‘The Curse’ Finale That Came Out of Nowhere: Benny Safdie Reveals All

In the finale of “The Curse,” Whitney (Emma Stone) wakes up to discover her husband, Asher (Nathan Fielder), experiencing some unexplained form of reverse gravity on the ceiling above their bed. Panicked, the couple assumes it’s a result of an air pocket in their airtight, eco-friendly, passive home. But panic mounts to full-blown terror after Asher, with great physical effort and agility, navigates his way outside, and the only thing stopping him from being launched into the heavens is a large tree limb he holds onto for dear life.

While Asher spends the season concerned he’s been cursed by a tenant’s daughter (Hikmah Warsame), and the series composer John Medeski’s score more than hints at the cosmic, there was nothing that explains or prepares the audience for the surreal, seemingly-out-nowhere 40 minutes that concludes the season.

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While on IndieWire’s Filmmaker Toolkit podcast, Benny Safdie made clear that he and his co-creator Fielder do have a firm idea of what is happening to Asher and what it means. However, this isn’t about some hidden message, and trying to decode it is to miss what is laid bare on screen and the real objective of the episode.

“You could tie it to religion, you could tie it to all these things, but it just comes down to, ‘Well, now let’s see how everybody who I’ve come to learn about, if they can hold up under this microscope?’” said Safdie. “Feeling these deep feelings of real emotions in a completely ridiculous environment is key to the show. And I think that it really tests an audience believing these people when you see them pushed to the extreme. And I think that’s where you’re [asking], ‘OK, who is this person?’”

While on the podcast, Safdie broke down how he and Fielder very carefully structured the series so the audience’s view of the characters (big and small) shifts, wanting us to stand in disapproving judgment of their actions, only to eventually get sucked into the minutiae of their dilemmas, and often confound our assumptions of them. With the structure in mind, before they even really started to write, Safdie and Fielder knew their surreal end.

“It’s the ultimate litmus test of the characters, and it’s also the only way it could have happened,” said Safdie of the ending. “You’re kind of getting that view of them in a complete extreme, unrealistic environment, but now it’s as real as it could possibly be.”

Safdie points to Fielder’s physical and emotional performance in the episode, which he sees as a product of this design and what the creators were reaching for.

“Nathan, when he’s on that tree, is speaking from the heart, with total fear and abject terror, and nobody believes him,” said Safdie. “That’s probably the realest he’s ever been in the entire show, and yet, nobody believes him.”

Safdie’s character, Dougie, initially thinks Asher is up in the tree out of fear of becoming a father, as Whitney goes into labor during the trying event. The couple’s friend and producer of their HGTV reality show sees it as an opportunity to once again capture Asher in yet another humiliating situation on camera. But when Dougie becomes the only other person to realize what has happened, after Asher succumbs to the tremendous reverse gravitational pull and is sucked into the ozone, it resulted in one of the realest moments in Safdie’s acting career.

L-R: Oscar Avila as Remi and Benny Safdie as Dougie in The Curse, episode 10, season 1, streaming on Paramount+ with SHOWTIME, 2023. Photo Credit: Richard Foreman Jr./A24/Paramount+ with SHOWTIME.
Benny Safdie, as Dougie, watches Asher in the tree as his team films.Richard Foreman Jr./A24/Paramount+ with SHOWTIME

“Dougie’s fucking breakdown is real,” said Safdie of the moment he fell to his knees. “Nathan [Fielder, who directed the episode] was like, ‘When you’re ready,’ and he gave me the space to get there. I sat there for 25 minutes, just waiting, feeling this shit, and then he [said], ‘Alright, when you get there, give me a sign.'”

According to Safdie, that emotional extreme, breaking through to the character’s primal core, is a combination of things: an unrealistic situation and treating that situation as realistically as possible, not just as actors but as filmmakers.

“We knew from the beginning we were gonna take this seriously,” said Safdie. “We were not going to treat it as a crazy, flashy stunt. We’re gonna spend time to make it real.”

From day one, production designer Katie Bryon would need to build Asher and Whitney’s house with Episode 10 in mind. From the bookshelf that serves as Asher’s ladder to the ceiling beams that serve both as obstacles and the means to hide Fielder’s safety harness to the large tree in front of the house, she would have to build two sets, an upside-down and right-side up version, to mirror each other.

“I was very adamant you can’t start changing the language to fit the nature of certain things because that’s when you start understanding that there’s a trick going on,” said Safdie. “So we set it all up from the beginning.”

The planning was meticulous, how and where Stone would throw a blanket needed to be planned months in advance so it could be both mirrored in the upside-down set and incorporated into Safdie and Fielder’s careful blocking. The two creators were convinced Fielder himself would need to be in the harness, and there would be no stunt doubles.

Both Fielder and Safdie spent time early on in the harness trying to figure out what was possible as they mapped the scene. They determined 10 minutes, 15 at the most, was the longest they could film before too much blood rushed to Fielder’s head and the pain of the harness pulled for too long. For some shots it would be reversed, with Stone upside-down, so Fielder could execute a particular move. For the exteriors, the production team found a nearby tree that, by some miracle, had massive, full-grown branches only 10 feet off the ground — allowing for Fielder to not have to be high up for reverse shots when the camera is pointed up to the sky. Other than that, there could be no shortcuts.

Emma Stone as Whitney in The Curse, episode 10, season 1, streaming on Paramount+ with SHOWTIME, 2023. Photo Credit: Jeff Neumann/A24/Paramount+ with SHOWTIME.
‘The Curse’Jeff Neumann/A24/Paramount+ with SHOWTIME

“The audience had to actually see this and experience it as real, because one of the biggest points for us at the end of this was, when you see something supernatural, will you believe it’s real? Will you actually think it’s happening?” said Safdie.

Fielder and Safdie wanted the viewer to go through the same thought process as the characters, looking for and grasping for explanations. One way this was accomplished (and one of the reasons there were so few tricks available to cheat the action) was filming the scene in long takes. The edits that do exist do not compress time.

“You see the entire process, and that does something to you. As a viewer, you start questioning, ‘Well, why am I seeing this? What’s going on?,” said Safdie. “You start asking yourself all these questions, and you’re letting the brain kind of go off and do that.”

While there are no immediate plans for a Season 2, the three principals have full plates — Safdie is about to direct Dwayne Johnson in “The Smashing Machine;” and Stone is producing Fielder’s first feature film “Checkmate” — Safdie said he and Fielder did take into consideration how the ending, in which Asher is last seen hurtling through space, would set up an enticing scenario for the next chapter.

“Where I’ll leave that [Season 2] is: Who knows what? Who saw what?” said Safdie. “When the firefighters arrive, he’s already up in the tree. When the townspeople arrive, he’s already there. Who saw him go up? So you’re left with these questions of, ‘When is the truth actually the truth?’ Because who can speak to what actually happened? That’s clear at the end of the episode because Dougie’s talking about all this stuff that happened, and the cop is looking at him like, ‘You are out of your mind?’”

Safdie relishes the townspeople who come up and dismiss the whole setup as part of Whitney and Asher’s TV show — the meta layers of what is real tickles Safdie, who describes his filmmaking career as striving to make the fake look real.

“Those levels of questioning are, I think, that’s the consciousness of things of where we wanted to leave the town,” said Safdie. “Almost on that edge of, ‘What did happen in front of that house?’”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Emma Stone is starring in “Checkmate.” Stone’s production company Fruit Tree is only producing Fielder’s directorial feature debut.

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