EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: “CARNIVAL ROW” CO-CREATOR TRAVIS BEACHAM
By Abbie Bernstein
Amazon Prime’s series CARNIVAL ROW debuted its first season August 30, 2019, and has already been renewed for a second. In CARNIVAL ROW, a war of acquisition between rival human nations in the Faerie homeland has caused Faeries to flee for safety to the human realm of the Burgue, which resembles Victorian England. Here, Fae are treated as second-class citizens. “Carnival Row” is the name given to the Fae district within the Burge.
Among the refugees is the Faerie warrior/smuggler Vignette Stonemoss, played by Cara Delevingne. During the war, Vignette and human Burgue soldier Rycroft “Philo” Philostrate were lovers. Now Philo is a detective with the Burgue police and Vignette warily reconnects with him as he investigates a string of murders of Fae folk.
Travis Beacham, whose writing credits include the remake of CLASH OF THE TITANS and collaborating with Guillermo Del Toro on PACIFIC RIM, originally began work on CARNIVAL ROW as a feature screenplay. Beacham’s fellow CARNIVAL ROW executive producer Rene Echevarria is credited as co-creator on the Amazon series version.
At a Q&A session held by Amazon for the Summer 2019 Television Critics Association press tour, and then in a follow-up private conversation, Beacham discusses CARNIVAL ROW.
“Í wrote it sixteen or seventeen years ago,” Beacham explains, “and for a good chunk of that, I had totally given up on it. Because it was so big, and it wasn’t based on anything, and the way the feature world was moving, it really didn’t seem like something that could ever get made. I got asked about it in meetings a lot. ‘What’s going on with CARNIVAL ROW?’ It really broke my heart to be like, ‘Oh, I don’t know what’s going on with it.’ But deep down inside, I’m like, ‘That’s never getting made.’ So to be in Prague [where Season 1 was shot] and standing on the back lot and to literally be standing on Carnival Row and seeing these people in costumes, I still haven’t quite processed it. But it’s very surreal.”
However, CARNIVAL ROW remained in Beacham’s heart and mind. “For awhile, I did this thing where, when I didn’t have anything to write, I would work on these short stories that took place in the universe. I had this idea of, you could see different points in time in the history of the city. In the back of my mind, I thought if I ever wanted to get this jump-started again, that was a good way to do it, as a graphic novel, or as a book. But even without that consideration or that calculation, I was always sort of tinkering with it, and tinkering with the world, even just to keep the writing.”
In doing research for the world of CARNIVAL ROW, Beacham continues, “One of the things that really interested me is, when I was in college and writing it there, there were a bunch of influences just swirling around. I was reading about Celtic mythology. And one of the things that really fascinated me was this discovering of the Fae folk and faeries, not as Tinkerbell, but as these dark, mysterious earthy presences in mythology and lore that I didn’t really feel like I’d seen. It was interesting to play in that sandbox. Going back not even to old fantasy, but to before fantasy, to folklore and the original inspiration for all that stuff.”
How much of the mythology has Beacham revised for the purposes of CARNIVAL ROW? For example, there’s a human reference in the opening episode to “Unseelie” as being a Fae term for something unpleasant, rather than a nod to the fabled Unseelie Court. “It’s more of an Easter egg,” Beacham reports. “It’s funny, in developing the season, the season roughly follows the events of the feature in a tweaked kind of way, but I try to pay homage to it here and there. But there are a lot of subterranean battles and whatever. I will say in the seasons going forward, we’re trying to explore the depth and gravity of the magic in the world. We try to keep magic relatively rare in order to give it that presence when it’s onscreen, then you really feel like something exceptional is happening, rather than waving a wand every third second. So we’re trying to create a slow burn magic story that will play out across multiple seasons that sort of flirts with those same ideas.”
When designing the world of CARNIVAL ROW, Beacham says he felt he had to nail down its geography. “One of the lessons I learned early on, when I was first writing it in my dorm room at film school, I’d get to a scene, and I would have to stop for thirty minutes at the slug line, the heading of the scene. I would be like, ‘Where does the scene take place? What’s the name of this street?’ And I got so frustrated with it that, after awhile, I just paused writing and drew a map on the wall of my dorm room, and named all the streets, named all the buildings I could think of, just so that I could reference it, because I think when you’re writing something that takes place in the real world, the advantage of that is, you have a real world. That there is a New York, and you don’t have to explain New York to anyone. To create a world with the same kind of depth, you have to create way more than is going to be on screen, because that informs the confidence with which you write it and you create it, and the audience can sense that confidence.”
That confidence has extended to everyone involved with CARNIVAL ROW, Beacham adds. “You’ll have designers and cast come up to you with ideas. And you’ll be like, ‘Oh, that’s great,’ because they’ll ask you about, ‘When a character says this, what did they mean? And are we ever going to see that?’ And you like, ‘Oh, I wasn’t planning on it, but we should see that. Because it’s part of having to create this world in a convincing way. You have to build around the corners. And the great thing about having a TV show is, now you get to go around those corners and see what’s behind them. So in blocking out Season 2, we’re expanding. We’re going to Croatia, in addition to Prague, so it’s like already the world is getting bigger.”
Both the Burgue and the Fae realm are creations of Beacham’s imagination. Which of the two was the greater challenge? “The Faerie world was a little more challenging, because there was nothing to draw from. For instance, when we’re looking at the human world, I’ve got these books of Victorian slang and that kind of thing that I can look at, but when we’re talking about the Faerie world, having to make up so much of the terminology and so much of the culture, so it’s more challenging, but also a little bit more fun.”
Beacham thinks that fantasy can get a bad rap from people who don’t really know it. “There’s this notion floating around out there that genre stuff, that sci-fi and fantasy, is escapist at its core. And I think we’ve been taught to think that by generations of essentially toy commercials. But if you look at the real history of the genre – with STAR TREK and THE TWILIGHT ZONE on television, even with the literary tradition, going back to WAR OF THE WORLDS – it’s always held a mirror to the real world. It’s always been rooted in the real world and been saving something about the real world. I think when people say ‘escapist,’ it’s fundamentally a transporting genre, it takes you somewhere. But in taking you somewhere, it shows you where you came from in a new light.”
There are unavoidable real-world parallels in a story about people running from conflict in their homeland to a country that helped cause the conflict in the first place, but whose denizens look down on and fear the refugees. “When I was first writing CARNIVAL ROW,” Beacham explains, “it was a little more about race than immigration when I first wrote it. In developing it, it has become more explicitly about, ‘They’re from over there, and they’re coming over here.’ It’s still very racial. In looking at it, it’s like part of that was growing up in the South and how that’s always sort of an issue there. But also, I think I was thinking about the world of Charles Dickens, in the soup of influences. I really liked how he put a lens on a whole society, and dealing with issues, he never dealt with it as a polemic. He always dealt with it as a character study. It’s like, in looking at this character from here, and this character from here, and all these worlds, and how they interconnect. I thought that was such an interesting structure, and really wanted to explore it in a fantasy context. But as far as class divisions and racial divisions and all that, it’s really always been a part of it, and I wish I could be more pointed about where it came from, but I can’t remember.”
Can Faeries “pass” as human by concealing their wings, or other means? “We do deal with that,” Beacham reveals. “In creating their look, at first, it was a bit of a controversy, because when we were creating the fauns, obviously, they have horns, and they’re not going to be able to walk into a human part of town very easily. But we kept saying, ‘Shouldn’t there be something exceptional about the Fae, other than their wings?’ But then we realized, ‘Oh, this might be an opportunity for something.’ So it does play into the narrative a little bit, that idea.”
Most Fae, though, are proud of their heritage. “I think a lot of the other choices that we would make is, not only in the prosthetics, but in their style and the way they carry themselves, that you could tell them apart,” Beacham relates. “So for the most part, in the first season, all the Fae women have short hair, whereas the human women have long hair, and the human men have shorter hair, and the Fae men have longer hair, so it’s kind of flopped on what the human standards are. Also, the people in the Burgue would have a radar for that kind of thing in a way that we don’t. I think it’s interesting, filming in central Europe, with all these countries sort of crammed together, immediately, somebody [local] would be like, ‘Oh, yeah, that person over there is Bulgarian or whatever,’ and [as an American] you’re like, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about’.”
In creating Vignette Stonemoss, Beacham says, he wasn’t thinking about how to cast the role. “When I write characters, I just let them talk to me and who they become. I think by the time that I was done with it, looking back on the feature scripts, I was thinking Keira Knightley or somebody like that. But in the course of the writing of it, there wasn’t really anyone that came to mind. And even when we were casting for the show, the casting director is asking for guidance, and it’s like, “Bring us as many different sorts of people as you can think of.”
As an executive producer, Beacham was in on the casting process and saw Delevingne’s audition for Vignette. “She did a really incredible audition; she did about three of them, actually. She auditioned once in London, and once in L.A., and the scenes that we put out for that character were very challenging scenes on purpose. And she just hit it out of the ballpark, and that’s her.”
There are a number of scenes of Fae/human lovemaking, which have the couple borne aloft by the Fae’s beating wings. This brings stunt work and special effects into what is already a delicate on-set situation. “It’s a bit challenging,” Beacham acknowledges, “but one of the things I really like about our season is that, when [the actors] get into it, when they sign their contracts, there’s no nudity clause in the contract, they sign it, it’s for each individual case. So any time we’re about to do a love scene, the actors get to talk about what they’re comfortable with, and what they’re not comfortable with. So that does take a bit of what would otherwise be a very sort of challenging thing about it, that takes a bit of the heat off, because already they’ve talked about choreographing it in a way where it’s more of kind of an action scene than it is an intimate moment.”
How arced versus how standalone are the eight episodes of CARNIVAL ROW’s first season? “The individual stories have their own sorts of conclusions by the end of the season,” Beacham replies. “But yes, we do the thing where it’s like you spend the first half of the last episode wrapping things up, and then the second half setting things up [for the next season].”
Finally, what would Beacham most like people to know about CARNIVAL ROW? “That it’s big, that it’s really big. It’s really unlike I think anything I’ve ever seen. Obviously, we’re really grateful for GAME OF THRONES opening the door for fantasy on TV. This, I think, is very, very different. And that’s what I can’t wait for people to see.”