Daniel Knauf opens up about Carnivàle’s long, weird journey (1 of 2)
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Daniel Knauf had a couple of small credits to his name—a TV movie here, a stint on Wolf Lake there—when he managed to sell the intricate Great Depression-era genre show Carnivàle to HBO. The series, an intricate blend of meticulously researched period detail and secret-history fantasy, purported to tell the tale of what happened when the last two “Avatars”—superpowered beings of light and darkness—met in the United States on the eve of World War II. The series attracted a cult audience that remains devoted to this day, but a mass audience wasn’t sure what to make of the program, and HBO canceled it after two seasons, saying the show’s story was finished, in spite of Knauf’s plan for a six-season run. Knauf has kept the secrets of what might have happened at the series’ end close to his vest since then, but he opened up to The A.V. Club about the show in a wide-ranging interview. In this first of two installments, he talks about Bruce Campbell’s unfortunate read for a pivotal role, how Knauf came up with the series, and the excitement of a massive promotional push from HBO. In the second installment, posting tomorrow, he discusses his original plan for the series’ end.
The A.V. Club: What came first: the 1930s workplace drama about a carnival, or the weird, dark fantasy about America in that period?
Daniel Knauf: I always liked epics—big-canvas stuff, Lord Of The Rings, big stories. And I always wanted to write one. I always wanted to do that kind of intensive world-building and work with writing a symphony, something operatic. So that started first. And those are always good vs. evil. I knew I wanted to do something on a big canvas.
The second part was really the carnival part of it, and I can remember to this day, I was walking in Glendale [California]. They had this [local festival], Days Of Verdugo. I’d always loved carnivals anyway, but I was out for a morning walk, and I was walking through Verdugo Park, and it was before they opened for business at 6:30 in the morning. I look and I see these guys sleeping in sleeping bags under the trucks, and I’m going, “These guys don’t clock in. This is their life.” It just seemed impossibly romantic, given that it was the 1990s sometime, and then going, “Is it weird to think that this subculture still exists right under our noses, just moving from city to city?” I’d always loved Tod Browning, and Freaks is one of my favorite movies. I thought, “Okay, good, evil, the good guys, it has something to do with a carnival.”
What surprised me is carnivals. First of all, it’s a universal idiom. It’s like, if you read Huck Finn in junior high or high school, it’s one experience, then you read it in college, and it’s a completely different book. Then you read it as an adult, and it’s another book again. Carnivals are like that. You go when you’re a kid and you’re like, “Whee, look at all the rides!” Then you go as a teenager and it’s just reeking of sex, like the possibility, “Maybe I’ll pick up a girl here.” Then you go as an adult and it’s another thing. Then pretty soon, you go as a parent, and you’re experiencing it vicariously through your kids again. It’s a common experience. And yet from a dramatic standpoint, at least up until then, there’d been almost no dramatic treatment of it. So it’s like a patch of ground that’s really been unfilled. It’s like finding a $20 bill on the sidewalk. “Okay, they haven’t done this one to death. Okay, I’ll make it a carnival.”
Then the last component was really the time. I’d actually contemplated it being a post-apocalyptic carnival for a while. Then I thought, “The post-apocalyptic thing has really been done to death.” And then I started thinking about how we’re a young country, so the only part of our country that has been fully mythologized is the West. We just don’t have as much history as somewhere like China. So I moved on a little bit, and I thought, “The whole period of the ’30s, that period between the two World Wars is probably a great place to build a mythology.” So that was the last component, and then other things just followed. The idea that up until we exploded the nuclear bomb, that magic was still existent, and magic died with the burst of the bomb, and God just basically tossed us the car keys and said, “You’re on your own. You created a sun. What do you need me for?” So religion and magic being kind of intertwined. That’s kind of how it came about.
AVC: How did you go about building a mythology, building a backstory?
DK: It was really a weird project. I was writing screenplays when I decided I was ready to do this. So I read about Father Coughlin, the radio minister, and I learned a little bit about the time period and the German Bund and the KKK and how tumultuous that whole period was. How this country, the fact that we ended up fighting for the Allies was almost… you never know. It could have gone the other way at certain points.
At the time, I had the luxury of not being a working writer, so I was just doing this. I had a business I was running, and when I wasn’t running the business, some people would go and play golf or something, but I was writing this stuff, so I had time to really make up these lives and make everything make sense. The first draft of it was a screenplay. It was a really crappy screenplay. It was like 10 pounds of coffee in a five-pound can. I was on page 188, and I was still in my second act, and I was going, “Oh crap.” I ended up with a 220-page draft, and I tried to cut it down. I managed to get it down to 150 pages. Everything was so telegraphed; it made no sense.
I put it away, and then I met some TV writers on a Writer’s Guild weekend workshop. And I thought, “Maybe this is a TV show.” But I’d never written anything for TV, or even thought about it. I didn’t watch TV. So I called one of them up afterward and said, “What is a TV show structured like?” “It has a tag, five acts, a teaser. Each act is this long.” So I thought I could probably take the first act of this screenplay and it would work pretty well as a pilot. That’s what I did. It was a process of living with it in so many forms that I was able to work out a lot of the kinks.
Then what kinks I didn’t work out… I was put in a room, once HBO decided to do the thing, because I had no experience. My 900-pound gorilla, the guy I developed [it] with, Scott Winant, went on to do other projects, so I had nobody to ask, “Hey, what do I do?” They surrounded me with this staff of, I would say, as far as a staff of writers, every one of those writers had been a showrunner. Bill Schmidt ran Prey. [Dawn] Prestwich and [Nicole] Yorkin ran The Education Of Max Bickford. Ron Moore—I don’t know if he’d showrun at that point, but I think he’d did one of those things. It was virtually everybody in that room, so we started working out whatever kinks were there.
The Brother Justin [Clancy Brown] thing, in my original draft, started him out further along in his story, and we decided to pull him way back and see his genesis, instead of putting him in a position where he was well along the way. He would have been probably at the point in the story where I would have started him in season three. So we really pulled Brother Justin back, so we could see the evolution of Brother Justin and Ben [Nick Stahl] at the same time. So there were changes made even after the show was green-lit. Even after the pilot was shot, we reshot all those scenes with Brother Justin.
AVC: There were quite a few changes to the pilot, weren’t there?
DK: Not a lot, given what changes in pilots now. The biggest change, the one with Brother Justin, was big. We introduced Iris. We came up with his sister Iris, and started seeing him realize that he’s the devil. The other one was the introduction of the stripper family. The Dreifuss family. We had a carnie consultant, and he said [carnie voice], “Well, what you’re missing here is a cooch show.” We were like, “Oh really. Well, we didn’t have a cooch show.” “Yeah, you know, those cooch shows used to be family operations.” “Oh my God, we have to do that.” [Laughs.] So we introduced the Dreifusses. That scene where the carnival picked up Ben, we actually had to insert a shot of the Dreifusses in there, because we hadn’t grabbed that when we did the pilot. But it surprised me how unchanged… Other than those two items, there was really nothing else.
AVC: That original pilot, was that ever made available to anyone?
DK: No, no. That was internal. We as a staff sat down and watched it, picked it apart, the parts that we changed. There was nothing really significant. I think some things we maybe explained more. On the Ben Hawkins side, it was virtually unchanged. The only things that really changed were on the Brother Justin side.
AVC: Why did you make change his storyline?
DK: Frankly, he came off as very arch, and it didn’t fit in with the rest. The other stuff felt so rooted in reality, and I made him sort of a quasi-Nazi. It really felt like it was from a different show. I would characterize it as a misstep. It didn’t feel as real as the rest of the show. It would work if we saw him move in that direction, but to start him out in that place just felt like the Wicked Witch of the West.
AVC: At the time, were you resistant to any of these changes?
DK: No. I was on board with them. It’s weird, because your name goes on the thing. And these are the kinds of changes that aren’t going to affect the “created-by” credit. I even knew that, even though I was somewhat inexperienced. I’d been involved with the guild, and I’d served on some boards. A good writer comes in, you get somebody like Ron Moore, and he pitches something, and you go, “Whoa, that’s way better than what I came up with.” It’s like somebody handing you a gift. Only an idiot would have the ego to go, “Oh no! We gotta go with what I wrote!” He knows what he’s doing! At the end of the day, that’s true of every show I’ve been on. It’s just about making the show great. Because nobody remembers who wrote it. They remember the show.
There were things where I said, “No, I don’t want to mess with this,” and I’d have to explain, “because it affects things later.” The most dramatic one was Lodz’s death in the first season, because I had huge plans for Lodz. I wanted to take Lodz through the whole show, all six seasons, and I had these huge plans for him. And I remember HBO going, “We gotta kill a major character. We gotta do it. And Lodz is the one. And I want you to stand back.” I remember Carolyn Strauss [HBO entertainment division president] saying, “If you take a step back, Dan, and look at it, you know that I’m right.” It was really hard to admit that she was right. One thing I found out when we did kill him is that nobody really died on Carnivàle. [Laughs.] You could kill a character, but they keep showing up.
Creatively, what happened, of all the things I’ve worked on, it was the closest thing ever to how I’d visualized it way back when. It really came off exactly the same—there were scenes that were almost weird. When you write something and you’re on the set and you’re watching them do it and the director has blocked it a certain way… I would watch it, and it was this weird déjà vu. They were doing it exactly the way I’d envisioned it. It was pretty close to what I had in mind, with a few changes.
AVC: How did this end up on HBO, especially in that era of The Sopranos and Six Feet Under and The Wire?
DK: Well, first off, it was the only place it would end up. And it would only end up there. There was like a five-minute window. Because HBO was absolutely drunk on their success. At the time, it’s The Sopranos, it’s Sex And The City, and they can do no wrong. It’s the new TV. There were cover stories featuring executives Chris [Albrecht] and Carolyn, and they were celebrated so thoroughly in the press. There was no fear there like you’d find anywhere else. It would never occur to them that this could go really badly.
When I really felt like the first time we were fucked—I mean really fucked—was, I remember we were working, doing the episodes, looking at the dailies, we were cutting them, and then word comes down to me, filters down from Mount Olympus, “HBO’s very excited about episodes one and two…” or three, or whatever we’d done at that point, “HBO’s very excited about the episodes. They expect them to generate higher numbers than The Sopranos.” And I sat there and went, [Beat.] “Oh God. We’re dead.” Because that was our benchmark, and The Sopranos was a phenomenon. You’re lucky to green-light a Sopranos as an executive once in your whole career. That, to them, was just business as usual. They just hadn’t had failure, so they were a little crazy. If they hadn’t been, I don’t think they would have ever done Carnivàle in a million years. I couldn’t have sold that a year after I sold it, or a year before I sold it. That was the only place that would have done it. It was just an amazing piece of luck.
But once it went there, because Chris Albrecht was running [HBO]… Howard Klein was one of the producers who was in on the development. He was very, very close, went way back with Chris, brought it to Chris, we pitched it. Definitely fell into what they were looking for, which was, “We want to do great stuff that the networks wouldn’t touch. If it’s not what they would do, we want to look at it.” This was really not network. Back then, it was all doctors, lawyers, and cops. There was really nothing else on. This was before Lost, before all this genre stuff we’re seeing now. It was really an unusual show.
AVC: What were your biggest influences for this show, outside of historical context?
DK: I would say, most of them were literary. Honestly, [John] Steinbeck. And Clive Barker. To some extent, Stephen King, giving those everyman stories and weaving in reality. I always kind of admired that meat-and-potatoes fiction. [Charles] Dickens, to some degree. Cinematically, I think David Lynch, obviously. Tod Browning. John Ford, in the expanse. The big skies, the flat lands. It’s desolate. And J.R.R. Tolkien, of course. That would probably cover most of them. I’m assuming you’re a fanboy too, so probably a half dozen beyond that. Those are the main ones.
AVC: How did you get this cast together? So many of the actors went on to such great things, but were fairly unknown at the time.
DK: Again, HBO, the way they would cast shows, it was like, “We want the best actor for the role,” and they didn’t have overalls [deals networks put in place with actors to put them in their projects]. It wasn’t like you’d hear from the network, and they’d go, “Well, you’re going to have to have Jenny McCarthy play the gypsy fortune teller because we’re paying her a fortune, and she’s going to be in this.” I know Carolyn was instrumental in finding Nick [Stahl]. We read some Ben Hawkins, but Carolyn was like, “I want you to meet him.” Me and [director] Rodrigo Garcia met him in Westwood, and 10 minutes after sitting down with him, I said, “That’s the guy. There’s no question.” Carolyn was excellent at spotting talent and casting. The casting director, John Papsidera, he cast some great shows, and he was terrific too. So we had a great casting director and the discretion to get the right person for the right role without, “Is she pretty enough?”
The hardest one was Brother Justin. We read Keir Dullea; he was the closest to Clancy. He was probably No. 2. We presented Clancy and Keir to the network. We read John Ritter. He was really interesting. We read Bruce Campbell, which would have been a terrible Brother Justin. [Laughs.] I remember one time, he came in to read. We were reading Samson [ultimately played by Michael J. Anderson] so we had 20 little people waiting to read, and Campbell walks in the room and just stops and says, [Bruce Campbell voice] “Whoa. What a freak show!” I’m surprised they didn’t all attack him. [Laughs.] I was going, “Dude. That’s not a really auspicious use of ‘freak.’”
You want somebody who’s really powerful, who can play the big operatic stuff, and somebody who can also bring it down to where he seems like a man of God and people would come to him. When Clancy came and read—I didn’t even know Clancy’s name, I’d just watched him, and he was one of those guys. I remember going home and saying to my wife, “That guy came in.” I didn’t even see him read, I wasn’t even there that day, I just saw the tape. “I gotta get that guy.” I was really fishing for Clancy from the beginning.
The other one—if you read the pilot, I described Sofie as this raven-haired gypsy beauty, and you would never think of Clea DuVall in a million years. But Clea looked like she just stepped out of one of those photographs. She looked so of the time, and she knocked all of us just dead. If all the producers agreed, HBO pretty much went with it. We had quite a bit of discretion on casting. We were really lucky. We got a great group together.
AVC: Ron Moore was there for that first season, and then went off to do Battlestar Galactica. What was it like working with him?
DK: Originally, Henry Bromell came on to showrun, and he just never connected up with the material. He really tried, but he’s a procedural guy. He’s a contemporary guy, and he just never connected up with that genre aspect. I think they hired Ron to have a showrunner in the breach. He was sort of one in the chamber in case the first one didn’t work, so when Henry stepped away, Ron came in and took over. Ron was like a general. There were things I learned from Ron about how to hammer out a show and get stories, get the trains to run on time. We butted heads quite a bit, but that was before he knew what I was about. At first, he was like, “This guy is asserting demand,” and he was like, “No, we don’t want to do it that way,” but I remember near the end of the season, he finally got me. I was like, “I don’t want your job. I just want the show to be great.” He couldn’t understand that, because in the Star Trek universe, they eat their young. I think they encourage competitiveness between all the writers. It’s almost like Genghis Khan or something, staging fights to see if you die. If you win, you get to be in my army.
From that aspect, I learned the nuts and bolts of doing the show, and also how to balance that aspect of being a greater among equals in a room. You’re dictating story to these people. He worked really well with a very high-level room. I’ve been in rooms where it’s a bunch of baby writers and then one high-level writer, and it’s like, these are guys who generally want everyone to stand up and sing “Hail To The Chief” when they walk in, you know? I don’t think those rooms are successful. Rooms where everyone can stand on equal footing, craft, talent, and so forth, he taught me that balancing act. I saw he was very adept with that.
He was very comfortable with power. You never felt like you were being beaten up by Ron. He was always very deft. A very dry sense of humor. Some people didn’t get it, but I did. What I did differently from Ron was I… especially on a serial, because it’s not episodic, and Ron didn’t have another serial up ’til then, that I’m aware of. And this was something I brought in from being a manager outside of this business, I basically came in and ran writing in the second season. That was, “There are no closed doors. I want to foster trust. I want to foster a sense of collaboration. If you’re not as good at this character’s voice, don’t hesitate to go to the other writers and say, ‘What would you do? Would you mind writing this scene for me? I’ll write that scene for you,’” and a lot of cross-pollination of ideas, and that’s generally been my style since.
AVC: The general complaint against the first season is that it moves very, very slowly—
DK: Some of it to this day. I didn’t watch it for years, because when you’re in it, it’s painful, almost. I had to go to a seminar, and I thought, “I better reacquaint myself with this thing, because people are going to be asking questions,” and I’d never actually watched the series. I’d watched it in various cuts. So I did watch it. And episode four [“Black Blizzard”], which is actually one of the strongest scripts, by William Schmidt, was one of the most, it just… sometimes terrible things happen to great scripts in production. It wasn’t directed right. There were decisions that were pushed on us by the network because they didn’t understand what we were doing, so retrospectively, I remember saying, “I don’t understand why Chris made us cut this thing, because blah blah blah blah blah,” and one of the producers said, “Did you ever tell him that?” And I said, “I thought I did.” “Because if you told him that, he never would have cut it.” Everything that could have gone wrong with an episode went wrong with four, and it was so tragic, because that was one of the strongest scripts of the season.
There was that one where they go to the river [episode seven], which to me is almost unwatchable, because it just meanders. The show lost focus for a good three episodes, like in the shank of the season, and I know that’s probably where we lost a lot of viewers. I think it was because I either wrote or heavily rewrote episodes one, two, and three, so there was at least a sure-footedness to the first three that really wasn’t there until Ron got into the “Babylon” duo. The show lost its way right in the middle and meandered. The second season was much more of a steady pace. That was because I was basically running the room, plus we thought we had more episodes. We were told at the beginning of the season that we had two mini-seasons of eight, so we boarded it for 16, and then we were told, “No, it’ll be 12,” so we had to crush it back, and that’s why we really hit it hard the second season. I prefer the second season, but I ran the second season, so it’s just because I’m an egomaniac.
But I do know people that just adore the first season because it was so leisurely. We kind of had to be, because we were teaching a whole vocabulary to people. The show was really weird. All those flashbacks and hardly any dialogue. Rodrigo [Garcia], he said, “I can’t believe I’m directing this thing. There’s barely any dialogue.” I’d show up, and I’d be watching a scene and say, “Why don’t we cut that line? We don’t need it. He’s selling it with a look,” and Rodrigo would be going, “It’s practically his only line, Dan!” [Laughs.] It wasn’t like TV. It wasn’t people blah-blahing.
AVC: How did you work on breaking out the backstory, the mythology through that first season?
DK: You mean seeding it into the plot?
AVC: Yeah, since you were teaching people how to watch the show.
DK: Before we even started writing, the staff, we just sat down, and they started picking my brain. And I had written quite a bit. There was this, going back to when we were pitching—it was like the bottom script in my bottom drawer. I had written this pilot, but I was in my late 40s, and I was thinking, [sarcastic voice] “Yeah, I’m going to break into TV in my late 40s. Maybe I need to up my meds.” You gotta be in your 20s to do TV. You can’t be a middle-aged TV guy. So I posted on a website, and Scott found it, and I came in and started development. One of the first things he said to me was, “You need to put together a bible.” [A document TV writers have that lays out the backstory and history of a particular show’s universe. —ed.] I hadn’t ever really heard the term. “A bible? A Gutenberg Bible?” He told me what it was, and I started putting together a bible. Then I got bored with it, and so I thought, “I’m going to approach this like I’m an academic and this all really happened,” so I put together fake police reports and fake religious tracts and fake interviews with some of the participants, so the bible was really different than what bibles were. They’re more like that now. I used a lot of graphics because I have a strong graphic-arts background. I had a really strong mythology set.
I knew what the mythology was, and then Bill Schmidt, one of the writers, who was a stickler for detail, really started hammering me and nailing stuff down. “What’s this? What happened in the cornfield? How does this work? How does the blood pass between the people? How do you become one of these people? You say once per generation, so there could be two or three of them alive at once?” Really interrogating me, forcing me to make decisions to where we had an internal document that explained how everything works. Then the point is, you’d be in the room, and someone would pitch something that didn’t work given the internal document. But it was so fucking cool. [Laughs.] “Oh, no, we’re not going to do that because it doesn’t fit in with all the bullshit and lies we came up with over here. This amazing lie doesn’t work with all these other lies.” We’d also be stuck going, “Okay, what does the audience know? What have we shown? What can we change?” It’s evolving as you move through the story.
As far as where they go, my original idea was that each episode would be named after a town. Which I did in the second season, but in the first season, I wasn’t running it, so writers were just giving titles. I gave town titles to my episodes, but everybody named their own episodes. I had the itinerary in my head for the full six seasons, but when you’re working with a staff, it’s a loose itinerary. I know we’re going to go to New York via Kingman, Arizona and Taos, New Mexico. We’re going to hit these spots, but if we see a side road that’s interesting, and it doesn’t take us too far off, we’ll take that road. You have to leave that blank space, because you’re working in a room with really smart, talented people, and it’s never going to be all you. It’s sort of like party planning. I knew what the last frame was of Carnivàle. Seasons one and two were going to be 1934-35. Three and four were going to be 1939-40. Seasons five and six were going to be 1944-45. The last frame of the show was going to be the explosion of the nuclear bomb. I knew exactly where the characters’ places were, in specific but broad terms, with a lot of white space between them.
AVC: What were some of the biggest departures that you made because the writing staff had great ideas?
DK: The freak-finder episode [“Lonnigan, Texas”]. Somebody threw that out, there was this thing called freak-finders. “Oh, let’s send Ben out looking for freaks.” That kind of began the whole Knights Templar thing, where Ben meets up with Boffo. Sometimes somebody would throw something out, and these things would pop up around them. That would be a good example. It happened more than once. Also, the fire. Ron pitched the fire at the church. It wasn’t necessarily where I would have expected it to go as a creator, but it was so brilliant. So yeah, [Justin] has to start all over again. Now it’s like, “What kind of God would do this?” This is where he loses his faith. It’s just things like that.
AVC: Probably the best episodes of season one are the two Babylon episodes. How did those come to be?
DK: Those are actually Star Trek-like, if you think about it. You can see Ron’s influence, the circle-the-wagons thing. I didn’t produce them. Ron really, each one he wrote, he went off and produced it. Each one of us would produce our own episodes. I’d love to assume credit for it. I helped out in the room, as all the writers did. I have to say the driving force in those two episodes was really Ron Moore. As far as things like, I think I pitched the business with… I remember getting really heavily involved with the stuff with Dora Mae, the search for her in the town. But as far as that goes, he was really flying solo on a lot of that stuff, and it played right into his wheelhouse. It was a beautiful two episodes.
The stuff with Dora Mae was just devastating. That scene where Samson’s walking out of town, and he sees her [ghost] in the window, just the look alone, I think he should have gotten nominated for an Emmy for. It’s absolute devastation. It’s a great episode. A great pair of episodes.
AVC: The show aired with a really big promotional push. What are your memories of that time?
DK: Driving up to Sunset and seeing it take up the whole side of that building up there and getting the camera and standing out there. [Laughs.] And people would call me up from all over the world, “It’s your show!” You get big ads everywhere, and it was so interesting. They really advertised the crap out of it the first year, promoted the hell out of it, but at the same time, HBO was doing mainstream drama, not genre. I mean, they had done Tales From The Crypt, but that was a jillion years ago. I remember calling them up and saying, “What are we doing at Comic-Con?” and the reaction I got from the guy in the publicity department was, “What’s Comic-Con?” “Aren’t we going to have any action figures?” [Laughs.] It’s like, “Come on, guys. You gotta get fanboy shit going, because this is a genre show.”
And they really didn’t have a handle on how to market it. One of the things that drove them crazy is, they weren’t generating the numbers they expected to, but again, we had this wholly unrealistic benchmark of The Sopranos. By today’s standards, on what the numbers of an HBO show go, we’d be considered probably one of the top shows, with the numbers we had. But at the time, we were kind of neck-and-neck with Deadwood, and Deadwood flattened out, but on the second season, we were going up. It was a struggle. We were always on the fucking bubble. Second season, I knew we were in trouble, too. “Okay, sir, you going to put us on the side of the building again?” “Nooo.” [Laughs.] Everything was Deadwood that season. It was like, “Those poor guys!”
It was heady. I’d never done anything else. I was a consumer of TV product, and all of a sudden, I was a producer of TV product. So it was really scary, too. It was really scary because, “Who do I trust? Who’s looking out for me? Who’s protecting the vision? Everybody wants to take it away from me.” Also, the thing that was really difficult for me is, when you’re [Sopranos creator] David Chase or [Deadwood creator] David Milch, they’ve achieved a certain authority in the business. They know their way around it. And with my show, there’s like a big sucking power-hole in the middle of the show that everybody wanted to jump into. In a way, I think the only reason I was still on the show is that nobody else knew how to write it. [Laughs.] They recognized that at HBO. Though I didn’t know it at the time, and I didn’t realize it until really recently, I had a really powerful advocate in Carolyn Strauss. If I have one regret, it’s that at the time, I didn’t express the appreciation I should have been expressing toward Carolyn. I think she was sticking her neck way out, not only for the show, but for me. So there was that.
AVC: How close was that first season to your initial vision? Did it end up in the same place you wanted it to?
DK: Yeah, it really did. When we finished off the season, it pretty much wrapped up exactly where I expected the first season to wrap up. Like I said, we lost our way a little bit in the middle there, but by the time I wrote my next episode [eight; “Lonnigan, Texas”], by then, we were walking a pretty straight line at a steady pace. Everybody had their shit together. We put wheels back on it, and everything turned out. With the exception of Lodz dying, which I hadn’t been planning, season two was almost exactly how I’d carried season two around with me.
AVC: Outside of the meandering, what were some of the biggest challenges or struggles about making that first season?
DK: The production elements. We had every element that you don’t want to have in a script. It was a period piece. We had digital issues. The kind of stuff that’s no-fun digital. There’s fun digital shit, like monsters, and there’s not-fun digital like erasing contrails from the sky, those issues. Then there’s the idea that we were literally casting extras. Our faces look different than they did then. You say, “Oh, we have 200 extras, and we have to dress them all up.” Two hundred extras, you put them in a carnival, and it looks like four guys, I swear to God. We had huge crowds. We had dogs. We had this carnival. We were shooting a large number of outside days. We got a handle on that better in the second season. Plus, with Brother Justin, we were essentially shooting two different shows. So we had location company moves all the time in that first season.
There were two things in the first season everybody was freaking out about: company moves, because they’re going from this city to that city, and we’re going to have to do a company move and set up the carnival in a new location, and I’m just sitting there going, [Laughing] “What, do you think that when they made Wagon Train, they moved the wagon train every time? No! They bring a tree in and set it there. Maybe move a few things around with just a super underneath that says, ‘Here’s where we are.’ It’s the same fucking field. It doesn’t matter. You don’t have to move them every week.” And they go, “Well, that’s not the way we do things here at HBO. We go for a certain level of reality.” And I’d be going, “What’s the return on investment on that? Let’s get it up on the screen. Let’s not waste all this time with company moves for nothing.” They were stepping up and doing things that didn’t really need to be done in the first season, that we didn’t do the second season.
The second season, I think we had one time we moved the carnival, and that was during the show where they meet up with the other carnival. Other than that, we just set it up, and there it was. We just put different names on it every time. Brother Justin’s house, I said we’d set [the carnival] up, so it’s in the same world where we do Brother Justin’s world at Big Sky Ranch [in Simi Valley, California] and the carnival at Big Sky Ranch, so we just moved up and down the hill to do our shots. It streamlines all the exterior work. The interior work, again, was a thing where I said, “We can do a lot of the shit inside, because at night, the sky’s filled out anyway, so let’s just set up a corner at the carnival somewhere. We can’t get the Ferris wheel in there, obviously, but we can set up a little midway or whatever in a corner.” They were a little shy to do it at first, but eventually, we began to do that more and more, to where we were doing entire exterior sequences as interior, as long as they were night sequences. About the only time we didn’t do it, we did the entire World War II sequences inside, and I know Rodrigo shot the cornfield sequence with Brother Justin and the tattooed man running around, he did all that inside.
Check back tomorrow with more from Daniel Knauf, on how his polio-stricken father affected how he writes, HBO’s “almost irresponsible” expenditures on the show, and his frustration over HBO’s refusal to “exploit” the rights to the show.