Director Zetna Fuentes takes us through how she brought Cursed, Frank Miller and Thomas Wheeler’s reimagining of Arthurian legends, to life on Netflix.
It’s a story as old as time. A young warrior out to find his true destiny seeks the sword to establish his right to rule… but who is the enchantress behind the sword? Zetna Fuentes (Scandal, How to Get Away With Murder) took the lead on interpreting the iconic lore from the illustrated novel to the small screen.
While steeped in legend, Cursed takes risks to be different, but in ways that are relatable and comforting. I had a chance to sit down with Zetna Fuentes who directed and co-executive produced the first two episodes of the season. Zetna is a woman of color who has loved fantasy and the story of Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table since she was a girl.
Zetna worked on Showtime’s Ray Donavan with Bill Wheeler, who is Thomas Wheeler’s (the co-author of the illustrated novel) brother. Bill, who’d been working with Frank on the series development side, sent her the script for Cursed while they were searching for a creative team. Zelda became engrossed in the world and was elated when she was chosen.
“I’d watched Excalibur a bunch of times and everyone knows the legend, but I thought this was really interesting. They’re taking Lady of the Lake and they wanna do this fresh take on a legend we all know.” It really resonated with her and soon after she got the job.
Directing and producing two episodes including the pilot was a challenging thrill for Zetna. The scope of the project was so big and she was excited to dig into the minutia of the project. She refers to it as her baby, and loved being involved behind the scenes.
I talked to her about how special I found the diversity to be on the show. She’d mentioned loving Merlin as a child and I think that’s a story many kids of color have. We love these hallowed properties and even though they are fictional, we still get the same picture in our heads when thinking of them: Long flowing blond hair, piercing blue eyes, waif-ish damsels in distress.
One thing Cursed does is seamlessly integrate diversity into their cast. It’s worth noting that one of the main characters, Arthur is played by a black actor (Devon Terrell) and several of the background characters are people of color.
I wondered how important it was to Zetna to express and add in those diverse elements where it might not be the norm.
“It was vitally important to me. As a woman of color, I know intimately what that’s like. As a kid, we watched films and TV shows and we’re usually not in there. We don’t get to see ourselves in the stories, ever. So when I read the script, it wasn’t me trying to convince other people and them saying no. It was an atmosphere of ‘yes’. [Diversity] was organic to the time and the kind of world that we wanted to build,” she added.
Zetna didn’t want representation for the sake of representation; that wouldn’t serve the story. She wanted diversity that felt seamless by design. They cast Devon Terrell because he was simply the best actor, so when building the world they wanted to make sure it was one in which he fit.
“We didn’t want to have just one black person in a sea of white. I didn’t want to do that story.” Zetna was thankful to Frank, Tom, and the Netflix team for supporting the vision.
Next we spoke about the challenges of both directing and producing on Cursed. The scale of this project was gigantic, and she explained that there were so many elements that called for a plethora of split-second decision making. “We had CGI, we had rain, we had fire. This wasn’t just a show of two people having a conversation at a table, but a full fantasy epic. It’s a challenge and creates a lot of research. You have to be prepared.”
She mentioned the scene of Nimue fighting the wolves and having to ensure the safety of the actors in the scene while also making sure it was still epic.
During the show they pay homage to the illustrated novel in between the scene breaks, but they try to ensure realness in the special effects they use.
“I come from a theater background. I was a theater director and I love story. Even as effects heavy as a scene can get, I look at it and think ‘what’s important?’ and I think: ‘the character is important, the humanity is important, the emotion is important’.
“If you ground scenes like that in human behavior, then you care. It’s not just about watching effects or visual spectacle, We wanted to keep as many practical elements in as we could.”
Speaking of characters, I had to ask about my main kid, Squirrel! Portrayed by Billy Jenkins, Squirrel is introduced as a kind of medieval newsy scamp who picks pockets and makes wisecracks while drinking rum. Truly a kid after my own heart.
“Squirrel is such a great character!” Zetna exclaimed, laughing. “He’s one of our favorites. Billy Jenkins is such a good actor and has that impish quality himself. He’s an old soul and truly- all that Squirrel is? Billy is! We wanted that character to pop and wanted people to fall in love with him. When we first meet him, he’s kind of a scoundrel and he just grows on you.”
When thinking of the overall tone and message of the show, we spoke about how Nimue was classified as a witch to her demise.
The word “witch” was commonly placed on women who were simply “stubborn”, “opinionated”, “intelligent” and “different”.
“The fear of ‘other’ is really big. Whether it’s “other” race, “other” sex, “other” ethnicity, if someone is different, there will always be someone who wants to put them down and oppress them.” In the show Nimue is Fey, and even her own kind are scared of her because of a lack of understanding about her connection to the hidden spirits.
“It’s very intriguing to me and I love exploring that. I’m hoping the audience watches and is transported to a fantasy world. There’s so much going on in the world today, there’s a need for a story where you can root for [Nimue] and want her to win.
“It’s good vs. evil and we’re on the side of right. I’m hoping people are entertained and they enjoy it as we go along on this journey.”
I asked Zetna what she took away for herself.
“For me personally, the actual material allowed me to think about what’s important; these relationships and what it’s like for a young person to be figuring out their place in the world. How to stand up for yourself, how to stand up for the people you love, and your community. I think that is her journey, and it’s one that’s relatable. That’s what always resonated with me and that’s what I’m taking away.”
Though a couple of my cohorts were less than enthused by the offering, and had some legitimate concerns regarding the pacing and some of the more confusing plot points, I think it still warrants a peek. It’s a fun watch with an enduring message.
Also, be sure to check out the Discover Cursed Virtual Experience for even more interactive features.
Cursed is a thrilling new chapter in a well trod canon, and the first season is currently streaming on Netflix.
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