Developing a New World, Battle Direction, and Organic Diversity: An Interview With Netflix’s Cursed Director Zetna Fuentes
Bounding into Comics was lucky enough to sit down with three-time Emmy nominated director Zetna Fuentes to discuss her role in Netflix’s new series Cursed.
Last week, Bounding into Comics was lucky enough to sit down with Zenta Fuentes, the three-time Emmy nominated director of the first two episodes of Netflix’s new series based on Arthurian legend, Cursed.
Rising to prominence with her work on the long running soap opera One Life to Live, Zetna has since gone on to become a seasoned veteran of the television industry, having served as a director on a variety of shows, including Jessica Jones, iZombie, Shameless, and How to Get Away With Murder.
Zetna was kind enough to talk with us about her experience working on Cursed, from her personal process towards directing a new property, working outside of the limitations of cable television, and how she was able to pull off a rare execution of organic diversity.
Bounding into Comics (BIC): My name is Spencer Baculi, I’m a reporter for a comic book news website called Bounding into Comics and I’d like to first start by saying ‘thank you’ for taking the time to speak with me!
First, I’d like to offer you a compliment at the beginning of this. I’m not a very big medieval fan, I actually get turned off of a lot of Medieval stuff, but I found myself so engaged with the episodes of Cursed I watched. There were so many moments, particularly the action scene between the Red Paladins and Nimue’s village and the Grey Monk’s fight in the woods that had me completely enthralled.
Zetna Fuentes (Fuentes): Thank you! That’s very kind, and thank you for having me!
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BIC: Cursed is very unique in the fact that it was optioned for a television show before it had even released. My first question is whether you felt, at all, as if you had the opportunity to work with Frank Miller and Tom Wheeler in sort of ‘shaping’ the overall perception of the series?
Fuentes: I think that was one of the most exciting aspects of coming onboard for the beginning, to do the first couple episodes is that, really being there from day one, where we could talk about the vision for the show, and building the world. And you mentioned Tom and Frank, legendary, Frank’s stunning work and Tom’s writing…they were already in the process of working on the book, so that was already far along. But in terms of the series, and the decisions for the world and the tone, they were so open, so collaborative, so excited about the ideas that I had, and I’m very grateful that they were just so open for the collaboration.
BIC: Did you get to work with them a lot during the process of filming the season?
Fuentes: They were completely available and there. It’s their creation, and they were so excited and invested in everything we were doing production-wise. They were amazing collaborators. Having them there as sounding boards, and to throw ideas at, and to come up with the ‘coolest solution for this problem’ or ‘how do we want to see this?’. I couldn’t have asked for a better collaboration with them.
BIC: I’d also like to offer another compliment here, because you pointed to Frank Miller being ‘legendary.’ I’d like to compliment you on your work in translating his ‘gritty’ art-style to the television screen. I thought it was done very well, working in the limitations of budgets and ratings, especially in those scenes with the Cursed Monk and the Red Paladins.
Fuentes: Thank you so much! You know, those were parts, of course of the early conversations. There was not a person that was working on the show that wasn’t excited to be working on a Frank Miller project. From the most fanatical people you would find in the art department to the person who knew his work, watched Sin City or 300. I think everybody has such respect for him and the work he put out that we wanted to do everything to pay this homage to him, to do this great mesh of his style and his aesthetic. It made sense for the story we were telling and were always considering “What else can we do?” “How can we put this in?” “What would Frank Miller do?”, so that was always in the forefront of our minds.
BIC: Your filmography is very storied, having received three Emmy nominations and directed what is regarded as one of, if not the best episode of Scandal, but most of your projects are in contemporary or ‘modern’ times. What was the difference in directing actions scenes in shows like Snowfall, Jessica Jones, or Ray Donovan, and those on the larger scale of a medieval setting?
Fuentes: I think for action sequences, I always use the script as, hopefully, providing all the clues that are necessary to execute. So, for a Ray Donovan fight in a bar, or a Jessica Jones action sequence, or a Cursed action sequence, I always go to the script and ask those same questions: “What’s the story? Whose point of view is it? What’s the tone? What’s at stake?” So I think asking those questions hopefully gets you the answers that you need in order to figure out how you want to do it.
With a show like Cursed, the canvas is so much larger because the world we built is so large, so then it’s about incorporating all those other elements, which are the costumes, and the horses, and the weaponry, and all of that. It’s a huge challenge, but an exciting one.
BIC: On that note, there are so many memorable moments in these first two episodes, such as the aforementioned scene with the Red Paladins, Merlin’s summoning of the blood rain, or the painful with the dentist (which took me by surprise). Which scene was your favorite to direct?
Fuentes: So many! It’s like talking about your children! [laughs] But I think about one in particular, because we prepped so hard for it, and we were really wanting to make sure that the moment really landed, is Nimue on the rock. When she’s holding the sword, and the rain is coming down. That scene in particular was one that was really exciting to figure out, and it’s terrifying. Then, that one moment where we decided to move the camera and she’s holding the sword. For us, for everybody there that day, it was a ‘pinch me’ moment.
BIC: I remember watching that scene and one thing that stuck out to me, which was definitely a directorial decision, was that Nimue’s fight wasn’t very clean. Even though she had just picked up the ‘legendary sword’ and she’s the ‘chosen one’, she did not have an easy time. The second she swung her sword and it got stuck in the rock (a very clever reference to the original legend), I was taken aback. I wasn’t expecting that.
Fuentes: We wanted it to feel messy, like she didn’t really know how to handle that sword yet. It was the first time she was taking it out, so I wanted it to feel heavy.
BIC: Speaking of ‘messy’, I also noticed that, given the structure of the series, there are a lot of characters and arcs that don’t necessarily meet up in the beginning, but are obviously intertwined through the overarching story. Did you have any trouble keeping these plotlines coherent?
Fuentes: It’s always a challenge with something so sprawling, and with many characters, and how they’re going to intersect and when. You want to make sure you’re laying that groundwork so that it feels earned and it feels like it’s moving in the right direction. So, it’s a challenge, but one that we sort of loved because it was in the script and we knew that we needed to introduce those characters so that when those relationships meet up later on down the road, it made sense.
BIC: Given that this is an adaptation of the book, and we all know that adaptations, whether they’re movies, books, or video games, are never ‘1:1’. Was there anything you found that you had to sacrifice from the book, in translating it to television, that you wish you could have left in?
Fuentes: You know, the book is so great. I remember reading the book when we were in prep. It’s tricky because of the nature of a book. There’s a lot of ‘internal’ scenes [such as internal monologues or characters thinking to themselves] that I love reading. And you think “I wish we could do all this! I wish we could do all of this from the book!”, such as all the thoughts in her head or Arthur’s head, and flesh it out. But in a show, you can’t really spend all that time doing that. So, the part of me that loves to read and loves to get into a character’s head wishes we could do all of that, but we’d be here for, you know, forever [laughs].
BIC: So, one of the big things viewers will notice about Cursed, is that the cast is extremely diverse. You have King Arthur being played by a young black man (Devon Terrell), you have the ranks of the Red Paladins and the villagers composed of every ethnicity, and even Nimue runs into other ethnicities when she reaches different locations. One thing I noticed is that your episodes didn’t draw explicit attention to this. There was never a ham-fisted moment where somebody sat and had a long-winded, real-world-analogous conversation about their race. That’s surprisingly rare in modern productions, and I was wondering how you approached the issue of giving the audience a diverse cast without sacrificing the integrity of the story and the narrative?
Fuentes: It was so integral to the world we wanted to build, from the very beginning. Everyone was on board, everyone was excited about that, from Tom to Frank to all the collaborators to Netflix. It felt really ‘right’ for story we were telling, and it’s a fantasy series. Yes, steeped in this real-world legend, but we felt like this fresh perspective warranted a look at a world that I would want to watch, I would want to be in. As a woman-of-color, I know how often, usually, I’m watching things and we’re not a part of the tapestry of the world. And so, it was an opportunity to do it, and these actors started coming in, and they were so talented. Devon Terrell won that role as King Arthur.
It just started to mesh and make sense, and there was no reason to call out to it because it was the world we were creating, and if you show that, and you ground it in the world you’re building, then you just start watching and you don’t think about it; you just watch the world.
BIC: I respect that answer so much, because that’s absolutely what came across to me. The moment I sort of recognized “Oh, this is really diverse and I hadn’t really noticed” was when the Red Paladin is entangled in a magic tree after Nimue escapes. A couple members of the Red Paladin are black men, and for some reason, with the popular stereotype of ‘religious order persecutes others while being composed exclusively of white men’, I didn’t think that would happen. Yet, there they were, and it felt of organic: of course the Red Paladins would have followers of all colors, as their goal is not one based on race, but based on opposition to ‘demons’.
BIC: I know you only directed the first two episodes, but what thoughts do you have on the rest of the series? Do you feel confident in giving the show up to another team?
Fuentes: Again, it’s tricky, because like I said, the scenes might feel like my children, the world also feels like my child. It’s important for me to acknowledge that, and then let it go, and invite people [to work on the show] whose talent I believe in. The directors that came in to do the rest of the season, we’re so lucky, they’re brilliant directors. Daniel [Nettheim], Jon [East[, Sara [O’Gorman], they came in and built on the world and took it to the places that it needed to go. So, I’m just really excited that we had these collaborators who could come in and work with us.
BIC: With Cursed, you’ve now added the ‘fantasy’ genre to your repertoire. So you’ve got ‘crime, and ‘drama’, ‘superheroes’ and now ‘fantasy’ under your belt. Obviously you’re extremely talented in working whichever subject you have the pleasure of working on, but what would you like to tackle next? If there were a dream project out there for Zetna Fuentes, what would she be headlining next?
Fuentes: Thank you for even asking! I’m really excited to make a movie. I was a theater director first, and it’s a world that I love, but I’m really excited to take that next step and make a movie.
BIC: Would you like to make an original feature? Well, everyone would, so rather, which do you think comes first for you: an original feature, or an adaptation of something else?
Fuentes: I’m kind of in the open. I want a great story to work on, so I’m excited to dive into ‘feature’ storytelling, having a beginning, middle, and end. Hopefully theaters come back into the world, because I love going to the cinema, sitting down, having the lights go out, and watching a movie. It’s one of my favorite things.
Cursed is now available for streaming exclusively on Netflix.