Creating a richly detailed fantasy world on the page is difficult enough (just ask George R. R. Martin). But creating such a world in actual, physical space — and further, populating it with people and not-people — can be a herculean (not to mention expensive) task to pull off convincingly. Especially when there’s no sacrosanct source material to work from.
Perhaps that’s one reason it took so long for Carnival Row to make it to the screen. The Amazon fantasy series began as a screenplay that co-creator Travis Beacham wrote in film school, but “languished in development hell,” as he puts it, until the production company Legendary Entertainment suggested turning the project into a TV show.
Of course, that meant it was time to actually build the world in Beacham’s head. But fortunately Amazon had the commitment, and the funds, to do so. Back in July, when Carnival Row stars Orlando Bloom, Cara Delevingne, David Gyasi, and Tamzin Merchant stopped by EW’s San Diego Comic-Con studio along with Beacham and showrunner Marc Guggenheim, they all enthused over the sheer detail in the show’s sets, costumes, and makeup.
“It looks like it’s so greenscreen, but most of it is built,” Delevingne said. “The amount of prosthetics and details, it’s so easy to get lost in this world if you just walk around.” Merchant echoed that, noting, “When you see the show, it feels like maybe there’s a lot that’s been added in post, but actually, for me and David, everything on the screen was on the set.”
That set involved an elaborate city street, built on a backlot in Prague, where the show’s cast of mythical creatures reside and do business (the eponymous Carnival Row). Bloom singled out one particular set, the apothecary that serves as a key location in the first season. “You walk into it, and it’s kinda like going into some natural history museum,” he said. “But with the oddest jars, full of a saline solution, with things hanging and bits of brain… It was just an explosion for the mind.”
For Gyasi, who plays a faun on the show, that level of detail was a bit more personal. “David has three hours of makeup every morning, for the horns,” Merchant said. “He has this incredible prosthetic, and hooves, as well. So for once, I wasn’t the only person wearing high heels in the scene.”
Beyond its status as an original property, Carnival Row sets itself apart by its style. Most works of fantasy take place in some sort of faux-medieval setting, whereas this series opts for a steampunk-infused world reminiscent of Victorian London. Add in the show’s social subtext — the creatures in the cast face discrimination and harsh treatment from the human population — and the series makes for a decidedly distinct flavor of fantasy.
“I remember when I first read the script, I was like, ‘I haven’t seen this world. This is unique,’” Bloom said.
Watch the video above for more. Season 1 of Carnival Row is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video.