Premise: A company man is tasked with recruiting a rogue board member who’s disappeared while attending a remote “wellness” center in Switzerland.
About: I’ve always liked Gore Verbinski. A lot of people gave him shit after cashing in with the Pirates’ sequels. But before that he did the offbeat “The Weather Man,” the awesome, “The Ring,” and the cool underrated flick, “The Mexican.” He even made one of the most unique animated films ever in Rango. So when he’s not big-budgeting it, I always pay attention. And it looks like Verbinski’s going back to his roots with “Cure for Wellness” (currently in post-production). Verbinski wrote the script with Justin Haythe, who’s probably best known for penning the underrated Dicaprio/Winslet flick, Revolutionary Road. Let’s see what the two have in store for us today.
Writer: Justin Haythe (Story by Justin Haythe and Gore Verbinski)
Details: 118 pages – 2/17/15 draft
One of the hardest things to do in the horror genre is find a concept or location that hasn’t been used before. There are those who will tell you that everything has been done before so you shouldn’t even try. It’s best, according to them, to find a well-worn idea and put a new spin on it.
But I have a theory about writing. I call it “Hard vs. Easy.” Every writer makes a choice to write in either “Easy Mode” or “Hard Mode.” Easy Mode is when you turn off the analytical side of your brain and just write. You are not judgmental of your writing. You don’t go back and wonder if you could’ve done better. Whatever you put on the page is what you put on the page.
I call this “Easy Mode” because it doesn’t take any work. You write what you write and that’s it. “Hard Mode” is the opposite. In “Hard Mode,” you ask the tough questions like, “Have I seen this before?” And if you have, you go back to the drawing board and try to come up with a better choice. Hard Mode is hard because it’s not fluid. There’s a lot more stopping, a lot more thinking, a lot more judging. When you do come up with something, you have to rev yourself back up since you haven’t put anything on the page for awhile. Overall, it’s a much more taxing experience.
However, “hard mode” tends to provide better results because you’re nixing the clichés and obvious story choices that plague the majority of scripts out there. Writers who work on hard mode are more likely to find new locations, new ideas, new characters, because they just aren’t satisfied with the status quo. They know how vast their competition is and realize that the only way to compete with them is to challenge every idea they come up with.
A Cure for Wellness takes us to a place we’ve never been to before in a horror movie. That’s a “hard mode” choice. Sure, Verbinski and Haythe could’ve placed us in yet another mental institution. But we’ve seen that before. We’ve bought that t-shirt. Is it hard to nix that and spend a couple of weeks trying to come up with a location we HAVEN’T been to? Of course it is. But in the end it pays off because you’re giving the audience something ORIGINAL.
A Cure For Wellness introduces us to Castorp, a rising star at an unnamed company. Castor is the embodiment of the American upper-class male. He works 18 hours a day and is driven only by making more money and gaining more status than his fellow man. Castorp has no family, no friends, and defines his worth simply by how much business he can bring in for the company.
Right now, business is good. Castorp has been recognized by the board for his outstanding work. And they want to reward him. But first, they have a task for him. One of the board members, Roland Pembroke, went off to a “wellness” center in Switzerland and hasn’t come back. A big merger is coming up and Pembroke needs to sign off on a few things before the merger can happen.
Castorp isn’t happy, but anything that gets him further up the company ladder is a price he’s willing to pay. So off he goes to this remote wellness center, which happens to be in the mountains of Switzerland, one of the most beautiful places in the world.
Once there, Castorp realizes there’s something “off” about this place. While it’s state-of-the-art and all of the wellness clients seem happy, there’s a mysterious air about it all. Everyone always seems to be going off to their next “treatment,” and when they come back, there’s something a little less “there” about them. Oh Castorp, if you only knew how much worse it was going to get.
Castorp requests to see Pembroke at the manager’s office, but it’s past visiting hours, which means Castorp will need to wait until tomorrow. Castorp, personifying the impatient American businessman, demands to see Pembroke now. He’s eventually visited by the wellness center’s founder, Henrich Volmer. Volmer is a calming man, and assures Castorp that he’ll be able to see Pembroke soon.
A frustrated Castorp decides to head back into town while he waits, but ends up getting in a car accident. He wakes up three days later inside of, you guessed it, the wellness center, where Volmer informs him that his body is all out of whack. Volmer encourages Castorp to participate in his program, which, as you can imagine, takes Castorp down a rabbit hole he may never climb back up from.
Cure for Wellness invokes movies like The Wicker Man, The Shining, and Shutter Island, but manages to be something in and of itself. Its best asset is its irony. Here we have the world’s topmost “wellness” center, and yet as the story goes on, its clear that its patients are descending into an unrecoverable sickness.
As I pointed out in the beginning, Verbinski and Haythe committed to writing this on hard mode, allowing it to feel quite different from movies with similar setups. One of the creepiest (and more original) choices was the design behind the wellness “cure” for its patients, which was based around hydrotherapy. All of the treatments were designed around water.
You were placed in water, water was infused in you, you were asked to drink a certain water. And so there are a ton of creepy scenes that involve the innocuous fluid. One of my favorites was when Castorp was placed in a water tank not unlike the one Luke is placed in after getting injured in Empire Strikes Back. The techs responsible for him sneak off and engage in a weird sex game. In the meantime, two black eels appear inside the tank and Castorp starts freaking out, accidentally destroying the breathing apparatus, resulting in him losing consciousness, all while the techs are off in the other room, enjoying themselves.
Water tank therapy. Black eels. Tech operators engaging in freaky sex games. Can’t say I’ve ever seen THAT in a movie before. And that, my friends, is how you write on hard mode.
The only thing that worried me while I was reading Cure for Wellness was that it was going to be a “smoke and mirrors” screenplay. What’s that, you ask? “Smoke and mirrors” screenplays – which I see a lot of in the horror genre – are when the writer’s story is driven by a series of red herrings, twists, and half-baked mythology.
They’re essentially one giant sleight-of-hand, a desperate hope that you’re looking at the trick rather than what’s really happening. A good script has its mythology, backstory, and storyline figured out ahead of time so that everything comes together and makes sense at the end. Since horror is an inherently sloppy genre, with writers more focused on scares than story, you see a lot of smoke and mirrors. God forbid you actually do the hard work and make it all make sense.
There are people who feel that Shutter Island was a smoke and mirrors screenplay. There are people who think It Follows was a smoke and mirrors screenplay.
It’s particularly easy to go the smoke and mirrors route when you’re writing one of these “main character is going crazy… or is he???” scripts. The rationale is that because he doesn’t even know if he’s going crazy, we can be unclear about everything, leaving it “up to the reader” to decide what’s real or not. The problem is, when you leave EVERYTHING up to the reader, you prove that you haven’t figured anything out for yourself. Leaving your script feeling lazy and uninspired.
But I’m getting off-track. Cure for Wellness had so many weird things going on that I didn’t think it could bring itself back from the edge. However, the deep and rich backstory about the wellness org’s origins (which dated back 200 years), as well as the reveal of what Volmer did to all his patients –indeed came together in a satisfying way.
I get the feeling that this will be an even better movie than it is a script. It’s got a bit of a “blueprint” feel to it as opposed to a standalone script feel (like yesterday’s screenplay). I’m betting the trailer is going to look amazing. Good to see Verbinski recovering from Lone Ranger.
[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[xx] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: One of the things that drives me nuts when reading a script is when the writer preps us for the setting AND THEN FOLLOWS THAT BY GIVING US THE SETTING. Just give us the setting! Screenwriting is about conveying as much as possible in as few words as possible. Telling us you’re about to say something before you say it is a waste of time. Here’s an example from Cure For Wellness: “The Mercedes moves through an idyllic setting: rolling green lawns, terraced gardens where PATIENTS play shuttlecock, shuffle board, lawn boules. Others walk along well-trimmed pathways, through gardens with bountiful flowers.” The first part of that description is superfluous. We should grasp the “idyllic setting” when you describe the “rolling green lawns, terraced gardens, etc.” You don’t need to first tell us it’s an “idyllic setting.” I should point out that this is a personal preference thing. There is no “right” way to write. But writers who follow this rule tend to have smoother easier-to-read scripts.