‘Ren Faire’ Premiere Plunges Viewers Into Medieval Mind Games at SXSW

Film and TV conferences are a lot like Renaissance fairs. Attendees come to escape and to immerse themselves in their favorite worlds and stories, and the programming and politics are puppeted behind the scenes by mysterious “organizers” who build that experience and pull all the strings.

Okay, it might be a stretch — but if the behind-the-scenes revelations in Lance Oppenheim’s “Ren Faire” are any indication, there’s way more going on beneath the surface of any festival than visitors can even imagine. The HBO docuseries premiered its first episode at South by Southwest on March 9, teasing audiences with a grand and dramatic arc they’ll have to wait to complete.

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As the title suggests, “Ren Faire” is a three-part docuseries about the country’s largest Renaissance Faire, based in Texas, and its unbelievable kingpin George Coulam. As the 85-year-old Coulam — a man who in the first episode says “You can have an erection til you die, and that’s my goal” — prepares to step down as leader, his inner circle descends into borderline Shakespearian emotions and movements to take over the throne.

“This show is really about power, and being close to power and proximity to power — and what that does to you,” Oppenheim said before the screening. For the next 57 minutes (Episode 1), the audience at Austin’s ZACH Theater was nothing short of transfixed by Coulam’s world, meeting its key players and jumping into the deep end of Ren Faire politics, a shocking world even for those familiar with renaissance fairs.

It was co-executive producer Abigail Rowe and producer David Gauvey Herbert who first brought the story to Oppenheim, a stranger than fiction notion that the nation’s largest Renaissance fair was “going through a sea change.” As he got to know Coulam and other figures including former actor Jeff Baldwin, the narrative framework for “Ren Faire” fell into place, and all paths led to Coulam, “the man behind the curtain.”

“The thing about Renaissance fairs in general, as a culture unto itself, is there’s this desire to escape, leave your life behind for a few hours and just imbibe and be in a different world,” Oppenheim said. “I knew there was going to be something thematically or stylistically we should be inhabiting with that.”

Oppenheim described the feeling for both filmmakers and figures in Coulam’s life of “walking on eggshells” around him, of “living in a world that’s basically constructed by one person…he’s kind of a profoundly lonely person, and it’s by choice. It’s by design that he’s lived this life.”

But per Coulam’s own admission that he’d like to die during intercourse (I will never recover from that soundbite), his priorities have shifted, and his plans to step down from Ren Faire are directly because he wishes to find a companion for his remaining days (he knows when he’s going to die, by the way).

After the screening, the audience was buzzing both in and outside of the theater — where they could take photographs with costumed knights — as people wondered aloud about what would happen next and who would inherit Coulam’s empire. It’s a badge of honor when a docuseries hooks viewers so strongly that they don’t immediately Google everything that happened and what everyone involved is now doing.

“What is a king without his kingdom?” Coulam postulates at the top of the premiere episode. The answer: “He’s free.”

“Ren Faire” will tentatively premiere on HBO in summer 2024.

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