It’s been a long time coming – 15 years to be precise – but the prodigal son, visionary director Gore Verbinski, has finally returned to the world of genre filmmaking with A Cure for Wellness, his first horror movie since 2002’s The Ring.
Tapping into the increasingly ambitious and irrational world we live in today, A Cure for Wellness follows Lockhart, an ambitious young stockbroker as he is sent off to a mysterious remote “wellness centre” in the Swiss Alps to retrieve his company’s CEO. Something soon tells him that the spa’s treatments are not as “miraculous” as the staff will have him believe but on attempting to discover the truth, his sanity is tested, as he finds himself diagnosed with the same curious illness that keeps all the guests there longing for the cure.
To celebrate the imminent release of A Cure for Wellness this Friday, 17 February in the U.S. and one week later in the UK, SCREAM’s Howard Gorman sat down with Verbinski to talk about his long-time-coming return to the genre and tapping into a contemporary zeitgeist whilst basing the film’s premise on a novel published back in the 1920s.
SCREAM: Justin Haythe and yourself were particularly influenced by Thomas Mann’s novel “The Magic Mountain” which was published back in 1924. What jumped out of the the book that made you realise it was ripe for the picking and could be adapted into a socially relevant story all these years after Mann wrote it?
Gore Verbinski: Some of it was dealing with this idea of sickness as a kind of badge, as something that people were clutching onto in a mountain above the clouds before the outbreak of the war. In our movie we really tried to say there’s a place that had a vantage point on the human condition for quite a period of time here and the industrial revolution and the development of fossil fuels, personal computers, and all these things contributed to this contemporary illness. As we make our journey to this place through Dane DeHaan’s character, Lockhart, we’re preying on the audience because you’re observing a patient going through a process but really the people sitting in a darkened room in theatres are the patients.
SCREAM: This idea of the audience being “your patients” must have played a major role in the way the story ended up being written/told.
GV: We wanted to try and make something really horrific and that usually works best when you tap into some contemporary zeitgeist. Things are not immediately dismissible because you are tapping into an actual feeling that the audience may have and I also think we’re living in an increasingly irrational world. My hope is that when you leave the theatre, the cure has its residual side effects.
SCREAM: On various occasions you have said that you felt that society was living in denial in the fact that people don’t really see past the notion that we are born to be educated, work and die and not a great deal else. Did the idea of playing on this concept come from a personal place? Had you maybe come to a point in your life where you realised there was more to life and that you too had been living in denial?
GV: Sure. I think that whenever you’re dealing with ambition or achievement, you’re spending time away from your family and you’re on the treadmill. I’m certainly guilty as charged of grinding away. But at what point do you step back and say, “What is it all for?” In the movie we took the most extreme case of that, which is the stockbroker, and we take him to this place where all these oligarchs and heads of industry have ended up because all these people have had to do terrible things in this game of beating your fellow man to get ahead. Also, what is wellness? Is it personal wealth and this idea of net worth versus net wealth? We want our characters to be susceptible to diagnosis and it’s a form of absolution for these people. You’re not responsible because you’re not well. That’s the opiate.
SCREAM: When you began writing the script, was it always intended to be a return to genre film?
GV: It became apparent it was going to be a genre picture right from the beginning because it was playing with the idea of narrative as a disease; as a kind of invisible force like that black spot on your X-ray or like a sort of cancer. It’s not going away and it’s pulling the character towards this epiphany. It was the sense of the inevitable and that’s what is the real horror. I also don’t really see the film as a social commentary and it would be nice if you felt that this film was speaking to some contemporary fear. We wouldn’t be such easy prey for the pharmaceutical industry if we didn’t, at our core, believe there was something wrong with us.
SCREAM: Contemporary films, especially when it comes to genre films, have a tendency to pit bad characters against even worse characters, rather than having a protagonist and an antagonist, so as to play with the audience and make it tougher for them to decide who they should really be rooting for. Was that something that inspired your decision to write about a place for all these oligarchs and heads of industry that, like you said, have done terrible things to get where they are in society?
GV: Sure. First and foremost, that gives your characters a greater distance to fall. We needed Lockhart to arrive at this place where most of the patients are older so he has it in spades; he has it worse than any of them. The arrival of Dane functions as a kind of pin prick that awakens his young co-star Hannah too. People in their early twenties today start debating what college is really worth and start to wonder why they are buying into this algorithm handed down to them by their parents. I think that’s a very legitimate question that youth is asking today and I think that makes the horror much more specific.
SCREAM: Talking of Lockhart, you were keen from the word go to have Dane DeHaan play the lead role.
GV: Yeah. I was really drawn to him. We got along really well and he has a tremendous work ethic but he also has a singular persona. We knew that we were starting with a character that was not immediately likeable and was in denial of his issue and the more that we seed doubt, the more empathy we have for him.
SCREAM: The film’s location and visuals are characters in their own right. When you worked with your DoP, Bojan Bazelli, on The Ring, the visuals really made the film all the more effective as they conjured up such an eerie and uncomfortable atmosphere. I imagine you had some lengthy discussions with Bazelli for A Cure for Wellness in terms of creating something just as foreboding whilst this time set in such a clinical environment.
GV: We started by treating the rectilinear world of Manhattan as a kind of dark and oppressive place so that when we first arrive at the well care centre, it’s like stepping into the light with these ideas of purification with the snow and a place above the clouds. We wanted to make phase one of that sort of lotus-eaters. We wanted to make it inviting when Dane’s character arrives and you’d want to stay for a while – your watch stops working and your cell phone won’t function and your time itself slips away. So we moved things into the light so we could reset and then we see this slow descent as the cure may in fact be worse than the disease.
And then the locations in the movie were actually several locations. We had the exterior of Hohenzollern Castle and then we had a lot of the interiors that were shot in Beelitz, just outside of Berlin, and also a little bit of stage work was involved. So it was a real mosaic and as you turn a corner and turn down the next corridor, we might be in a completely different province. It definitely had its challenges stitching it all together but it’s certainly nice to be shooting at places that have a real history and the sense that they’re already haunted before you do anything to them.
SCREAM: As the film deals with this contemporary disease which is a by-product of the world we live in today, did you feel the need to turn to professionals for advice to make sure the procedures and techniques depicted in the film were medically accurate or did you find it more appropriate to devise your own methods so as to distance what happens in the film from reality?
GV: I think the genre operates best when you delve into a sort of dream logic. This is not necessarily waking state storytelling so you can prey upon enigma and connections that are felt but not articulated. We know the tranquillity of a health spa and we know the basics of that sort of treatment but we ended up developing our own kinds of treatments as we descend into the many layers of this place.
SCREAM: Benjamin Wallfisch scored the film. This is the first time you’ve worked with another musician after various collaborations with Hans Zimmer. How did Wallfisch become involved in the project?
GV: I really needed someone who would be able to work right next door to my edit. A lot of times on movies, we do temp scoring but I just felt that there was an identity to the castle and I wanted a music box or a lullaby that would summon Lockhart to this place like a siren’s call. For that reason I didn’t want a composer to come in at the end of the process and slap the music against the picture or try to get as close as possible to something that’s been temped. I wanted to have someone literally next door so that the first music we ever put against the picture was original. Hanz recommended him actually and Ben was keen on camping out with me for seven months. So it was very much about that. Why does music have to be the last thing we put on? Why can’t it be one of the first things we add?
Also, Ben was very classically trained and he comes from a long lineage of musicians and composers so he was able to take a contemporary reference and make it feel like it’s hundreds of years old. It was a really nice, symbiotic relationship.
SCREAM: To wrap up, are you able to share a few details on any other projects you’ve got lined up for the near future?
GV: There are a few things but I’m not really sure which one of those is going to be next so I can’t really talk about it. What’s important for me now is the size of the movie. I want to continue to do things in the same range as A Cure for Wellness rather than doing things based on a Theme Park or a Comic Book. It’s been really wonderful to have been able to do a mid-sized movie this time. It’s an area that everyone seems to have run away from and I think it’s a real shame so hopefully we’ll get another chance to do something, not necessarily in this genre, but in the same scale…
We’d like to thanks Gore Verbinski for speaking with SCREAM all about A Cure for Wellness which hits cinemas this Friday, 17 February in the U.S. and the following Friday, 24 February in the U.K. In the meanwhile, we’ll leave you with the latest trailer…
Words: Howard Gorman – @HowardGorman