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"Creating 1934"
Mary Corey

Carnivàle's historical consultant talks about keeping it real.

I really love it. I mean the production people call me and say: When was the screw top bottle invented? Can cotton candy be white? Did bacon ever come in a jar?

HBO: History plays a big part in Carnivale. The writers talk about a sense of uncertainty, a sense of peril. What do you think are the themes from the thirties that shaped the show?

MARY COREY: The thing about the Depression is you have twin peaks of terrible-ness going on. At the same time that this almost Job-like ecological disaster - the dust storms and the black blizzards - is going on, people are also just being destroyed economically and losing farms and, and losing savings and losing jobs. So you have a world in tremendous chaos, a world that's often turned upside down.

This is not something that we rolled up our sleeves and said, Hey, let's make this represent this on the show. Cause it's a smarter show than that. But I think in a certain way the eerie surreal-ness of the carnival is really mirrored in the culture, in reality. You know, the doctors are selling shoes and people who are otherwise white collar guys are riding the rails, just looking for work anywhere. And people are getting into cars and going to California, desperate, because they think that that's a place that hasn't been hit by the Depression. And then getting turned around at the border.

So you have a world that's in a kind of emotional chaos, where people are de-centered and ripped off of their moorings. And I think that the show -visually and intellectually and narratively - really mirrors that. Reality is ripped from its moorings in a certain way.

HBO: Have you planted historical signposts in this show?

MARY COREY: One of the reasons that I like the show so much is it's not all this and then this. I mean, yes, there're pictures of Roosevelt, you know. I made sure that there were pictures of Roosevelt in lots of shots, because that was real. And there're posters from the NRA and the different New Deal things that show up in shots. But again, it's not highlighted, you know. It's not a history show.

HBO: Right.

MARY COREY: And I think that's one of the things that's going to make it so successful is that it's really of the period rather than about the period. Sometimes the writers would have some character write, "Well, we're in a Depression." And one of my notes would always be, people in a Depression don't go around saying that.

HBO: Right.

MARY COREY: I mean, these things are brought up once in a while. You know, it's very, very nuanced.

HBO: When do you come into the story process?

MARY COREY: I started working on the show at the beginning push. So a year ago May, we started meeting. I started meeting with the writers and the original show runner that long ago in conceptual meetings.

At that stage, you're not talking about how many people were in soup lines and that kind of thing. The creators were much more interested in over-arching ideas. And so from the very get-go, you know, I went to early script meetings as they were breaking down the stories.

HBO: Right.

MARY COREY: So I worked on that for six months and then I saw each script in draft and I gave notes. And then I usually see it again maybe once, maybe twice. I don't work on the set, although I try to go at least two or three times during the shooting. And, you know, once I actually did something on the set-- moved some Tarot cards into the proper position. [LAUGHS] But I mean, basically I'm not a, a hands -on historian on the set. As the process goes on I work with costumes sometimes, I work with production - you know, the art director will call me. The prop master. There were people that never called me, and there were people that called me all the time.

HBO: Hmm.

MARY COREY: There were people that, before they started to write their episode, we would be talking on the phone all the time. And there were other people that would wait until I gave notes. Working with writers, you know, you have to be sensitive to their style. You can't expect them to want to do what you say. And because the show has a supernatural element, of course I didn't want to be saying, "Well, you can't say that."

HBO: [Laughs]

MARY COREY: Sometimes, I would sort of be the pooperdinkal who was raining on the parade. But, you know, they could say, Well, shut up. Because this is fiction. And that was fine with me, you know.

HBO: Do you have to play cop to the occasional, historical transgression?

MARY COREY: Oh certainly, although the transgressions are subtle. It isn't like they're a bunch of dummies. They're really smart people.

With a lot of scenes, it didn't seem like it was a historical problem. It seemed more like I was commenting on the writing or the script. But sometimes I would catch something about how somebody would behave. Because behavior is historical. You know: How angry would a woman be if somebody tried to kiss her? Or what would a girl actually say that to someone in that context? And also language. In first drafts you sometime see stuff where people are saying things like, "Well, he's, he's got a lot of baggage that he brings along with him."

HBO: Right.

MARY COREY: The thing is, being a historian is not about walking around and going, Al Capone died in 1928 and this war ended on this moment. And, you know, I'm not like a dictionary of historical fact. I know how to find stuff. And I can research. But it's much more about really getting the context right. And that's almost a cadence issue. It's almost like being a musician. You know, you're steeped in the period and you've read a lot of fiction from the period. Because I'm a cultural historian.

HBO: What does that mean, practically on the show?

MARY COREY: It means you've read a lot, and you've read a lot of magazines from the period, and you've listened to a lot of music, you know. Your ear picks up on something that doesn't sound right: homey don't play that in 1934.

HBO: That's really interesting. I was going to ask you about keeping the language accurate. But behavior for a time period takes it even further.

MARY COREY: I remember Adrienne Barbeau was really wonderful about wanting to know about behavoir. One day when I was out on the set, she asked me questions about body language.

HBO: What other Thirties tips did you pass along?

MARY COREY: One of the things: When you really look at the Thirties' films and listen to Thirties' radio, people just talked really, really fast. I don't know why.

Behavior is historical. You know: How angry would somebody be if somebody tried to kiss them? Or what would a girl actually say that to someone in that context?

HBO: Hmm.

MARY COREY: There were certain ways of talking, body language things. And those things are very important. And then, you know, Dan is a big fan of slang and carny lingo.

HBO: Did you help with that?

MARY COREY: Slang was very important in the Thirties and in fact, it, you know, divided people. Hoboes had a certain slang and carnys had a certain slang. And it's almost like Sixties' slang, where people talked about things being far out and groovy and boss and bitchin'-it's all meant to say: "We're different from you. We know something is going on in here and you don't know what it is, do you, Mrs. Jones?"

That's part of the social work that lingo and argot does; that's why teenagers have language. It makes them be in a club that other people can't be in. But at the same time, in domestic conversation it would be very unlikely that someone would use snappy slang to tell their husband to have a piece of cornbread. So we had debates over things like that.

HBO: Right.

MARY COREY: And some times Dan would overrule me and say, Come on, you know, you have to break some eggs to make an omelet.

It was a great job. I loved it. I mean, the production people would call and say, when was the screw top bottle invented? You know, can cotton candy be white? Did bacon ever come in a jar? [LAUGHTER] When was the Ferris wheel invented?

And those things are fun, too. I mean, in the past a real historian wouldn't have even done that work. They would just have a researcher that would do that. But with computers, I can do both sides of it. I can both talk about larger context, what was really happening in the world and the feeling and context of the world. And I can also very easily research-- you know, when did mustard gas get used in World War I?

HBO: How historically accurate would you say Carnivale is?

MARY COREY: I think it's always excellent, except when the supernatural is so powerful that it really doesn't matter. You know, in a show where glass shatters and eyeballs bleed, leeway is available.

But in terms of what the carnival was like, and what their lives were like, and what they wore, and what they ate, and how they slept, and their cars and all the material culture, it's impeccable.

HBO: Are there certain things that are hard to keep historically honest?

MARY COREY: Well, I guess I would say that the hardest thing, it's not a matter of keeping it. It's of knowing.

HBO: Can you tell us a little about your background?

MARY COREY: I am a 20th Century-ist. I teach post-World War II at UCLA, but my specialty is Vietnam era. I wrote a book that's a textual analysis of The New Yorker magazine, between 1945 and 1955 called The World Through a Monocle, The New Yorker at Mid-Century.

I've worked on a lot of non-fiction shows - I'm on the Board of The Living Century - this series about people over a hundred. And I've worked on documentaries about Kent State and other Sixties' events. And then I worked with two of the writers on Carnivale - the two creators of the The Education of Max Bickford. I was the historical consultant on that show, which was right up my alley. It was a show about an American Studies professor. And I am one.

Before all that I worked in publishing and I worked as a TV writer and did some screenwriting. You know, not with great success. So I got my Ph.D. and got out of show business. [LAUGHES]

HBO: Well, not entirely...

MARY COREY: Well, no. But it came and found me. So that's different.

Daniel Knauf
- Carnivàle Creator

Rodrigo Garcia
- Carnivàle Director

Mary Corey
- Historical Consulant

Casting Directors

Co-Executive Producers

Music Supervisors

Sara Ingrassia
- Set Decorator

Howard Klein
- Executive Producer

William Schmidt
- Supervising Producer

Jeff Beal
- Composer

Michael J. Anderson

Clancy Brown

Amy Madigan

Carnivale Features

Carnival Fact

Tarot cards first came to Italy and France in the 14th century. They were used to play the card game tarocchi, which had nothing to do with fortune telling.
Try the strategy card game that puts a twist on Tarot!
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