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Daniel Knauf
"The Making of a Magnificent Delusion"
Daniel Knauf

Carnivale's creator talks about how his sprawling epic of good and evil went from the bottom drawer to one of the hottest slots on television.

HBO: Since Carnivale is so new, give us an overview of what the show is all about.

DANIEL KNAUF: It's basically an epic story of good versus evil, set in a carnival in the dustbowl of the 1930s, between the two great wars.

What would you do if you woke up one morning and you found out that you were the Savior? Or you're the Antichrist? It's like: oh, well gee, thanks for telling me.

DANIEL KNAUF: Well, I've always been fascinated with carnivals, since I was a child. I just love the fact that these things come into every town, and it's sort of a universal experience. And there's a danger to it and a romantic quality to it, and a seediness to it that always sort of thrilled me.

Also, I've always been a big fan of epic storytelling, and the whole idea of mythologizing something. This is a young country, so about the only thing we've mythologized is the West, and the idea of digging into our history for another era and using that as a template to do some epic storytelling, seemed like a good idea.

HBO: You talk about epics-what are some of the stories or myths that have influenced you?

DANIEL KNAUF: I'm a big fan of Tolkien, I'm a big fan of Dickens, and anybody who tells a big story. I always wanted to work on a big canvas like this.

And, really, the only medium where you can tell an epic on film, is television. The first draft of Carnivale was an attempt at a screenplay, in 1992. And there was no place I could have gone with this story.

It wouldn't work as a standard TV show, it definitely didn't work as a movie. And I kind of set it aside, thinking, well, maybe someday I'll do it as a novel, you know? Working with HBO is sort of an opportunity to take all of the richness of a novel and all the character work and storytelling and the complexity of a novel, and do it on film.

HBO: Have you encountered a lot of challenges trying to turn that kind of sprawling story into a series?

DANIEL KNAUF: No, not really; it gets easier with every episode. I always knew what the major beats were in the story, and I know what the end of the story is. It was all the stuff in between that's a little spooky, because you don't know where those characters are going to take you from beat to beat.

As we started writing episodes and as we saw our cast perform them, ideas flew off from there. You know, you may see a beat--it might not be something you wrote, it might just be something that turned up in dailies.

For example, [director] Rodrigo Garcia grabbed a shot of Amy Madigan, during the infamous coin sequence with Eleanor. It wasn't in the script, but when we talked about it, we said, yeah, what would it be like if she saw this? And all of a sudden you start thinking of the different direction on a micro level.

HBO: You're talking about the scene in the pilot where Amy Madigan's character Iris sees a parishioner vomiting a stream of silver coins in front of Brother Justin...

DANIEL KNAUF: Well, she doesn't see the coins being vomited, but she's present, you know. So what I think Iris sees, is a woman having convulsions. Basically, the coin vomiting is a shared hallucination between Brother Justin and Eleanor. I mean, they're the only two people experiencing that. I think if you were standing in that room and watching that happen, it would just look like a woman was dry heaving, and they'd both be kind of unduly horrified by it.

Because the kind of power that Brother Justin is capable of, at least at this point is his career, it's really a very intimate kind of power, it's a one-on-one situation.

HBO: Has the show been shaped a lot by the people on the production?

DANIEL KNAUF: Always. Some characters are going to break out if you're doing your job right. The actors aren't marionettes, you know, you don't just sit there and just pull strings. The characters begin to become very willful. And the key is to let that happen, because usually it leads to good things.

HBO: Has there been anything so far that surprised you on that front? A character that seems to be breaking out?

DANIEL KNAUF: It's hard for me to single out a performance-the entire cast attacked these roles with such zest. Every day, there's, oh my God, look, look what Nick did, oh my God, look what Michael did. Oh jeez, did you see the way that Debra handled that or Clea handled this. My personal favorite character is Samson, and Michael's done a great job.

You know, when you write a scene, you've got it unspooling in this movie theatre that's contained inside your skull, and you're just writing down what's happening. And, and it's very rare-- I mean really, really rare--when you actually see it unfold the way you imagined it.

It's startling when you're a new writer, because there are so many people involved in making that scene work. What's been surprising to me is the number of times that I have watched my actors perform a scene exactly the way I had it in my head when I wrote it. What are the odds? So I get this insane kind of deja vu, like, oh my God, how did they crawl inside my head and do that? And then it gets even more interesting when I'm sitting down watching dailies, and I watch the way that Rodrigo or Scott or Jeremy decided to shoot a scene, and, oh wow, this is exactly the way I saw it on that movie screen in my head.

I just don't know whether everybody on the cast and crew is sort of tapping into something...

HBO: Maybe a shared hallucination.

DANIEL KNAUF: Yeah, we're all suffering from this magnificent delusion, but, whatever it is, I sure hope it keeps up.

HBO: Is it difficult when you have a new show - especially when it's a very different kind of program-to communicate what you have in mind?

DANIEL KNAUF: Well, it was un-pitchable. You can't pitch this show. It's sort of a joke, when people would come up to you and say well, well what are you working on? How do you describe this show? I guess the flip answer is, it's the Grapes of Wrath meets meets David Lynch.

Rather than pitching it, I created a book, a twenty- or thirty-page document. It wasn't really a show Bible, it was put together as if a professor had researched all these articles and interviews, police reports, documentation. I put together this thing that treated all of our characters as if this was a documentary. As if this was a real carnival.

And, in a way, the show's so much about tone, and it's so much about the time, that I felt I had to do that in order to get across what we were going to be doing. And, HBO, thank goodness, they got it. It's been a massive leap of faith, because this is not a high-concept story. But then, you look at any of these epics, I mean, how do you pitch 'The Lord of the Rings'?

This was that script where you say to yourself, oh, well, this is just too fucking weird. Nobody will ever make this.

DANIEL KNAUF: "All right, well, there're these people with fur on their toes, and they go out and they throw this ring into this big volcano." Epic storytelling just doesn't lend itself to a pitch.

HBO: It's more interesting to see a guy who's coming to his own realizations.

DANIEL KNAUF: What would you do if you woke up one morning and you found out that you were the Savior? Or you're the Antichrist? It's like: oh, well gee, thanks for telling me. It's a lot of fun to write, I can tell you that.

HBO: Are you concerned about extending the story arc beyond this first season?

DANIEL KNAUF: No, I have no problems with it whatsoever, I know where the characters are going.

HBO: So we can count on a battle between good and evil for years to come?

DANIEL KNAUF: Somebody recently asked me how long I saw this story as going on, and I said well, you know, when you sit down to start a novel, you don't say this thing is probably going to come in at 371 pages.

I don't know exactly how many episodes it's going to take to tell my story, because again, it's not completely my story. But I can chart the itinerary, you know what I mean? This might be a really interesting road. Let's slow down and, maybe we'll take a few pictures here.

I really don't know how long it'll take, but it's definitely a finite story. It's not serial like "Days of our Lives." There's definitely an end to the series. And there are definitely going to be signposts that take them to that endpoint.

HBO: You'd mentioned that you are most drawn to Samson; what is it about him that interests you?

DANIEL KNAUF: I think there's a bit of my father in him, there's a bit of me in him. He's a practical character, and yet he's a romantic, I like the fact that he's the number-two--he's the guy who has to face the music He's got the gift of gab, and he's just a kick in the ass to write for. All the writers seem to like writing for Samson.

HBO: One of the most unusual aspects of Carnivale is its supporting cast of sideshow performers. Do you think people are sort of fascinated by freaks?

DANIEL KNAUF: Well, I'm a big fan of Tod Browning, and his film 'Freaks'. You could go into that film thinking it's an exploitation film--it's real freaks. But ten minutes in, you're looking at them as human beings. And they just become characters. I think that's going to be true in our story too. It won't take you very long to look past how odd certain characters look.

To me, personally, it's easier to relate to a character like that, than it is for me to relate to a character who looks like an underwear model. I think inside we all feel isolated, we all feel a little freakish. Maybe that's why people are drawn to freaks. They say oh, well, hey, I may have a big nose, but look at that guy there, he's attached to his brother. But I think in the end, it's about what we share more than what, what differentiates us.

There's a connection, I think, between the audience and a freak. It creates a drama is to see somebody who's so unusual having the same problems you have, and dealing with the same issues you do, and needing love the way you need it. And, needing to give love the way you need to give it. And I hope people will connect with that.

HBO: With that in mind, do you think there's a theme to this first season?

DANIEL KNAUF: At this point, I think it's about alienation, what it's like to be alienated from the rest of the species. Ben is an utterly isolated character in a lot of ways. Brother Justin is as well. It's about being isolated even from yourself. And I think Brother Justin and Ben, through this first season are beginning to find out who they are.

There's also the theme of family and what is a family and trying to connect with people, and trust them, and just being betrayed by them.

HBO: What do you hope people take away from the pilot?

DANIEL KNAUF: This may sound weird, but I love the show, and I hope that other people love it too. This was a bottom-drawer script. This was that script where you say to yourself, oh, well, this is just too fucking weird. Nobody will ever make this. And here it is. It was my favorite thing that I wrote. I just couldn't be happier to see it up and out there. Sometimes I'm a little freaked out by how unusual it is.

The other amazing thing is just the sheer amount of passion that's been poured into this show, all the way from the executive offices at HBO to the PAs -- it's been more than a job for everybody. I've had people approach me and say, I know I'm going to be talking about this show in twenty years. I know people are going to be asking me about it. Now maybe we're all delusional, but people are just very happy to be working on it, and they feel like it's something special. You know. So, there's no better flattery than that.

Interviews
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

Some say the word tarot is derived from Arabic word turuq, which means "four ways" and relates to the four suits of the deck: cups, swords, pentacles/disks and staffs/scepters.
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