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‘Ren Faire’ Director on What Happened to George After The Finale

‘Ren Faire’ Director on What Happened to George After The Finale

[The following story includes spoilers from HBO‘s Ren Faire.]

HBO’s Ren Faire was three episodes of — as one critic helpfully dubbed it — “Succession with turkey legs.” Or perhaps the documentary was better depicted — as director Lance Oppenheim has himself described it — as Vanderpump Rules meets There Will Be Blood. Either way, Oppenheim’s chronicle of a behind-the-scenes power struggle at the Texas Renaissance Festival was compulsively watchable and clearly demonstrated Oppenheim’s three-year immersion into his subject matter (along with his co-creator, journalist David Gauvey Herbert, and their producing team).

Still, some questions remain: Was “King” George Coulam ever going to retire? Is he still going on “Sugar Daddy” dates? How are Jeff and Bradi Baldwin doing now? Will there be more episodes? And how do you subsist for three years on a diet of kettle corn and empanadas? Below Oppenheim (whose previous films include Spermworld and Some Kind of Heaven) opens up about all of this and reveals how life is actually a lot like eating a turkey leg.

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From the beginning, I thought, “No way George retires.” The Ren Faire has been his whole world, for decades. He’d probably never achieve his goal to live to 95 if he retired. There are studies about how men, in particular, become more likely to die after retiring, particularly when/if they don’t have anything else that’s as meaningful in their lives. But what were your thoughts on that? Should he, or shouldn’t he, have taken the buyout?

The more I worked on this, the more I saw different Georges all over our culture. It was like the movie They Live. I had the sunglasses on and started seeing Georges. I think this story is about a man of advanced age who has created something very specific to him that has become very successful, and he doesn’t know if it can run well without him. And if you look around society, this exact archetype is all over. It’s everywhere politically — with both presidential candidates. [Ren Faire] has a lot to say about where we are as a culture right now with so much of the government and institutions being run by people of advanced age who are clinging to their positions because it gives their life meaning and purpose, and what that does to the people that work underneath them that could steward the next generation, but maybe they don’t have the same amount of magic the first person has.

Yes, George reminded me, at different times, of both Biden and Trump.

Totally. And it’s a very relatable question that he asks: “What is a king without his kingdom?” At the beginning, he says he’s “free.” And by the end, after he really considers it and makes a lot of erratic decisions, he says he’d be “nothing.” I think both things are true. I don’t relate to the way he treats people, but I relate to identifying with your work. Are you bigger than the thing you put all of your effort and time into? Can you be bigger than life? Can you find happiness outside of your work? In that sense, the story ends up not just being about that archetype but also office life and our relationship with work in general. You also see it with people like Jeff who says, “Why can’t I just leave it when I go home? Why is this so important to me?”

I only became aware that George moves in these cyclical ways halfway through filming. And it was only towards the very end that I realized that everything we had captured was basically a Mobius strip or one big cycle. Ultimately, that cycle will continue long after we’re done. It’s been going on for decades. Hopefully [viewers] will realize everything that happened was inevitable,id and it will keep happening forever until George is no longer alive.

One thing I found disturbing was that George always looked glum and only smiled when he was being cruel to somebody — and that was one creepy smile. But I mean, is that accurate to say about him?

I think George derives pleasure from [other people’s] pain. You see it written all over his face as he does it. I think he likes when people fail so he can punish them. People said during filming George was a lot more tame around us than when we weren’t there, that he was even more hard on his employees.

So this was the nice version.

Yeah. What’s interesting is the first two episodes with George when his attention is not on the festival, and he’s focusing on his companion art garden quest, he seems more at peace with letting others run the festival for him. It’s in the last episode, when he starts to put his attention towards the festival is when that controlling side of him comes out. Gail, his ex-wife, says there’s two sides to George: There’s a playful, almost child-like side that’s curious, artistic, funny and brilliant. Then there’s a side of him that is so addicted to controlling everything. To him, vulnerability is weakness. I also think he just loves the game. He’s a trickster in the mythological term. He really loves playing games with people for his own enjoyment.

Did his Olive Garden date end up getting anything from him? Or did she literally pay for her own flight from California and only get salad and breadsticks?

George actually did pay her afterward and for the lunch, as well. That was an interesting scene because it’s another example of George getting close to somebody despite how crude he’s acting. He opened up to her in ways that he doesn’t open up to his employees. He’s telling her about the status of the deal and she asks, “Won’t you miss being king?” And he says, “No, I hope not.” And that’s the only time in the entire series where he actually admits that maybe he’s having second thoughts about giving up the power. But again, I think that the reason that scene was so surprising to me, we were just so curious how he would act with someone that he was romantically interested in. It seemed like there was a connection, and then he pulled away. I think he does that with any choice in his life, whether it be romance or with business.

Has there been any update on George’s love life quest since you filmed?

If you want to go [to that Olive Garden] at 12 o’clock on a Tuesday afternoon, he will be there. He goes on a few dates every week. If Victor — “The King’s Scroller,” who works for him — doesn’t find someone for him to go on a date with, he will incur the wrath of George. You see in the third episode, when a date goes awry, it’s like George’s world explodes. He has to take his disappointment out on someone else and for him that’s automatic. But for everyone else, these are their lives.

The person I felt the most for in the show was Jeff’s wife, Brandi, who seemed like she married the fun Ren Faire guy and ended up with an obsessive stress monster. Did she find another job someplace else? Did Jeff find her a new Ren Faire job?

Brandi has a new job outside of the festival but still gets involved with the performing side of the theater company at the festival. She’s always been very clear-eyed about the whole experience of being there. To me, Jeff and Brandi have a very beautiful relationship of trusting each other and supporting each other, even in the depths of despair. They’re always there for each other, and I love that about them. And I like the lifestyle they lead. They don’t have children, which allows them to, as Jeff says, to be children forever. When I went to Texas most recently, I stayed in Jeff and Brandi’s Peter Pan-themed bedroom.

I think, even now, it’s hard for Jeff. He’s back at his older position, which used to be Brandi’s job, essentially taking a massive pay cut. He still loves the festival and his relationship with George. I think he loves parts of George but will never forget what happened to him. He wants to love George and wants George to love him. It’s a complicated psychology because Jeff and Brandi’s life has revolved around the fair for so long. They got married there, and so many of their friends and their experiences revolve around this kingdom that George built.

I don’t know if you’ve been in situations like this before, but I’ve been around people who are powerful, and you want that person to think you’re special and treat you well. I’ve worked jobs where I’ve had that experience and I really wanted to impress them. And that would lead to me doing things where I debased myself in order to get their approval. So I understand what that’s like and watching someone go through that, it’s painful.

Have you heard from any of the people involved since it premiered? What were their reactions?

Everyone in it has seen it now, at least once. Jeff and Brandi have seen it the whole series twice. George has seen the first episode. I think everyone has had their own private relationship with it and what it means to them. And the third one is so emotionally exhausting that I think it’s a lot to process. But they’re very happy. Jeff said something to me that was very telling, which was, “Thank you for making something so wonderful out of something so horrible.”

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The one thing I struggled with was the fictionalized performance bits at the end of episodes one and two. What was the reasoning behind those?

Part of my thought process is we’re making a show that’s in a setting filled with magic everywhere. And certainly, some viewers may not need their hand held in that way, or things to be spelled out in a certain way, but to me it felt very reverential of the setting and the world and the elements. I felt there was a great potential and opportunity to do something in the anachronism of making a documentary set in one of these places and really inhabit the same degree of performance that a lot of these people do when they’re going through their everyday lives.

Also, there’s an expectation, for some reason, these days that documentaries should all look and feel a certain way. And if they look that way, then it implies a certain sense of reality. But I would say in wager that this documentary — even with the magical embellishment — is more truthful than many documentaries that appear to be fly-on-the-wall verité films or even films with talking heads in them. And the reason I say that is because the moment you drop a camera anywhere, reality is inherently manipulated. And the only way I know how to really find truth is to embrace the manipulation and hopefully go through the looking glass and get something on the other side that feels more immediate and emotional.

Have there been any conversations about doing more episodes? This felt like it could be an ongoing reality show, there’s so much there.

Never say never. But we were there for three years. I kept reminding everyone involved that we just had to be patient, but then also succumbing to my own impatience at times and having panic attacks. How long is this going to go on? Is this going to go on for years? But I feel like this version of the story feels complete to me, and the question of the series ends up becoming less about who’s going to be the next king and ends up becoming more about power and what power does to you and what it does to the people who want to have it.

It does feel complete to me, while at the same time, I wanted more — which is a good thing.

Put that in the story and let’s see if HBO takes out their wallets.

Did you get incredibly tired of eating turkey legs and kettle corn?

My body transformed. I went from being a scrawny person to having a 1950s Jewish boxer’s build from all the extremely caloric foods I’ve eaten, whether it be turkey legs or Taco Bell. I ate a lot of empanadas while I was there because Ligia Giles, who’s briefly in the series, makes delicious empanadas.

But turkey legs are interesting. The experience of the turkey leg never triumphs over the potential of what it could be. You see the turkey leg, and you’re hungry. It’s so big, and it looks so good. And you take your first bite, and it’s delicious. You take a second bite, and it gets a little colder, and then the oil starts running down your hands and drips on your clothes, on your shoes. Then you look at it, and there’s probably about 100 more bites left. Then look inside it and you kind of have a panic attack because you’re eating the entire leg of a creature. Maybe that’s like life. Rarely is something ever as good as its potential.

All episodes of Ren Faire are now on Max.

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