[Interview] Sean Ellis for THE CURSED

[Interview] Sean Ellis for THE CURSED
Courtesy LD Entertainment
In the late 1800s, a once-peaceful remote country village is under attack—but by who or what, no one knows.  Villagers spread rumors of a cursed land, supernatural forces, and even demonic creatures, as the disappearances and killings continue.  Pathologist John McBride arrives to investigate the danger in THE CURSED, only to discover something much deeper and more sinister than he ever could have imagined.

Ahead of the world premiere of THE CURSED at Sundance 2021, Sarah chatted with writer/director Sean Ellis, where they discussed the overarching theme of addiction, how the team approached conceptualizing the film’s version of the werewolf, and the intensity of the film’s shoot.

Editor’s Note: This interview is a re-post from January 2021, with minor updates. It contains mild spoilers. You have been warned.

To start things off, what was the initial inspiration of THE CURSED? And did you initially decide to set it in the 1800s or were more recent time periods considered?

Sean Ellis: Well, it felt that it was always going to be a slight period piece. I think it lends itself to the genre slightly better. It felt like it would make the world more believable as well. Because if you could create a world for the audience, that they believe it is 1890, then in a weird way, you’ve got them halfway there, though. Leave everything out, and you start to present if it’s done in a believable way. I think that I constructed it that way, and decided that that was probably the best way. That it would be a period.

I mean, also you don’t have the horrible modern-day tropes of mobile phones and people tweeting, “Hey, there’s a werewolf in here!” Or, “Don’t go near the woods. I just saw a werewolf.” So, there’s all that stuff to consider if you’re setting it in a modern time. All that stuff is pretty un-cinematic for me.

And then you have the reference of The Wolf Man for audiences to lean into to sort of get us acclimated, as we start watching THE CURSED.

Sean Ellis: Yeah, I mean, The Wolf Man. Was it ’39? I think it was 1939. Yeah, and written by a Jewish writer [Curt Siodmak], as a metaphor for being Jewish during pre-40s in Europe. So very poignant if you think about it, and a beautiful piece of writing. And so, the curse was born. Looking at stuff like that I was thinking what is the metaphor for today’s generation? What do we angst buy, and what the takes are. I’d like to think about addiction and how, whether it’s the phone or drugs or whatever I like to think in the film to be a metaphor about addiction, and the wolf being a metaphor for the dark, the dark one that whispers in your ear and makes you do things that you don’t even want to do. So, it’s kind of interesting that when I think about that approach, that story really started to move towards what it is that you saw.

It’s interesting that you mentioned addiction because I wrote in my notes here, cyclic violence, which is why it’s fascinating you said addiction. The events of THE CURSED are sparked by violence. And we also start off the film with them in the trenches, and World War One. And so I just thought that was really interesting that you mentioned addiction because…

Sean Ellis: Yeah, I think a lot of addiction comes when we learn our behavior. I mean, it’s simple. Who do we learn that directly from? Our role models and our parents and our friends. For me, it’s very poignant. When Isabelle says that thing, “You’ll be big enough to shoot a gun, I promise you.” And we know that because we know where that behavior is leading him. We were in that short time. We already know that he is going to shoot a gun and he is going to die on a battlefield somewhere in Europe. So, there’s something very sad about that and, as you said, yes the cycle of violence. There is the cycle of violence. It just never ends. That’s the thing. It is like growing up in a very violent town. It was constant. One weekend you got beat up and told your mates. Next weekend, you found the person who did it, you beat him up, and the next weekend, one of the guys that was in your group gets caught alone. He gets beaten up. I mean, it’s just neverending. So, it’s interesting you picked up on that because, yeah, the cycle of violence, and it’s a learned behavior that I hope can be unlearned as well. But we are inherently violent. We’re a violent species.

Yeah. And…

Sean Ellis: Maybe this COVID vaccine has actually got a special DNA gene adapter that will actually make us less violent. But the only way that everybody would take it was if it was dressed up as a vaccine.

Editor’s Note: This interview took place before any of the vaccines were ready for context.

Courtesy of Sundance Institute l Photo Credit: Sean Ellis

I’m trying really hard not to laugh. Going back to the idea of the cycle as well as violence. You have the Romani in THE CURSED and generally, the Romani have been stereotyped throughout the course of history as outsiders, villains. They’re frequently blamed for things. But in THE CURSED, the audience sees who is truly the aggressor. To start off when you were writing the story,  what research did you do into incorporating the Romani into the story? And were you aiming to avoid stereotypes that we’ve often seen in films?

Sean Ellis: Well, obviously, I didn’t want to make them the bad guys, saying gypsies are bad because that’s not, again, it’s not…It’s certainly stereotypical and a cliche. And so, I wanted you to identify with them, and again, as you say, it’s a further comment on the cycle of violence. They come to take what they believe is theirs, and somebody uses violence against them in order to keep what they believe is theirs. So, you can understand both points of view and you can understand why conflicts around the world happen. And so, by killing the travelers, they obviously unleashed a weapon that has been guarded and has protected them against this sort of thing. And so, it escalates and this curse is then let loose on the perpetrators of the massacre. So, yeah, I didn’t want to stereotype them. And I believe that a lot of rules around the world and conflicts are literally to do with land and religion or land dressed up as religion should I say.

Yeah. And I think just as an American I’m not super familiar with how the British did their land ownership structure, but you’ve explained it in a way onscreen that made sense without us needing to know how that structure was done. Thank you for that, so I wouldn’t have to go and research how it was. [laughs]

Sean Ellis: [jokingly] Didn’t go and fact-check me? Is that what you were going to do?

No, I’m just a nerd who likes history.

Sean Ellis: [teasing] Sarah’s fact-checking me. You write for Nightmarish Conjurings. Not the UA. What’s going on?

[laughs] I’m a nerd first.

Sean Ellis: [laughs] You’re nerding about land rights in Europe in the 1800s. Okay. Nerd away!

Moving on to more interesting things outside of land rights in the 1800s. What was the process like developing the visual concept of the werewolf for THE CURSED? Because it’s different than anything we’ve seen before.

Sean Ellis: Yeah. Exactly. That was the brief really. It was like, okay, we’ve all seen people’s faces bubble up and change and sprout hair and teeth, and then they have a minute and run off on two legs. My original conversation with Mark Coulier, a certain designer that I worked with was literally, how do we update it? What is it and not? Mark said in one conversation, I’ve never seen a wolf change underwater. That was one thing that kind of stuck with me. I thought that’s pretty interesting. But then, as we were sort of talking about the design of the wolf and what would it be, the story was sort of being written alongside it and this sort of new approach to, like I spoke about, addiction, in the beginning, gave me a way into the design of it. Because I just thought, what if you’re not? What if you don’t change into a wolf? What if, like your addiction, you become a prison to them?

And so when that concept came about, that’s when I got really excited and said, I think we have a new way into this. I think this is a fresh approach, designing something that is wolf-like, that walks on four legs, and is big enough to carry someone. I think at one point, I mentioned a cross between a wolf with a shark. Give me a wolf shark.  And then, Jean-Christophe Spadaccini, kind of sculptured the concept art. We kind of had this animatronic beast on for that. But then, when we looked at the cut was, I was kind of a little bit unhappy with it. It looks slightly wooden and I couldn’t quite get a sense of it being coiled and ready to attack. And so, I had another concept artist come on board and rework the design a little bit further, and those designs were then given to TGV, the CGI company, and they started to apply those changes onto the footage that we had. That was kind of exciting when you start to see that come alive.

BTS of THE CURSED l Courtesy LD Entertainment

So, my colleagues make fun of me, because I’m the girl who likes to hug the creatures.

Sean Ellis: Right? Would you hug this one?


Sean Ellis: Right? That’s good. I did my job.

Yeah, you did your job. And so I applaud you for that. Because when I saw the design, I was like, “Oh, no.”

Sean Ellis: [laughs] Oh, no. I’m not hugging that. Haha.  I’m a nerd but I’m not that nerdy.

[laughs] So, you mentioned that there was an animatronic. And for the scene where we sort of see what truly lurks inside the beast with John (Boyd Holbrook) and Seamus (Alistair Petrie), was that entirely practical?

Sean Ellis: That was entirely practical. Apart from the tentacles, which were CG.

Oh, that’s lovely. [laughs]

Sean Ellis: Yeah. Literally, they brought a beast. And they opened it up and we shot it.

Oh my god, it reminded me so much of The Thing. The original Thing.

Sean EllisThe Thing is one of my favorite films. I mean, for me, it’s like that, it’s like the moment in Alien, where the chestburster comes out and you just go, “Fuck me”. I remember reading an interview that Ridley [Scott] apparently said, “Fuck me” when he read the script and said that’s incredible. I mean, because so much has been done before, it’s so difficult to find something that hasn’t been done before and still has that ‘fuck me’ kind of aspect to it. And I think in weird ways it was almost staring me in the face all this time and it was, in fact, Alien in reverse. Yeah, this is, this is gonna be fun. I think it’s gonna be fun for people to watch, though. Yeah.

Yeah. When that scene happened, I was like, Oooo again! And I was like, Oh, I love practical effects. It’s just so good. What was the most difficult part about making this film because you wrapped before COVID hit, correct?

Sean Ellis: We did the first part at the beginning of 2019. And then, we edited for the summer, and we started rewriting new things at the end of 2019. We started shooting again at the beginning of 2020, and then we wrapped just before lockdown. And then, this last summer [in 2020], we got everything we did do in post. But we shot in two blocks, basically.

What was the most difficult part about the entirety of making this film?

Sean Ellis: All of it. [laughs] It’s a slog all the time, but it’s difficult. First of all, it’s just physically demanding and tiring. And also, because it’s mentally tiring, you’ve got this huge puzzle in your head that you’re trying to keep all the balls dropping on the floor. And so, it draws an enormous amount of energy from you, and you don’t know what you’re doing half the time. You’re making it up as you go along and you’re hoping it’s okay. And again, you’ve got this sort of blueprint and you’re trying to find your way out in this kind of strange maze and hopefully have something to hear and actually watchable at the end of it.

Yeah, it’s full of very long days. You know, four o’clock days, four o’clock alarm calls, unconscious by 11 o’clock, and this relentless onslaught of self-doubt, and insecurity and compromise. So, if you want to be a filmmaker and you like that shit too, dive on in.

I appreciate your completely honest answer. Because I feel a version of that when I write anything, except 90% of the time I just mentally light it on fire, and throw it in the bin. [laughs] Well, I really loved your film. I also appreciate a werewolf creature that I would not hug. Take that as you will. But I did want to end this with me just telling you, I really enjoyed the film and appreciated all the hard work that you guys did on this.

Sean Ellis’ THE CURSED had its world premiere on January 30, at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. THE CURSED is now in theaters from LD Entertainment. Stay tuned for updates regarding VOD and Digital releases.

To learn more about the film, check out Dolores’ review.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

Sarah Musnicky
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