Gore Verbinsksi's 'A Cure for Wellness' is so unique that the DP had to develop a brand new aspect ratio to shoot it.
That Hollywood produced the twisted and bizarre A Cure for Wellness is something of a modern miracle. Returning to horror 15 years after The Ring, Gore Verbinski presents a film that is part baroque fairytale, part deranged nightmare. Shifting between body horror, atmospheric mystery, and pure spectacle, Verbinski's mesmerizing parable diagnoses the malady of the modern soul (namely, capitalism). But there is no cure to be had in A Cure for Wellness—only the slippery slope of insanity.
The visual architect behind it all is Bojan Bazelli, who lenses A Cure for Wellness with the visceral logic of a bad dream. When Lockhart (Dane DeHaan), a Wall Street vulture, is sent to the Swiss alps to retrieve an executive who's gone AWOL, he arrives at a pristine sanatorium. The elderly clientele who populate the castle grounds have placed their faith in a doctor who is developing a mysterious pathway to bliss, by way of a special concoction in the water. Of course, nothing is as it seems. The real star of A Cure for Wellness is Bazelli's emotive cinematography, which takes us through the castle's labyrinthine corridors, beckoning us with the promise of nirvana while hinting at something dark and diseased just out of sight.
No Film School caught up with the Yugoslavian-born cinematographer (who also collaborated with Verbinski on The Ring and The Lone Ranger) prior to the worldwide release for A Cure for Wellness to discuss the film's unique aspect ratio (1.66:1), the incredibly complex underwater shots he had to engineer with a foreign crew, the visual accident that led to one of the film's most affecting scenes, creating exquisite imagery with Verbinski, and more.
No Film School: I can't wait to talk about so many things with you, but let's start with the beginning of your career: film school in Prague. I actually lived there for a while, so I'm familiar with that film school. How did you get your start in FAMU and then come to Hollywood?
Bojan Bazelli: My desire as a child was always to be in the film business. Maybe you know that I'm originally from Yugoslavia, and there was a film school in Yugoslavia, but it was very difficult to get in if you weren't connected in the Communist era. I tried a couple times, and I was not successful.
Meanwhile, the so-called "new wave" of filmmakers were coming from this film school in Czechoslovakia. That got me interested in trying my luck over there, and indeed I was accepted. I was one of, I think, 100 people that were competing that year for entry as a foreign student. I was very lucky to get accepted and spend all my beautiful five years of studying in this lovely city, which got me visually interested in many other things besides photography.
If you study in the Czech school, they have five years of cinematography. Each year, you shoot practical films and create your own movies and shoot for other people, and it gets too expensive. At the time when we were studying, we were supposed to graduate with a medium-length feature film that had been shot on professional format—it used to be a 35mm. For a film school to be shooting in 35mm was really unheard of, even today.
I graduated with a film that got some very good attention in festivals, schools, and otherwise. That film was pretty much the ticket for me to get some other opportunities. One of the opportunities was with director Abel Ferrara, a famous name in independent film in those days. He got ahold of my film and loved it. He engaged the conversation for me to go to the United States to shoot his second film, which was called China Girl. That was my first film. So I went to the United States and never looked back.
"For cinematographers, it's very important to hook up with visual directors."
NFS: How did you and Gore Verbinski start working together?
Bazelli: I've done my fair share of indie movies and medium budgets. Most people start in music videos and commercials and they move on to medium format or films, and so on; I started just opposite. I'd done extensive work in films—I'd done at least 16 movies in the span of five years—before I was able to get my first commercial.
One of the first commercials I got was with Gore Verbinski, who hired me to do a commercial on Skittles. He asked me after he saw the film Kalifornia, my 16th movie, with Brad Pitt. He said, "Hey, want to shoot my commercial?" He was making his move into directing commercials.
I wasn't the one who did his first movie, but then I was the one who did his second film, The Ring. Since then, we've done a bunch of commercials together. I always respected him as a great filmmaker and a very visual guy. For cinematographers, it's very important to hook up with visual directors. In many ways, it's much harder, but it's much more fruitful and yields better results. The collaboration is stronger.
NFS: Is it more difficult because visual directors like Gore have very specific ideas of what they want? Do you have to get inside their minds to execute the vision?
Bazelli: Yeah. It's not even about what they want, but it's also how they're thinking. They are visual people that think in images, and sometimes those images may need to be changed, or may need to be diverted. In Gore's case, he's very adamant. He's very thorough and very detailed, so it helps cinematographers, because it pushes your boundaries, pushes your way of thinking. But the price is higher to pay. It's just that you have to respect their way of thinking, their way of analyzing the situations.
Many directors get comfortable when they create and then don't want to change. In the movie business, you create during the filming. You have to adapt to scenarios and be flexible. If [the director] conceived something, but it is not possible in reality, sometimes one has to alter the other.
With Gore, you have to be fully prepared to be on your feet all the time and be creative with thinking. You have to constantly make it happen. In his case, you have to given an extra 40%, in a good way. He's a very hardworking director and works 24/7. We all do, but he, in particular, is always thinking in advance. He's always checking, "Okay, in two days we'll be shooting a scene. Is all this ready? Do we have this? We asked for this. We asked for that. Just make sure..." He's always talking to the production designer, the effects department... It's a pretty buttoned-up, well-oiled machine.
"If you can achieve the image that speaks emotions in the context of the story, you have done your job fantastically. That's pretty much all [cinematographers] try to do."
NFS: I can't imagine what you must have visualized when you first got the script. What was so interesting about the film is that there are almost 20 different genres baked in: sci-fi, thriller, body horror, fantasy/fairytale, drama. What happened after you read the script and began translating the visual imagery?
Bazelli: What you said is very true. Linearly speaking, it would not be possible to deliver the story in a visual sense with just one idea [the whole time]. I think the imagery was combined from subconscious thinking of what this place is, what the feeling is being in this place, and what it's like to be fully engaged in some other state of mind in our career. First, we're in a corporate world, and we're taken out of this space and put into some kind of sensory experience that feels right and happy, sort of like a second life or afterlife.
Bazelli: Even without reading the script, that sentence alone would create some strong images in your mind. You would be wondering, "Where is this place? What does the spa look like?" Then you're discovering there are old people there. They're not young people. They're coming to stay for their last leg of their life, and they seem happy. You start with that idealistic world. Then, we dig deeper, and we discover the skeleton of it is fully rotten and dangerous. It's an emotional conflict. It's a physical conflict. It's positive and negative. It's one world transferred to another world.
It's really hard to describe how you get to some sort of final conclusion [of what to film]. If you ever do it's only an attempt, and your attempt is recorded on some device, and then is projected and presented to everyone. Doing it again today, would it be different? I'm sure it would, because it has come from an organic place. It comes from you. It comes from the moment of feeling, the moment of deciding. We make and live with those decisions; hopefully, they do create what they intend to create.
Putting it together, Gore gives you the freedom as well as gives you his idea, his opinion. It's kind of building blocks. It's a good visual collaboration.
NFS: What were some important decisions that you made together?
Bazelli: One of the big decisions was the format to shoot on. I hope it comes across on the big screen that we do have a black left and right screen. They were taken down a little bit. We created a unique format: 1.66:1 with added height from Alexa's open gate. This aspect ratio does not exist in a regular theater. The normal aspect ratio today is 2.4:1, which means your vertical lines fit 2.4 times into your horizontal lines. The standard for widescreen format is 1.85:1. Every movie, if it's not widescreen, uses that format. Theaters in the United States would not project another format.
"We created a unique format: 1.66:1 with added height from Alexa's open gate. This aspect ratio does not exist in a regular theater."
We decided to shoot on 1.66 because it doesn't immediately jump out at you; it's not that big of a difference, but the difference between 1.85 and 1.66 is still significant. It's a taller frame, with more height than width, even though the width is still wider than the height. It subconsciously creates that boxy, square feel.
We made the decision based on location. We were going to shoot at this wonderful place which has tremendous 30-foot ceilings. By establishing this horizontal format, we would pretty much achieve the feeling of that space. If we used standard widescreen, it would clip everything down—too much width and not enough height to show the location.
We decided to do two tubes at 1.66:1, which we created using the latest technique from the Alexa XT Open Gate camera. It shoots side to side, but the only lenses available to cover the big chips of the Alexa were Leica Summilux-C. [The production also used Zeiss Master Prime and Ultra Prime Lenses.] They were unbelievably great for this movie. Along with the aspect ratio, they created an unusual feeling, at least in my mind, that everything was a little bit off-centered. You see those ads about wellness and cure—we were lingering on that kind of thing.
NFS: What about the color palette? Everything was bathed in cyan, blue, turquoise, and green hues.
Bazelli: We were trying to do an homage to The Ring—not identical, but very similar tonal palette that we had in The Ring. It was sort of a greenish cyan, turquoise color that changes during the film; it starts in one way, in New York, and changes when you go to Switzerland. It's helping you subconsciously accept a clean look and feel—the feel of clean air and deep breathing.
We were also trying to play with the expression elements of The Ring. There are lots of circles in A Cure for Wellness, especially when he's in the tank. When the tank door closes, the reflection of the ring in the water disappears. That's an homage to The Ring, if you didn't catch it. Then the deer eye [in A Cure for Wellness] is similar to the horse's eye in The Ring.
When you see some of these exterior shots [in Switzerland], you think, "This place it's wonderful. It's a beautiful place to be." There was a line in the movie that says no one ever leaves. Why would you? Look how beautiful it is. That was a goal to achieve, but the beauty was not to be mistaken for real beauty. The imagery and color palette suggests that you're not 100% sure. I think we achieved that.
"This movie wasn't about precision. It was about emotional depth, rather than precision."
NFS: In the film, the first time you get that taste of pristine beauty—a beauty almost not to be trusted—is with that amazing train shot. I keep going back to that shot in my mind.
Bazelli: Thank you for noticing the shot, because it was a very simple, cheap, but very effective shot. It happens many times [on a shoot], and sometimes it works better than others. This one was definitely the winner in terms of emotional impact.
It was one of the easiest shots in the movie. We just rented a train. We were driving on a train in pre-production, with no passengers but the crew. We mounted the camera outside the window and drove the train into the tunnel. That was it.
We wanted the juxtaposition of the New York buildings—monolithic, symbolic of the corporate world and striving and money. Then, this train takes you to darkness. It's a symbolic entry to the movie—entering the black tunnel, entering the darkness.
I'm a big believer that if you can achieve the image that speaks emotions in the context of the story, you have done your job fantastically. That's pretty much all [cinematographers] try to do. If you're moved emotionally, you're in good shape.
NFS: If that was the easiest shot, technically speaking, what was one of the more difficult shots?
Bazelli: Definitely the underwater shots—the ones in the tank in the compression chamber. [Lockhart] is in this state of mind where he doesn't know what's going on. He's pushed into this tank with water and with a cast on his leg, breathing an oxygen tube, trying some treatment. Dane DeHaan was deeply affected by the scene. Photographing that actor in that scenario...the whole chamber was about 8 feet in diameter full of water, with a camera crew. It was [difficult] to achieve the feeling that he's alone in this place. In the shot, the water couldn't move. The only slight shiver in the water is created by his body. Meanwhile, when you look back [at the production footage], you see crew with goggles and all that. It was challenging to get Dane to be comfortable because of his nature of his acting—he loves to feel as if the crew is invisible. If he could, he would love to have nobody around him when he's [acting].
As you can see in the movie, the water rises very quickly. It's not done with effects. It's pretty much all in-camera—we put those pumps to work hard and fast. We wanted to create a sense that the space is closing in, and when you look at his breathing device, you think, "Oh my gosh, he's going to die."
"The actors in this movie were deeply affected by the story. They were all in."
With all the equipment and with all the people around, it felt to me that was like one of the hardest scenes in terms of intimacy. Not even technically, but just to give the actor his space and not encroach on it. We had to make sure that nothing around him reminded him of filming, because he would get really confused about it. We had to deliver very powerful images in that scene. The actors in this movie were deeply affected by the story.
Another difficult scene also had to do with water, when [the hotel guests] are [suspended] in the water. We had to film real people taking deep breaths and sinking down into the glass containers. We had to film it within 20 seconds. Some of them would move the glass and want to come out. In pre-production, we spent lots of time testing the amount of milk to put in the water to get this feeling of creamy, not-fully-clean, crisp water.
Bazelli: Another hard shot was the one with Mia Goth in the tub with the eels. It's a push in from a wide shot of the tub into her closeup, and you crane over her to see the eels all around her.
NFS: It's incredible, like an image from a nightmare.
Bazelli: Yes, and it's complicated. Those were real eels! About 150 eels. Not with her, but with her body double. We shot some segments of motion control by shooting her action first then taking her out and editing. Her body had to be in the exact same place as her body double, so the eels could interact with it, and then we had to make the eels move and all that. It was very complex.
With this shot, we had a visual accident, so to speak, but then we liked it and we tried to [make it happen again]. When something accidentally happens, sometimes you have to recognize it and embrace it.
When the camera is moving forward towards the tub at the very beginning of the shot, we caught a glimpse of the floor tile. It's about five seconds. Every couple of beats, there was little glimpse of the tile, but just one tile. It kind of goes with the music, and it wasn't preconceived. (We were not that great!) It just happened by the process of elimination in the scene. It magically offered itself. We went, "Oh, look at that. That's interesting. Why is it happening?" It became a storytelling element. It really adds to the creepiness of it, because it does kind of say, "Hey, something is here." You don't see the eels yet. You just see her hand and her beautiful face. You know [something bad] is about to happen.
NFS: How did you approach thinking about shooting the body horror?
Bazelli: I think that's one of the weakest parts [of the movie]. You have to show your cards. You have to conclude the film. Of course, the horror is what you see with the naked eye, but also what you feel.
"I like the idea of realism that is not super glossy and polished."
NFS: I heard you say that you love paintings and you strive to make your cinematography have the same emotional feeling. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
Bazelli: The painting is the ultimate goal for all of us. I think if I could paint—if I had a talent, if I had the mechanical skills—Today, there are so many realistic ways to tell a story [visually]. But I like the idea of realism that is not super glossy and polished.
NFS: A Cure for Wellness felt very real at some junctures, but other times, it felt like a fairy tale. That is what I meant by the feeling I had that different stories were colliding. I loved how that worked out visually.
Bazelli: Yes. Now, I wish I said that. You can quote me! [Laughs] No, it's much harder to say that in words. If you read it that way, the movie is successful. It works.
There are lots of true emotions involved in this movie. It was difficult project. It wasn't easy. We were in Germany [with different labor restrictions] and working with a foreign crew. Just a few of us knew each other and everyone else was new. This is a difficult movie to deliver on unknown grounds. Of course, making a movie is never easy, but I think this one was special because it had deep roots in emotions. We knew we weren't creating something that had to be an exact mathematical proportion. If we offset it in some way, it wouldn't be in bad shape because this movie wasn't about precision. It was about emotional depth, rather than precision.
NFS: You're speaking to me from a set in Texas right now. What are you working on? What can we expect next from you?
Bazelli: Yes, I'm doing another film here. It has taken me underwater again. It's about water. It is also emotional and not fully technical. I still have some obligations not to say too much about it, because the cast is not set and all that, but it's a very interesting film that takes place underwater.
NFS: Oh, wow. I can't wait to see what else you can do visually with water as a theme.
Bazelli: Yeah, it's been a good year!