“Damsel” Director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo on Flipping the Fantasy Script With Millie Bobby Brown

Sure, she’s in distress, but Millie Bobby Brown’s Elodie is hardly in need of saving in director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo‘s revisionist fantasy film Damsel. Fresnadillo’s fantasy epic takes the typical story of a young woman desperate for a prince to puzzle out her troubles in a medieval setting, turns it upside down, and sinks it deep into a dragon’s cave. Brown’s Elodie is as resourceful as she is noble, and in a nice twist, when a would-be male savior comes galumphing down into the dragon-ruled cave system Elodie’s been banished to, he’s hardly fit to hold the hem of her increasingly crucial dress. 

This updated take on the damsel-in-distress story comes from screenwriter Dan Mazeau, and Fresnadillo takes little time in setting up Elodie’s bonafides as a formidable young woman. We open with Elodie chopping wood for her impoverished community while her adoring younger sister, Florida (Brooke Carter), looks on. Yet Damsel cleverly utilizes the tropes of the genre to its advantage when Elodie is set up for an arranged marriage by her father, Lord Bayford (Ray Winstone), who thinks he’s struck a great deal for both his daughter and his struggling people. The marriage is to be with Prince Henry (Nick Robinson), the heir to the Aurean kingdom’s throne, a handsome, seemingly well-mannered chap. The deal is struck by Queen Isabelle (Robin Wright, having fun playing the villain after her iconic turn as Buttercup in The Princess Bride), and Elodie’s family, including her stepmother Lady Bayford (Angela Bassett), are thrilled about what it all means for her as well as them—Queen Isabelle has more or less promised that the marriage will immediately put an end to poverty in Lord Bayford’s humble homeland.

If Star Wars Admiral Ackbar were available, he’d have sounded the alarm and cried, “It’s a trap!” Elodie doesn’t even get a chance to assess the wedding gifts before she’s summoned to take part in an ancient ritual with her new Prince Alarming, the Queen, their consort, and some creepily masked congregants on a bridge in the aforementioned cave. The wedding was a ruse to lure another unsuspecting bride into the role of royal sacrifice to the kingdom’s true ruler, a spiteful dragon with a long-standing grudge against the human inhabitants of Aurea.

What follows is a grueling, gripping tale of one young woman’s fearsome will to survive and the ingenious solutions she has for the cave’s many murderous mysteries, not least of which is that dragon, compellingly voiced by Shohreh Aghdashloo and containing her own tragic history and layered pathos. Pulling this all off was no less a challenge than what Elodie faced, and to that end, Fresnadillo explains how he rode the dragon.

What were your initial thoughts reading Dan Mazeau’s script?

It was really impressive to see how he completely flipped the whole idea of fairy tales. It’s important to tell classic stories but adapt them to a much more modern world, and I’m grateful to do a proper revision of these kinds of stories. What I really love about Damsel is the upsidedown idea is not only about the universe of Damsel, but it’s applied to every single character in the story. Aside from our protagonist, the character I was most surprised about is the dragon.

Can you describe the five-year journey you’ve been on in getting Damsel made?

We started prepping in 2019, and the first thing we did that I think was really helpful for me was designing the cave and the dragon. Patrick [Tatopoulos], the production designer, and I discussed this a lot; these elements were essential to the story. They were the baseline of the story. From there, we threw different ideas at the exterior world. For example, the castle, the costumes, Elodie’s dress—everything is influenced by the caves and the dragon. We wanted to show that the real ruler of this world is the dragon. In order to do that, the visual signatures of the dragon have to be applied to the whole world.

(L-R) Director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo and Millie Bobby Brown on the set of Damsel. Cr. John Wilson/Netflix ©2024

Can you give me some examples?

The queen’s crown has the spikes of the dragon, the coin with the three daughters, the other side is a dragon, all the heraldry, the flags, everything is connected to the dragon. Even the shape of the castle itself reminds you of elements from inside the cave. The dragon’s kingdom is kind of the subconscious of this whole movie.

Robin Wright as Queen Isabelle in Damsel. Cr. John Wilson/Netflix ©2024

How did you go about conceiving the complex cave system?

The caves are dark, right, difficult to walk through. It’s a mean environment. One of the things I wanted to deliver is that there is some beauty inside those caves. I was tracking that idea all the way through. Despite the fact that it looks like hell sometimes, we have to convey images in those caves that there is something beautiful in that place. Like the moment we see the burning birds flying through the cave and lighting it up, and you think, whoa, what are those, butterflies? Then you discover the horrific truth—they’re burning birds—and you realize you’re in hell. But that first glimpse, it’s kind of a beautiful thing. I love the idea of combining beautiful things that you discover are actually sinister. This matches the concept of the movie, which is the golden light of the Kingdom of Aurea with its beautiful nature, feels like a paradise, but there is a secret inside that’s going to take you into the most hellish experience of your life. In order to convey that, we have to start with the caves and the dragon.

Millie Bobby Brown as Elodie in Damsel. Cr. John Wilson/Netflix ©2023

How did you actually build the caves?

We built the caves on set, but despite the fact we built these in proper, nice sets, we wanted to have a very realistic approach. You have to make the audience feel that the place really exists. We had the mantra that we wanted to show the world of the dragon almost like a National Geographic documentary. So we built the sets in London, then we went to Portugal to shoot the Aurean Kingdom, where we did all the exteriors at the end of the movie.

Millie Bobby Brown as Elodie in Damsel. Cr. John Wilson/Netflix ©2024

Where did you film the exteriors for the Aurean Kingdom in Portugal?

We shot in Tomar, which is in the north, and in Batalha. Both had churches and monasteries with the Templar look that we were so keen to shoot because it matched really well with the visual concept of the story.

(L-R) Millie Bobby Brown as Elodie, Nick Robinson as Prince Henry, Robin Wright as Queen Isabelle and Milo Twomey as King Roderick in Damsel. Cr. Netflix ©2023

Damsel certainly looks and feels like a proper fantasy film, with touches that call back beloved movies like The Princess Bride

The crew was key. My production designer, Patrick Tatopoulos, is Polish but has this Latin spark that I think I have, and we got along so well. He was like a brother in this process. Producer Jeff Kirschenbaum was also my partner in crime in this process. Visual effects supervisor Nigel Denton-Howes is amazing. He had the personality to deal with a very complex movie like this. Costume designer Amanda Monk was so important in building Elodie’s dress, which contains seventeen different layers, because I wanted to visualize with the dress Elodie’s transformation. As Elodie goes through the cave and gets rid of layers of her dress, she becomes lighter, and the dress also works as survival kit.

Damsel. (L-R) Brooke Carter as Floria and Millie Bobby Brown as Elodie in Damsel. Cr. John Wilson/Netflix ©2024
Millie Bobby Brown as Elodie. Cr. John Wilson / Netflix © 2023

That dress really is as useful as Batman’s utility belt. Your crew really went all out.

Also, composer David Fleming, with the help of Hans Zimmer. David and I discussed that the music had to come from the heart of Elodie, and he portrayed all the emotions of th is movie through his beautiful music. Making movies is a collective effort. It’s impossible to do a movie in any other way—you have to be surrounded by really great people, and you have to be humble because, most of the time, your crew has better ideas than you do [laughs].

You had this great lead performance from Millie and then this great ensemble, including Robin Wright, Ray Winstone, and Angela Bassett. What was it like working with this great cast?

A dream come true. I’ve been a Robin, Angela, Ray, and, of course, Millie for years. They’re the most beautiful cast I could ever imagine for this story. Shooting was challenging. Most of these kinds of movies imply a lot of patience; green screens surround you, it can be very frustrating to interact with things that don’t exist, and the physicality of this movie—Millie was running, jumping, suffering, screaming—that takes you to a dark path of performing. Despite all of that, I think we had a great time because we really felt like we were making something unique.

Millie has really solidified herself as an action star.

It was a very intense production; it was very physical. Especially for Millie, who had the courage to accept this huge challenge. For a very long time, she’s by herself. The weight of the whole movie was on her shoulders. She did an amazing job. She has the capability to bring the audience into whatever she does and show in a very honest way what the character is suffering and how she’s transforming into a new woman. I think she’s showing the world that she can do anything. In some ways she’s like Elodie, the new kind of heroine and new kind of actress that we’re keen to watch in a movie.

For more on big titles on Netflix, check these out:

“Black Mirror” Season 7 Teaser Reveals Return of Fan-Favorite Storyline

Jennifer Lopez is Lost in Space in First “Atlas” Trailer

Air, Water, Earth, Fire: DP Michael Balfry Brings “Avatar: The Last Airbender” to Life

Featured image: Millie Bobby Brown as Elodie in Damsel. Cr. John Wilson/Netflix ©2023


Bryan Abrams

Bryan Abrams is the Editor-in-chief of The Credits. He's run the site since its launch in 2012. He lives in New York.

The Credits

Keep up with The Credits for the latest in film, television, and streaming.

If you are a California resident, California law may consider certain disclosures of data a “sale” of your personal information (such as cookies that help Motion Picture Association later serve you ads, like we discuss in our Privacy Policy here), and may give you the right to opt out. If you wish to opt out, please click here: