Director hits his Mark for the last time

Langston Hughes told us the terrible things that happen to a dream deferred, from drying up like a raisin in the sun to exploding.

But what happens to a dream achieved? Does the dreamer feel drained? Overjoyed? Relieved?

You could ask Mark Baranowski, the most prolific Charlotte-based filmmaker of the last decade (and maybe ever). After creating one short film and eight features since the start of the millennium, the 37-year-old has just released "Hardly Beloved," his most deeply felt and personal narrative - and quit the business.

"If I died tomorrow, I'd have said what I wanted to say," he insists. "I tell people, 'You don't know me unless you've seen this film.' "

It's Baranowski's cry from the heart, trip to the confessional and settling of scores, all in one frank 82-minute package. (See On Mark Productions: createtolive.com.)

The film sprang from a bizarre incident Baranowski swears is true. He, wife Teresa, son Eryk (who's about to turn 5) and daughter Sara (who's 1) had moved into their house off Little Rock Road after pouring money and sweat into restoration.

Then his father called with a request: Could they move out of the new home and into a rental property he owned? Sure, they'd have wasted their labor. They'd be an hour's drive from their jobs. But he'd have a tenant who wasn't likely to be late with the rent or kick holes in a wall.

"That got me brainstorming, and the whole backlog came out," says Baranowski. "The years of (emotional) abuse from my stepfather, my father's drinking and abandoning the family - all those things you see in the movie are true. Everything except the reconciliation at the end. I'd like to think that could still happen, but probably not."

A submerged agenda

Filmmakers from Federico Fellini to Woody Allen have built entire careers by wrestling with neuroses. But Baranowski suddenly knew that exorcising his demons had left him with no desire to keep shooting.

He has always been articulate and cheerful company in conversation. Yet barely buried anger seemed to fuel his work, from erotic thrillers to horror movies to crime dramas to bleak meditations on personal failure - he almost always played his flawed, doomed leading characters - to a meditation on social decay, "Ill Times." (Even his romantic comedy, "Heaven Help Me, I'm In Love," has its dark side.)

When that anger ebbed, he remembered he had never intended to produce movies in the first place.

"I just wanted to write screenplays in the late '90s," he says. "I had done one for my hero, Jean-Claude van Damme, but he wasn't hot by then, and it didn't go anywhere. I wrote a sequel to 'The Thing' that got some attention, until Universal sent me a cease-and-desist notice, because they hadn't approved one of those."

Then he got a piece of advice from Bruce Campbell - yes, the "Evil Dead" series star - that he took to heart: "Don't look to anyone else to fulfill your dreams. Become a producer yourself."

Not just a producer, either: a writer, director, composer, location manager, editor and leading man, frequently opposite his wife. (She acted as Ryli Morgan, developed a fan club and still gets invited to national horror conventions.)

Outpouring of the heart

His creative spirit blossomed in many directions: poetry, a short apocalyptic novel, a comic strip, drawings, T-shirts, CDs. (You'll find 13 of those, many of them recorded as Marquis or The Marksman, at his eBay site: stores.ebay.com/Media-Art-Tshirts.)

But something else grew, too: a family. Eryk, a natural actor, joined Mom and Dad in movies. (He has a funny bit in "Hardly Beloved.") By the time Sara arrived, and Dad found bits of gray in his short, grizzled haircut, his priorities were changing. He didn't want to self-finance films with a house and family to underwrite.

He still works at Burgess Sales and Supply on West Morehead Street, handling corporate and commercial accounts for locks, and he devotes spare time to drawings and T-shirt designs. (You'd hardly expect a guy with a website called Create To Live to let his artistic spark go out completely.)

"You can work on your own, and that's the ideal environment for me," he says of the visual arts. "Which makes it odd that I directed so many movies, because that's such a collaboration."

He sent his dad and stepdad copies of "Hardly Beloved," faintly hoping it would trigger discussions or even the peaceful reconciliation its ending depicts.

He hasn't heard anything yet; he doubts they'll watch, or tell him if they do. Whatever happens, Mark Baranowski has now said his piece and made his peace. And, it seems, his final film.