by what a conversation between the two brilliant, contrasting minds would have looked like.

In Matt Brown’s third feature, Freud’s Last Session, the director brings that prospect to the screen. Based on the stage play of the same name, the film plays out an imagined conversation between Freud and Lewis, with Anthony Hopkins and Matthew Goode portraying the pair. It is the beginning of World War II, and Lewis meets with Freud in London. As they listen out for updates from Winston Churchill, they analyse their differing stances on God. Lewis has recently embraced Christianity, while the atheist Freud has mortality on his mind, knowing cancer will soon claim him. Like the men it is fictionalising, the film has plenty to say. It is a two-hour game of intellectual tennis, with each volley more provocative than the last. 

Before the debate hits our shores, I was given some time to speak with Brown about the ambitious project. We talked about being the impartial party, the nod to an Anthony Hopkins classic, and what went into creating a Freudian fever dream. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

Freud’s Last Session is in Australian cinemas from April 18, 2024.

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What was the origin of Freud’s Last Session?

Matt Brown: It started when I finished The Man Who Knew Infinity. I was working on some other projects, and this producer I worked with on another thing with Doug Liman years ago ran into my brother [Coby Brown], who’s my composer, at a coffee stand in town. He was like, ‘Wait, you’re Matt’s brother!’ And he ran back to his car and stuck the script in my brother’s hands. It was a very first draft of the script by the playwright. I then read it and was like, ‘Oh, my God, this is just too much like my last film’ (laughs). The themes of it got under my skin, and I agreed to develop it and see where it went.

That’s what happened, but it took five or six years. It stopped and started, and different actors [came on board] and all that kind of stuff. I was doing a location scout in Belgium, thinking I was shooting this one movie, but the actress had a push because she’s on Euphoria. I was like, ‘Oh, my God, I’m in Belgium, looking at my location, what the heck?’ Then a phone call came literally half an hour later, saying that Anthony Hopkins wanted to do this movie. I was like, ‘Oh, okay, right now?’ And the person on the phone said, ‘Yes, right now!’ So I shifted gears immediately. I didn’t know that this was going to happen, but then it happened, which is life (laughs).

When Anthony Hopkins tells you he is interested, you’re not passing that up, are you?

MB: No! No! And then when Matthew Goode said yes, I was just like, ‘Oh, my gosh.’ It was amazing.

Did you have any fascination or prior knowledge of Sigmund Freud or C.S. Lewis?

MB: I mean, my father’s a psychiatrist, so Freud was in the house. I didn’t know that much, but I saw his books and was fully aware. With Lewis, I had read the Narnia books growing up and loved them, but I didn’t understand all the religious connotations and aspects of them. So it was an interesting time of discovery on this to learn more about Lewis and Freud.

Anthony Hopkins previously portrayed C.S. Lewis in Richard Attenborough’s Shadowlands. Did that ever come up in conversation?

MB: It definitely came up. In fact, Matthew Goode wears a sweater as an homage to him in that other film. Matthew and Tony talked about his approach to playing Lewis a little bit. I think he gave Matthew some confidence and some help in finding his own direction with it. So, yeah, that did come up. 

Freud and Lewis are iconic figures in their fields, and like Hopkins in Shadowlands, both have been portrayed in films before. Were there any particular qualities that your actors really wanted to imbue in their renditions?

MB: Yes, Matthew and I talked about him being really present and almost Zen. He embraced that side of it because Matthew felt C.S. Lewis would have been very respectful of somebody of Freud’s stature. Also, Freud is so ill and towards the end of his life, so he wasn’t going to blow a fuse and start yelling at him. It’s sort of difficult because you have a conversation that could potentially go real heated this way or that way. But I think he wanted to bring that level of emotional authenticity to it. It allows you to watch the performance on his face in many ways. He’s so emotive. Matthew is such a fast, smart actor. He really had to force himself to slow down with us.

Then with Freud, Hopkins was basically looking and drawing on his whole life. He was alive during World War II. He had a lot of friends and experiences around that time, in terms of being in the Jewish quarters in Germany and Eastern Europe at different times after the war. He drew on a lot of his memories and experiences, and he brought them forth into different moments as an actor, which was interesting. 

You adapted the play with its author, Mark St. Germain. How did that partnership form and function?

MB: Well, he’s a playwright, so that’s sort of its own challenge to let go and then go into screenwriting. I let him lead that path for a very long time. Then years went by, and then eventually, I sort of took over because it felt like we were closer to having something that was actually going to go. When it came to working with actors — albeit different actors at different stages — in developing it, I went on my way. But for a long time, it was just us having some conversations and Mark going off and doing his thing. Then, eventually, I went off and did my thing. 

Were the two of you mindful that the proceedings didn’t feel too stage-like and that a cinematic quality was always present?

MB: We kind of embraced the stage of it, in a sense. But also, it’s Freud and it’s dreams and it’s flashbacks and it’s understanding how these two people came to a place of understanding so we, as an audience, understand who they are, why they’re making the statements they’re making, and what their flaws actually are. Really, it’s a therapy session between the two of them, and they’re both such remarkably flawed characters, which is funny in itself. 

But, yes, there are super real challenges adapting a play with two men in a room to the screen. That is not something I care to do again if I can help it (laughs). But at the same time, I feel like this kind of film is for a certain type of audience. It’s for all of us, sure, but you have to be a little bit more patient watching this film, and I think that’s okay. In a world of TikTok and superheroes and everything else, I don’t think I’m going to win over that audience. I’m pretty sure I won’t, but for those who may want something a little more intellectually challenging, I think it should be enjoyable. I hope it’s fun and maybe brings a few new insights. Not that there’s anything new being said or proposed by either man because there isn’t, but just in how they interact with one another and how they find respect. That seems to be something that is a new idea these days. 

Two scenes in particular give the film a greater scope. The first is the war sequence where Lewis and his fellow soldiers storm No Man’s Land. The other is Freud’s hallucinatory fever dream. How was it crafting those sequences?

MB: The war sequence was just terrifying because we had a day and a half to shoot it. That’s hard. That’s a challenge. But it was great because the actors were terrific and cinematographer Ben Smithard was amazing shooting that. The other one was really interesting because I took the approach that it would have almost been like shooting a 1980s music video. We had a lot of fun with it. Different ideas came from different people in different departments. 

Originally, it was written very cliché. It was just Freud going through and having these sexualised statues that were just having … I don’t know, incestuous sex or something. I was just like, ‘I’m not doing that.’ So it wound up being much more interesting to introduce some of the characters in his life and have it be something like seeing his daughter and his younger self and his father and how that could all play, and having your younger self feel like he’s trying to kill you. It grew into something organically, and I think that’s a tribute to film, in general, being a collaborative process. 

The film spends a lot of time with Freud’s daughter, Anna. Could you tell me about delving into her dependent relationship with her father and making it such a key part of the story?

MB: I really enjoyed it. That was one of the things that had some appeal to me because I wanted it to feel a little bit more modern. And you could make a whole movie about Anna Freud. I think she’s great, and I’ve been wanting to work with this actress, Liv Lisa Fries, forever. She’s just amazing. She’s in Babylon Berlin; for anyone who hasn’t seen that, see it! It’s incredible! She’s incredible! And I was so lucky to get her to do this. And I thought that relationship helps to understand who Freud is and what he’s struggling with at the end of his life. He lost the apple of his eye, his other daughter, Sophie, and Anna really had to live in a shadow and find a way to come out from under it, and he plays a supportive yet very messed up role. There’s no other term for it. He had her and her lover in therapy with him. That analysis is pretty unethical by today’s standards, I think. 

The concept of religion is so paramount to these characters, but for different reasons. Is religion something you feel strongly about? If so, did the film provide you an outlet to explore your feelings on the topic?

MB: Interesting question. I think what was important to me was the idea that our societies are so divided and polarised and that we can talk about things such as religion and not just be filled with hate and actually listen. To me, what was fun was watching these two characters actually have intellectual curiosity.

I don’t know if religion is the right word; perhaps it’s what happens next. I’ve had a lot of death in my life, so I’ve thought about mortality a lot and what that means. That was what I was exploring more so than, say, religion. But certainly, I had all kinds of religions that I grew up under. My father’s side was one religion, and my mother’s side was another. So I have a lot of experience with looking at different aspects of institutionalised religion. But they were thoughtful, open people that would listen and consider different ideas. I’ve got a more optimistic opinion of people than I do of the people that tell us what to think. I feel like the media and certain folks have political agendas, but actually, most people are probably a little bit more thoughtful and intellectually curious than they get credit for and are allowed to be.

I appreciated that the central discussion involved common doubts and frustrations with religion. Specifically, the notion that we’re created by an all-loving power but have to contend with things like war and disease and the cherry-picking of scripture that people invoke to support their biases. That is something you definitely see in certain sectors today.

MB: Absolutely. Human beings have a capacity for love and for hate. It was interesting to see these characters and what both actors brought to them because they did bring quite a bit of themselves to the roles as well. So I was hoping that in the end, people would maybe forget a little bit that this was Freud and this was Lewis. Instead, it was just two people struggling, like the rest of us, with their flaws and mortality and actually finding friendship and respect with somebody that you disagree with.

Based on everything you’ve said, I assume there isn’t one character you align with more than the other. Are you the impartial party?

MB: Well, I felt that was important. I know, certainly here in this country, a lot of audiences were fine with it, but critically speaking, people wanted me to take a side more one way or the other and just be lambasting. But that just wasn’t the film I was trying to make. For me, I don’t know what happens next, so I can’t tell you what side I’m on. I think about it a lot, but I didn’t want to introduce myself into this because there are enough people that want to give you their political agenda when they force a film down your throat. I was trying to do the opposite of that with this and let people make up their own minds. I’m spiritual, but I’m also scientifically curious, I’ll say that much. I think there’s a quote from Albert Einstein, which I’ll butcher, but it’s something to the effect of ‘Religion without science is blind and science without religion is lame.’ Maybe I’m getting it backwards, but we need each.

Although you’ve mentioned your hope that people won’t see Freud and Lewis as their interaction goes on, figures like them endure through depictions in media. What have you taken away from making this film and delivering new interpretations of these men?

MB: With Freud, what I heard so much was, ‘Why are you making a movie about Freud? He’s so passé, his thoughts are stone age.’ He comes across in this as somebody who is intellectually curious, and what I’ve learned about him is that he would have questioned every single one of his ideas. If he realised one of his ideas was wrong, he would move on and come up with a new idea. If he was alive today, he probably would have thrown out half of the stuff and he’d be on to new things. He was such a forward thinker, and I hope that intellectual curiosity comes through in this film, which is who I think he was. And with Lewis, I think he was somebody who was also intellectually curious, and yet was also respectful and kind in how he would deal with somebody like Freud, who was somewhat of a lunatic with him (laughs)

Connor Dalton

Connor Dalton is a freelance entertainment journalist with a Bachelor’s degree in film and television studies. When he isn’t interviewing stars of the screen, he works in the reality television sector. He is sadly not related to Timothy Dalton.

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