Director Gore Verbinski refuses to be defined by a single genre. He may be best known for the first three parts of the Pirates of the Caribbean action-adventure franchise, but his credits also include the surprisingly complex animated film Rango, bleak comedy The Weather Man, and crime caper The Mexican. Verbinski’s first massive hit, however, was The Ring, his terrifying 2002 remake of a Japanese horror film. This Friday brings the release of A Cure for Wellness, Verbinski’s return to disturbed and tormented terror.
A Cure for Wellness follows Lockhart (played by Dane DeHaan), the striving and morally dubious employee of an American financial firm who is dispatched to a health spa in the Swiss Alps to retrieve his company’s CEO. After some ominous warning from children and the elderly, Lockhart finds himself trapped at the resort with a collection of aging titans of industry, who all have sworn off their evil ways and never want to leave. As he tries to get himself off the mountain, Lockhart begins to unravel the secrets of Volmer (Jason Isaacs), the doctor who oversees the spa's treatments, and Hannah (Mia Goth), the only young patient.
Verbinski uses his bold visual style to create a creeped-out vision that’s indebted to the psychological horror films of the 1960s and ’70s. It’s also a somewhat low-key return for him, with no mega-star actors, three years after his overly maligned take on The Lone Ranger. MTV News spoke with Verbinski about figuring out which societal fears to tap into and conducting experiments on viewers.
[Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.]
MTV News: Why were you interested in making a horror film now?
Gore Verbinski: Horror is the one genre where you can really slip into dream logic. It doesn't have to operate in the same rigid waking state. We live in an increasingly irrational world, and there's a sense of, What do we do? It's almost Dada. I don't know if we've lost our ability to think objectively.
I heard a guy, I think it was an environmental discussion, talking about if we were an amoeba growing exponentially in a test tube, the last thing we would say before it was all over was, "Don't worry, it's half-empty." I feel like we don't see the velocity at which we're going. I think kids, the younger generation, does a little bit better. I think now it's time to go, "Wait, we're out of room." It's not like it was ordained by nature. We made it. We can unmake it, or we can question it. That's the real horror. The real horror is knowing that you're crashing the car, but you can't somehow turn the wheel. Before jumping back into the [horror] genre, you have to say, "Why would it be? How can we tap into some sort of contemporary fear?"
When you say we're living in increasingly irrational times, are you talking about presidential politics? Environmental dangers? Income inequality?
Verbinski: We were originally working on the screenplay in 2014, 2015. I think it's become more prescient now. This is only the setup: "Why are these people vulnerable to the diagnosis?" It has to do with the idea that if you could be absolved because you got a note from your doctor, that's a narcotic or that's an opiate. That's sort of the lotus-eaters, the thing that kind of keeps you there. Then the movie progresses.
If you want to dive deeper into that, why are we vulnerable to the pharmaceutical industry, or to the seaweed wrap, or the kale smoothie, or whatever it is? If I run down a list of questions—"Do your feet hurt? Do you get stomachaches? Are you sleeping well?"—there's going to be some point where you're going to go, "Yeah, I have that." It's like we're almost happy when it's like, 'That's my problem.'"
Right, that it's normal for something to be wrong with us.
Verbinski: Yes, so back up a step from that. What is that? What's our denial? We must know that we're not well, somewhere deep down inside, otherwise we wouldn't be prey.
Horror has been used for so many different allegorical ideas, both political and personal. Why do you think that is?
Verbinski: When you have people in a darkened room, you can conduct experiments on them, and there's something exciting about that. There's something where you can prey upon them. [In A Cure for Wellness] they're watching Lockhart be a patient, but they're really the patient. I'm more interested in the [author Haruki] Murakami or the sort of dream state of things, or even H.P. Lovecraft — that sort of sense that you can only look at something that's unknowable, and you'll go mad in trying to know it. There's that sense of, What is that boundary? Sitting on that seam a little bit, it's fascinating to me.
I want to know about your political perspective or beliefs. There seems to be an anti-institutional undercurrent running through your films. Even in The Lone Ranger, you're talking about encroaching corporations, the U.S. Army being complicit in genocide, and environmental destruction.
Verbinski: Sure, but was [Frank] Capra a communist just because he pointed out the corruption of politicians? They're good antagonists. I think he was an American. I think there's something innately un-American about blaming other people for your problems. When did that become an American attribute? We’re getting sidetracked.
Do you see yourself bringing a political perspective to your work, or is it just a method of storytelling?
Verbinski: I think it comes from, your best villains are always right. They have to be correct, or they're just twisting their pinky. I think the villain in The Lone Ranger was progress, and it has a legitimate point of view — the betterment of mankind and the future. But there's a cost.
Volmer [in A Cure for Wellness] is absolutely correct in his diagnosis of society, and of Lockhart, and of the sort of sickness. He has his one flaw, his obsession with purity. I think it's trying to make things dramaturgically correct, that you end up in a place where when the curtain closes, you want to feel like it wasn't a dismissible straight-up period piece that had nothing to do with our time. I would like to affect the audience in a way where something lingers. Therefore, it has to be something that resonates to where we are now.
Watching this film takes a toll on you.
Verbinski: As is its intention.
Did you ever feel like you had to pull back on what your original intentions were?
Verbinski: Sure, but the original intentions were to go too far in a couple places, just to have an untrustworthy narrator. If your boxing opponent is only throwing left hooks, you're going to get pretty comfortable with that quickly. But if they have a jab and they have other weapons at their disposal… The dental scene, for instance, without any spoilers, is a sense of, Just for framing, I want to go too far. Then you get to other scenes down the road and you're like, I don't know. I don't trust if the storyteller is going to go there or not. That allows you to not go there. Yet as an audience, you're agitated.
Sometimes it's nice to ride the horse and trust it. Then sometimes it's nice to ride one that you're not quite sure which way it's going to go. I think the genre almost demands that we try to find new ways to put you in a place where you're not at ease.
As a film viewer, do you enjoy the sensation of being not at ease?
Verbinski: Sure. I love the un-homogenized flawed story told from one voice. I would rather have the movie that's passionately a little off the rails than the one that's sort of Velveeta. The more we make things palatable for everybody, the more we have an Egg McMuffin. Which is fine sometimes, but in terms of what I cherish, it's where somebody has made some interesting choices. It makes me smile.
I'm always curious when talking to people who make movies, as you are watching someone else’s film, do you consciously feel everything the filmmaker is trying to do to manipulate you emotionally? Do you take yourself out of it?
Verbinski: What makes me smile is a movie where I feel like it is dangerous, or there's that fresh idea there. It's about learning and growing and trying new things and tinkering, all of those things that keep you excited. But if you're not nervous, if you're not on that boundary of the unknown, I don't think you're getting better. I think you're kind of sitting back, and I don't think you're advancing the form.
I don't want to be critical. There's so much work in making movies, it's so easy to tear one down. When I watch a movie, even one that I don't particularly enjoy, I'm constantly impressed at the work that's in it. I respect the craftsmen and women. I tolerate a lot of movies that maybe other people don't, just because I know what goes into them. But at the same time, the ones I hold onto that are precious to me are usually the ones that bumped for other people. They bumped for me. I appreciate it.
In rereading some old interviews with you, one idea that stood out was when you were talking about making Rango — and you mentioned it again in your Oscar acceptance speech — you said how intrinsically fun making that film was. When you are making larger-scale films or a horror film, is it possible to have that sense of fun?
Verbinski: The fun of Rango was we had no idea how to make an animated movie. None of us. I don't think there was anybody on that movie who had made an animated movie before — from storyboard artists who aren't animation-storyboard artists, to using a visual-effects company, to recording the voices. I think getting to that place where you don't know, and trying to remind yourself that, that's what the fun part is.
When you're making A Cure for Wellness or The Ring, it's not a lot of fun. You're in a pretty intense place on-set, and every day there's not a lot of laughs. There's no real release. It's a different internal laugh. It's kind of a crooked smile.