In Conversation: Frank Miller and Thomas Wheeler Talk Cursed

Today on the Barnes & Noble Teen blog, we’re excited to welcome author, producer and screenwriter Thomas Wheeler (Empire, Cape, The Arcanum) and artist, producer and director Frank Miller (300, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Sin City), who are celebrating the release of their first YA collaboration, Cursed.

The book is an illustrated narrative grounded in Arthurian legend, which they’re pitching as Mists of Avalon meets The Hunger Games—no small stakes there! But this tale recenters the story on the Lady of the Lake’s coming of age as a girl who will challenge and change the world. The book is being adapted into a Netflix series set to air in early 2020, with Katherine Langford (13 Reasons Why) playing the main character, Nimue.  

We caught up with Miller and Wheeler to talk about the collaboriation process, reimagining the Arthurian legend, and simultaneously adapting their first YA book for the screen.

What was the initial spark of the story and how did it build from there?

Thomas Wheeler: I met Frank through Silenn Thomas and we began chatting, discussing various worlds, genres or characters that we might explore together. At the time it wasn’t clear if we were talking about films or TV, it was really about “what haven’t we done that we’re dying to do?” We landed on King Arthur as a subject that had inspired us both since childhood. But we agreed that character had been explored so often and so recently it was a challenge to find a way to do his story that would be fresh and relevant enough to make it worthwhile. However, I was keenly interested in Frank’s version of King Arthur and we kept noodling on it. I thought about how to frame the story so that my 12-year-old daughter might be similarly inspired by the mythology, the way I was when I saw John Boorman’s Excalibur. Who was her King Arthur? What character could be her entry point into this world? The legend of the Lady of the Lake offered some tantalizing possibilities. Who was she? What was she? How did she end up this mysterious, seemingly tragic figure, with this fateful connection to Excalibur? This ended up being the spark.

Frank Miller: Tom and I started discussing matters Arthurian and quickly felt the goal was to unify and direct all the disparate elements of the Arthurian legend around the story of one young woman and how she brought it all together. The emphasis that Tom and I had is much more on the mythic and the magical. The Arthurian mythos has been created, recreated across centuries. It was a blast collaborating and finding new interpretations throughout.

Cursed is both a book and a TV show. Did they come about at the same time? Or did one organically inform the other

TW: I remember quite vividly sitting in my office while on the phone with Frank, discussing King Arthur and Nimue and all of the other characters we loved and why we loved them, and I was staring at my bookshelf and thinking: “A book is the only way to do this story justice.”

And, selfishly, I was imagining collaborating on a project that would involve Frank’s art and how amazing that would be and I think I just pitched Frank on a publishing project then and there. And to my surprise he went for it. We agreed this was a way to maintain creative control. I also think—and Frank can speak to this better than I can—that it reminded him of the books he had as a child, the dark fairy tale illustrations of Arthur Rackham, for example. We talked about Nimue’s story being a dark fairytale of the Arthurian world. I hung up the phone thrilled, but it only took a few seconds to realize: “Oh my God, now I have to actually write the novel.” And then I was terrified.

So Cursed was always envisioned as a publishing project first. I embarked on the pages and began sending them to Frank, who, to my utter delight, began sending back sketches of Nimue, Arthur and some of the early scene ideas we had in mind. We were off and running.

The very next day after our meeting with Simon & Schuster, we received a call from Netflix (I’m not sure how they knew about any of this, I assume they have spy satellites or something…) enquiring about the rights to Cursed and our interest in possibly developing it as a TV series or feature. Frank and I demurred on both and continued working on the manuscript. But Netflix kept at it for a few months and, I guess it’s fair to say, wore us down. It seemed like a tantalizing yet mad experiment to attempt to tell this story in two different formats almost simultaneously. We have questioned our sanity several times along the way, but it has been an extraordinary creative journey. So, short answer: book informed the TV show.

FM: The book was planned and conceived first. Interest came extremely early and as the energy built around the show the illustrations that had presented themselves for the book and heavily influenced by Arthur Rakham started being part of the production. They have informed each other subsequently and are very close family members.

What can we expect from the TV show?

FM: Magic. A lot of magic. Very deep involved storylines . Epic adventure with some very new interpretations of some very familiar characters. It is lush and broad in its sweep. Rich in its texture and still an homage to illustrations. It is quite the epic romantic adventure.

TW: Epic adventure! Romance! Mystery! Legendary swords! Fey creatures! Magic! Telling the story through Nimue’s eyes allowed us to introduce all of the characters of the Mythos in totally new and unexpected ways. For me, that’s been the most creatively fulfilling part of this, stretching and challenging these characters and hopefully presenting them in a new light, so they feel fresh to our eyes but remain true to their core natures. For fans of Arthurian mythology, there are many surprises and mysteries to unravel surrounding some very well-known characters and some fun reveals along the way. For those who are new to the legend, that’s terrific, you don’t need to have seen Excalibur or read T.H. White or Le Morte D’Arthur to enjoy the ride.

Can you tell us a bit about the character of Nimue?

TW: Nimue is Fey Kind, 16-years-old and the daughter of her clan’s Arch Druid. In many ways she is a normal teenager, reckless, brave, certain she’s right all the time, restless to see the world, but she’s a pariah among her people, thanks to the scars on her back, the result of an encounter with a Dark God in her early childhood, an encounter she should not have survived but somehow did. She also has an extraordinary connection to The Hidden, the spiritual ancestors of her Skyfolk Clan and the source of their magic. This power comes unbidden to her in visions and moments of shocking nature magic.

Nimue’s call to action arrives when the Red Paladins—a zealous and violent religious sect, dedicated to the extermination of the Fey—attack and burn her village. With her dying breath, her mother entrusts her with a mysterious bundle and the fateful words: “Bring this to Merlin.”

These words set Nimue on an incredible path toward a remarkable destiny: for this is the story of the woman who wielded Excalibur before King Arthur. The story of the one, true Queen.

FM: Nimue comes from the world of magic. She herself is magic. Nimue is also a creature of great power coming into her power. Her journey in the story is our journey. We follow her as we follow Luke Skywalker in Star wars. She’s the alpha and the omega.

 Cursed is on shelves now—and you can catch the show on Netflix in 2020. 

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