The Winding Road to Row
From film school script to hot property, a fantasy drama — with a contemporary twist — finds life, at last, on Amazon.
"It's been a long time," says writer–executive producer Travis Beacham as an actor hobbles past whose feet have been replaced by hooves. "A long, long time."
He's on set in Prague for Amazon's Carnival Row, a script that Beacham first conjured up in film school 14 years ago. Within a year, his unique slice of neo-noir, fantasy Victoriana had become Hollywood's hottest property — A Killing on Carnival Row, as it was called then, topped the very first Blacklist of most highly rated scripts.
It was sold to New Line, almost got off the ground as a feature with Guillermo Del Toro directing and then… it didn't. Beacham's writing career blossomed on movies like Clash of the Titans and Pacific Rim, but Carnival Row was never forgotten.
"It launched my career," he says. "It was always the thing that everybody asked me about."
Fast forward a decade and Carnival Row is finally coming to the screen, debuting August 30 as an eight-part streaming series.
"If I were writing it now, I would have written it as a TV show," says Beacham, recalling that he had a map on his dorm room wall with every street of the Burgue, the fantasy city that is the series' main setting, named and charted. It's precisely the type of sprawling mythical world in which modern television likes to immerse its viewers.
"Initially, I was thinking about fantasy," Beacham says. "In Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings, [the story is] always set in a pseudo-medieval time and place, never in our world. At some point I got to thinking: it doesn't have to feel medieval… so what does Middle Earth look like after it's gone through its industrial revolution?"
The result is this set in the Czech Republic — a hive of dark, dirty streets, as if Dickensian London had been crossed with the Star Wars cantina. As they prepare for a take, extras dressed as "the Faye" (the non-human races) intermingle: dwarves stepping past fairies with working wings and cloven-footed centaurs.
"We wanted to get away from the quaintly segregated mythological races — where the dwarves live over here, the elves live over here — and instead cram them all together in cities," Beacham explains.
"It becomes an opportunity to tell a more modern story, even if it has a Victorian feel." Carnival Row introduces viewers to that world through the eyes of two main characters: human detective Rycroft Philostrate (Orlando Bloom) and fairy refugee Vignette Stonemoss (Cara Delevigne).
The action starts with the killing of a fairy in the immigrant ghetto of the Burgue, known as Carnival Row. Normally no one would pay much attention, but the dogged Philo won't let it go. As he pulls at the thread, there are more killings and the story expands outside the Row.
Humans start dying, exposing a wider conspiracy. "Really, it's a look at life with 'the other,'" says Bloom, in costume on set. "I've done years of work with UNICEF, and I've seen the migrants and the refugee crisis unfolding right before my eyes; I've seen people go across borders.
"We're using the Faye folk in our show to represent those migrant refugees. It's becoming more and more apparent in the world we live in today: borders need to be opened; you can't keep building walls."
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 8, 2019
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