Within some of the earliest moments of A Cure for Wellness, Dane DeHaan’s character sits on a train, feverishly typing away at a laptop, oblivious to the outside world—be it the train conductor trying to make idyll chitchat, or his window’s view to the oddly symmetrical beauty of a train hitting a curve and bending into itself. DeHaan is too busy working away at closing his deal on the phone and computer. He is too busy being consumed by the great sickness of the modern world.
At least that is what Gore Verbinski’s newest horror movie implies with benign malevolence. Indeed, over 14 years since Verbinski made children around the U.S. terrified of their television sets with the American version of The Ring, Verbinski returns to the genre for a gothic horror movie wherein getting well goes hand-in-hand with going insane. Having glimpsed the first 20-plus minutes of A Cure for Wellness myself, I can guarantee that it offers a hypnotic and gentle pull toward oblivion. For DeHaan’s Lockhart is a derivatives trader who’s as eager to please his bosses as Jonathan Harker was when he was sent to Transylvania in a certain Bram Stoker novel from over a century ago. Hence, Lockhart’s sojourn into the Swiss Alps where one of his company’s board members has lost his squeaky mind, electing to stay permanently at a wellness center he’s been vacationing at for the past two weeks.
To capture the ghostly enchantment of a fortified spa nestled in an ancient castle, Verbinski fills his screen with serene, dreamlike oddities, which more and more assuredly drag the film’s protagonist into a protracted stay. DeHaan comes to Switzerland intending to leave after merely a few hours, but as soon as he meets the operating director at the center, and it becomes clear this fellow is played by Jason Isaacs… well, things are obviously not going to go according to Lockhart’s little plan.
When I sat down with Verbinski earlier this month, we discussed his interest in gothic horror, why the filmmaker is returning to the genre now, and how he hopes A Cure for Wellness will do for spas what Jaws did for the ocean. We also even consider his own seafaring history from the Pirates of the Caribbean films, and whether he has any interest in boarding that franchise vessel again.
What springs to mind when you first hear “gothic horror?”
I think of this movie as a contemporary gothic. When I think gothic horror, I think the curtain opens and there’s this distance between you and the screen. It’s the Headless Horseman or something. Whereas I think what I tried to do with this one was say there is no distance. You are all ripe, we are all ripe, for diagnosis. This is a sickness that we all have. And taking a modern man and disconnecting him from his world, and taking him to a place where his phone doesn’t work, his watch stops—I think that contemporary gothic is where you apply a sort of dream logic to our world.
I see that. And while watching the first half-hour, I couldn’t help but think of Jonathan Harker with the scenes of Dane going to the east and disappearing into mysticism a little bit.
Well, have you read this book The Magic Mountain?
I have not.
Justin [Haythe] and I, when we were sort of kicking around the core premise and figuring out what I wanted to do next, were both fans of that book. And it’s sort of a drama, it’s a novel, and it has this idea of people who are in this sanitarium in the Swiss Alps holding onto their sickness like a badge before the outbreak of World War I. And the idea of taking a little bit of that premise and saying, what if we took denial to the more extreme? What is the contemporary illness? We’re born, we go to school, we work, and then get hit by a bus. What was it all for?
And [we] take this kind of killer, this derivatives trader—he has it worse than any of us, right? He’s going to fall from a higher place. So to take him to some place where—this idea where a diagnosis is a form of absolution. This idea where none of it’s your fault, because you’re not well. You’re absolved by your doctor. Who wouldn’t want a note from their doctor, in a way, to say, “None of this is my fault?” Particularly if you’re some corporate killer.
It’s the great con: you’re not well, but it’s okay; there’s a cure. So you kind of enter that loop, and I think it’s a place where CEOs, and great men and women are absolved here at this place.
Had you actually gone to a wellness facility like this? While watching the beginning, I felt like once he entered the castle, he was in the early 20th century. He’s almost a man out of time. So did you intentionally visit facilities from that era to take inspiration?
Yeah, we toured a tremendous amount of health spas and sanitariums, and steam baths all over Europe. But it’s funny that you mentioned that. We are spellcasting, we’re using sound and image, and composition and character to cook people, slowly, in a darkened room. I’m particularly interested in the inevitability of things. Like even if you can’t quite understand it, you feel like there’s a purpose to what’s happening, to what’s occurring. That there is this kind of force that is pulling the protagonist to his epiphany and the camera down the corridor.
I think it’s taking something really nice, like a warm bath, and corrupting it.
You also mentioned yesterday that this is like a pressure-cooker on the audience. What do you hope the audience experiences when the timer goes off?
We’ve had a few screenings, and I think they’re somewhat fairly destroyed by the end of the movie.
They’re not well?
They’re not well [Laughs]. Yeah, the cure is worse than the disease. It was interesting, because I remember early screen tests of The Ring. That movie doesn’t score well; you don’t hand out a card and say, “Did you like it?” right after [that ending]. But these movies stick with you three or four days later, because they tap into some deeper issue. I think we all as a society are in denial right now, and we’re all ripe for diagnosis.
I thought The Ring touched on an undercurrent of technophobia and anxiety when it was released. And now with this, you’ve said you want it to be the Jaws of spas. But additionally, I think you’re dealing with fear of medicine, medical equipment. Do you think there is a primal fear you’re trying to tap into? A fear of modernity, of self-advancement over the status quo?
I think there’s a lot—it’d be interesting to see how a stockbroker felt going to this movie. It’d be interesting to see how someone in the pharmaceutical industry would feel going to this movie. It would be interesting to see someone whose wellness—who is involved in wellness and yoga—would feel going to this movie. I think we’re embracing all of that, because in many ways, as with the pharmaceutical industry, we create a medicine and then create a disease to market it in many ways now.
The whole thing is sort of turned on its head. Just look at the side effects on any of these ads you see on television. You’re like, “Okay, my feet hurt, but wait, suicidal tendencies, anal leakage?” I’ll just live with swollen feet. And that concept of sort of living with the disease, or in our case pretending it doesn’t exist, the sense of absolution. I just think—I didn’t mean in any sense to compare our movie to Jaws, which I think is an absolutely brilliant piece of filmmaking. I’m just saying, the beach was a nice place and Spielberg fucked it for everybody. [Laughs]
And I’d like to try to take the health spa and just give you pause the next time you sign up for a massage or step into a steam bath.
It also probably helps that you have Jason Isaac there as the clinic’s director. I just have to ask: Is there a chance he’s the Devil incarnate?
You have to see the movie, but it doesn’t go that far. [Laughs] Jason’s always delicious to me. The thing we talked about very early on is it’s very important to me as a healer, that there’s a cost to every patient. Every time, he’s here to help. He sees in Lockhart just a path to real destruction if he doesn’t stop doing what he’s doing. And there’s that sense that I think he’s more delicious the more he genuinely cares. Because that’s the madness, that’s the nurse saying, “How can I not be helpful?” with a smile.
That sort of impenetrable kindness of the place is maddening. So not letting Jason twirl his pinky—it’s a cult this place, right? You go to this place and there’s a great man. It’s Kurtz, it’s a great man and we’re all following him.
That’s very dangerous in these times.
Could you also talk a little bit about Mia Goth’s character? Again from the footage, I only saw a glimpse, but she has a very ethereal quality, and I did think while I was watching it there’s an almost Shining quality.
That’s so funny. When I was talking to Denise Chamian, the casting director, I said, “Stop sending me these women.” I mean, I was like, “Look at Shelly Duvall in The Shining,” because I was getting the traditional female leading lady. And Mia came in and read, and I was like, “Done. This is it.” Because that’s kind of who she is.
There’s something wonderful [whenever] a child asks you why three times in a row. By the third “why,” as you’re trying to explain something, you usually wind up trying to explain why we lie to people to make them feel better. [It becomes] “that’s a really good question.” You hit that place where it’s like, “I never [thought about it like that].” And it takes a kind of childlike perspective to point out what’s wrong with us.
I think with [Mia] in this place, and how long she’s been there, and her backstory, we definitely want to know more about her. She definitely has a very unique point-of-view.
There’s a ghost story, a bloody story, about this castle’s history from 200 years ago too. But it seems with supernatural films, you’re allowed to blur the timelines a little bit. Was that fun to play with and is that some of the appeal with doing a supernatural story like this?
I think it’s how you elevate the genre. There are great movies that are at their core an Indian Burial Ground, or there was a guy here who chopped up his family, or I’m having the Devil’s baby. The premise of some great movies are inherently B in their nature. I tried to build this sort of tiramisu; there are many levels to this place. When you arrive, I want it to feel like an opioid, I want it to feel like it’s a respite from the modern world. It’s a place where you can relax.
And then there are the treatments. And the first treatments seem like, “Okay, this is nice. I can go swimming. I can take steams.” And then, as you descend the stairs, and you go to a level a little deeper, those treatments become more suspect. Then you find out that this place was rebuilt, and that something tragic happened 200 years ago. So you are descending to get to the truth. You are descending in the narrative.
Again, the sanitarium looks very early 20th century to me. Of the technology in it, what was the strangest thing you were able to incorporate in your opinion? Because I saw in the sizzle reel, for example, an iron lung, and that scares the bejesus out of me.
Well, I don’t want to give too much away. Director Velmer [Isaac’s character] is not a fan of Western medicine, because it’s too focused on blood, and he’s much more interested in fluids, as our body’s 64 percent water, and the cleansing of fluids. So he’s developed some unique treatments in terms of purifying our fluids. I’ll leave it at that.
To change subjects for a second, I have no idea what’s occurring in the fifth movie, but I do know that Orlando is joining Johnny Depp for the next Pirates of the Caribbean movie. Does that at all pique your interest about one day returning to the sea?
Not in that genre. Honestly, there has to be growth potential for me. These are all opportunities to learn.
Thank you so much, this has been a pleasure.
Thank you, really nice meeting you.