It’s easy to see Gore Verbinski as just a skilled creator of studio blockbusters – and whatever you think of The Lone Ranger, he is that – but there’s more to his filmography than Johnny Depp doing funny voices and huge VFX budgets. The American has a black comedy (The Weather Man), a road-trip caper (The Mexican) and a gonzo animation (Rango) to his name. He also remade The Ring, a slice of horror that may offer some clues about what his mysterious new movie has in store. As A Cure For Wellness’s atmospheric trailer lands, a slippery Verbinski offered Empire a few hints of his own. Only a few, mind…
Where are you with the film now?
Do you see it as a horror film? A psychological thriller?
It’s its own thing. More psychological thriller than full-on horror, but I've sort of set out to analyse the moviegoer. I wanted to diagnose the audience a bit and then offer a cure. This sense that maybe it’s all pointless, you know? It’s definitely… yeah, it’s like going in for a treatment, I suppose.
So it’ll be a philosophical experience for the audience, in some ways?
I think there’s a palpable sense that we could all get hit by a bus tomorrow, so what’s it all for? Our protagonist is suffering from that condition as he goes to this health spa in the Alps, which is a bit out of time and free from the pressures of the outside world but has its own dark secrets. It’s a slow cooker for the audience. Definitely creepy.
With this film, I want to diagnose the audience a bit and then offer a cure.
What can you tell us about Dane’s character?
I don’t want to say too much… first of all, he’s a great actor. He brings a real complexity to bear to moments that are honest and still quite focused. He has the ability to be deceptively simple. His work ethic is tremendous – on par with mine – and we became friends straightaway. I would take him anywhere.
It looks from the trailer like you’ve taken him straight to the nearest water tank and left him there for some time.
He was definitely tortured.
Were there days when he felt like you were trying to break him?
Well, that’s what he signed on for. He’s in every scene. But he’s still young, a hard worker.
How did you shoot the scene with the eels? I’m assuming you didn’t use practical eels.
We did use practical eels, not in that scene but we did use eels from time to time in the movie. It’s always good to keep people guessing.
How did that cover of The Ramones’ I Wanna Be Sedated come about?
I asked (Finnish singer-songwriter) Mirel Wagner to record an a cappella to set against our track. She crushed it. Will it appear in the movie? I don’t want to say. At this stage, I just want people to get a whiff of this movie… there’s something in this film that’s very Lotus-eaters. The place itself is very seductive, this sanitarium. It’s about absolution in a way. The diagnosis itself is what keeps people from leaving. It allows you to avoid taking responsibility; it’s like having a note from your doctor, and who doesn’t want that? That I Wanna Be Sedated track is about letting yourself go… losing your purchase on reality. That’s the horror of the place.
It's a slow cooker for the audience – and it's definitely creepy.
The trailer opens with Dane DeHaan being lowered into a big vat. Was that something you constructed on a sound stage?
The whole movie was shot in Germany and we built that at Babelsberg Studios [in Potsdam]. The film is a contemporary Gothic. It’s set in the real world, but you go back in time a bit when you visit this health spa that might not be quite on the map. It has its dark secrets and treatments that have a lot to do with water and the purification of our fluids. It’s a tiramisu: you have multiple layers. That scene takes place midway through as our protagonist is diagnosed with the same mysterious disease that the other guests have. That’s his first treatment.
The train journey to the castle almost evokes Jonathan Harker’s journey to Dracula’s castle.
Yes, but juxtaposed against a very modern man. As you get closer to this place, your cellphone might not work and your wristwatch may stop. The place has a very dark past but it’s not a straight-up ghost story. He’s a take-no-prisoners stockbroker, so he’s ripe for diagnosis. You can imagine yourself asking the same questions that Dane does.
You don’t see much of Jason Isaacs in the trailer. What can you say about his character?
Jason plays the director of the institute and he’s a man who genuinely cares about his patients. There’s a cost to treating this illness. Of course, he’s linked to events that happened here 200 years ago.
What did Mia Goth bring to her role?
She came in and read for the part and was exactly what I had in mind. Think of Shelley Duvall in The Shining. She plays Hannah, who’s been at the institute for almost as long as she can remember and has a unique worldview. It’s a difficult role to play. You want to lean in and know more.
There are echoes of The Shining in the trailer. Were there other movie touchpoints for this one?
When you think of the films that elevate the genre, I always respond to the sense of the inevitable. It’s the unseen force pulling the camera down the corridor or it's in the soundtrack in particular. You bring everything to bear in casting a spell. It’s not really riffing on anything specific but when you transcend a psychological thriller or a horror, there’s usually something else happening. We played with that a bit in The Ring and we’re trying to take it to the next level. We’re trying to hypnotise the audience, to make them a little uncomfortable.
A Cure For Wellness is released in the US on 17 February, 2017. It'll be out in the UK in March 2017.