It doesn’t seem like an accident that Showtime’s ghoulishly humorous new series “The Curse” is also produced by A24, because the experience of watching it is not unlike their unsettling, insidious horror output.
The series, which is meant to rattle and roil, follows a pair of married HGTV hosts (Emma Stone and Nathan Fielder) who create a nonfiction show within their own pre-existing nonfiction show. To do so, they infiltrate a blue-collar, strip-mall town in New Mexico, posing as do-gooder home designers—but as the series unfolds, they begin to seem more like do-badders.
Editor Adam Locke-Norton insisted that the creepiness did not extend to the making of “The Curse,” despite its origin from master provocateurs Benny Safdie (who plays the couple’s impish producer) and Fielder. “I’ve been hearing from people watching it about how uncomfortable it makes them feel,” Locke-Norton said. “And it’s funny to me because I never felt that discomfort (making it). People have used the word cringe, but that’s not really something that I experienced working on it. To me, it was treated like a drama and the horror is inherent in the material.”
Perhaps the disquieting vibe “The Curse” gives off is that Locke-Norton and his editing colleagues hold scenes for beats beyond what a normal television series would, creating a narrative that suggests there is more than what you’re seeing. “The pace was a little unusual for TV. It’s more like a European film,” Locke-Norton said. “And that was definitely a conscious choice. A major theme in the show is uncertainty, and you can’t rush uncertainty. You need the space and the time to question things. There’s a rule of narrative economy in television, where every- thing matters every moment, but we wanted to short-circuit that impulse.”
Short-circuiting audience impulses is now de rigueur for Locke-Norton, having worked with Fielder on both of his previous TV efforts, “Nathan for You” and “The Rehearsal,” neither of which is interested in soothing viewers. However, this time Fielder is called upon to step up to the plate as a dramatic actor opposite an Oscar winner (Stone) and an award-winning actor-writer-director (Safdie). He rises to the occasion, often with some of the show’s most devious, difficult material.
“It wasn’t too different from our usual collaborations,” Locke-Norton said. “He has no vanity as an actor, and he’s not looking for the take that is the flattering one. It’s much the same as what he’s doing in “The Rehearsal” or “Nathan for You.” One of the most amusing aspects of “The Curse” is how the rhythms change based on what Stone and Fielder’s characters are doing when they’re “on” (as in on camera) versus off (where one great sequence has them slavishly re-enacting a private, funny clothing-removal bit for a social media feed and failing spectacularly). The HGTV show scenes had to play differently but never give the impression of parody.
“One of the funnest things about this was getting to put myself in the shoes of an HGTV editor,” Locke-Norton said. “There are multiple reality shows within the series, right? And each one has its own language. So, we’re not making it a parody of reality TV and not trying to make it a bad show. It’s flawed in the way their characters have envisioned it, but it is definitely trying to be good.”
Despite how unapologetically comic the discomfort gets on “The Curse,” the creators did not want to cheat reality. The shrewd editing, coupled with the choice not to edit in crucial moments, plays a major role in creating this teasingly voyeuristic style. “I don’t think there’s a single jump cut in the whole show,” Locke-Norton said. “We stay in the physical spatial reality as much as possible, and that’s unusual. We don’t cheat someone opening a door and don’t cut out three seconds to get them to that door faster. And I think that all makes you feel like you’re maybe spying on the characters.”
This story first appeared in the Below-the-Line issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine. Read more from the issue here.