Sean Ellis’ The Cursed (Originally Titled Eight For Silver) celebrated its World Premiere at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival as part of the festival’s Premiere program. The film features a wildly original take on the classic werewolf mythos and one hell of a hairy monster. Ellis wrote, directed, produced, and shot the film himself using a combination of practical and digital effects to bring his wolf to life and his stamp is undeniable.
We were lucky enough to sit down with Sean Ellis the morning of his World Premiere to learn about all the painstaking work that went into creating such an all-new werewolf story steeped in the horrors of both the modern and old world alike.
“I was trying to think, ‘What is the moderns day version of this? What is it modern society plagued by?’ and I started to think [of the werewolf] in terms of addiction.”
Jonathan Dehaan for Nightmare on Film Street: What are some of your favorite werewolf movies?
Sean Ellis: Probably my favourite werewolf movie is American Werewolf in London. Rick Baker’s work on that kind of blew my mind when I was very young, and I love that movie. I think when I started this I was a bit aware that, that genre or subgenre of wolf man or werewolf [movies] is a tricky one because how do you update it? How do you make it fresh? I think that was the biggest challenge, I think it was probably even too much of a challenge at the beginning. I remember reading an article that Universal were rebooting their Monster World Universe and I remember thinking, okay, I know what they did with The Mummy and I started thinking about what they were doing with The Wolf Man.
My idea pretty much just started off with a village that was isolated in the middle of nowhere, in the late 1800s. They were plagued by a wolf and there had been a murder, and a kid murdered was missing, and someone was harboring a secret. That was the premise I started with because I didn’t want to go full-on, kind of, ‘let’s reinvent the werewolf movie!’ [laughs]. I didn’t really know how to do that. I only way I knew how to do was to start with an idea and work that idea. And I guess the biggest influence was probably the writing of the original Wolf Man because it was a metaphor for being Jewish in Europe in the late 30s and being persecuted for your religion.
I was trying to think, ‘What is the moderns day version of this? What is it modern society plagued by?’ and I started to think in terms of addiction. How we’re either addicted to drugs or addicted to our phones, in some way or another we’re always addicted to something and so I started to think of the wolf as a metaphor for addiction and how you become a prisoner to that addiction. I think once I started to think in those terms, I thought that sort of infused a new approach for the mythology of it all because you’re not changing into something, you’re actually becoming a prisoner of it and I thought that’s kind of interesting.
“…you’re not changing into something, you’re actually becoming a prisoner of it…”
NOFS: You also expand the origin of where that monster even comes from, especially with the band of gypsies you have in the film. What was the nugget of that idea?
SE: Well, that came- I mean, we all know about the silver bullet lifting the werewolf curse but we don’t really know why and I think when you can always go into well-trodden material that we all know about but add a fresh take to it, or a reason to it, I think those things are sort of gold. Or silver, pardon the pun. You go, ‘oh wow, that’s cool, I think that’s really interesting’ and especially if you can mix it with something that’s factual. To actually link the silver with something that was biblical added a factual foundation to it and made it more interesting because you kind of go, ‘Yeah, I believe that because that’s what I know. I know that’s what that silver was for’.
To make the link was interesting and fun and sort of go ‘Ohhhhh’, you sort of have one of those moments when you go ‘What if!?’, you know? And [the audience] goes ‘Oh that’s cool’, and so yeah, it was a lot of fun when those moments happened and a lot of fun redesigning that beast. I remember, one of my original briefs was ‘I want a cross between a wolf and a shark’, and they were like ‘What? A hairy shark?’ and I was like “No, no. It shouldn’t have hair’. You could see them sort of scratching their heads but i think it’s a pretty good description of what we ended up with, in a weird way. Yeah, it was a lot of actually, I gotta say.
“…one of my original briefs was ‘I want a cross between a wolf and a shark…”
NOFS: So who did you get to take on the Herculean task of building that monster?
SE: We originally had designs from Mark Coulier, who I worked on Anthropoid with. We then took those designs to Jean-Christophe Spadaccini who had worked with Luc Besson for many years and did The Fifth Element and stuff. He was very big on doing practical effects and he built us three of those beasts. One was an attack beast that could move very fast and was sort of pushed by two men in a wheelbarrow. The other one was a full animatronic beast and the [third] one was like a rubber beast that we used to throw at actors.
We shot it in two blocks and after the first block of shooting, we edited what we had and we could see the strengths of not seeing the beast and the weaknesses of seeing a practical beast that was animatronic. It was a little bit stiff and a bit puppet-like so I think at that point we then spoke to CGV in Paris about CG augmentation of the practical shots. What they came back with was so impressive and they could make the beast move in such ways that we hadn’t even thought of on set and we were like, ‘this is really interesting’. They then really showed us what it was capable of and we incorporated that into our edit and made space for it. By the time we got to the church sequence at the end, we were shooting without a beast at all knowing what they could do physically was put it in there and make it look amazing.
Earlier scenes with the beast, especially with Anna in the laundry sheets, all that was pretty much shot with a stand-in beast but, yeah, by the time we got to the church we’d sort of- because the other thing is that it was very time consuming have a guy in a suit and people moving it and bringing it in, wiring it and setting it up. It was a very time-consuming process and at a certain point, you’d be lucky if you were getting three or four shots per day and we really needed to move faster than that.
“It was a very time-consuming process [shotting with practical effects] and at a certain point, you’d be lucky if you were getting three or four shots per day”
NOFS: And where did the idea for the nightmare sequences come from, because it’s such a genius move that this curse afflicts everybody whether they’ve been attacked by the werewolf or not.
SE: When you talk about most werewolf films, it always generally starts when someone is bitten by a werewolf. For me, it was like, ‘Who is patient zero?’. That’s what I thought was interesting and it couldn’t just be a throwaway kid-gets-bitten-by-a-rabid-dog. It couldn’t be that throwaway. It had to be a lot more complex and in-depth, and it had to be marinated in some kind of history, and it had to be believable and scary, and also probably hold up a mirror a little bit to what’s going on today with the refugee crisis and the displacement of people due to wars. So, it started to think of this curse starting with a clan that had a claim to the land that gets them into this war, but they have a secret weapon and this secret weapon can be unleashed, if needed, on their enemy.
I guess the idea came from- but if they are murdered, there must still be a way for them to all the people who murdered them to come and take the curse. I think the idea was that even though they had been wiped out the village that had done it all had this very same dream about digging up this silver and once the silver is uncovered it’s possessive in its nature. It wants revenge so whoever digs it up is going to be patient zero.
“…it had to be believable and scary, and also probably hold up a mirror a little bit to what’s going on today with the refugee crisis…”
NOFS: To your credit too, you’ve got a movie where people are torn to shreds by a monster but it’s really the building of that curse that is the hardest to watch. It’s really brutal.
SE: Yeah, it’s an interesting one because I’ve lived with it for so long and sometimes I see people like “Oh my god, I can’t watch that scene!’ and I start giggling a little bit because that’s the exact reaction I wanted when I set out but I guess after watching it three or four hundred times you’re sort of oblivious to it. That and the autopsy scene seem to be the ones that people talk about.
NOFS: Oh yeah, it’s monster movies gold. One last quick question though, I like to ask everybody what their dream drive-in double-feature would be. If you could program any two movies back-to-back, what would you play?
SE: Ooooo, what would I play? I think it would be Alien and The Deerhunter. I mean, they’re two films that I love watching so I like watching them in different places, and because I don’t really go to drive-ins I think would be fun to see them at a drive-in. But I guess drive-ins are notoriously hokey kind-of movies, right? I guess I’d go for Alien and American Werewolf in London.
“…sometimes I see people like “Oh my god, I can’t watch that scene!’ and I start giggling a little bit because that’s the exact reaction I wanted when I set out”
Sean Ellis’ The Cursedcelebrated it’s World Premiere at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Click HERE to read our full review of the films, and be sure to check our full coverage of the festival HERE.
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