'Carnival Row' Creator Travis Beacham Shares His Rules For World-Building [Interview]

Carnival Row has had a long road to Amazon. The project is what opened doors for its creator, Travis Beacham (Pacific Rim), who for a long time thought his original fantasy script would never get made. Things heated up when director Guillermo del Toro and Hugh Jackmanwere attached to make it, but for one reason or another, the script got never produced as a movie. But now, years after Beacham wrote the original script for fun in film school, it's now an epic fantasy series starring Orlando Bloom and Cara Delevgine.

"The world here, brought to life through the characters we spend time with, is a rich one, and one that will draw viewers in and have them eagerly waiting for the next season," Vanessa Armstrong wrote in her review for the site. A second season is already in the making, which Beacham told us a little about after he explained some of his rules for world-building.

Since you first wrote Carnival Row as a feature film script, what has remained throughout the years? What original ideas are still a large part of the show?

I would say a lot of the little things, like the settings and down to the subterranean action sequences. I remember when I was writing it in film school I was watching The Third Man and fascinated with Victorian brick sewers, so I wanted a lot of action scenes underground. Speaking more broadly, the themes of class and race have persisted and flowered in its new form. Rycroft and Vignette, I sort of conceived as having a screwball comedy dynamic, which is more like 1930s screwball comedies with a dance with words; it's been a fundamental part of their dynamic that's persisted throughout all of the development. I think the biggest thing that could've changed were things we had the pleasure of filling out the world.

Even when I first wrote the feature, you have to create far more than you're ever going to show on-screen or refer to on-screen, just so you have the flexibility to have those fleeting references you're taking for granted, like Blade Runner where you can imagine a bigger world. The opportunity to expand it, look around corners, and see what else is going on is the biggest change, but it was something I really hungry to do from the beginning.

The Blade Runner comparison is a good one because just like Deckard, people look really bored in this world.

Yes! It makes a world 100% more authentic, absolutely. It's probably one of the most infuriating things when I'm watching a fantasy world and the characters seem to have awe over something they would have an everyday experience of [Laughs]. You start to think, "Oh, this was just created for my benefit." In Blade Runner, having a character walking among the eye-popping backdrops and this strangeness and having him unaffected by it, I think it creates a genuine feeling. It feels like a lived-in kind of world. The benefit of when you're writing a story that takes place in New York or whatever is you don't really pause to explain how the subway works, even though every town in America doesn't have a subway, so you take it for granted. That's been a rule of mine: you should write fantasy the same way. You should create things that should be taken for granted.

Do you have other rules for yourself for world-building? 

Yeah, absolutely. There's a moment in the very episode with Rycroft going down the road, just buying something he needs on his way to work, that interfaces with ferries. The questions I got about the ferries were, "Well, what kind of magical powers do they have?" I'd always say, "None. They don't have any magical powers. They fly because they have wings." The core idea was always taking these fantastical things and dragging them down to Earth and opening them up, seeing that they bleed, that they have insides, and that they're biological things. It's really wrestling these mythic ideas to the ground.

The scale of the world is very impressive. Where do you even begin in pre-production in creating these environments, cultures, and histories? 

Everyone has to be in tight communication with each other. It starts with a lot of sketches, a lot of art, and just a lot of weighing in on every little detail, as far as designs go. I find the concept of different cultures and that kind of thing, I try to lean on archetypes because I feel like when the world has potential to feel this strange and alien to people, it becomes extremely important to have these anchor points, like noir plot conventions or leaning into different fairy tale archetypes. I think it helps the audience look at it and understand it, like, "Okay, I'm able to digest this. It's strange, but there's an element of familiarity to it." Just seeing the mythical creatures, I think we all have in the back of our minds a vague idea of what they are. For example, fairies in history are deceitful and shapeshifters, so taking those fundamental and primal archetypes, those become the racial stereotypes in this world. They're not necessarily true for the beings in this world, but with the knowledge audience members coming into it with, it's re-contextualizing it in the world as, "Oh no, that's racist."

The show does a nice job of balancing social issues and action scenes with fairies and machine guns. Is that a tough balance to strike?

[Laughs] It's funny, it's the kind of thing I try not to be too aware of it. I think it's the kind of thing if I was too aware of it I might start to back away from some of it. It's charging at it like a bull in a china shop, you know? "Oh, they're here and shooting fairies down with machine guns," that way of thinking about it makes it work, I think. I think the rule I go to is less about what the audience would be comfortable with and what the audience is ready for and more thinking about, "What would happen in this world based on the rules I set up for this world?" I think when you're first talking about it, I think it's good to think about how an audience might see it, but once you're in the world and going episode-by-episode, I think it's important to stick to the rules you have for your world. If you're in another country, there's war, and machine guns, you're so in the world of writing it, that it doesn't feel strange to you, if that makes sense.

I think the highest compliment I can give you about the show is it's unabashedly nerdy.

[Laughs] Thank you.

Which made me wonder, what was it like pitching a story, you know, with explicit fairie sex and some other pretty wild stuff? Were studio execs always receptive, and post-Game of Thrones, are they even more receptive of hardcore fantasy?

The studio executives were fantastic about it. They've been great about that stuff. I don't know if they had anything on their slate as far as this level of dirtiness goes, and they were really hungry for it. They put an enormous amount of trust in us, which I'm extraordinarily grateful for, not even just for the second season. With all our crazy ideas for the first season, they never said, "Are you sure that's going to work? I can't picture it." At worse, it'd be like, "We can't picture that, but we're excited to see what you come up with." [Laughs] We've had a lot leeway to have a lot of fun with it.

What about when it was a feature script? How were people reacting?

When it was a feature script I think people were more excited than I would've expected. I think when I wrote the feature I really wasn't thinking anything would come of it at all. I wrote it as a short, wasn't able to do it in film school, and my screenwriting teacher was like, "You should do it as a feature." It was extremely indulgent. I thought, "Nobody would want to see that as a feature, but I would." It just became a thing I was doing that took up my time. Literally, I'd just be creating this fantasy world in my dorm room and thinking, "Once I'm done with this, I should think of something that I could sell." I never thought it'd be the thing that launched my career. So yeah, in looking at it now, people are talking about the clash of adult content and the fantasy, whimsical pieces, that was exciting to people in a way I didn't expect.

As big as the world is in season one, do you feel like you've barely scratched the surface yet?

Oh, there's a ton of it. There's a ton we haven't seen in season one. I think it was really important by the time I got to the end of season one, I wanted some characters to be looking forward to the places we mention in season one but don't see. In season two, I'm about to fly out to Prague the end of tomorrow, and they're going to start shooting next month.

Congratulations on getting a second season. 

Oh yeah, we got really lucky. Amazon has given us an extraordinary vote of confidence. Yeah, we're shooting next month, we're shooting in two different countries, and opening the world up for a lot of different locations.

Once you started working on season two, how did your experience on season one and seeing what works influence the next season? 

Season one was a real crash course in how to do a show of this size. I think what we found works best is the more you can have before shooting... I think a lot of TV shows are writing it like two episodes ahead of the airdate or something, but a show like this where you're telling an eight-part story, it really helps to have literally everything on the page before you shoot even a second of footage. That lets us schedule things and do things, like shooting in other countries and knowing what we'll need for the whole season.


Carnival Row season one is now available to stream on Amazon Prime.