Spoilers ahead for A Cure for Wellness.
Gore Verbinski’s A Cure for Wellness is chock-full of nightmarish imagery, but some of it looks so real, you might well wonder, How the hell did they do that? Three scenes in particular got under our skin, probably because they tap into some of our most common phobias — one where dentistry is used as an act of torture, another where our hero is force-fed something truly nasty, and one where he nearly drowns in a sensory-deprivation tank. When Vulture ran into Verbinski and star Dane DeHaan earlier this week at a screening hosted by the Cinema Society and Prada, we had to ask what actually happened during the shoot. As it turns out, Verbinski says a lot of what we see onscreen is “sleight of hand.”
The sensory-deprivation tank scene turns out to have been the most involved to shoot, taking about ten days total. One of the necessary steps to prep was to give DeHaan some scuba training so that he could handle being underwater for up to 30 minutes at a time. In the film, the tank is very slowly filled with water, with DeHaan eventually being submerged just as his character starts to realize he’s not alone in the tank. As a precaution, the actor wore a harness that was bolted into the side of the tank with cables, and the production had a safety diver on standby, with an underwater speaker in the tank so DeHaan could hear the director. They also worked out a few hand signals so he could communicate how he was feeling while underwater, breathing through an oxygen hose. “We just had three,” DeHaan said. “If I did this [motions thumbs up] that means everything is okay. If I did this [motions both hands waving slightly], that meant something is kind of wrong, and can we please stop. And if I did this [motions both hands thrashing upwards] that meant, ‘Get me the hell out of here! This is wrong!’”
Even with the underwater speakers and the hand signals, though, Verbinski says “communication was very difficult.” “When I was on the microphone talking to Dane on the underwater speaker, I sound like I’m gargling,” he recalled. Another issue? Some of the local German safety divers didn’t know English, so on the few occasions where DeHaan did have a problem — if the water was rising too quickly, if the pressure was building — it was hard to get the crew to understand he needed them to abort. “I heard Gore on the speaker going, ‘Hey, he’s making a weird gesture with his hand. What’s he saying? Is he okay? Keep rolling.’” Finally, the crew figured out that DeHaan was in distress, and the diver dove in, cut his cables, and helped him get out of the tank. “Dane couldn’t equalize, so that was tricky,” Verbinski said. “There were a few times where we would have to stop.”
All of that was tricky enough on its own, since it took 90 minutes to set up each moment that would only last two seconds onscreen. The original plan during storyboarding was to include real eels in the tank with DeHaan, but once they started shooting, that was quickly nixed. “We realized that [the eels] would have to be CGI; this was going to have to be all performance,” Verbinski said.
In a separate scene, DeHaan is force-fed some of those ever-present eels through an tracheal tube. This time, while the eels are real, not all of DeHaan is. According to Verbinski, it was “an elaborate process.” First, they made casts of DeHaan’s head with his mouth held in different positions — a dummy for every emotion. (“It looked just like me!” DeHaan says.) That was used for the moment that actor Jason Isaacs shoves the tube down his throat. “We didn’t use much of that, except for the sound,” Verbinski explained. “It made the most creepy crackle as it went down the model’s head. A wet-celery crackle, and that sound was really devastating.” Anytime the tube was actually in DeHaan’s own mouth, it had a stopper that prevented any of the eel-water from shooting into his mouth. Then they made a composite of the shots, with the celery sound selling the feeling that sea creatures were really swimming into DeHaan’s mouth.
Those head-cast dummies also came in handy for the movie’s most memorable torture scene, when DeHaan’s character gets his teeth drilled without anesthesia. The actor’s body was strapped and restrained in a dentist’s chair and a metal gag pried his mouth open wide. The resulting panic was real. “I didn’t have to act much for those moments,” he laughed.
“That scene was mostly done with practical effects,” Verbinski said. “It’s a very simple one-shot composite, and we just got as close as possible” to DeHaan’s teeth, using a rubber drill. “You know what it’s like in the dental chair, we all do. When the metal hits our tooth, and it makes that tink! sound. And then the smoke comes out when they drill. The smell of your tooth burning from the drill. It’s all very sensitive, and you want to look away.”
Adding to that sensation is a shot the team pulled with the sound design in that moment, using a technique called phase cancellation. “It’s an uncomfortable tone that pushes in on your head,” explained composer Benjamin Wallfisch. “It’s a physical phenomena in sound, and most of the time, you avoid it at all costs, because it sounds really, really bad, and it makes the audience have a physical reaction, and feel extremely uncomfortable. You never want it. But here, we unleashed it deliberately for the reasons you normally avoid it.”
When added to the drill sound, it’s horrific enough to make you think the drill has made an impact on DeHaan’s tooth, although it never really does. “We shot that for two days, and it was terrifying,” the actor said. “I wasn’t scared of going to the dentist before, but I’m overdue for an appointment now, and I think maybe that’s the subconscious effect the movie has had on me. Maybe I’m avoiding it now!”