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A new docuseries 'Ren Fair' follows the creator of a Texas Renaissance fair

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

An aging king who's won the respect and commanded the fear of his court for decades is nearing the end of his reign. A power struggle of succession is emerging. No, I'm not talking about the latest spinoff to "Game Of Thrones."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "REN FAIRE")

GEORGE COULAM: What is a king without his kingdom? What is a king without his property? He's free.

RASCOE: That's King George Coulam. He runs the largest Renaissance fair in the country about 55 miles outside of Houston. Lance Oppenheim followed him and his sometimes less-than-merry band of employees in the new three-part docuseries "Ren Faire," streaming on Max. How fare thee, Lance?

LANCE OPPENHEIM: Fare thee well. Thank you. Yeah. Thanks. Thank you for having me on this. This is a - it's an honor. I'm still nailing down my renaissance speak.

RASCOE: So am I. So am I. Let's start with this guy, George, who calls himself King. Who is he?

OPPENHEIM: George is, I guess, for the lack of the better words, this is that someone describes him in the series, a self-made king. I don't know how many there are out there in America, probably very few, but this is a man who created the largest Renaissance fair in the country. It got so large that he decided to incorporate a city around the fair, and in that city, he became the mayor of everyone around him. Everyone votes for him every single year. And so in a way, he created a real-life fiefdom, of which he has been the sole ruler of for the last five decades.

And now that he's about 87 years old, he's trying to figure out what to do with the rest of his life. Can he live without it? And in that sense, I think this whole story becomes in some ways, less about just a Renaissance fair and who's going to be the next person in charge, but it actually ends up becoming a very relatable and familiar, I think, American story about a leader of advanced age, running an institution they helped shape, having trouble letting go.

RASCOE: How did you come in contact with him and decide to make this documentary?

OPPENHEIM: Well, I can't take the full credit for discovering him. There are two amazing journalists that came to me with the discovery of George. One of them - his name is David Gauvey Herbert. He's an amazing longform nonfiction writer - and history researcher Abigail Rowe. They were the two people that discovered the universe that George created. And when they came to me, we all thought we were going to tell a somewhat farcical story, a comedy of sorts, a succession crisis happening, you know, at a sort of absurd place, at a Renaissance fair. But as we spent over, you know, almost three years and shot 100 days there, what became a comedy turned into a tragedy, and I think that's what you'll end up seeing by the end.

RASCOE: Well, we find out a lot about George and other key players pretty early on. And one thing that's clear about George is just how much people seem to respect him.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "REN FAIRE" )

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) I pray two things in my life - God and King George. I am here because of one man who had a vision to do this. To me, he will live forever.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) I was at the right place at the right time and met King George. And he allowed me to put sausage on a stick.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) He's the ruler.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (As character) I've never seen him treat anyone unfairly. He fired me with plenty of cause.

RASCOE: Where do you think that respect comes from? And do you think it's a fearful respect or a loving respect?

OPPENHEIM: (Laughter) I think it's certainly the former. I think George has created a culture of fear around him. You know, for years, for decades, I think he was a much more benevolent ruler, but as he's aged, I think he's become a lot more petulant and mercurial. And because George created the largest Renaissance festival in the country, the most financially successful festival in the country, a lot of people - their livelihoods and their lives have been devoted to the culture of this place that he created. And if you get on his bad side, if you insult him, if you're not wearing the proper garment, if you're not wearing a hat on the fair ground and he catches you, if your booth is not selling products he likes, he will bulldoze your booth and he will kick you out as quick as you can sneeze.

RASCOE: We don't want to give anything away, but there seems to be a clear successor by the end of the series. And what the audience sees is very cinematic. How were some of these scenes filmed? Like, were there re-enactments? Like, they do seem, like, very stylized.

OPPENHEIM: Well, we're calling the series a docufantasia, and the reason we're doing so is because to me, every single thing in this is a collaboration with every person in the series itself. When you're making a documentary that features re-enactors in a re-enactment theme park, I think - you know, it was important to me as a storyteller to carry over the magic and the sort of theatrical reality that everyone hues to there in the storytelling itself. That isn't to say, though, that the events that you're seeing are constructed. I mean, I'm working again, with two great journalists. Every single moment of this is heavily reported. And even if it sounds absurd, there is an absolute, extremely intensive investigative reporting process to every single moment you see in the film, the corporate drama that unfolds. When you look back to even the history and the beginnings of documentary filmmaking, there is a very, very alive and rich tradition of filmmakers working in collaborative ways with their subjects to not only just document their lives, but also to figure out ways to creatively express elements of their life.

RASCOE: Well, what do you think this series can teach people about power?

OPPENHEIM: To me, I mean, the series is really - it's - in a way, it's almost like a portrait of where we are as a country. You know, almost a portrait of an American empire in decline. I try to be positive most days, but I feel like it's not just politically. I see corporate America and show business. I think there's a lot of different institutions that are governed by people of advanced ages that were the magic men, the people that created and imbued so much magic, so much so that they reshaped an entire way of thinking and working. But what happens when you get to a place in your life where you can't let go? If you zoom out a little bit, to me, it almost feels like a miniature of a lot of things that we're experiencing right now culturally.

RASCOE: That's Lance Oppenheim. He's the director of the docuseries "Ren Faire" on Max. Thank you so much for joining us.

OPPENHEIM: Thank you for having me. It's an honor. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.