Barnick, Adam (Mainstream, What Is Scary?)
A few years ago while covering Paul Solet’s Grace during what almost seems like a lifetime ago now, this writer was introduced to Adam Barnick, the mastermind behind the extensive behind-the-scenes featurettes for Anchor Bay’s home release of the title.
From the start, Barnick struck me as a filmmaker who wasn’t just about rocking out brilliant behind-the-scenes featurettes (even though he certainly raised the bar for anyone looking to make a name for themselves doing bonus material work within the horror community) but more of a storyteller looking to give fans a different perspective on the genre he holds dearest to him.
Case in point: Barnick’s 2007 short film Mainstream, which was part of Fangoria’s Blood Drive II collection of short films of that year, was a dark and surreal examination of the human condition that gave me a whole new reason to fear needles while showcasing Barnick’s firm grasp on what I like to call “Thinking Man’s Horror.”
Now that Barnick has won over genre fans with his short film as well as his impressive work on both Grace and Frozen’s behind-the-scene featurettes, he’s focused on his own future projects within the genre and otherwise. After recently announcing his unique horror documentary What is Scary?, which explores the idea of what we as human beings truly find terrifying, Dread Central caught up with Barnick to talk about his new documentary project, his experiences while revisiting the dark world of Mainstream as he adapts the short film into a feature-length project, as well as an upcoming music video he’s currently gearing up to direct for singer/songwriter Rivulets (also known as Nathan Amundson).
Heather Wixson: There are a lot of different styles of documentary filmmaking, but it seems like your approach for What is Scary? is definitely a unique way to tell a story rather than go the “talking heads documentary” approach. What was it about this idea that really got you excited as a filmmaker?
Adam Barnick: "It was one of the few ideas that was really giving me the type of excitement that didn’t fade after a period of time, even when I had to put the project on hold to complete other work. And I liked its simplicity, and hadn’t really seen many projects like it before. Even though it wasn’t traditional narrative, it has kept me excited.
I also decided to take this on next because it was an effort I could do largely on my own. Raising money for potential projects (short projects financed by others, features) and just properly developing work can take so long to come together, and I needed to keep in the game and have something I could personally push forward whenever I could squeeze the time in.
All I had to do to begin was set up a voicemail, you know? What can you do when your resources and budgets are limited or slow in the making? It was a way to embrace limitations, do something personal and hopefully entertain others in the process."
HW: With What is Scary, what are some of your more interesting responses? Have they skewed one way (set in realism) as opposed to another (more on the fantastical side - like "Gators coming up through the toilet really scares me" or things similar to that)?
AB: "I don’t want to detail too many specific answers, other than what you can hear in the teaser; at least until I know exactly who remains in the final cut. But I can say they have definitely skewed towards ‘realism’. But not just plainly stating real-world fears like people just saying “Heights! Bugs!” What really makes the answers I’ve gotten unique is the personal perspective of the intelligent people who’ve called in. You can rightly say we’re all afraid of the same things, if you’re going to get down to a base level. But the subdivisions of ‘scary’ can be unique and fascinating. I think I’ve gotten a few on the fantastical side, but there’s usually been an intriguing analysis of it.
But don’t think that What is Scary? will be some sort of dry classroom discussion with images in it. It’s meant to entertain first and foremost, but I think will provoke some thought. The question gets people talking, you know? In a way the doc is a dialogue between myself and the callers; and hopefully audiences, in the future. To me, as entertaining as horror is, underneath it all there’s an effort to understand and confront dark and disturbing things; be able to take them, and ask ‘why?’
That’s why, to me, horror fans tend to be the smartest, most well-adjusted folks I meet. They’re not afraid to acknowledge the darker side of life exists; we test ourselves in the safe environment of movies. But most people I meet who are completely dismissive of horror or ‘scary things’ are living very small, fearful lives."
HW: What is Scary? definitely feels like the kind of surrealism I know that you enjoy both as a horror fan and as someone working in the industry. Can you discuss where the influence stems from? Is there something through that form of expression that you can identify with?
AB: "It’s hard to articulate just why I gravitate towards it- I equally love stories in and out of horror where what you see is what you get, or that are ‘real world’ tales.. I think elements of surrealism are key to many kinds of horror stories. You’re already talking about abstractions of reality in nearly all the horror scenarios…suddenly, the dead are coming back. Evil appears and disrupts day to day life. We thought the villain was defeated and suddenly he’s alive. A character’s thoughts stop adding up and he cracks as he loses his grip on reality.
Too many classic horrors employ elements of this - Jean Cocteau is a favorite...films like The Tenant, Don’t Look Now, Eraserhead, Mulholland Drive, Carnival of Souls… You can go back to fairy tales, where abstract logic simply is part of the story’s fabric. Plant a beanstalk, it grows hundreds of feet and a giant’s castle is found at its top.
Without trying to get pretentious, I think we can see surrealism is the language of dreams and especially nightmares. Events don’t add up, which takes away our control faster than we can think.
Often I’m intrigued and terrified if a situation becomes abstract and/or the information that would make us less anxious is withheld from us. I want to do some of the work, you know? Often I don’t want it all spelled out.
I still want a story with my abstractions though. Something like David Lynch’s work, to me he’s always telling a solid story...he’s just going through this perceptual backdoor and finding a new way to tell it. You can’t trust the situation or find any balance. You’ve got to think your way through it, you know? I want to be left thinking as much as I want to be entertained."
HW: For What is Scary? I know you are using a lot of photographs and abstract imagery - can you explain how you’re putting it together and what types of images you’re using? Is there a collaborative partner on that end of the creative process?
AB: "I’m working on images we’d need for the doc with Paula Burr (Killer Eye Photography, Dread), and then there will probably still be a few months of working on the sound design/soundtrack running under the voices of the callers. I’m still determining how I’m approaching it visually in some areas and solidifying the directions to take.
This teaser is a bit of a test, the visual scheme is still being worked out. It could look much, much different as post-production goes on, though I think simple is best.
Primarily it will be still images and moving Ken Burns-style stills though we’re considering animation and other techniques…but I know keeping it simple and direct will be the best thing to do. Some images are literal in what you’re hearing in the voiceover, some will be ironic, some humorous. I’m only beginning that process but I want to keep it ‘organic’ and let it take me where it needs to go."
HW: I know you mentioned you'd like to have What is Scary? done sometime this year. What stage are you at now in terms of production, and have you decided how you'd like to release the doc (online, DVD, etc...)?
AB: "I would love to complete it this year; it just depends on the workload ahead of me. It can be difficult trying to balance other projects I’m doing, as well as freelance work coming up like other DVD extras. I’ve really just begun the post production process on the documentary, but it’s definitely coming together better than I imagined. I’m technically not collecting other responses, though as I look through what and who I have there may be the need for other responses to flesh things out. I might also invite a few more people from my original ‘wish list’ now that I have a teaser that explains the concept, and I may see if there’s interest from others within the genre community I may not have initially thought of.
I want to keep the do-it-yourself aesthetic to a degree, this project came out of “How do I be creative when I can afford absolutely nothing, and do nearly all of it on my own?” This DIY/offbeat approach may apply to how I approach its release as well; I’m sketching out plans for that. There’s already been interest from some places based off the teaser…the idea got a far more enthusiastic response from people than I could have anticipated. But for now, all that really matters is the work, and delivering something unique that will keep people, and myself, entertained, excited and thinking for 90 minutes."
HW: Let’s talk about another project you’re working on, developing Mainstream into a feature film project. Was this always a story you saw being bigger than a short film?
AB: "The short didn’t start as a pitch film, it was a stand-alone idea then; it’s really more of an abstract creepy art-piece than a narrative. It was a vision I had that I had to get on film or I’d go crazy, even if we had to do it at 1/5 the budget I’d envisioned it with. But in talking it up with people at conventions, in interviews, online etc. there were always discussions of whether there was more to be mined from that idea or its themes. And the ideas the short explored are the things that obsess me...Individuals vs. a ‘negative group’, conformity, control, the clash between people who are creative and ‘different’ vs. the herd. That shows up in other work I’ve done and am developing that’s even outside of horror.
I think at the time we originally spoke I just had the vague desire to expand it somehow, but not sure what ‘the bigger story’ would be. In 2009, I had a fragment of an idea come to me of how I could approach it; and instead of ignoring or doubting it, I jumped on it and kept digging and doing the work and more and more elements of the story began to form."
HW: Has the process surprised you as a storyteller? Has the story came out differently than you may have first envisioned it?
AB: "The process still IS surprising me as I’m still writing it! Still solving and strengthening many story beats.
Still have a ways to go. When I started, I knew where it began and ended and just a few of the personality traits of the lead character. That was it. But I liken it to digging up a buried sculpture. It feels like something was hidden but fully formed and I’m slowly unearthing it. Many things change but the very broad strokes have stayed the same.
The biggest surprise for me in developing it was finally understanding and getting a handle on my own creativity. I used to spend too much time ‘waiting for inspiration’, and not pushing through rough or nonexistent creative patches. But now I know I can push through that even if some days are totally dry and some days are loaded with ideas."
HW: Do you feel like the time you've given yourself to get from Point A (the short) to Point B (the feature) has worked to your favor to tell a richer story for fans?
AB: "It has; I’ve grown a lot creatively and a person the past few years, and learned more about storytelling in those years than I did in the rest of my life. It’s still always a struggle but I’m in it for the marathon now.
As I develop Mainstream (and several other scripts, in and out of horror) I’m also working out preparation/a way to raise financing for Outside the Box, which would be another pitch film for the feature that is a standalone story but depicts a key scene from the feature script; think how Paul Solet’s Grace short differed from, but showed he could do, the feature; but was also quite ‘big’ for a short. That’s the approach I’m going for.
Outside the Box and Mainstream are offbeat stories, but much more accessible ones than the original short. More dramatic and character-based, though if you ran with the weirdness of the short you’ll be happy with these films too. I am continuing to “dig” and reminding myself to enjoy the journey of it rather than just be frustrated at the process."
HW: We've also spoken about the music video you're doing. Can you talk a little bit about your approach as a storyteller in the music video format? What's the official status on the video? I know you said you were going to be doing some stuff soon (and I want to plug that for you, too).
AB: "I’d done concert videos and live multi-camera music videos before, but these coming up are my first ‘traditional’ ones. I’ve always wanted to work in that arena even if the demand for them (television channels, etc.) has diminished; what I like about music videos is probably what I like about the short film format: economy of storytelling and that the form encourages experimentation. You’re always in the service of the song/artist, but there feels like there’s a lot of room to vary your visual approach.
This first one we’re doing (for Rivulets) is being shot on the Red One; there’s another one I’m hoping to do soon I want to shoot on Super-8. A different video I’m drawing up plans for would involve animating people like stop-motion; it’s been done but that’s what I mean about the visual palate can be limitless even on a tiny budget. This first video isn’t horror, but it’s black and white, definitely dark and atmospheric; another one I’m hoping to do soon after that for a different band is light, jazzy and whimsical.
We were hoping to shoot just before Christmas, but we pushed to February to make sure everyone needed was available. I paired up with Codebreaker Productions and their DP Dominick Sivilli out of New York to get these under way. I can’t articulate how exciting it is to be developing these new stories and back on my own sets again...it’s like coming back to life."
To find out more on What is Scary?, you can check out the official What is Scary? website, and to keep up with the ever-busy Barnick, check out the official Adam Barnick website or follow him on Twitter.
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