Written by Dylan Callaghan
When he was growing up in Los Angeles, Daniel Knauf was drawn to both the visual arts and fiction, yet never thought twice about screenwriting. "Screenwriting was for out-of-towners," says the creator-scripter of HBO's uniquely fresh series, Carnivàle. "The old joke was, ‘throw an ashtray and you'll hit a screenwriter.'" Knauf's stance began to slowly erode when classmates in his college fiction courses began telling him he was a natural screenwriter. "Finally, I sold a short story and got paid like, $13.50. It was just enough to buy a pack of Kools and a Syd Field book."
His first major credit came with the 1994 HBO movie, Blind Justice, (originally titled Canaan's Way), staring Armand Assante and Elisabeth Shue. But the momentum did not continue, and by the late nineties, Knauf was ready to again reassess his path. "I had begun the slow, inevitable decent into spec land," he recalls. "I was following the market, which is a huge mistake and it's joyless." Riding what he jokingly describes as "the crest of a slump," Knauf decided to fire his agent and, "make a final massive assault on this fortress."
As part of the assault, he posted the first acts of all his existing scripts on a website. Stunningly, it paid off. Producer/director Scott Winant (thirtysomething, My So-Called Life) got in touch saying he wanted to read the rest of a script from the early ‘90's called Carnivàle. The series — set in the off-kilter world of a dust-bowl carnival - eventually debuted on HBO in 2003, where it is currently in the midst of its second season.
Knauf spoke about his uniquely visual storytelling technique, HBO, and the morning he was inspired by some real life carnies.
Stripped down to its essence, what is "Carnivàle" about?
It's a historical epic about the eternal struggle of good versus evil.
How did the idea for the show originate?
The first thing I can remember is feeling like it might be a movie. I knew I wanted to do something with carnivals -- I thought that was a universal experience that everyone could relate to, but that really hadn't been treated dramatically too often -- and I knew I wanted to do an epic. At the time, I wasn't really prepared to do it from a craft standpoint, but that's never stopped me before. It took me a long time for my ability to catch up to my aspirations.
The thing I really remember is walking through a park here in Glendale [when] they were having this thing called "Days of Verdugo." There was a carnival in town, it was early in the morning and … all the carnies were sleeping underneath the trucks. It just hit me, Wow, these people don't clock in! This is their life. It just struck me as such an anachronism … the people are traveling around pretty much as they did back in medieval days. It was such a throwback that [I found it] insanely romantic.
Photo by Doug Hyun/HBO
Michael J. Anderson and Nick Stahl in Carnivale.
The lush visuals and bizarre ambience of carnie life seem to almost be characters in the story …
Yeah. Look, these people live outside, so, in many ways, their wardrobe is like our sets. I take a very hands-on approach to the look of the show (Knauf even designed the show's logo). There's very little dialogue, it's very spare. I look at dialogue as sort of the last resort in telling your story. This is something that's sort of anti-TV because generally, TV is all about talking heads. This kind of storytelling is really expensive; shooting a talking scene is really cheap.
So you rely on the voice of the visual, if you will?
We're not afraid to tell the story without dialogue, to just use film. That has it's own grammar.
This show is sort of off the charts in terms of today's programming fare. How hard has it been to get this project through and keep it on the air?
There was only one place we could take this. It was HBO or nobody. They're really the only ones doing this kind of thing. They've just been incredibly supportive, even passionate. From that standpoint, they've made it easy. [But] it's a really demanding show. We make a lot of demands of the viewer. We don't just lay it out there. There's a lot of subtext and tone. We demand that viewers put two and two together. There are some people that just hate that. There's only two ways people seem to talk about the show: they either absolutely, over-the-top adore the show or [they] just loathe it. As far as I'm concerned, mission accomplished (laughs).
It's all about good and evil.
Hey, you know, it's about exciting passion. That's what we're all in this game for. It's never fun to read a bad review, especially if you agree with it a little bit. But at the same time, I'd much rather read that than a tepid review.