Director's Chair: Gore Verbinski — <i>A Cure For Wellness</i>
Issue: February 1, 2017

Director's Chair: Gore Verbinski — A Cure For Wellness

After directing such blockbusters as the 2011 Oscar-winner Rango and the first three films in the multi-billion-dollar mega-franchise Pirates of the Caribbean, Gore Verbinski knows a thing or two about how to helm a huge production full of cutting-edge visual effects. And he also knows how to make a truly effective and spooky horror-thriller, such as his 2002 smash, The Ring, which grossed $250 million. 

Now the Oscar-winning filmmaker brings all that experience to bear on his latest film, A Cure For Wellness. A chilling and mind-bending psychological thriller, Wellness stars the gifted and charismatic Dane DeHaan (Kill Your Darlings, The Amazing Spider-Man 2) as Lockhart, a driven Wall Street stockbroker who is sent by his firm to a remote Alpine medical spa on a mission to retrieve the company’s CEO, Pembroke (Harry Groener), a patient at the spa, who has told his staff that he has no intention of ever returning to New York. 

Lockhart arrives at the tranquil sanitarium where the residents are supposedly receiving a miracle cure. In fact though, they seem to be getting sicker. As he investigates the dark and baffling secrets behind the spa, he meets a young woman, the beautiful Hannah (Mia Goth), a patient herself. He also gets to know another patient, the eccentric Mrs. Watkins, played by Celia Imrie, who has done some detective work of her own. Soon, Lockhart is diagnosed with the same condition as the other patients by the institution’s director, the ominous Dr. Volmer (Jason Isaacs), and finds that he is trapped in the alpine re¬treat. Lockhart begins to lose his grip on reality and has to endure unimaginable ordeals during the course of his own “treatment.” 

Behind the scenes, the film reunites Verbinski with cinematographer Bojan Bazelli, ASC, who shot The Ring and The Lone Ranger for him, and his longtime co-editor Craig Wood, who cut all three Pirates films, as well as The Lone Ranger and Rango. 

Here, in an exclusive interview with Post, Verbinski (pictured) talks about making the film, the challenges involved and his love of post. 

What sort of film did you set out to make? 

“A contemporary Gothic horror story that’s classically boned, but which takes place in our world. We’re living through some increasingly irrational times, and I think we’re ripe for diagnosis, so the whole idea began with the notion of a spa in the Alps, a wellness center that doesn’t actually make you well — it makes you sick.” 

The whole long driving sequence up the lonely mountain road to the spa at the beginning felt like a great homage to Kubrick’s The Shining. 

“It was, and I’m glad you noticed that, as I’m a huge fan of that film, along with Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby and The Tenant, Joseph Losey’s The Servant and Nic Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. I love their styles, their looks, the slowly building tension and the narrator’s voice is like a character, with its sense of the inevitable. There’s always this sense in those films that something’s not quite right, that something doesn’t fit and there’s that force at work that you have no control over. We knew that this was going to be a genre piece, and so we played around with the concept of inevitability. It’s the sense that there is a sickness, a sort of black spot on your X-ray that won’t go away, and there’s also the denial. Lockhart is far younger than all the captains of industry who come to this spa, and at first he resists. But then, like those other movies, you feel there’s this force pulling the camera and protagonist down the corridor, that there’s no escaping it.” 

There are a lot of visual effects. How early on did you incorporate them and post? 

“Right from the start, when we conceived the script and began with a blank page. You start imagining how scenes might cut together, and what you need. And location scouting was also very important, and then integrating all that with the VFX. We didn’t build many sets, and while all the VFX are done at the end, they’re conceived at the very beginning.” 

Is it true you shot it all on-location in Germany? 

“Yes, most of it was shot on-location in Germany, as we found the perfect set¬ting for the spa at Hohenzollern Castle, in the Alps in southern Germany. The castle is so isolated from the landscape around it, and it looks really ominous as you drive up to it. And then we used an abandoned military hospital outside Berlin for all the interiors. Then we did some additional filming in Switzerland and shot plates in New York for a day.” 

What were the biggest challenges in making this? 

“The toughest thing was that Bojan and I didn’t know any of the crew, who were all German and a few Brits. They were really talented, great craftsmen and I’d work with them again in a heartbeat, but it was a challenge to get a rhythm going and dealing with communication. There’s no shorthand, and we were trying to get this look and tap into that sense of ‘something’s inevitable.’ There’s that point of view, and it’s embedded in all the composition and imagery we tried to create.” 

Do you like the post process? 

“I love post, although my favorite part of the whole filmmaking process is that blank page you start with, when any¬thing’s possible and your imagination is free to just create. Because after that, it’s all about compromise and you’re dealing with all the nuts and bolts and money issues and schedules and casting and so on. And then you get to post, and I love that point in the edit where you start to get the arms and legs on the thing, and it takes form, and you have to listen to it. It’s now the master, and you have to listen to what it wants to be. I’m fascinated by that. You shape and shape, and somehow it becomes this sentient thing that starts to dictate to you. That’s the wonderful thing about post, where you have all these plans and intentions, and suddenly you’re faced with surprises and all the subtext stuff that pops up.” 

Where did you post? 

“We edited it at my Blindwink offices in Pasadena, and then did the rest of the post and the sound mixing with Paul Massey over at Fox on the lot.” 

You edited the film with two editors — Lance Pereira and Pete Beaudreau. How did that work? 

“In fact we used three, and no one was on the set in Germany. Lance got dailies back at Blindwink, and after the shoot when I got back we started working. And then Pete came in about halfway through that process, and then Craig Wood came in at the very end to do a final polish. It’s always a little tricky having two or three editors, as it’s such a specific relationship between a director and editor and so important as you are rewriting the film together, and different editors have different strengths. So I go through every frame that we’ve shot for a scene, and do my selects and discuss the intended edit order. Usually by the time I come in, they already have it, as I encourage them to respond intuitively to the material first, and then I tell them how I wanted to put it together, and then we compare the two versions. And you always gain something by a different perspective. And first and foremost is performance. I’ll always use a close-up — even before I want to use one — if it captures a moment. So we have endless discussions about all that and pacing and all the rest, and you’re working with a microscope, and then you have to be able to step back and try and look at a scene as if for the first time.” 

Can you talk about the importance of music and sound in the film? A lot of directors feel it’s half the movie. 

“Definitely, especially in this genre. Maybe even more. We tried to create the sense that we opened a perfume bottle, and that this scent wafted across Manhattan and brought this summons to Lockhart. I think it really helped that our composer, Benjamin Wallfisch, was on site with us, next to the edit suite for six months, as we went over iteration after iteration of a score that felt both classic but that worked with the protagonist and the feeling that he’s wandered off the path and gone out of bounds. There’s the bit where the clock stops, and time sort of stops as he progresses into this sickness of modern man, and there’s the feeling that the castle has had a point of view about this too for quite some time — and we were trying to put all that into the film through the music and sound, rather than with words. So right from the start, the score and all the sound design was critical, and David Farmer, our sound designer and sound editor, would come and go from Skywalker, so he was also with us during the edit the whole time at Blindwink. Usually on a film, as you shoot and cut, you temp the music as you go, and then the sound designer and composer come in fairly late in the process, but I felt it was crucial to get these two guys in right from the start. So we never really temped with some¬one else’s music or sound effects. We created every sound and music cue from the start, and we had this great Foley artist, Heikki Kossi, from Helsinki, who really got it. He didn’t stack tons of sounds and overdo it. He just got simple, great recordings of exactly the right sounds, like the squeaky crutch.” 

Tell us about all the VFX. 

“We did most of the VFX through Double Negative [DNeg] in London, with some by Lola and Rise, and we had a lot of shots. The eels were done with a mix of real eels and CG ones by DNeg, and then there was the CG deer in the car crash, and fire enhancement and a lot of third-act stuff I don’t want to give away. The main aim was to make it all look photoreal rather than synthetic, and that wasn’t easy with the eels.” 
What about the DI? 

“We did it at Company 3 with Stephen Nakamura, and I’m always very involved. The goal there was to make it look as filmic as possible, and I think we did.” 

Did it turn out the way you first envisioned it? 

“It did, although every film evolves and changes in post. But that’s the beauty of post.”