Welcome to ‘Ren Faire’: Lance Oppenheim’s HBO Docuseries Follows a Festival Trapped in a Real-Life Game of Thrones

Bran Stark took the Iron Throne. GoJo acquired Waystar Royco. But who will rule the Texas Renaissance Festival? That’s the battle at the center of “Ren Faire,” HBO’s new docuseries set to air in the network’s coveted Sunday-evening slot during the two weeks ahead of “House of the Dragon” Season 2.

“It sounds like that’s what their calculus was, to put it as close to that show as possible,” series director Lance Oppenheim says, laughing.

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“Ren Faire” may have the knights and knaves of “Thrones,” but the power dynamics running through it more closely resemble “Succession.” Produced by Josh and Benny Safdie’s Elara Pictures, the three-episode doc centers on George Coulam, the iconoclastic octogenarian founder of the “nation’s largest Renaissance theme park,” which welcomes about half a million guests annually to carouse among costumed entertainers while munching turkey legs and cheering on jousters.

The festival generates enough revenue in its two-month season to justify a year-round staff. Not only that, but it essentially has its own borders and police force operating within Todd Mission, where Coulam has been mayor for decades. But the Oz-like overlord says he’s ready to cash out on his one-of-a-kind creation, vetting a select few of his flamboyant employees to take over.

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George Coulam in ‘Ren Faire’

“Functionally, he actually is a king. He’s created a real-life fiefdom,” explains Oppenheim, who was surprised by how swiftly he gained access to Coulam when he began filming the fest. “The first thing he said to me was ‘I used to play the king, but now I’m a horny old man. I want to find someone that can take care of the festival.’ These were the things just flowing out of him. He was maybe looking for an outlet — somebody that he has no control over. He doesn’t have any friends that he doesn’t employ.”

Following the day-to-day of Coulam’s theme-park Xanadu, “Ren Faire” unfolds with a highly theatrical presentation, reflecting the transportive fantasy that the fest itself promises visitors. The sumptuous widescreen photography practically resembles narrative filmmaking. Oppenheim also brings other stylized touches, like a bustling soundscape punctuated by hollering and musical instruments, as well as scripted interruptions by a wisecracking dragon.

“I want to take all this stylistic stuff that we can do on our end to bring the festival to life. How do you make a fair feel like a Ridley Scott movie or like ‘Barry Lyndon’?” Oppenheim says about giving the doc a sense of decadence and scope. “I want to be with these employees in their headspace.”

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A joust in ‘Ren Faire’

The zag away from fly-on-the-wall and talking-head aesthetics extends to how “Ren Faire” captures the professional and personal lives of the three scheming parties vying to inherit Coulam’s kingdom. Oppenheim was careful not to be a gawking outsider in his journalistic investigation. (One subject’s fear: “Please, don’t make this ‘Tiger King.’”) Instead, he maintained a dialogue with the subjects, often composing images that they felt best conveyed their emotional space.

It’s a collaborative ethos that the 28-year-old filmmaker established with his doc-feature debut, “Some Kind of Heaven,” about the soul-searching routines of The Villages, the world’s biggest retirement community. He further explored the approach with this year’s “Spermworld,” which centers on three men who find fulfillment in the unregulated ecosystem of online sperm donorship. Although the subjects of “Ren Faire” are not trained screen actors, they are professional performers, each possessing a natural showmanship that Oppenheim was eager to draw from.

“These people see their lives in extremely heightened ways. I’m working with them to show how they’re feeling,” Oppenheim says of Coulam’s warring suitors. “There are definitely psychic costs to living inside this world. And they’re aware of it. And yet they still willfully return to playing the game.”

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A scene in ‘Ren Faire’

Though the rival factions each opened up to him, Oppenheim avoided mediating their cutthroat power plays: “They all knew they didn’t like each other, and they let that flag fly. Very high in the sky.”

The feud reaches one crisis point in the series when a loyal entertainment director goes into a panic after Coulam aligns himself with another business partner — a burst of unnerving close-ups and spinning colors provide an ornate portrait of the employee’s ego death. Oppenheim freely acknowledges the scene was staged, choreographed in partnership with its subject. It’s just one of several lyrical sequences across “Ren Faire” that gives the festival’s denizens a grand canvas to express their kingly ambitions.

“For discerning viewers, I’m trying to make this as legibly cheated as possible,” Oppenheim says. “The fact that these people are excited to put these moments on-screen with me adds another kind of documentary truth. It doesn’t make it any less real.”

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Jeffrey Baldwin in ‘Ren Faire’

That eagerness to explore a choreographed reality is something that Oppenheim hopes to extend into narrative features. He was circling the idea of directing “The Age of Love,” a workplace drama that had Elizabeth Olsen attached to star; ultimately though, Oppenheim ended up leaving the project.

I kept trying to figure out a way where I could be inside a real place with real people and a few actors. The production realities of that can be hard for people to stomach,” Oppenheim says, citing the influence of Jonathan Glazer’s 2013 sci-fi feature “Under the Skin,” which saw Scarlett Johansson play an alien among non-professional actors filmed with hidden cameras. “More traditional fiction movies are interesting to me, of course. But I think that if I’m just inventing things out of thin air, there’s nothing that’s uncomfortable or thorny in it.”

“Ren Faire” premieres on HBO and Max on Sunday, June 2.

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