Interview: Matthew Brown on Freud’s Last Session, casting Sir Anthony Hopkins, and staying neutral in opposing conversations

In his final days, Sigmund Freud, a recent escapee with his daughter from the Nazi regime, receives a visit from the formidable Oxford Don C.S. Lewis (author of “The Chronicles of Narnia”). On this day, two of the greatest minds of the twentieth century intimately engage in a monumental session over the belief in the future of mankind and the existence of God.

A fictional meeting of minds, but one that proves fascinating to ponder on what that interaction could have made way for, director Matthew Brown helms this intellectually stimulating affair in Freud’s Last Session.

As the film arrives in Australian theatres, following its premiere at the famed AFI Festival last year, Peter Gray spoke with the filmmaker about his luck in casting the incomparable Sir Anthony Hopkins, his own personal ties to the field of psychiatry, and which figure he aligns himself with, if at all.

I feel like there’s so many things to ask about with this film, but I’ll start with Sir Anthony Hopkins.  I imagine he isn’t the easiest actor to secure?

Yes, that’s true. It was difficult. It took two tries. He was difficult to get, but he was probably the most creatively generous actor I’ve ever met in my life. So once you got him you, you really got him.

Was there ever any other plan for the character should Anthony Hopkins not have said yes?

We didn’t get him originally, and then we went to Christopher Plummer.  We got (him), and I met with him and worked on it, and I really fell in love with him.  I thought he was wonderful.  Sadly, he passed.  And then I was doing some more work on the script that I wanted to do, and they asked me who I wanted to go to.  I’m a glutton for punishment, so we tried (Anthony Hopkins) one more time.  For whatever reason he said yes.  That then began the whole process, which is something that I’ll never forget.

There’s parallels between this film and The Man Who Knew Infinity.  Was there anything specific about this story that made you want to tell it?

Well, I didn’t want to tell the story initially, because it was too close to …Infinity when it first came to me.  But I was drawn to the themes of it.  Just naturally drawn to questioning mortality and thinking about that, and that’s just sort of intellectually fascinating to me that I was like, “Yeah, I want to work on this.”

And I did work on it for a long time.  And then I didn’t really think it was going to happen.  It felt too difficult to get made, to be honest with you.  I was in Belgium and I was doing a location scout on the film I’m hopefully going to do next, but the actress was in that Euphoria show, and she had gotten her (filming) dates messed up, so I was sitting in a chateau in Belgium, looking around, thinking “What am I going to do?”

When I got home to Los Angeles, I had a phone call telling me Anthony Hopkins said yes to (this film), and they asked me if I was free.  “Yeah, I guess I’m free.”  So, then it just happened.  It’s a weird thing, because I wouldn’t have probably chosen (this) as my second film after …Infinity, but I’m super glad I did, and I’m proud of  it.

I know it’s historical in nature, but it feel so timely in a way.  Our society is so polarised right now, and the idea of two people that are intellectually curious and want to have some debate, and talk, and can actually leave liking each other man than when they arrived, when they completely disagreed with one another, is really appealing to me.  When this film came to me, like 5 years ago, things were nuts here in America.  But, today? It’s nuts on steroids!

I really liked that these two characters, with their very opinionated personalities, have a debate and it’s very much about understanding the other.  They’re talking to each other, not AT each other.  Do you personally relate to Freud more? Or Lewis? Or are you neutral?

I’m probably kind of in between the two.  I mean, I felt like it was very important if I was going to make the story to be neutral.  I’m a little sick and tired of being told what to think and how to feel.  I guess I’m a little bit of a hypocrite as I like it, and it’s your right as a filmmaker, and it’s one of the pleasures of being able to have your art be political.  I’m all for that.  But I’m also a little tired of it.

With this film, you’re talking directly about God, and maybe it’s an argument you don’t take a position on and you let people just make up their own mind on who won the argument.  Or does anyone need to win the argument?  Are we just watching two people? And maybe we’re going to learn how these people came to have their beliefs?  We all have these flaws in life, and we’re all human, and that was sort of the joy of (making the film).  It felt so important to stay out of it, in a sense.

I understand your father is a psychiatrist?  Does that closeness to the profession help with a movie like this?  Or is it too close to home?

I didn’t want to touch it with a 20 foot pole!  My hope with The Man Who Knew Infinity was that we were true to mathematicians, and who they really were, and they really embraced the film.  It really meant a lot to them.  And I think I tried to stay true to Freud and to Lewis in principle, and I had a good litmus test in my father and his partner, she’s a psychiatrist as well.

Their whole community saw the film, and it passed the bar for them, so that helped me feel more confident.  The last thing I wanted to do was embarrass them and not stay authentic about the whole thing.  If it’s a good film or not, that’s okay.  But don’t get Freud’s work wrong!

Was there any aspect of Freud that you uncovered in research that wasn’t necessarily well known that you wanted to bring out in Anthony’s performance?

Yeah, there was.  It actually came from my dad telling me about (Freud), not from my own research.  But one was aspect was Freud had a pretty good sense of humour.  My dad told me to play the humour up.  I think this film plays best with an audience and on a big screen for that.  I was really happy that we got laughs in the right places.  And I think that humour was important, and also just intellectual curiosity. I think people look back at Freud and think, “Oh, he’s so rigid.” But If Freud was alive today, I think he would have thrown away half of his ideas and be on to new ideas.  He was fascinated by human beings and understanding them.

And offsetting Anthony Hopkins’ casting, you have Matthew Goode.  Such an underrated performer.  How did he come about for you?

It was COVID, and my now-wife and I were just huddled up and miserable, like everyone else, and we started watching (A Discovery of Witches).  I watched every episode, and it was exactly what I needed during COVID.  I was like, “This guy’s good!”  No matter what material is thrown at him, he’s good.  It’s amazing.  He elevates everything.  And I wished I could work with him, and this was the perfect opportunity.  Now I don’t ever want to make a movie that he’s not in.

This being based on a book, too, is there ever pressure felt in adapting someone else’s work?  Do you take inspiration? Or are you able to separate yourself from the material?

There’s a little bit of that.  It’s a real challenge because the roots are so firmly ingrained in the (original) play that the book was written off of.  Those roots were never going to change.  So, how do you decide you’re going to do this format? Love them or hate them, the flashbacks (in the film) allow us to get glimpses into what made these characters and what decisions came into their lives that they had to make.  It was really fun, because it was sort of like a visual experiment to play with.  I wanted to do that with my last film, but we didn’t have the time or money, so (here) I got to dig a little deeper into the psychology.  This is a film for a more patient audience, you know? That TikTok, fast YouTube generation…not to say they won’t enjoy this, but please be patient with (this).

Freud’s Last Session is now screening in Australian theatres.

Peter Gray

Seasoned film critic. Gives a great interview. Penchant for horror. Unashamed fan of Michelle Pfeiffer and Jason Momoa.