Carnival Row: Breaking Down the Epic Worldbuilding

We talked to Travis Beacham and Marc Guggenheim about creating a world of humans and mythical creatures for Carnival Row.

Carnival Row, Amazon‘s upcoming fantasy drama starring Orlando Bloom and Cara Delevingne, is epic in its scope and worldbuilding. Set in a neo-Victorian city filled with mythical creatures, the story follows Bloom’s Philo, a human detective working to catch a serial killer, and Delevingne’s Vignette, a refugee faerie with a dangerous secret.

Created by René Echevarria (The 4400, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) and Travis Beacham (Electric Dreams), with the Arrowverse’s Marc Guggenheim as an executive producer, Carnival Row has a lot of TV experience behind-the-scenes. Den of Geek had the chance to chat with Beacham and Guggenheim about bringing such a complex world to life.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Some spellings of mythological creatures and concepts may not be the final Amazon-approved versions.

DEN OF GEEK: As a geek at who works at Den of Geek, obviously I’m fairly interested in fantasy and sci-fi properties. I want to just get in the weeds with you guys about the logical and fantasy elements of this. One thing that I’m curious to do, is nail down a lot of the terms here. Because at the panel, Orlando mentioned that “puck” was a slur [in the world of Carnival Row].

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TRAVIS BEACHAM: He dropped a few p-bombs.

That’s just what I had been referring to as them as.

TB: We do that too, by the way.

I was horrified.

Marc GUGGENHEIM: I know, but in the writer’s room, we’ll use the word “critch,” which is a slur, to describe the Faefolk. It’s not because we’re racist to our own characters, it’s because we’re lazy. [Critch] is shorter. It’s easier to say than Faefolk.

TB: While writing up a rule book for season two, part of what I realized was challenging about referring to them as a group, as a whole, is that they don’t see themselves as part [of a whole] … Like, fawns don’t see themselves as having anything to do with the faeries. It’s this arbitrary line that humans have drawn, that it’s like, “There’s us. We’re separate, we’re above everything. Then, there’s everything that’s not us.” Just the idea of referring to them as a group is, in a way, unnatural. We have a bunch of terms that we’re throwing around. There’s “critch” and “Faefolk.” There’s newer ones like otherkin, or the exogene races, like exogenius.

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read more: Carnival Row Already Confirmed For Season 2

MG: The exogene race is probably the most politically correct way of saying it.

TB: Yeah. It’s very clinical.

MG: It’s funny, we’re oftentimes talking about, “Can we come up with another name for different kinds of creatures, so that it’s …” Each choice you make is telling a different story.

TB: Like, who uses which word…

MG: Who uses which word, in which context, there’s a story behind that. That’s one of the main cool things about the world, is that you get a chance to get into those nuances.

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What is the official taxonomy, then? Is it like all non-human creatures are known as Fae? Then, it branches off into fawns and fairies?

TB: Broadly, the polite term is Faefolk, and the implied term is critch. Fae, but also Fae refers in general specifically to the winged ones.

MG: The winged ones are also referred to as pix, but it’s like you can say Fae to specifically refer to a pix, in way that you couldn’t refer to a fawn.

Got it.

TB: I like it, because in the real world, there’s no simple rules.

MG: African-American versus Black, [for example], but it’s like: if you’re from London, you’re not African-American, obviously.

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TB: Exactly. I like the mess in it, because it mirrors the messiness of talking about real-world thing. 

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MG: In Season 2, you’ll meet another type of pix who are from a different part of the world. They have their own specific name, but they also have their own specific physiology.

TB: Differently textured wings…

MG: Different ears. Again, it is this big, broad, expansive world. It’s like our world. It’s messy in its taxonomy.

How big is this world?

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TB: It’s huge. Even talking about [Tirnanoc] … One of the things that we had to rationalize early on, based on the casting that we wanted to do, was that we wanted to have a lot of different people playing the Fae. We didn’t just want white people, or just one thing. We wanted a diversity. What that necessitated, was that you end up saying, “Okay, well then Tirnanoc’s a continent. It’s not one country.” It’s a continent, and there’s all these different groups of Fae.

There’s races within races, and cultures within cultures, different religions and different backgrounds. Having that … Again, the humans lumping them into, “You’re from Tirnanoc”, almost being like, “You’re from the Dark Continent.” Huge, huge place, with a multitude of ethnicities there. The Fae are similarly diverse and complex.

MG: It’s like in science fiction, you go to a certain home world. Not to pick on Star Trek, but the Vulcans are all Vulcan. The Klingon, same thing.

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TB: I’ve always joked about somebody from the Star Wars universe coming to Earth and being like, “You have all the planets here.” 

MG: That’s just one of the many things that make it fun. In the writer’s room, we all collectively geek out about it, because we didn’t staff the second season with people just exclusively who were geeks. We came by it honestly. Then, there’s different levels in the room.

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TB: Oh, yeah. We’ve got somebody who was on The Expanse. Someone was on Hannibal, and The Flash.

Do you guys have a map?

TB: Yes.

MG: Yes, we do. It’s actually gorgeous. Well, Travis drew one. Then, Amazon, they just … It’s the same exact map, but they’ve added all this texture to it. It looks like an old-school map. It’s really quite beautiful.

When crafting a big fantasy world, I’m wondering, in your process, what was the chicken and the egg? What came first, the story, or the world? Or, do these exist simultaneously?

TB: I don’t know. It’s hard to say. Kind of both because, in thinking about it, I guess I’d never really think of the world being just a setting. It’s always a character in its own right, and the world is going to tell you what the story is, in a way.

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We’re also a product of our own world. The way I like to do it, is that you build the world, and you make rules for that world. You give it boundaries, and then you work within those boundaries. I think the temptation that a lot of people who work in fantasy fall too easy in is to keep everything too open. Then, you feel like the world exists conveniently for your story.

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Like, when you’re watching … Something I pick out a lot, just watching thing, it’s like, “Oh, well that’s a convenient rule.” There’s something more interesting about committing yourself to restrictions, and committing yourself to rules, and then finding the story that lives within those rules. That, I think, is more akin to what every other writer who works in the real world does.

What was it about the Victorian era that made it the right kind of feel for this?

TB: I think it was one of those times that was rife with the same social issues, and it’s social awareness on a different level. Like, you have women’s suffrage. You also have abolitionist, and you have-

MG: The result of the Industrial Revolution, and the effect it has on society.

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TB: Yeah, child labor.

MG: One of the things I love about that setting, is typically, if you look at fantasy, it’s typically in some sort of, for lack of a better term, medieval kind of setting. Lord of the Rings, which obviously, it’s not medieval, but you’re still dealing with people on horseback. I personally had not seen fantasy played out in this is semi-modern context. That’s one of the many, many things that makes the show, I think, really unique.

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TB: Yeah, because I was thinking about, you see … Not to dog pile on Lord of the Rings or anything, but you see Lord of the Rings, and other more conservative, medieval fantasy-type things, and there’s always this conservatism to them, in a way. Not capital “C” conservatism, but lowercase “c,” in that you have all these races, the dwarves, elves, and whatever. They all dress exactly the same, and they don’t much like each other. They live over here, these live over here.

There’s something about, if you fast forward that world to an Industrial Revolution, suddenly, cities are getting bigger, wars are happening, and people are living closer together. You can pull them out of their comfort zones, throw them together, and begin to tell what would feel like a more modern story.

This is obviously very heavily allegorical and political. Wwhat is it like to have conceived of this long, long ago, and by the time that it’s actually coming to fruition, it’s more applicable to the real world than ever?

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TB: It’s surreal. It’s very strange, because … I wish that I could say that I was prescient, or something like that, but honestly, I think it’s just these issues never die. They never go away. They morph, and they become different things. I think even if you had asked me in film school, “Are you worried they’re going to solve the whole race thing by the time this gets made?” It’s like, “No. Absolutely not.”

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MG: I think the fact that Travis conceived of this 17 years ago, it keeps us honest. I love watching, and I love writing shows that reflect the real world, and get into real world issues is the television that I was brought up with, as a viewer. The danger there, is that it becomes a polemic. What’s great about the fact that we’re dealing with concepts that Travis came up with 17 years ago, is it keep us on it. It keeps it from becoming a polemic, which is good. Otherwise, who knows what crazy paths we might go down?

TB: Yeah. It’s like some people, even on set, would ask, “Are we going to get a Donald Trump of The Burgue?,” or whatever. I’d always said, “I never want it to be one to one like that.” I never want it to be like Animal Farm, and you’re picking out who the people are, because it loses a timelessness if it becomes too ripped from the headlines. Then, it’s too of a time. 

MG: No one would believe it anyway. I think the rise of Donald Trump was a little harder to imagine than pixes flying.

Carnival Row will drop on Amazon Prime on August 30th. You can find out more about the TV show here and our spoiler-free review is here.

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Read and download the Den of Geek SDCC 2019 Special Edition Magazine right here!