State of the Art

Mark Baranowski, master of the microbudget, looks back in a new book

Mark Baranowski and Ryli Morgan were 29 and near the start of their intense filmmaking streak in 2003. They are seen here shortly after finishing “Expendable.” (JOHN D. SIMMONS/STAFF)
Mark Baranowski and Ryli Morgan were 29 and near the start of their intense filmmaking streak in 2003. They are seen here shortly after finishing “Expendable.” (JOHN D. SIMMONS/STAFF)

We can debate all day which local filmmakers of the 21st century are the most skilled or visionary. But I’ll bet a dollar to a dog biscuit nobody has been more dedicated than Mark Baranowski.

Between 2001 and 2011, he made eight feature films, two shorts and a short accompanied by a series of music videos. (He composes for his movies, too.) They comprise a body of work that’s daring, often fatalistically dark and self-revelatory, not least in the autobiographical “Hardly Beloved.” His wife, who goes by the screen name Ryli Morgan, starred in many.

Now he and Scott Kenyon Barker have written “From Despair to Beloved: The Provocative Cinema of On Mark Productions.” The book shows us the obvious pitfalls, surprising joys and unexpected complexities of movies made on a microbudget. Potential filmmakers who read it will be inspired to dash toward the nearest camera – or run at top speed in the opposite direction.

I say that because his budgets for 85-minute features were roughly equal to one month’s rent for a luxury apartment in Charlotte.

He cajoled friends, reached out to strangers, begged or borrowed locations – often, though apparently not always, with the owner’s permission – and wrote, directed, produced, edited and composed with occasional help. He also usually starred, and the photo on the title page aptly shows a stunned Baranowski in “Heaven Help Me, I’m in Love,” as Rachelle Williams drapes herself over him in a spectacular state of undress.

I met Baranowski and Morgan in 2003. They had just made “Expendable,” a film about malevolent vampire lesbians. Williams had driven down from Canton, Ohio, for the first of four pictures with this team. Brinke Stevens, a famed 1980s scream queen (“Slave Girls From Beyond Infinity”), agreed to appear; she shot footage in California, using her regular cameraman, and shipped it east to be inserted into the film.

They had a fearlessness and energy that made me smile with respect. Mark had to decide about then whether he would attempt to write more commercially marketable scripts and work with collaborators who would exercise more control over his ideas.

As he says in the new book, “The beauty of being truly independent is that there are no rules to follow....The alternative just might have allowed me to finally turn my hobby into my job, but after having complete creative control for so long, I saw no alternative at all.”

He has settled down since. He defines himself on Instagram as “Indie film & music maker/Author/Artist/ Locksmith/Proud father/Other half of @rylimorgan.” (Locksmith is his day job.)

You can still find his work at his website, createtolive.com, and that name tells you the main thing you need to know about him: If he’s not creating, he’s not living. To find out how he did that for so long with such slender means, read the book.

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