Once upon a time, the summer months were a TV wasteland. TV Networks saved their July and August airtime for re-runs and low-rated shows with no shot at renewal. But streaming providers like Netflix and Hulu have taken a wrecking ball to the industry’s old ways. And that’s a beautiful thing.
The streaming service era has ushered in an age of entertainment overload. There are too many programs to stay on top of. So nowadays it’s not uncommon for some mind-blowing program to debut in the middle of July. But the most exciting part of the streaming boom is how these services provide showrunners platforms to break away from the old ways of staffing and casting their shows..
Netflix’s new 10-episode fantasy series, Cursed, is a prime example of what modern-day television has to offer. Cursed is adapted from an illustrated novel by Tom Wheeler (Puss in Boots, The Cape) and Frank Miller (Sin City, The Dark Knight Returns), who serve as showrunner and EP (respectively). There have been countless movies, TV, and comics about King Arthur, but none like this. This take on the myth could only exist in 2020.
Although Wheeler and Miller’s reimagining still features the wizard Merlin (Gustaf Skarsgård) and a dashing Arthur (Devon Terrell), the series is not really about them. This story follows the tragic fate of a teenager named Nimue (Katherine Langford), who is destined to become Arthur’s powerful ally, the Lady of the Lake.
Cursed hits all the beats you want from your tent-pole entertainment with its high concept, talented cast, and top-notch production values. The show’s stunning visuals will grab your attention, but the fast-paced plot and compelling characters are what keep you hooked.
What’s most impressive is how Cursed effortlessly juggles its many tones. At times it’s a dark and gritty story filled with treachery and violence, but it’s also a dazzling tale of magic and wonder. Cursed has stayed on my mind since I devoured the first few episodes, so I couldn’t wait to speak with the series showrunner, Tom Wheeler. Wheeler and I discussed managing tone, the awesome choice of populating a medieval show with POCs, and of course, what’s on his shelf.
Tom Wheeler Interview
Wheeler’s experience working on genre TV shows and films makes him the ideal choice to oversee an ambitious series like Cursed. His TV credits include deep dives into sci-fi and superheroes with Surface and The Cape. And his work on The LEGO Ninjago Movie and Dora and the Lost City of Gold reveals his ability to seamlessly adapt tricky franchises that would flummox most screenwriters. “When you’re dealing with a pre-existing character, you want to bring something new and original to the table,” Wheeler told me.
Wheeler credits his collaboration with Frank Miller for helping to bring the intricate fantasy world of Cursed to life. “It was a wonderful, unexpected opportunity to be able to sit with Frank and then realize there was a world we were both curious about collaborating on that [which] we hadn’t tackled yet,” Wheeler said. He added, “I grew up loving fantasy, but I hadn’t quite had that opportunity yet. So, the idea of working in the Arthur mythology sandbox with Frank and thinking about these characters through a Frank Miller lens seemed irresistible.”
Ultimately, the show’s medieval fantasy setting proved too enticing to pass up. Wheeler was intrigued by the chance to, “Talk about all kinds of themes and tones but with an incredible canvas and against backdrops of magic.” He calls the show’s dynamic mix of epic and intimate storytelling, “A lot of fun.”
We’ve seen everyone from Guy Ritchie to Monty Python adapt the legend of King Arthur to the big screen. Giving audiences a unique take on such well-tread material is big ask. A screenwriter must deliver the familiar story beats viewers expect while also avoiding cliches. Stick too close to what came before and your movie feels stale. Veer off too far, and you risk alienating the audience.
Cursed solves this problem by shifting the story’s focus to a heroic female protagonist. “Very early on we recognized that by telling the story from Nimue’s point of view, we were going to be able to introduce these characters in a new way,” Wheeler told me. “We weren’t starting at the typical starting point; we were moving back from that. You need to innovate for today and make your version relevant for today.”
Wheeler found it essential to craft a heroine that would appeal to young women. “It appealed to me the idea of creating a hero or redefining a character that would draw my daughter into this world and maybe impact her the way I grew up with these characters and connected with these characters,” Wheeler said. “Usually women in this mythology are rather passive, or they’re seen as seductresses or cuckolds or something like that. We’ve never seen one really take the sword themselves and swing it and take control of their own destiny and walk in that path.”
Wheeler described an instance during production that proved they were on the right track. “There was a moment when my daughter was on set during the first couple of weeks, and she saw Katherine in the full Nimue costume [with] the sword and, it blew my daughter’s mind – and ours as well,” says Wheeler. “That was really the goal, to create some new women heroes inside this world, build it out for audiences.” Unlike too many showrunners working today, Wheeler gets that there’s nothing uniquely male about themes of seizing one’s destiny.
I didn’t get very far into the first episode of Cursed before noticing the show’s serious commitment to representation. Unlike other fantasy series like Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones, Cursed populates its fantasy world with people of colour. Not only is Arthur played by a POC (Devon Terrell starred as a young Barack Obama in the Netflix drama Barry – check it out), but scenes often feature a considerable number of non-white actors doing background work.
Wheeler confirmed that it was important early on for production to create a world that looks like the world. “Zetna Fuentes was our block one director and definitely our third partner and collaborator and hugely influential in building the world visually,” Wheeler said. “We talked a lot about this in casting; in a lot of these stories, you tend to see one black character in the background. For us it was important for this to be a diverse world, for it not to be even overly commented on. We obviously deal with issues of bigotry (the Fae and the church), but casting-wise we wanted to be open to the actors who best embodied the characters.”
Breaking away from “casting conventions” is easier when you come across an actor as talented and attractive as Devon Terrell, who Wheeler refers to as far and away the best Arthur casting saw. Wheeler sites his star-level charisma and the vulnerability of his performance as to why he was the obvious choice for Arthur.
Having been on many TV show sets, I can tell you TV series showrunner is one of the most challenging jobs in showbusiness. Besides hiring staff, breaking multi-season stories, and dealing with studio execs, every creative decision, big and small filters through the showrunner. A showrunner must take the vision of a fictional world as it exists in their head and manifest it in the real world. This job is tough enough on a run-of-the-mill cop show like Law & Order, but it’s made infinitely harder by telling stories that take place in the distant past or in magical fantasy worlds. Cursed does both.
Wheeler calls producing Cursed the hardest work he’s done in the past couple years but also the most fulfilling. “The vast majority of days, I felt enormous gratitude because I’m working with Frank Miller. I’ve been a fan of all my life,” Wheeler says. It also helps that there’s this incredible team put together, which isn’t always the case. “It can be a brutal job and there have been other jobs in the past where it’s more difficult.”
Wheeler considers the commitment of his cast and crew a blessing, particularly the passion of the show’s star. “Katherine was a terrific leader,” he told me. “She’s not just hugely talented and a total badass – and wonderful in all ways – but she was a great leader, and she set a great example in terms of the work she put in.”
Wheeler mentioned that Langford had “journals and journals” of Nimue’s journey and that deep commitment to developing the character kept the showrunner on his toes. “I’d be like, damn, I think she knows the book better than I do,” Wheeler told me. “As a showrunner, and as a lead actor in the show, you treat people the way you want to be treated, so that can create a crazy environment or could create a very unified team.”
Despite the incredible workload and constant juggling of tasks, Wheeler loves his job, because as he puts it, “You get to have the best of all worlds.” There’s also the added benefit of collaborating with a legend like Frank Miller. Wheeler says that he and Miller routinely “Left it all on the field.”
“It’s interesting going from the very intimate process of writing a book to suddenly there’s 300 people running around building this world,” Wheeler said. “It is something that you need to give yourself entirely to, but it’s very gratifying and can be creatively fulfilling.” He added, “If someone is not pulling their weight or someone’s not in it, heart and soul, it can be very challenging, but in this case, we were very lucky.”
All of the cast and crew’s hard work paid off in spades. The show looks dazzling; full of vibrant colours, elaborate costumes, and engrossing production design, specifically the verdant forest that Nimue calls home. Wheeler says that he and Miller spoke early on about treating nature as a character. The show’s look would not be a typical Frank Miller thing (not that there is a typical Frank Miller thing Wheeler quickly points out).
“Frank’s work in the past has been very animated and stylized, like in Sin City or 300,” Wheeler said. “We knew this would be more naturalistic and deal with water and very vivid nature. So, we did pay a lot of attention to the greens of the trees and the colours and the clarity of the water. Having someone like Frank helping visually guide it through was huge.”
Each episode of Cursed uses animated segues that tie certain scenes together. Wheeler says they were a way of bringing the book’s art into the show and in an overt sort of way, which gave it a whole new kind of texture. These inserts, “Made it feel like that dark fairy tale that we had talked about it being early on,” Wheeler said. He describes these moments as creating a sense of turning pages in an old illustrated book (like those old Arthur Rackham drawings). Wheeler added, “Dark fairytales are of course, very violent and can be brutal as well as magical and beautiful. So that seemed to match Frank’s aesthetic as well.”
The show’s first episode, Alone, depicts innocent villagers being slaughtered as well as a young woman decapitating a pack of wolves with a sword. The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones stand out for not shying away from dark and brooding material. But these brutal elements often feel oppressive and alienate viewers who don’t want to wallow in despair. I asked Wheeler about finding a tonal sweet-spot between edgy and punishing.
“It’s hard,” Wheeler told me. “We’re not Game of Thrones, we can’t just throw it all at you. It was a brutal world. And I don’t think you can do something with Frank Miller without having violence be a part of it. He does beautiful violence and we just had to save our moments and make sure that it was there for a reason; that we didn’t overly linger.” Wheeler said that it was important to make Nimue feel like a fantasy fugitive, so the violence early on was necessary to establish consequences and provide the story with a sense of stakes.
I couldn’t let Wheeler go before asking him what prized possession he keeps on his shelf – especially since he set up for our Zoom call in front of an actual shelf.
“I will say my wife and I did a lot of arguing about the shelf last night,” he answered with a laugh. “There was a lot of reorganizing,” he said as he looked over his shoulder. “I got a pretty bitching collection of action figures here, Mezco Toyz which are near and dear to me. I have a John Cassidy version of The Cape, which I’m very fond of next to a Frank Miller version of Batman where he’s telling me off for saying something, bitching me out. It is nice to capture that I’m a huge comic book fan so being able to work with some of these folks is hugely important to me. I could bore you with this for a while, but those are a few that mean a lot to me.”
Cursed is currently available to stream on Netflix.