Monday, December 03, 2001

The Making of Despair

Submitted by Mark Baranowski

Like countless other screenwriters awaiting their first script sale, I was getting nowhere. I'd completed five already and even helped a few minor producers fine-tune their own creations without pay. Bills were piling up and my patience was wearing thin.

Having been both an independent musician and sketch artist since 1990, the itch to test the waters of a new creative outlet, screenwriting, finally came in late 1999. I managed to complete my first script within a month's time, then immediately began pitching it to everyone; production companies, agents/managers, actors, and even composers - anyone with the slightest connection to the film industry.

Ultimately, it was all for nothing. Receiving either rejection letters or no reply at all, I stopped pitching and began my second script. Actually, I did get one somewhat positive reply, from actor Bruce Campbell. It read something like, "Never look to others to fulfill your own dreams. Become a producer and shoot the film yourself." Though I was excited to hear from one of my idols, I shunned the advice since I had no desire to get involved with the actual production of a film.

Acquiring a Hollywood manager on the basis of my second script, I kept writing, fully motivated and encouraged that I was actually getting somewhere within the business. Getting "the business" was more like it however, as a year and-a-half had passed with no progress from this "manager" whatsoever, along with empty promises from one shady "producer" after another. I'd even self-published two short books within that time, to keep my writing skills honed and my name more widely recognized (to be honest, I was desperate for some additional income). By the end of September 2001, I decided it was time to take Bruce's advice.

My wife, Ryli Morgan, had begun modeling nearly seven months earlier, with similar results. Sure, she'd gotten some terrific photos, a lot of fan mail, and a greater financial return than I'd seen from any of my own projects completed within the past three years. Unfortunately, the requests for porn and those same empty promises from people claiming to be something they weren't outweighed the positives, and she was due for some renewed inspiration.

Thoroughly disgusted with current Hollywood releases, the lack of any recent worthwhile horror films, and the misinformed notion that the production of even an independent film requires thousands of dollars, I sat down and wrote what would be my directorial debut - Despair determined to set things right.

The story was based on my own frustrations as a struggling artist (taken to extremes, of course), and with consideration of my available resources - two people (myself included) and a miniature bunny, one location and a VHS-C camcorder. Because I expected a somewhat grainy-looking film on account of the format, I wanted a befitting storyline that this would complement, thus giving it a more realistic look and feel.

I hadn't originally planned on making a short, but halfway into writing the script, I found it was nearly impossible to keep things interesting for ninety minutes, using only the aforementioned resources. No matter what length it turned out to be, however, I wanted to be certain the film would remain within the "middle ground" of the horror genre - between the watered-down, pathetic Hollywood fare and the over-the-top, gore and sex-laden indies from other first-timers.
The script was completed in three days, written while working as a locksmith, my "day job" of seven years. Filming took approximately ten hours, split equally between two consecutive evenings. I'm sure Ryli would have preferred some relaxation time upon returning home from her own job, and I must commend her on being a trooper; she helped me realize my often twisted visions in the shortest amount of time (and with as little resistance) as possible. I never could have pulled off Despair without her.

Filming would have taken less time, but I chose to edit the tape with the camera itself while shooting, making sure each scene was perfect before moving onto the next. The only difficulty I had during the entire shoot was getting that damned bunny to cooperate! Usually, if I'm sitting at one end of the couch, he'll run right to me. Once the camera was running, however, he froze, and it took much prodding from Ryli just to get him to enter the frame. He did fantastic in his final scene, though; I couldn't have asked for a "deader" animal.

The next (and most tedious) task was scoring the film. Finding suitably haunting music to accompany it wasn't the problem, it was creating a tape of nearly continuous loops to fade in and out of each scene at precisely the right moment that had me anxious to get the entire project over and done with. Once the music was completed, I transferred the film to standard VHS (from camera to VCR), connecting the audio cables only during scenes containing dialogue. Finally, a second VCR simultaneously recorded the music coming from my four-track recorder and video/dialogue from the first VCR, creating a master.

The final step was to come up with an effective package design and some promotional material, both of which were created using various stills Ryli and I had taken at the start of the production. As a bonus to potential viewers, I produced a CD soundtrack to the film and made both available at my official Website,, on October 7, a mere two weeks following the initial concept of the project.

Now that it's all finished and I've watched the film at least a dozen times, I can say that I'm completely satisfied with how it turned out, and the reviews thus far have been even better than I'd hoped for. EI Independent Cinema plan to distribute the film as extra material on a future DVD release and even plan to cast Ryli in at least one of their upcoming productions.
As for me, I've already been asked to direct a number of local producers' projects. I think it's safe to say I'm truly getting somewhere. It's about time.

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