‘Humanity Laid Bare’: A ‘Freud’s Last Session’ Q&A


In the new film Freud’s Last Session, based on the play by Mark St. Germain, C. S. Lewis visits Sigmund Freud at the advent of World War II. The resulting debate and friendship are fictional, but many of their arguments and elements of their life stories are taken from the men’s own writings.

CT interviewed director and cowriter Matthew Brown and actor Matthew Goode, who plays Lewis. Mild spoilers ahead. Freud’s Last Session premieres in New York and Los Angeles on December 22 and is expected to release nationally in early 2024. See CT’s review here.

This conversation has been edited and condensed.

What do you think about the premise of Freud and Lewis having a discussion together? Is this how the two men would have interacted had they met?

Matthew Goode: I know that some people will feel like it should have been more heated and shouty, but one thing I’m proud about is that the film didn’t become that. It’s nuanced, and complicated, and less about point-scoring.

And it’s about a man who’s at the end of his life, who was pretty angry about the pain that he’s had to endure. He’s lined C. S. Lewis up like a bullseye, and he’s a human dart flying at it. And that was Lewis’s job, to parry these barbs that are sent his way.

We all know that Jesus existed; that’s irrefutable. But neither man can prove or disprove whether he was the Son of God. It’s actually what unites them. And that’s the beauty of faith. So I think that’s exactly how it would’ve gone. I think they’d have had a really great friendship.

How did you work to portray this matchup of minds as balanced, without feeling like it was decided one way or the other?

Matthew Brown: If you come into it not having an agenda, that’s a good place to start. I wanted to keep myself as the filmmaker out of it completely. It’s not We have to keep score; that’s not how life is. It has a human part of the story that is just as important as the intellectual debate. So I really felt like leaving it to the audience to decide what they thought.

The weird thing is, everybody thinks the other side won when they see it. My Christian friends think that Freud was more convincing, and vice versa, the psychiatric community thinks that Lewis won. It’s fascinating.

What do you hope audiences take from this portrayal of two men with opposing viewpoints being able to talk through disagreements without vilifying each other?

Brown: The reason I made this film was the timeliness of it and the need for discussion and conversation. And I hoped if I could keep out of it, that would allow audiences to have a conversation themselves. If they want to discuss who won or other aspects of the film, that’s great, but hopefully they wouldn’t be afraid to have conversation.

Today everyone is afraid to speak, and the loudest voice in the room tends to win, and it’s ridiculous because there’s more in common than not between these two people as human beings. That’s what I love: At the end of this film, I feel like neither of them want to leave.

What helped you understand the character of Lewis? Did embodying him change any of your own views?

Goode: I was aware only of the Chronicles of Narnia as a child growing up, so he was a wonderful man to research. (The elephant in the room is the fact that Tony had played Lewis in Shadowlands, which shows him later on in his life.)

There wasn’t anything I found that changed my opinion on the man or on any faith. I still don’t know where I fall when it comes to my belief system. But what I did love is he’s having his faith tested. And it was an exercise in biting his lip and being respectful toward someone who is clearly dying and is his elder. What you have is humanity laid bare. Change happens from conversations at your own kitchen table, so hopefully people will go home and talk about it.

I love the very humanizing moments they have that aren’t during talk or debate but while helping each other through pain and suffering.

Brown: By the end of this film, you have Lewis putting his hand into Freud’s mouth to assist him as he’s choking on a prosthetic. That’s very, very human. They’re helping one another and they’re caring about one another, and they can laugh at jokes. One of my favorite moments is Lewis tying Freud’s apron as Freud is in the pantry. They might disagree, but they’re still people, and they can like each other.

What was it like working with Mark St. Germain, the playwright, on this screenplay? What did you bring to it to make it feel more cinematic?

Brown: This whole thing took place over about six years. I worked with Mark in the beginning just as a director; he was screenwriting and I was giving him notes. At a certain point, I took over more as a writer/director.

The challenge was finding ways to keep the story moving forward on the human side, whether through the flashbacks or the fantasy sequences, and making sure you stay engaged with the conversation in the room. It doesn’t really work if you do it all one way or the other way. It has to be a balance, which is funny because you have these two people with these different ideas and that’s also a balance.

Goode: It’s a balance of what the moviegoing audience will accept as well, because the last thing it needs is to become just two people for two hours having an argument. That’s not going to be fascinating to watch. So it needed movement. And also you get to show that they have more in common—with their overbearing fathers and their childhoods—than not.

Brown: Yeah. When Lewis is talking about the war, if you don’t actually see the war and you don’t see the PTSD, it won’t have the same weight. So it was important to have those elements.

Goode: I liked that you separated those two things. You didn’t go from the PTSD into a flashback. It was nice to have 45 minutes between, because it makes you come full circle. It has more of an effect, I think—certainly when I watched it.

Brown: I hope people will come to a cinema for a film like this. Audiences right now are not given a lot of films that trust them to think and make up their own minds and engage intellectually.

Goode: Actors aren’t given a lot of those scripts, either.

What was behind your decision to bring Anna Freud in as a major character, when she was only mentioned in the play?

Brown: I wanted this to be a story about two therapy sessions going on simultaneously as much as a philosophical debate.

When you look at C. S. Lewis, his great issue is his PTSD, and there might’ve been some unconscious replacing of—certainly Freud would suggest—his mother with Janie Moore, the mother of his friend who was in the trenches with him.

Then on the other side of the coin you have Freud, who’s nearing the last days of his life, who is tormented by the loss of his daughter Sophie, who was the apple of his eye. He has this very conflicted relationship with his other daughter, who’s trying to follow in his footsteps and was incredibly successful as a child psychiatrist. To me, to understand Freud at this time in his life was to understand Anna Freud. So we had to bring her forward.

What would you say to Christian viewers, who perhaps know more about Lewis than Freud or bring in preconceived notions about the two men?

Brown: I showed the film to my brother-in-law, and I was nervous because he was well-read on Lewis and is a pastor at a church. He said he felt like I had been fair about and true to Lewis as much as I was to Freud. What he loved about it was it allows Christians to have their faith challenged. That’s a very important part of being a Christian. And I’m hoping that could be said for the other side too. We all should be unafraid to be challenged in our beliefs, because it helps us grow and evolve. So I hope Christians can see Lewis through Matthew’s beautiful performance, be challenged, and consider that.

Alexandra Mellen is senior copy editor at Christianity Today.





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