Interview with James De FrondCategory: Press Pack Article
Co-writer and director
Could you start by telling us the set-up for The Curse?
It’s very loosely inspired by some true events and it’s about some guys who pull off a heist, stumble across 7000 gold bars by accident and the trap they then find themselves in. We enjoy seeing them completely and utterly out of their depth, struggling with what to do.
How would you describe its unique tone?
It’s not a sitcom. We wanted to put a gang of wallies into a crime caper and that’s where it feels like we’ve found an original tone. Everything around them - the high stakes, the jeopardy, the police, the real gangsters - feels serious. We wanted to put proper dramatic actors in there, so you enjoy seeing the amateurs squirm. It’s a comedy but it’s a black comedy. The curse really takes hold, it hooks you in and I think the cliff hangers are satisfying. As well as being a funny watch, the story’s an enticing one. The boys, Emer and all the cast are fantastic, so it’s been a joy.
What appealed to you about the story?
I read about Hatton Garden, thinking “Everyone’s going to do this as a TV or film idea”. I became slightly obsessed with those old boys who did it in their pensioner years. But when you read more about them, you realise they’ve been pulling off robberies their whole lives. Throughout the 60s, 70s and 80s, they’d go into prison for a bit, come out, do another robbery. Sometimes they’d get caught, sometimes they didn’t. I remember reading about Brink’s-Mat too. What I found fascinating was that a lot of the reports and books say it wasn’t planned. They didn’t know the gold was there and stumbled upon it by accident. I just thought that was a funny thing. And out of the six robbers, the two who went down for life were well-known criminals but the other four sounded like normal blokes. They disappeared with the money, the gold and the legend. There’s comedy there as well. It goes back to the Ealing comedies - the combination of gold and idiots caught up in something bigger than them is classic stuff. As soon as we got Tom together with the boys, I think we got the best clowns in the business to play hapless criminals.
Is it still too rare to see working class characters on TV?
Yeah. I know social mobility is important to Channel 4 and they wanted to do a working-class story. Obviously we do that in a different way with King Gary, which is a broad sitcom, but with this we could recreate a time and an era. What’s fascinating about the early 80s is how poor people were. Around the East End, the docks had closed and unemployment was rife. At the same time, materialistic values were being pushed. These people couldn’t afford the stuff they were being peddled, so they were going out and taking it. Bank robbers back then were like modern-day Robin Hoods. There was a certain fairy tale charm to it all. You don’t get robberies like that now. Depots had one CCTV camera. Post Office vans didn’t have any security. That time’s very much gone.
Is the story relevant today?
I think so. When you look at the archive news footage we incorporate into the show - protest, riots, all that - there are parallels with what we’ve been through in the last five to 10 years.
The others said you and Tom were the only ones old enough to remember the 80s…
They always joke that me and Tom are really ancient but we’re only about four years older than them.
What are your memories of the decade?
I was born in ’81 so very much had an 80s childhood. What a great time to be a kid. Television, toys, computers, film - everything was going through a massive change. From aged seven, we lived next door to a little video shop and all I used to do was watch 80s films. I got through the whole shop at £1 a video. I have real fondness for that time, so it’s nice to get those little bits of nostalgia in there. In episode three, they’re putting together party bags for a kid’s birthday and we’ve got all the old toys in there - parachute men, aeroplanes. We recreated a Happy Eater for the party venue.
Did you enjoy creating the world of The Curse
It was amazing. What’s nice is that it’s early 80s. I feel like we’ve seen a lot of things which are mid-80s, a bit Wham!, but in the early 80s, everything still felt like a hangover from the late 70s. Costumes, cars, wallpaper, brown sofa. It hadn’t gone full 80s yet, so that gave an even richer, vintage feel. An even more retro vibe. We did lots of things to complement that nostalgia. We didn’t want it to look too HD so we filmed on it on 80s lenses with 80s filters to give it that softer Kodak grain.
What were some of the visual inspirations?
Loads. We had references coming out of our ears. You’ve got classics like The Long Good Friday Mona Lisa, The Hit - 80s crime films which still hold up today. The way they were filmed was an influence. As soon as the camera isn’t at eye level, it’s higher or lower, it suddenly feels like you’re back in that time. We tried to embrace that, rather than shooting in a contemporary way. We also looked at things like Fargo and how that dark comedy-drama works. Making things scary when they need to be, then undercutting them with comedy.
What was the thinking behind your use of split-screen?
It works well but it mainly came from budget! You can concentrate on close-up detail for storytelling without having to create the whole period in the background. But sometimes the best ideas are born out of budgetary reasons. The whole reason Murder In Successville was so dark and nocturnal was that we couldn’t afford a set, so we turned the lights off! So split-screen was a lovely period tool. We used a few other funky effects that are frowned upon now but you could get away in a period piece.
The series gets the heist out of the way early. Why were you keen to do that?
We did umm and aah. We felt like the quicker we got it over with, that’s where the story really begins. The aftermath. It definitely gets more interesting once they’ve got the gold, rather than prolonging the planning. There’s a nice cliff hanger at the end of episode one but the climax of episode two is the real jumping-off point.
What was it like watching Tom perfecting Big Mick’s voice?
We played around a lot with that, then one day he just came out with it. What a transformation, eh? And what a great character. You think Mick’s just this great big dimwit but slowly realise there’s a lot more to him. He’s the heart of the gang with a very strong moral compass. He’s key to keeping them all together when greed takes over and cracks start to form. It’s great for Tom. People think King Gary is just a version of him but he’s a great character actor and it’s nice to see him let loose again.
What was it like working with the Kurupt FM boys?
I’m really proud of them for their performances. It was slightly out of their comfort zone but they embraced it. A lot of people think they’re just those People Just Do Nothing characters and a part of them very much is, but they’ve shown what fantastic comedy writers and actors they are. They work in a very similar way to me and Tom, so it was quite seamless. I encourage being loose with the script. Muck around, improvise, see what little gems we can get. I’m always hunting for that little extra bit of gold. My rule has always been to let funny people be funny. I’m not precious with the words if we can let off the leash, watch them ping off each other and get funnier stuff. And they don’t come much funnier than those guys.
And how was Emer Kenny? Her character is sort of the puppetmaster…
She is and she gets stronger as the series progresses. Emer’s fantastic. I think she’s going to be a superstar, I really do. Natasha is the anchor, really. You can’t have everyone being a clown. You need somebody amongst it with enough brains to steer the ship. Natasha is very much that. She’s still got a dry wit but her comedy comes from pointing out the idiocy and dealing with it. She’s a great character. There’s a slight darkness there too.
Is it a story about friendship?
Friendship is at heart of it, 100%. It’s about a group of characters who’ve grown up together but greed is man’s biggest downfall and cracks start to form. They most important thing they need in this adventure, when they’re so far out of their depth, is each other - but they need to learn that.
What will fans of People Just Do Nothing and Murder In Successville make of The Curse?
They’ll love the humour but hopefully they’ll also jump on board to see something completely different. The show feels quite original. I hope they’ll enjoy seeing the actors they love doing something contrasting. It also has that naturalistic, semi-improvised vibe that both those shows have and which is part of their charm.
The Curse has been four years in the making. How was that process?
It’s been a long haul but sometimes that’s a good thing. We’ve worked really hard. We got the script right, the pilot right and the pandemic allowed us to polish the script a bit more. We lost some of the bells, whistles and exotic locations but that was a blessing in disguise. It enabled us to concentrate on the story, characters and relationships. You just want to fall in love with this bunch and see where they go. It’s quite more-ish.
Where does The Curse fit into your own career?
I hope it opens a new chapter. It’s a step towards comedy-drama and more ambitious storytelling. This is something me and Tom always wanted to do - a bit more cinematic, a bigger story and it’s a dream come true to do something period. Hopefully it will open doors. But it would also just be great to continue telling this story.