Carnival Row creator Travis Beacham never thought he’d ever see his story on-screen. The Amazon Studios fantasy-drama began as a spec screenplay he began writing in college, he told The Verge. “And it was really just for an audience of one. I thought everything I was putting in it was insanely cool, but I never imagined that it would resonate with anyone else. I think that’s really the history of this project, is just being constantly surprised by the fact that I’m not the only person who likes this sort of thing.”
After years of development, Beacham’s original Blacklist-winning film script (originally titled A Killing on Carnival Row) has become a series, with an initial eight-episode season already available on Amazon and a renewal for season 2. The tale, set in the Burge — a city reminiscent of Victorian London — focuses on the humans and fae whose uneasy coexistence leads to violence, political intrigue, and romance.
At the center of the story are police detective Philo (Orlando Bloom) and rebellious faerie Vignette (Cara Delevingne). Their star-crossed love is one of many storylines highlighting a class and racial divide, which serve as a clear allegory for modern social dynamics. Carnival Row brings in many elements to create something original, but as Beacham and executive producer Marc Guggenheim explain, they were careful to ground the narrative as much as possible — even relying on cop drama clichés from time to time, to make sure audiences felt comfortable with their new world.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and concision.
What’s the origin of Carnival Row as a title?
Travis Beacham: The easiest way to talk about it would be in relation to the neighborhood itself. Just in writing, [the show] has gone through a lot of different names. I can’t really remember how we landed on Carnival Row, but what I landed on was the idea that, at one time, this neighborhood was the epicenter of human fascination with these other folks from across the ocean, and there were actual literal fairs and carnivals. I just liked the mashup for those ideas.
That speaks to how much development this project has gone through.
TB: I have a really difficult time actually separating out the in-world history from the actual history of this idea. It’s all starting to meld together in my mind.
In terms of developing the show, did you have any firm rules about the technological or fantastical elements?
TB: As far as technology goes, we try to lean on what was possible in Victorian times. They don’t have telephones or that sort of thing, but maybe they can have elevators. And if it falls into that historical window, we consider it fair game. I mean, it is an invented world. So we allow ourselves some room to budge one way or the other, but if it wasn’t something that was possible in actual Victorian times, that’s not something we’re going to do in our show.
As far as the magic goes, one of the things that I like about fantasy stories is a sense of restraint, so that it’s not littered with magic. For instance, our faerie characters fly because they have wings. We try to root it in a physicality. So when you have magic, it feels kind of rare, and it feels like an intrusion on the physical world, rather than something that’s commonplace.
Marc Guggenheim: I would even say that, to the extent the show delves into magic, it’s more along the lines of mysticism than magic in the way we’ve typically seen. Again, that’s what it helps keep it grounded and interesting. When it does show up in the show, it’s a special event.
TB: In a normal fantasy show, where you’re waving wands around a lot, magic usually becomes relatively routine and commonplace. But in our show, it still has this weirdness.
MG: Even just a character reading entrails is drawn from actual history.
TB: The name for that character [played by Alice Krige] is the Haruspex, which is actually a Latin term. It means it’s someone who reads the entrails of birds.
MG: It’s a niche job.
TB: Very niche.
The fact that this is an original world, not based on a book or movie, is such a rarity these days.
TB: Oh, yeah. It’s very unusual. So I think it’s always helpful to lean into narrative pressure points — anchor points of reality. You have the scene with Philo’s boss saying “give me your badge.” It’s in that kind of cliché where the audience gets the reassurance of, “Yes, there are a lot of weird things happening in this world, but I can follow this story. It’s going to lean into certain archetypes.” I think including that sort of familiarity helps with the newness of it.
It’s like the fairy tale creatures. Everybody has in the back of their mind the idea of fauns as lecherous forest creatures or fairies as deceitful shape-shifters. So what we’ve done in this world is make all those archetypal fairy tale ideas become the racist stereotypes humans have. So we’re not fighting the audience. We’re leaning into all the stories they’ve heard. We’ve just recontextualized them.
This is a big factor in the context of the Agreus and Imogen storyline. [Tamzin Merchant plays Imogen Spurnrose, an upper-class young woman who becomes fascinated by Agreus (David Gyasi), a wealthy faun attempting to integrate himself into Burge high society.] In approaching that particular narrative, were you thinking, “What if Jane Austen was in our writers’ room?”
TB: [Laughs] It would have been great to get Jane, but she was unavailable for various reasons. But one of the things we love about the show is that it takes you to all these different places. It’s several different shows, and one of those is this Victorian romance. It was never really part of the original feature script I wrote, which was very focused on Philo and Vignette. But in expanding the story, we had to think about the whole world, and what other characters we’d meet. That was probably the most fun new thing to add because that was one corner of the world I never got to explore in the feature version.
In terms of the casting, how race-blind was your approach?
TB: Obviously, we want a really diverse cast, so we tried to be blind about it. But in the case of Agreus, given the grounded nature of his dilemma — a minority who’s moved into an upper-class neighborhood — we didn’t want to put that problem in a white guy’s mouth, to put it bluntly. We definitely wanted to be diverse with that role.
MG: David [Gyasi] is amazing. He completely transforms.
TB: I did a pilot at Fox ages ago, and he actually came about within a breath of playing the lead in it. I was extremely impressed with him. And his audition was amazing. I was texting everybody, “Oh my god, David Gyasi read. You gotta watch it.” I’m gratified I got to work with him.
What kind of feedback did he offer on those sequences?
TB: He’s a really thoughtful actor about the historical context, as well as the context within the story. So he’s enormously helpful, going into scenes, just giving us feedback, and his perspective that he brings based on his own life experiences.
On a technical level, are the fauns are the toughest creature makeup for the actors?
MG: Yeah, the makeup effects on the show done by a genius named Nick Dudman. He’s a legend in this field. He worked on the Harry Potter movies, and Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. And he designed Jack Nicholson’s prosthetic for the Joker in Batman. So he is literally the perfect person to do this show, and he’s constantly inventive.
In season 2, we’re going to literally double the number of fantasy creatures we see on the show. And Nick has not only created these creatures, but also gone back to figure out better ways to do the fairy wings and the application of the puck horns. He’s constantly coming up with new and different ideas, both in terms of the creative, but also in terms of delivery.
TB: Nick is our Q. He’s an incredible engineer, as well as an artist. He’s scaling all this for television because TV moves at a certain pace. It’s very different from movies, and Nick is very cognizant of that.
What are your new fantasy creatures like?
TB: We’re looking at different varieties of pucks and fairies — different horn shapes and different wing shapes, races within races. But beyond that, you’re going to get some creatures that are our version of elves, and some creatures that would be goblin-like, and a host of other things. The menagerie of the world is really going to expand in season 2, quite a lot.
How is season 2 progressing?
MG: Great. We have a very extensive pre-prep period, and we’re just about done with all eight scripts for the second season, and we don’t even start production until the end of September. So we’re very, very far ahead of the curve, which is, quite frankly, where we like to be, and how you need to do a show of this size.
You’re sticking with eight episodes for season 2 as well?
MG: Yeah, we liked it. We structured season 1 as an eight-chapter novel because we noticed that some short-order shows are structured like a movie where it’s a three-act structure. Travis and I found the middle of the season tends to lag a little bit on those shows. With our approach, in the middle is when everything really ramps up and changes. So it’s allowed for us to tell a story where every episode is impactful, and every episode is chockfull of big moments and character reveals.
Because of the fantasy elements and the amount of worldbuilding involved, it seems that this is a show designed for an online fandom. Did you have that element in mind?
TB: We’re dimly aware, at the periphery, that the buzz and the enthusiasm is starting to grow.
MG: I’ve had some experience with fandom, and I think when the tone of the discourse is positive, it’s a wonderful thing. Because it really makes television fun and interactive. We’re writing so far ahead of when we are dropping the episodes that there’s simply no way to react to what the fans are liking or not liking. But as we start to roll out the show, it definitely started to dawn on us that this is the kind of show that that’s designed for people who go to Comic-Con. And the response there was terrific.
[Warning: Spoilers follow for the season 1 finale of Carnival Row.]
The season ends on a dark note, with the fae confined to a ghetto after the city undergoes major political upheaval. When you decided to end that way, what kind of storytelling did you hope that would enable for season 2?
TB: At the end of season 1, all of our characters are in completely different circumstances than they started the show. And that also includes the Burge itself. The change the city goes through in the eighth and final episode is so seismic that it really sets off season 2. It would not be possible to tell the story that we’re telling in season 2 without that change.
Will it be a more political season?
MG: The political angle is going to be explored a different way. The one thing we’re looking at is never exactly duplicating what’s happening in the real world — not doing an Animal Farm kind of analogue where it’s one-to-one this-to-that, but creating a situation that seems to be speaking to the real world. One of the most challenging things about concocting the political trajectory for season 2 is we don’t just want to do, “Oh, who’s our Donald Trump?” Instead, we want to tackle the issues that are currently in the real world, but in our own way, in a way that’s true to the characters we’ve set up.
TB: We might have a questionable political leader who is vastly unqualified for the job he holds. You can draw your own conclusions from that.