“I’ve been certifiably rotten my entire life. I mean, that’s like a parental advisory sticker on your record, right?” This is director Gore Verbinski discussing his movies’ propensity to, let’s say, not be totally initially appreciated. He’s exaggerating a little bit: Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl was well-received by critics and was nominated for five Academy Awards. And Verbinski’s Rango won an Oscar for Best Animated Film. And then there’s the fact that Verbinski is in the top 10 for highest-grossing directors of all time. But, yes, some of Verbinski’s films do have a way of being appreciated well after their initial theatrical run. Case in point: it only took a year for Verbinki’s strange The Lone Ranger to be reevaluated.
Verbinski’s latest is A Cure for Wellness (which has – surprise! – divided critics), the story of a cocky business executive (Dane DeHaan, who at 31 is finally getting to play his own age) who is sent to a “wellness center” in the Swiss Alps to search for his company’s CEO – a wellness center that specializes in mysterious water quickly becomes more and more ominous. This is a very bizarre movie. Eels are involved. In other words: This is a Gore Verbinksi movie. (Honestly, Verbinski may have the largest Venn diagram overlap between “box office success” and “weird movie” of any director working today.)
I met Verbinsky in a large hotel conference room, even though we were the only two people in the room. Verbinski isn’t someone who comes off like one of the most successful directors of all time. I promise he could walk out the door, up the stairs, and onto the streets of SoHo and no one would recognize him. I get the sense he likes it that way. Many times during this interview I had to add accolades to his overly modest answers. I think there’s part of Verbinski who doesn’t believe he’s had a hit. And I think a part of him likes thinking that way – in that he’d rather be known for making weird movies than being know as the director of the first three Pirates of the Caribbean movies.
I wasn’t expecting to see RoboCop show up in this movie, even in toy form.
Yeah. Well, you know, I’m a fan. But it was more of, what’s the quickest way to telegraph we’re going back to 1987? And it seemed like as soon as I see a RoboCop doll, I know what period it is.
But that made that remake. Kids might be like, “Oh, this is three years ago.”
That’s true. But kids shouldn’t come to this movie. I wanted the kid to be playing with a toy and I didn’t want it to be a Transformer.
Did you actually find a real RoboCop toy?
I would like to own that.
It was eBay. It was an old one. It was a key ingredient.
In the opening scene a man has a very frightening heart attack. The score adds to it…
Yeah, we were trying to get this feeling the movie has a real sort of macabre, Gothic narrative. It’s very Lovecraftian. Even though we’re dealing with modern man and this sort of analysis of the study – sort of looking down and kind of offering a diagnosis of modern man – everything’s sort of orchestrated to get him out of the way, send up the new meat. The perfume bottle is opened and the smoky hand has reached across the Atlantic and it’s sort of summoning this guy to this place.
It’s some of the most ominous “drinking of water” I’ve ever seen in a movie.
Well, there’s something so corruptible about something as benign and tranquil as a wellness center and a health spa – and the ideas of purification and water and what’s in the water. And if there’s something in the water, then it’s something inside you. I think those are very specific nightmares.
Dane DeHaan is finally playing a character his own age.
Well, Justin Haythe, the writer, and I had sort of intentionally written Lockhart’s character as a bit of an asshole. I mean, he has to be vulnerable to this diagnosis, which is sort of a form of absolution, right? And so, reverse engineering from there, we wanted somebody who was really going to have this sickness in spades, and kind of would do whatever it takes to get ahead. You know, he’s going to lie and cheat and deceive and do whatever. He can be unlikable, but you can’t stop watching him.
I stopped watching for a little bit during the tooth scene. I had to look away. I couldn’t do it.
Well, that’s the difference. That’s the untrustworthy narrator. That’s like we have to pierce the membrane once in a while just to make you not sure we might go there. You know what I mean?
I always look away during “dental torture” scenes.
I think there’s value in going too far once in a while. If you don’t pierce the membrane once in a while, I think the audience feels like they can trust you. And I think when you cross that line, you don’t trust the storyteller anymore. And then when you get to other scenes you’re like, are they going to go too far in this scene? And I think that keeps you agitated.
Do you take that attitude towards all your movies, “pierce the membrane”? You’re movies historically have been weird and also have made a lot of money.
The making a lot of money part is accidental.
But it still happened.
Yeah, but I mean that’s just the tinkerer’s philosophy, right? You’re just tinkering with something and then once in a while one blows up in your face.
For you it’s been more than “once in a while.”
Well, yeah. What’s interesting is I would say the scariest moment in my career was on – I think it was the second Pirate movie – when the executives at Disney stopped being nervous. The first movie, they were like, “Well, first of all, the data says don’t make a pirate movie, period. It hasn’t worked in 50 years.” Who’s crazy enough to do that? And so, you know, they were freaking out about Johnny’s performance, freaking out about that nobody’s going to go.
They were freaking out about Johnny Depp’s performance before it came out?
Oh, everything. And then the movie kind of works and then we’re doing the second and third…
“It kind of works.” You forgot to mention the five Oscar nominations.
Yeah, but then when you’re doing the second one and the executives are like, “Just keep doing that thing you’re doing. We love it.”
You don’t like hearing that.
Well then you’re like, wait. It’s kind of our job to make them nervous. And when they’re not nervous, then you start to doubt like, okay, are we getting too comfortable? And I think the mantra immediately was to try to return to that place, to get to that boundary of the unknown – that boundary of we’re not quite sure we’re pulling this off. And I think that’s the sweet spot to be. You know, there’s joy.
And Rango was a huge success even though it’s really weird.
And you want to make an animated movie and don’t know how to? Okay, let’s do it. It’s even more exciting that you’ve never made an animated movie before. Or whatever it is! Making A Cure for Wellness, everybody’s run away from the middle. I mean, you can get $150 million to make a movie or you can get $8 million, but you can’t get $30 million anymore. It’s “you haven’t played the game, you haven’t been to the theme park, you haven’t read the book, if you don’t know the toy, what’s A Cure for Wellness?” And there’s something wonderful about running towards that and saying, “Hey, maybe there are opportunities.” Everybody ran away from this space. Maybe there are opportunities here.
Michael Bay couldn’t get his modest budget for Pain & Gain without agreeing to another Transformers.
Yeah, but what’s underneath that, right? I mean, it’s a big ask to get an audience to get in their car and drive to a movie theater and pay too much for popcorn. So on the one hand, you have this kind of event-izing of the film experience to try to get people to come. And that’s driving the good writers to television because they don’t want to do that. And then you just feel the fabric ripping, right? The data says don’t make a movie in this range that’s not based on an IP, that’s a moderate budget, and that doesn’t have huge stars. You just check off all the boxes of what not to do, and this is it. And so it’s getting back to that place of the uncertainty principle. You know, you’re back to tinkering and you’re back to kind of, you’re not sure.
Where do you think the end game is?
Those $8 million movies still cost $70 million to market. That’s the killer. Where is the end game? The end game, well, just look at the record industry. Look, we live in an increasingly irrational world. I mean, that’s what A Cure for Wellness is really dealing with. It’s like, we know history, we’re driving the car into the wall and we can’t seem to turn the wheel. That’s a very contemporary fear and I think it’s happening in our industry. It’s happening in politics. It’s happening in every aspect of our life. I think there’s something about what is it that makes us vulnerable to the pharmaceutical industry? To that kale milkshake or smoothie or whatever you’re having. There must be something inside us where we know we’re in denial, that we’re not well. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be such easy prey.
Are you enjoying the reevaluation of The Lone Ranger? People are starting to come around on it.
Am I enjoying it? Yeah, of course. I mean, of course. I’m all for it.
Well, I remember you seemed very disappointed at the reaction at the time. And now people are starting to appreciate it.
Well, sure. But I’m kind of owning that now. Like, I think maybe somebody’s missing the point. I’ve been certifiably rotten my entire life. I mean, that’s like a parental advisory sticker on your record, right?
But history often seems to come around on your movies.
Well, I don’t know. I mean, you just try to make every movie like it’s your last and put everything you possibly can into it. That was really much about taking that IP and telling it from Tonto’s perspective. So that was a completely different angle on the IP, and that’s what excited me. Okay, well, if we’re going to do this, let’s do it differently and still earn the “William Tell Overture” by the end of the movie. I guess the simplest way to put it is you don’t ever want to be on a movie and not know why you have to tell this story. So you start your process, and why do I have to tell this story? And if you can’t answer that question, don’t do it. Because you don’t want to be 40 days into an 80-day shoot going, “I’ve lost the steering, my hands aren’t on the wheel anymore.” And yeah, once it’s released into the world, God knows what’s going to happen.
You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.