Director Gore Verbinski’s latest film A Cure for Wellness is a psychological thriller with dark imagery and beautiful scenery. The film’s twisted story is delivered through fantastic set design and a clever use of props, are by far the most compelling parts of A Cure for Wellness. The film does a great job of highlighting some of the best ways production design can support a feature through props that reflect key story elements, well-designed sets, and an overall aesthetic that supports the story. These lessons on production design can help even the smallest of films build stories that are believable and engaging.

Combining props and story

The entire art direction of A Cure for Wellness works so well to make water a character of its own. It is a magical thing that a film made for modern audiences (who are so desensitized to horror) has managed to make water scary again and this comes from how strategically water is used throughout the film. Water is used at every opportunity and this is done on purpose to establish its huge story importance. Not since Jaws has a film attempted to make water so terrifying. 

We see people drinking it, people swimming in it, rain, and all manner of hydrotherapies.  In most cases, it is good to establish a plot device this important early on which the film does in the form of traumatic hydrotherapy. The versatility of water allows it to also be mysterious by being a gas in a sauna literally clouding our protagonist’s vision. This clever use of a prop or even a colour emphasizes story elements, moods, and characters by presenting a visual cue for the audience to follow. Now not every film needs such a strong emphasis on a prop just for the sake of its story but this level of attention to detail from an art director is guaranteed to support any production no matter the budget.

Selecting a location that fits

An important element of production that is often underdeveloped is location. Setting can tell the audience a lot about who the characters are that occupy it. Our protagonist in A Cure for Wellness comes from a world of monolithic skyscrapers in a cold gloomy city. This is reflected in his character as a stoic and cold loner. We also get to explore castle Hohenzollern which is the beautiful backdrop for the sanitarium where most of the film takes place. Although gorgeous on the outside it hides a twisted maze of clinical catacombs with dark secrets of their own. This is a reflection of the main antagonist whose motives are kept hidden behind a literal mask.

Try to keep balance in mind when selecting locations. Location can and should be a star but it shouldn’t distract from the action in a scene whatever that is. If a character is delivering a heart-wrenching monologue it doesn’t do the film any favours to have distracting scenery all around them (Unless this is done to serve the story). Finding a location that is already established and fits into a story without additional design can be challenging but is well worth it for low or micro-budget productions. Every city has a wealth of abandoned or gothic locations that can be discovered by those willing to do some digging. These locations may not fit every story but they provide a unique and engaging space that is ready to use.

Hopefully, the elements of A Cure for Wellness are inspiring enough to help you elevate your own works. Remember it isn’t a matter of how big the budget is. It is entirely up to your creative application and how you can strategically build a world with what you have.