Commentary

The Curse creates a new and exciting genre of New Mexican television

Hundreds of New Mexicans employed to depict Española in the new Showtime and A24 production that turns the community into a character

January 29, 2024 3:13 am

L-R: Oscar Avila as Remi, Nizhonniya Luxi Austin as Cara Durand, Nathan Fielder as Asher and Emma Stone as Whitney in The Curse. (Photo by Richard Foreman Jr. / A24/Paramount+ with SHOWTIME)

The ten episode Showtime/A24 series The Curse, which filmed in Española and Santa Fe in June of 2022, has ended. While it may have left many with more questions than answers, the series has been nothing but intriguing and a boon for experimental film and TV in New Mexico.

The surrealist series set in the Northern New Mexican town of Española takes on niche subjects such as HGTV reality TV and what gentrification might look like in a small town like Española. In the process the series makes key collaborations with local emerging Pueblo, Diné and Kiowa talent.

The Curse courageously (or crazily) delves even deeper into super niche subjects like contemporary Indigenous performance artists practicing their craft. It employs odd retro gimmicks like shooting in an older HD format which creates a surreal indescribable visual experience.

It also consistently includes bizarre cringe comedy, courtesy of cringe tv show king Nathan Fielder, who here, combines his talents with Benny Safdie who has his own eccentric and eerie aesthetic, that regularly puts viewers on edge. Together they create a new genre of southwest television. 

It’s off kilter TV at its best.

The show took advantage of New Mexico’s film tax programs. It was shot “in and around Santa Fe” and “employed approximately 150 New Mexico crew members, 30 New Mexico principal actors, and 500 New Mexico background talent,” according to the New Mexico Film Office and the state’s Economic Development Department.

The show is notable for many reasons: the Safdie and Fielder collaboration, the unique choice of Española for location and employing such prestige actors like Oscar-winner Emma Stone and Indigenous acting legend, the Reservation Dog himself, Gary Farmer. 

What perhaps is not as noticeable at first glance is the inclusion of Indigenous talent and a sophisticated and refreshing take on Indigenous characters.

A24, the studio that produced the series, was deliberate in making this happen. Producers hired Ashley Browning (Pojoaque/Santa Clara) to serve as a consulting producer, in part, because her lived experience would benefit the show’s depiction of a Pueblo lifestyle in Northern New Mexico.

“A lot of my background was very specific for this project, “ Browning said. 

The show’s references to Pueblo pottery and Indigenous casino life easily spoke to Browning, “My whole family (are) Pueblo potters, for many generations; I used to do it a long time ago and, then you know, I work at a casino.”  

The show’s setting made her a natural fit as well, “I grew up here in Pojoaque my whole life and Española is right here,” she said. Making the show was a very positive experience for Browning because the creators were open to her perspective, “They really took into consideration everything and let me put in a little bit of what this community is about in the script–they really listened and took it in and used that to help develop the story.”

“I’d never acted before,” said Nizhonniya Austin (Dine’/Tlingit), a multidisciplinary artist who played Indigenous performance artist Cara Durand in the show.

In a modern day version of “discovering” an actor, she was plucked from Instagram by street casting agent, Jennifer Venditti and asked to audition, “I didn’t think I was going to get it,” she humorously remembers. “Before I knew it I was being asked to audition with Nathan and Emma Stone and Benny and I was like, ‘wow’”. 

Austin was a New Mexico local at the time of the show but has since recently relocated to Los Angeles.  

The role of Cara Durand is one of the more memorable and unique roles on a TV show in that Austin plays against type. 

The character would not be considered a traditional Native artist, but instead is a very eccentric and modern Indigenous artist who creates art for provocation, not just to hang on a Santa Fe hotel wall.

“I was like whoa, we’re doing a very contemporary Native gal here, even pre and post Reservation Dogs, you don’t get to see much of that,” observed Austin.

Her character creates bizarre artistic commentary in the show. It never really reaches a consensus in the narrative, a theme that runs throughout The Curse, really. 

It’s a role meant to poke fun at the contemporary Indigenous art world and partially meant to poke fun at wealthy white art patrons who partake and ultimately finance these worlds. 

“We need more of this, this is the right direction,” Austin said about her role.

New Mexico based actor and comedian, Adrianne Chalepah (Kiowa/Apache Tribe of Oklahoma) plays Laura, one of Dougie’s (Benny Safdie) dates while he is in town shooting the HGTV show that is centered in The Curse.

A small but memorable role, Laura is primarily used to illustrate Dougie’s problematic relationship with alcohol. 

At the end of the date, she and Dougie are forced to walk home after Dougie’s breathalyzer forbids him to drive any further in his car.

Chalepah was cast as a character with no specific cultural background so she made the character resemble something authentically Northern New Mexican and Indigenous. 

“I decided in my head that my character, Laura, was of mixed ethnicities, probably Spanish and Indigenous,” Chalepah said. 

A screenwriter and comedy writer herself, Chalepah was elated to be part of the cast.

“Nathan and Benny did a fine job of writing this show. The tension, surrealism, and humor were brought to life by the actors, who were cast perfectly, I might add.” 

LIke Browning and Austin, the experience was positive. “Maybe I’m drunk in love with this project and can’t see straight, but I know I enjoyed the ride and would get back in that car again. Get it? Get it?”

The Curse invites the viewer into a throwback 80’s surrealist Lynchian world, this time populated with southwest eccentricity and new Indigenous talent that make important contributions to the show. This Fielder/Safdie collaboration makes for a show unlike anything else on television right now.

The Curse is available to stream on Paramount+ and Showtime.

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Jason Asenap
Jason Asenap

Jason Asenap is a Comanche and Muscogee writer and filmmaker based in Albuquerque NM. He holds an MFA in Screenwriting from the Institute of American Indian Arts. His films have screened around the United States and internationally. In addition to film, Asenap contributes thoughtful journalism, writing primarily about Indigenous contributions to film, art, and culture. He is an award-winning Indigenous film critic, receiving top awards for his film criticism from the Native American Journalist Association in 2020 and 2022. You can find his writing in Esquire, Alta Journal, Grist, High Country News, Salon and New Mexico Magazine.

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