Joining the Carnival
Carnival Row showrunner Erik Oleson tells DQ about taking over Prime Video’s fantasy drama for its second season, balancing story with special effects and building the show’s finale.
Having previously joined Marvel’s Netflix series Daredevil to oversee its third and final season, showrunner Erik Oleson has experience of taking on an existing drama. It is a role he has now repeated after taking the reins of Prime Video’s fantasy drama Carnival Row for it second – and what would become its final – run.
Created by Travis Beacham and René Echevarria, the show is set in a Victorian world filled with mythological immigrant creatures that share an uneasy co-existence with humans. From this melting pot in a city known as The Burgue emerges a dangerous affair between human detective Rycroft Philostrate (Orlando Bloom) and a refugee faerie named Vignette Stonemoss (Cara Delevingne).
In season two, once again produced by Amazon Studios and Legendary Television Studios, the 10-part story picks up with former inspector Philostrate investigating a series of gruesome murders that have stoked social tension, while Vignette and criminal gang the Black Raven plot payback for the oppression inflicted by The Burgue’s human leaders.
The series also stars Simon McBurney as showman Runyan Millworthy, David Gyasi as faun Agreus, Karla Crome as faerie poet Tourmaline and Jared Harris as Absalom Breakspear, the imperious and secretive Chancellor of the Burgue.
Here, Oleson tells DQ about bringing Carnival Row back to screens after its 2019 debut, balancing story with the show’s dazzling production design and how he designed the show’s finale when the decision to end the series was taken after initial production had wrapped.
You’ve had previous experience coming on to a show mid-season or mid-run and taking it on. What have you learned from those experiences, and how did you apply that to Carnival Row?
Whenever I take over or start a show, it always starts with the question of why are we telling the story? I’m a big nerd for Robert McKee’s screenwriting advice, and he talks about a controlling idea. For us, when I took over the show, I wanted to understand why we would spend an obscene amount of money and ask a crew of 1,500 people and a cast of hundreds to work day and night for a year to create the story. So for me, it always starts with the why, and with this show, I wanted to explore an idea – are we defined by our DNA or are we defined by what we do and how we treat others and the choices we make in our lives?
None of us have control over where we’re born. None of us have control over what race we are, whether we’re born with wings or horns or as a human being, in the world of Carnival Row. But once we are given a chance to make choices for ourselves and have agency over our decisions and actions, how does one define oneself? And certainly in the age of identity politics, I thought that it was a worthy question to ask.
We then also combined that with the question of how one should stand up to social injustice. There are many different answers to that question. Do you try to work within the system for incremental change, or do you take to the streets? Do you take up arms? And all the different characters of the show have a different answer to those fundamental questions.
One of the things I put on the writers room wall is a quote by Juan Luis Borges: ‘Art equals fire plus algebra.’ There are many writers who understand the algebra of how you make a television show, and the truly great shows marry that to the fire, the reason you’re telling the story. I spend a lot of time at the beginning making sure I’m not just doing algebra. If you’re going to do a premium streaming series like Daredevil or Carnival Row, it’s important to discuss the fire. What makes us passionate as artists to tell this story?
What did you enjoy about season one and what were the things you wanted to focus on more or take in a different direction in season two?
It had such a lush backdrop of fantasy world. It truly was a writer’s fantasy in that there were infinite kinds of stories one could tell. I gravitated towards the ones that many of the audience did. I fell in love with the relationships of the characters. I was fascinated by a number of the characters and their internal arcs. And I wanted to make sure that when I took over the show, every single one of the characters that people had come to know and love from season one were given a dynamic journey that was unpredictable, took them to new places and gave those really talented actors moments to shine.
I set out with the writers to make sure we were giving a really meaty role to Karla Crome and a really meaty run to characters that in the first season might have been set up as just the villain – for instance, Sergeant Dombey [Jamie Harris]. If that’s the starting point, where are some cool places we can go with that character that make you think differently? And is it possible to reform somebody like that?
I was interested in picking up the really terrific story threads that had been started in season one and then, within the context of that controlling idea I was talking about, creating individually dynamic storylines for each of those relationships and characters moving forward.
As the showrunner, how do you process the endless possibilities for story, the world and the characters offered by a fantasy drama through the writers room?
What becomes our North Star is that controlling idea. You can pitch any kind of crazy idea you want and, in the writers rooms I run, I have a rule that there’s no such thing as a bad idea. It’s OK to share it with all of us, and we’ll talk it out as to whether it fits in the show. But if I know I’m telling a story about, ‘Are we what we do or are we what we were born?’, an idea about singing cats on a spaceship is not really going to fit in with what we’re doing.
I take an approach where I look at a show as almost like a tapestry of different story threads woven together. If you watch the journey of Tourmaline and you watch Philo’s story or Vignette’s story, each one of them has a really interesting sine wave in and of itself. But when you put all of those storylines on top of one another, you have a very dynamic viewing experience because the camera’s zooming around the different high and lows of different characters, but all within the organised approach of telling a story for a reason – we figured out what our fire is.
When I’m looking at massive multimillion-dollar effects sequences on one hand, and quiet moments between two characters just pouring their soul out on the other, you can really find the balance of what matters, because it’s all within the construct of what it was you were trying to explore in the beginning.
How do you consider the production design and effects needed in Carnival Row as you work out storylines in the writers room?
First of all, you surround yourself with a brilliant team that helps steer what is possible and what is not possible. We do a carriage chase through the streets of Prague in episode four, and when we scripted it, I called Brad Van Arrangon, the line producer, and said, ‘Listen, I don’t think that’s going to be financially feasible.’ And he said, ‘Actually, we’re figuring out how to do it. Keep it, everybody’s in love with it.’ So you take on these partnerships, likewise with the visual effects department, likewise with the creature design. I have this vision for something and then they come back with options that can fit within what we’re able to achieve.
How did the decision to end the series affect how you would present the show viewers would eventually see?
We were building the show to lead to future seasons, if that were the appetite of Amazon. Then we were filming the final block, episodes seven and eight, when Covid hit and we had to scramble like everybody else in the world to make sure everybody was safe. The show shut down for a whole year.I was doing visual effects remotely and working on the early episodes, but the decision came down that it was irresponsible to hold all of the cast and crew to contracts and basically force them to remain unemployed for an indefinite amount of time.
So I agreed with Amazon and Legendary when they said, ‘We have to end the show. We’ll come back and finish it.’ They said, ‘What do you need to do it right?’ I said, ‘Well, I have to go back. There are some scenes in the early episodes that were going to be setups for future seasons. We should take those out because I don’t want to lie to the audience. I don’t want to promise the audience something that’s not going to exist anymore and replace those with new sequences.’ They agreed, and they said, ‘Is there anything else you need?’ I said, ‘Honestly, if you could give me two more episodes, then I can really land this the right way.’ And the word came back, ‘Yes, you can have two more episodes.’ This show has a gigantic budget, probably three times the budget of Daredevil for each episode, so that was no small ask. They said, ‘Do it right. We just want to make sure it’s done right.’
When people now look at it, even if you haven’t seen season one, you can look at it almost like an 18-hour limited series – 18 hours of ever-escalating fantasy, drama, romance and adventure, and it ends with a very satisfying climax. There’s also freedom in knowing that it’s going to end. Where I think a lot of shows go off the rails is when they have to keep making up new stuff in order to get something going, and you’re like, ‘Wow, they really like going to the cupboards to find the crumbs.’ That’s not the case here. We really lavished attention on every detail, and I think that came out on screen.