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“Harvesting Artifice”: Lance Oppenheim Heightens Reality in HBO Series ‘Ren Faire’

By Dan Schindel

A profile view of a man wearing a crown and sunglasses.

“King” George Coulam in Ren Faire. Courtesy of Warner Bros. Discovery

Lance Oppenheim has had a productive year. His new feature Spermworld hit Hulu at the end of March, and now his three-part docuseries Ren Faire is airing on HBO, with episodes simultaneously showing up on MAX. The two projects happened nearly simultaneously, but while they both share Oppenheim’s highly stylized mode of documentary filmmaking, they center incredibly distinct casts of characters and situations.

Ren Faire goes behind the scenes of the Texas Renaissance Festival, which for 50 years has been run by founder “King” George Coulam. In Coulam, the series has one of the more vivid documentary figures of recent years, an extremely crude individual who seems to take delight in belittling the people who work with him, when he isn’t pitting them against each other. As Oppenheim and his crew look on, Coulam is considering finally retiring, and the series follows the conflict that ensues between different festival workers attempting to take “the crown.” We sat down for a phone call with Oppenheim to discuss Ren Faire, Spermworld, Coulam and other aging rulers, and his intricate production process. This interview has been edited and condensed for time and clarity. 


DOCUMENTARY: What were the respective production timelines for this and Spermworld, since they overlapped so heavily?

Lance OppenheimSpermworld started at the end of 2020, and we finished in December of last year. Ren Faire began November 2021, and we finished color and sound at the end of April. I don’t think I would’ve been able to make both at the same time if I had done them in a compressed timeline. I had a kind of accordion way of doing these things, and I was working with two separate teams that eventually congealed into one. Daniel Garber, who edited Spermworld, was consulting and watching every cut on Ren Faire, while Max Allman and Nicholas Nazmi, who edited Ren Faire, were watching every cut of Spermworld. David Bolen, my cinematographer on Spermworld, would fill in on Ren Faire when Nate Hurtsellers wasn’t around, and vice-versa. They were two very different projects, but this improvised family emerged because we all were working on them nonstop for almost three years.

Spermworld started shooting first, and there were a few other things I was exploring, but none of them were Ren Faire, which happened very fast. David Gauvey Herbert and his researcher, Abigail Rowe, came to me with this one-sheet about this man in Texas who created the biggest Renaissance festival in the country. It became so big that he created a city around the fair and became its mayor and controlled everything and everyone. Now that he was of advanced age, what would happen when he retired? Everyone around me on Spermworld and elsewhere in my life was like, “How are you going to do these things at the same time?” And I guess the answer was by not having a life and working with an amazing team of incredible collaborators whose blood, sweat, and tears are in this as much as mine.

D: Each of your films takes place within these very specific milieus. Is this something that naturally draws you in, that works for your sensibility?

LO: I usually start with a setting. With Some Kind of Heaven (2020), I grew up in Florida, and so The Villages was always in my mind. That place reminded me a lot of a short film I had made several years prior, The Happiest Guy in the World (2018), which is about a man living permanently on a Caribbean cruise ship. 

Ren Faire was a first for a lot of things for me. It started with a character, rather than a world. It was the first time I actively collaborated with journalists in telling the story. Spermworld originated with an article, but the reporter wasn’t very involved in making it. Every part of Ren Faire is the result of intensive investigative reporting. We were gaining trust with folks and learning the complete chess set, so to speak, where each person existed on George’s board, and how he’d play games with them.

D: In an interview about Some Kind of Heaven, you described your characters as putting on a kind of performance. In this series, you are following people who are professional performers. Did that make a difference in how they interacted with you and behaved on camera?

LO: Absolutely. One thing that interested me about the setting was that every single person’s job is to perform every day. Jeff Baldwin, who’s really the heart of the series, is a compulsive performer. He did a lot of community theater, he was in Shrek: The Musical, he’s a big Shakespeare guy. I noticed that even when the cameras weren’t there, the way he would go about his life was very theatrical. There’s a scene where he talks about how his father died while he was doing a play called Daddy’s Dyin, Who’s Got the Will?, and he took that experience into the show. I think that sentiment is the linchpin of the series and his performance in it. He’s experiencing real pain, real paranoia, real fear for his position, this real deference he’s showing to George, but it’s being mediated through me and my crew, through cinema.

That’s why I’m using all these cinematic tools and bells and whistles. It’s a way for viewers to inhabit the characters’ feelings. When I first started making movies, I was obsessed with Kiarostami and movies like On the Bowery (1956), but I thought docufiction was an annoying label. People used to be a lot more aware that a camera would manipulate reality. So I’m like, why not acknowledge that, and try to push past the looking glass and get to somewhere that feels a lot more truthful by harvesting and hopefully breaking that artifice?

D: The subjects are aware of this and mediating it too, in a way. They openly say things like, “This is just like King Lear.” They’re so immersed in theater and fantasy drama that they internalize it. It seems like they’re driven by a desire, whether conscious or unconscious, to act out the roles they see themselves in. Do you think those performances changed the outcome of the events at all, or would all this have played out as it did regardless?

LO: Without spoiling, in a way, the show is like a Möbius strip, a cycle with King George controlling all these people’s lives for his own enjoyment. Even without us being there, this all would’ve happened. It is continuing to happen even right this second, because many of the people there are still working at the festival, and George is reading the New York Times headlines and enjoying his notoriety. 

The series is not just documenting this struggle; it’s also trying to understand George. What is it about him that needs this control? I think that question is interesting because it’s not just about him. Look at any leader or captain of industry in contemporary America who is of advanced age and doesn’t want to give up power. Look at Biden, Trump, Lorne Michaels, or Bob Iger. I wouldn’t say they act like George—I mean, maybe some of them do—but they all were creators and purveyors of a part of culture, and it’s impossible for them to let go of it.

D: In that way, he is an archetypical Boomer. Did that love of control cause any issues when working with George? Or is he under the impression that his portrayal in the series all went according to plan?

LO: I was concerned and nervous when showing him the first episode. I wasn’t sure how he was going to react. But even in uncomfortable moments, or when he appeared to be controlling people’s lives with an iron fist, he enjoyed it immensely. I don’t know what that says about him. I have ideas, and hopefully the show also can leave people with a lot to think about. But most of George’s behavior in the show, he’s been acting that way for decades. When he watched the show, I noticed he was mouthing the words he was saying onscreen to himself, almost as if he had written them. He had said those things so many times to so many people. I think he was more surprised whenever he said something novel. 

In terms of working with him, this show wouldn’t have been possible without the access he granted us. In that way, I am grateful to him for letting us in. A lot of people around him were saying, “Do not do this. We know how you are. You have a lot of issues with the public. You don’t necessarily make the festival look great by being yourself.” But George is obsessed with danger, and when people tell him to do something, he loves to do the opposite. He was unapologetically himself. 

Working with him was always interesting. You’ll notice there are not a lot of static shots of George. Most of the still moments come from a much later portion of the shoot, when I think he was annoyed with us and finally was like, “Okay, fine, you want a shot of me doing what I normally do? I’ll do it, okay.” But scenes where he’s walking around his house or with other people are shot handheld because he was very impatient. In one case, he canceled an entire shoot because he felt like we were taking too long. He was extremely unpredictable, and I don’t think I’ve ever been more stressed in my life. Same with my crew. Each day, when we were getting ready to go into his house and hearing Enya playing from his speakers, we had no idea what would happen next.

D: George has been accused of sexual harassment. And you allude to one death by a stampede, but there have also been murders on the grounds of the Texas Renaissance Festival. How do you balance what backstory to include and what to omit to focus on the present circumstances of the story?

LO: Those deaths happened on the campgrounds or in the parking lot. The festival has an obligation to control those spaces, but it is a completely lawless place. There are a lot of people drinking a lot of stuff, and a lot of bad things happen as a result. The reason moments like this aren’t in the series is because I felt it would be a lot more immediate—in some cases more disturbing—to just witness how George is and how he moves through the world. It’s very similar to how Noah Cross owns everything in Chinatown (1974). What’s interesting to film is what’s present tense. I think George has acted without impunity for a very long time, and the way he acts here is the exact way he would’ve otherwise.

D: How much do you shoot, and in what way, to cut it down to the style you use that eschews a lot of documentary convention around interview in favor of this mediated realism, even sometimes using shot-reverse shot setups for conversations?

LO: Max Allman and Nicholas Nazmi deserve much more credit than I am getting for any part of this. They are brilliant editors and storytellers, and they were credited as writers because I firmly believe every documentary editor is a writer. They’re taking the raw material of life and shaping something out of it. We shot for 100 days for the three hours of the show. 

I’m always shooting with intention. Any given moment or scene ran very long in reality. I’m filming constantly. Usually, I start with a confessional interview, and you’ll hear voiceover from it throughout the series but never see images from it. And that’s a way to have people’s internal voiceovers play out, but it’s really to help orient my crew and I as to where these people are emotionally. We constantly keep in mind what we expect to film over the next few days.”’Okay, there’s a meeting coming up that seems important. Can we film that?” Then, when we get to those moments, we will have thought about it with intention going into it. 

There are also moments when the camera is much more mobile than anything in Some Kind of Heaven or Spermworld. It’s much more ragtag, physical, trying to figure out the unpredictability of people like George or Louie. Whereas when you’re with Jeff and Brandi, or Darla, there’s almost this Inside the Actors Studio feeling, where you’re watching actors inside the documentary work out some form of emotional expression.

D: What other interventions or questions from you are there that get elided for the final version?

LO: A lot. Every moment when two people have a conversation, I let it play out before engaging. I usually film in a master or wide shot, and then the camera will go in. Once the conversation has died down, I will riff off questions someone asked or a topic I thought was interesting. I’m essentially interviewing both parties. ’You said this, that was interesting to me. Can you go back to that?’ Or ’There was something you said when the camera wasn’t on you.’ I’ll ask a question that maybe rhymes with something I heard earlier that I thought would be interesting to include.

There’s a lot of collaboration to get these scenes to play out on the screen. Everyone needs to be on the same page about the artistic and journalistic aims of the project to be as vulnerable as they are. When I knew that Jeff was going to send an important email to George, I wanted to figure out a way to get expressive and emotionally communicate the moment, to not just have a shot of him typing something and then cut to a shot of the computer. I told him, “I want to see the performer in you express it. Really think about the words you’re sending.” Moments like that require a lot of trust and time. 

Dan Schindel is a freelance critic and full-time copy editor living in Brooklyn. He has previously worked as the associate editor for documentary at Hyperallergic.