Dan Jolin chats with Gore Verbinski and Dane DeHaan about A Cure for Wellness…
During the summer of 2015, while shooting A Cure for Wellness in Germany, Dane DeHaan went through what he describes as “my month of torture”. In the space of a few weeks, the then-29-year-old star of Chronicle and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 was strapped down and subjected to drill-induced dental abuse; had a tube rammed down his throat; and was immersed in a huge, water-filled sensory-deprivation tank.
They call it ‘suffering for your art’, but DeHaan has taken it to a whole new level.
“The dentist scene was more or less shot in a day, but for me it was just a terrifying circumstance to be in,” he explains, a good year and a half later and now sitting very comfortably in a London hotel suite. “That was fast and psychologically demanding.” The tube-gagging sequence, meanwhile, was more a test of endurance because it required DeHaan to gag and writhe within the confines of an iron-lung-type contraption while his co-star, as the fiend administering the torture, delivered a long monologue. “He talks so much during that scene and I’m just sitting there and suffering,” DeHaan says. “When he’s doing his takes it’s like, ‘oh I’m still choking on this tube and he’s just talking and talking…’ It was intense.”
But not nearly as intense as the isolation-tank sequence. “That was more of a physical challenge,” recalls DeHaan, “’cos that took two weeks to shoot and I was strapped in there to keep my body horizontal, I was breathing through an oxygen tube, and my eyes and mouth weren’t covered.” In order to achieve the exact image imagined by director Gore Verbinski — of DeHaan’s reflection separating elegantly from his perfectly prone body while he’s swallowed by the menacing waters — he had to be wired down to keep him stock still as the liquid churned violently around him. “No one really told me how much pressure was gonna build in my body,” DeHaan laughs. “And in order to get the shot I didn’t feel like I could really equalise.”
He and Verbinski’s German crew had devised a few signals in case of problems. One was a waggling of the hand to signify, “Hey I’d like to stop, I’m not really comfortable.” So when the pressure built painfully in DeHaan’s body, he began swivelling his palm from side to side. “I think Gore forgot what that hand signal meant. I could hear him in the underwater speakers saying, ‘Is he okay? Why is he doing that?’ and the water continued to rise, and my lungs were really expanding in a crazy way.”
So DeHaan used the other hand signal: a thumb pulled across the throat. There was no mistaking that one: “Get me out of here, something’s wrong!” Within seconds, the crew’s safety diver plunged in, slashed the cables with a knife, and brought DeHaan to the surface. “That was the most intense moment, for sure,” the actor says now.
Most people would at that point have called it quits, at least for the day. But, recalls Verbinski, “20 minutes later, he was back at it.” The director smiles. “You know, he’s young. He’s eager. He bounces back.”
A Cure for Wellness wasn’t merely conceived to relieve a rapidly rising star of his own sense of well-being, or to test the limits of his physical and psychological endurance (though DeHaan insists he enjoyed the challenge: “the more challenging, the more fun!”). It is a fiercely original psychological horror dreamed (or rather, nightmared) up by a film-maker best known for his huge, ambitious blockbuster adventures, like the first three Pirates of the Caribbean movies and The Lone Ranger, but who also had a huge hit in 2002 with The Ring, his remake of the Japanese horror classic, Ringu. A film-maker who felt compelled to make the kind of movie that he feels we don’t see enough of any more.
“It’s a big ask to get people to come to a movie theatre,” says Verbinski, in a crisp, gentle voice that’s only a small twist of the volume dial from being a whisper. “So more and more you see this reach for spectacle — or this sort of no-budget fare which has an infinitely reducible high concept. And there’s nobody in the middle anymore.” In a film industry driven by movies based on existing properties — comic books and toys especially — sizeably budgeted films based upon original scripts are becoming fewer and farther between, Verbinski points out. “I think if you wanted to do what David Lean did today, you would need a theme-park ride or IP or you’re not gonna get those resources. There’s no taking your time with something cut from whole cloth. So it was really enjoyable, to go to that place.”
A Cure for Wellness first bubbled up into Verbinski’s consciousness, he says, during “long walks with Justin Haythe”. He and his screenwriting partner, with whom he collaborated on The Lone Ranger (and who scripted Revolutionary Road), were playing with the idea of “what if sickness or disease was a form of narrative?” They are both fans of ’70s cinema, which produced thrillers and horrors like Roman Polanski’s The Tenant and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Films, Verbinski explains, “where you sense something inevitable is happening, even though the protagonist might not be aware of it. It’s sort of an invisible force.” Combining that with their shared love of German novelist Thomas Mann’s influential 1924 book The Magic Mountain, a satire set in a pre-First World War Swiss sanatorium, they settled on an unsettling spa retreat as the core location for their new project.
So it is to a peaceful medical retreat, located in a gothic castle high in the Swabian Alps, that Dane DeHaan’s character, a young, ambitious Wall Street stockbroker named Lockhart, is sent. His assignment: to retrieve his company’s CEO, now a patient at the spa so inspired by the miracle cure its pure waters offer he’s renounced the ‘sickness’ of modern life and refused to return to New York. At the retreat, Lockhart encounters a mysterious girl named Hannah (Mia Goth), locks horns with the institution’s director, Dr. Volmer (Jason Isaacs) and, as he himself becomes subjected to the sanatorium’s “treatment”, discovers the dark secrets lurking beneath its steam rooms and manicured gardens… while also learning that Volmer’s cure might just be worse than the disease.
Verbinski was attracted by the idea of the “corruptibility of the wellness centre,” he says. “It’s not an insane asylum. It’s not something that’s inherently dark. We have a bit of contrast, because the louder you scream, the more there’s someone there with a fresh terry-cloth towel, smiling and saying, ‘it’s all part of the cure.’ That’s the madness.”
In order to find the ideal location for his eerie sanatorium, Verbinski travelled around Europe with his camera, “just checking out these 14 castles in Austria, Prague, Germany and Switzerland.” The one that really leaped out at him was Hohenzollern Castle, in Baden-Württemberg. Not just because of its appropriately gothic architecture and its glorious hilltop location, but also because of its impressively spiralling driveway. “Lockhart comes from this very rectilinear world, and then comes to this world of circles. It just felt like immediately was the place. We were very lucky to get permission to shoot there.”
Though the castle only came to represent the exterior of A Cure for Wellness’ malevolent spa. “We were like a roadshow,” says Verbinski, who aside from his regular cinematographer Bojan Bazelli, worked with an entirely German crew. “We travelled, we shot at the castle, and then the interior of the castle is an old hospital in a completely different part of Germany [Beelitz-Heilstätten just outside of Berlin]. We also used a swimming pool in Zwickau. We just tried to make it feel like little bits of corridor that we had to build, to kind of stitch it together so you walk down and turn right and you’re in something that was shot two months later in a completely different space. It’s a puzzle creating that and shooting it like you’re in one place.”
Having become used to the kind of vast resource that he had shooting a major studio picture like The Lone Ranger, the experience of making A Cure for Wellness was, says Verbinski, “nuts. It was a bit of a reboot for me, going to Germany, not knowing anybody, with none of my crew [except Bazelli], no cast I’d worked with before. There was a real sense of ‘let’s just start from the ground up and tell a story’. And as much of a struggle as it was, it was fun returning to place where it’s sort of like tinkering with something and you hope it blows up. When we were making a pirate movie, everybody thought we were crazy. You know: ‘that’s never gonna work’. I think it’s important to always try and get back to that place where the spirit is trying to push you to do something that you’re not quite sure of. You’re really on the brink. That’s where the fun is. Because that’s when you’re learning.”
While dealing with this “puzzle,” and pushing himself to the brink, Verbinski needed to have absolute faith in his leading man. Not least because, as he points out, Lockhart is “in every scene, just about.” Yet it is not the easiest of roles to fill — and not just because it requires the actor to be repeatedly tortured.
“We wrote a character who is really not likeable at the beginning of the movie,” explains Verbinski. “He is intentionally kind of an asshole and he’s willing to lie and cheat and deceive to get on that [company] board and he’s gonna get there pretty quickly.” For the audience to spend so much time with someone so initially unlikeable, Verbinski needed an actor with a special kind of magnetism; someone with whom you can empathise, even if you can’t sympathise.
And he found that actor while watching Derek Cianfrance’s 2012 crime saga A Place Beyond The Pines. “Dane just popped to me. I was like, ‘who is that!?’ There’s something very honest in his performances. But he also has some singularity. You just can’t stop watching him. I think it was really important to have somebody inhabit that role who has those qualities so we’re not running the risk of disengaging from him.”
Fortunately for Verbinski, DeHaan didn’t blanche when reading the script. In fact, he seized the opportunity to play Lockhart. “Gore talked to me about wanting to make a movie like the thrillers of the ’70s, the real, classic psychological thrillers, and that was exciting,” says the actor. “Those are my favourite kind of scary movie. And after reading it, though I could see where the inspiration came from, it just seemed super-original and exciting and modern as well. It seemed like it was gonna be a huge acting challenge, and a message I could get behind. Those are the things I look for in a project.”
As research for the role, DeHaan investigated what it’s like for a person of his age to work on Wall Street. “It’s a really brutal atmosphere,” he says. “Almost like a hazing process being a young person working for these companies. They’re working all hours of the day and they’re really a slave to their company, and they’ll do anything to advance. And it’s not like they’re helping humanity. They’re just trying to get rich and more powerful, and that was kinda my way in to Lockhart. I think that is the sickness, and Lockhart has the sickness, and that is why he’s such a great protagonist for the story.”
DeHaan was impressed with his director, whose clarity of vision really helped him deal with that a puzzle of a shoot, so fragmented between different locations, where a single scene could have been shot in a number of locations at different times. “He’s so visual. He really has a cinematic mind. He knows what he wants and he really is slow and methodical and meticulous and wants to pull off these complicated beautiful shots. We had a lot of conversations about the character and the performance and how we were going to find the through-line of it, because I’m in so much of the movie. Like, ‘where are we at this day and what has just happened? Let’s just reorient ourselves so that the performance seems fluid,’ ‘cos it was shot so out of sequence. It was a big collaboration. But ultimately I was just trying to bring his vision to life. ‘Cos he has such a big vision.”
While A Cure for Wellness found its origins in ’70s thrillers, plays with the tropes of classic gothic horror and even at times recalls the slick, visually rich extremism of modern Korean cinema,Verbinski isn’t merely setting out to scare us.
To some degree, he’s sharing his own nightmares. “Drowning is a personal nightmare I love to share,” he admits. One he shared with DeHaan more than anybody, obviously — while also getting the actor to live his own nightmare of his teeth falling out. (“The moment Lockhart takes the tooth and slowly pulls it out is the closest the movie gets to my actual nightmares,” says DeHaan.) But, more than that, Verbinski insists he wanted, as he puts it, “to diagnose the contemporary human condition. I think we live in an increasingly irrational world, and I think there’s a sense of denial. We’re driving our car into the wall. We can’t seem to turn the wheel. And there’s a real horror to that.”
The core concept in A Cure for Wellness is that craving cures is, itself, a modern sickness. “Maybe there is a place above the clouds that is old enough to have watched the industrial revolution and the advent of the personal computer and cell phones and all of that. A place that has watched the kind of metastasising disorder, if you will, and offers a diagnosis as a form of absolution. You know, ‘you’re not responsible because you’re not well’. And to have somebody say, ‘it’s okay, we’re concerned for you,’ to reach across the table and touch you on your knee… That’s an opiate. The people who go to this place have achieved great things and done what it takes to succeed. Any achievement comes at a cost. They’re oligarchs and captains of industry, and I’ve always thought you could bump into Dick Cheney in a steam bath at this place. And they’re clutching on to their sickness.”
Not that Verbinski is simply taking a pop at the pseudo-science of alternative medicine. “We’re easy prey on either side,” he says. “The pharmaceutical industry has been preying upon us. How many adverts to you see where the side-effects list goes on and on and on? They’re almost creating a disease to sell a drug, you know? So there must be something wrong with us to be susceptible to either strain of that con. There must be something inside of us that makes us wait for someone to tell us we’re not well.”
Great horror, says Verbinski, is always rooted in contemporary fears. “The Ring was about the transferable nature of hatred. Right before we started shooting it, 9/11 happened and people had this idea of, ‘what did I do to deserve this?’ That I think is a contemporary fear. And with A Cure for Wellness, I think we sense something’s not quite right with the world, or with us.” He even goes as far as describing the film as “a sort of psychological experiment” being conducted on “people in a darkened room”.
But it’s not just about shock therapy for audiences, or putting people through the same nightmarish tortures that DeHaan suffered as Lockhart during that hellish month. “It would be nice if you left the theatre and, three or four days later, specific moments in the movie are still haunting you.” Verbinski smiles. “If, three or four days later, you’re still suffering the side-effects of taking the cure.”