After the Carnivàle: BlackBxx

Daniel Knauf would probably forgive you for thinking that he’s the king of the ‘paranormal drama’ genre. After all, he’s the creative genius behind the epic, esoteric period piece Carnivàle, he’s written for Eric Kripke’s Supernatural series, and his latest ground-breaking project is BlackBxx: Haunted, a pioneering crowd-sourced media project designed for the new broadcast medium of choice: the Internet. However, he will quickly point out to you that’s not exactly the case. “I don’t think you could name a genre I haven’t dabbled in at some point,” he clarifies. “I’ve also written on straight-up contemporary cop dramas. Romance. My Own Worst Enemy was a spy show. Blind Justice was a Western; The Phantom a superhero. I have very broad interests.”

But even if Knauf wanted to leave the paranormal genre behind, it may just be that the weirdness could follow him. During the recent shoot for BlackBxx: Haunted, he noted that “weird stuff” happened without the slightest need for special effects; in one instance, the cast praised the convincing nature of a pot flying across the room, only to find that wasn’t one of the designed effects. Though Knauf wasn’t overly surprised that such things happened: “With all the energy crackling in that house, I wouldn’t be surprised if the cast had generated some parakinesis”.

Knauf says that he is open to the idea of genuine paranormal experiences, confessing that he’s personally seen “compelling evidence that there are some phenomena that cannot be explained.  Whether it’s ghosts or aliens or interdimensional anomalies is anybody’s guess.” Nevertheless, he describes himself as a skeptic – just not of the knee-jerk kind. “I’m very leery of people slapping labels on [paranormal experiences] or leaping to conclusions simply because it gives them the comfort of context. To a lot of people, false knowledge is preferable to accepting a mystery – especially an unknowable mystery.”
So what about the central topic of his latest project, hauntings? “Personally, I believe in an afterlife,” he says. “I believe we have incarnate souls that survive physical death. I believe that there is an invisible world that is inhabited by souls. I also believe that the phenomena we know collectively as ‘hauntings’ may have absolutely nothing to do with my beliefs. When I see a T.V. medium telling some guy that his dead Aunt Eunice misses her tabby, Buttons, I think, ‘So wait. Aunt Eunice has gone to the trouble of actually breaching the wall that seperates the living from the dead, and she wants to talk about her fucking cat?’ That doesn’t wash. When I see an object move, after ruling out a physical explanation, I’m willing to accept the cause may be supernatural. But was it moved by a ghost? Not necessarily.”

“Once the possibility of a hoax can be ruled out, there’s certain evidence that can only be accurately classified as a mystery. It demands to be accepted as such. On the other hand, just because a piece of evidence is accepted as supernatural, it would be a mistake to use it as proof validating someone’s religious or spiritual beliefs.”

Inside the BlackBxx

But while his opinions on the paranormal might get a few skeptics hot under the collar, it’s his comments on the current state of television production that might just have media executives’ heads exploding. “Every good writer and showrunner I know is absolutely miserable in the current production environment. Virtually no creative decision — no matter how trivial — can be made without being second, third, fourth and fifth-guessed by terrified rabbits.”

“There are lot of very fashionably dressed posers in impressive studio suites, whose power over popular entertainment is vastly disproportionate to their ability to create it – or even contribute to its creation. All the movies you like, the music you listen to, shows you watch, are good not because of them, but despite them.  They have no respect for the artists, and even less for the audience.  And they are all – each and every one of them – whistling past the graveyard.  They used to own the hardware; I can buy an HD camera at my corner Walgreens.  They used to control the purse; I can raise money directly from my audience through crowd-funding.  They used to control distribution; I can globally distribute my art through the internet.”

Knauf isn’t just talking the talk; he’s walking the walk, and he’s not content with the same old path that others have followed. Instead, with BlackBxx: Haunted, he’s attempting to pioneer a completely new way of telling stories, a process that he began by first identifying the aspects of the Internet that make it so different to previous mediums. First, he noted, the Internet is pan-media: you can now tell a single story in multiple formats, from text, audio and video through to things like biometrics. The next thing he singled out was the modern trend towards multi-tasking, performing several tasks concurrently. Other observations included the concise nature of most Internet communication (the TL;DR factor), the social aspect, and the impulsive nature of discovery – just one click can unearth new treasure troves of fascinating content. And, related to that – and most important of all, according to Knauf – is the non-linear nature of the Internet. “We now unravel content by impulse, not chronological order, clicking through instantly to what piques our interest, skipping what’s not.”

The breakthrough moment for the acclaimed show-runner was when he considered the model of an airline flight recorder: the black box. “In the event of a crash or malfunction, the entire story is recorded in a variety of media – cockpit recordings, avionics, etc. – and contained inside the black box. Investigators then pull information out in whatever order they need to find clarity.” 
The connection to his own creative process was immediately apparent to Knauf. “When I create a series, I generally do some world-building,” he explains. “I like to know where all the characters have been before the actual story starts, and where they will be going long after it ends.” In the traditional role of media, according to Knauf, that makes it like an iceberg: “most of the story remains underwater, serving as a massive counterweight to what’s imparted to the audience.” So the new model fit his modus operandi well – in fact, it may just enhance it. “For me, it was just a matter of creating that iceberg then, rather than drawing incidents and doling them out in linear order – what’s traditionally called ‘a story’ – place the entire iceberg on the Internet, where the audience can access the incidents in whatever order entertains them.” 
But doesn’t that mean that viewers are likely to skip straight to the end and reveal the mystery immediately (the negative side of the impulsive and TL;DR aspects of the Internet)? “I’m sure some will,” Knauf says. But that doesn’t seem to concern him in the least. “Now they’re authoring a version for themselves like Sunset Boulevard. Wow, how did William Holden end up face-down in a swimming pool?  In other words, there is no ‘wrong’ way to experience a BlackBxx story, other than maybe deliberately choosing and watching scenes that bore or upset you.  Though I am the author of the BlackBxx content, each individual in the audience is the author of how he or she experiences that content.”

Like his Carnivàle character Brother Justin, with the revelation of the BlackBxx concept Knauf became a man on a mission. Deciding to independently create a proof-of-concept for the format, he knew that there were going to be some unavoidable “hard costs” – equipment and actors’ salaries for a start. As such, he came up with the Haunted scenario as a starter: a supernatural thriller about a disastrous paranormal investigation, with a one-location shoot (inside a haunted house), and a cast limited to just seven characters. By shooting only within the house, Knauf and his production team were able to monitor the action in every location simultaneously using sixteen fixed cameras, as well as via two handhelds used by the actors intermittently.

Oh, and about that shoot. Thirty-two hours straight, live to camera. And that was cut down from the original scheduled forty-eight hours on the fly! “Production is like combat,” Knauf explains. “It’s one thing to be out on a set for 12 or 14 hours and making hundreds of decisions at escape velocity, but when those hours stretch beyond 24, you begin to experience real battle-fatigue. At a certain point, my team had to gang up to relieve me from my post. It was that intense.” Despite anticipating the fatigue, and working on their pacing in rehearsals, it soon became apparent to him that forty-eight hours was a bridge too far for the actors. “After five or so hours of sleep, I returned to the monitors, and I could see the same effect occurring inside the set – actors wandering around, muttering to themselves, flying into manic rants. Though it was great for the drama and definitely reflected the reality of what it would be like to be under assault in a haunted house, I also knew there was a very real chance of inflicting psychological damage on my cast, so I immediately started red-lining massive chunks of the script, cutting 15 hours or so from the second act. I’m glad I did, because I think we really pushed the outside of the performance envelope at 32 hours.” The resulting footage, according to Knauf, was “oddly compelling [and] utterly immersive.”

His team have now gone into post-production, but this time there is a twist to this part of the process: they will not be the final arbiter of what is seen by viewers; the audience will be. After arriving at the Blackbxx: Haunted website viewers will be presented with a page showing a map of the house and a timeline slider at the bottom of the page. The viewer will choose a time segment on the slider, and then select a camera icon to watch what that camera captured during the selected time segment. With thirty-two hours of story, captured simultaneously on sixteen different cameras, the viewing options seem mind-boggling. As an aid to digesting as much as possible though, viewers can open and watch as many segments simultaneously as their computer can handle. Oh, by the way: also available to help flesh out the story will be “all kinds of cool story-related files containing documentary info, video police interviews, on-site FLIR footage, journals, newspaper clippings, character bios, police reports, crime-scene photos, EVPs, etc.”

BlackBxx Interface

The BlackBxx Interface

But Knauf can’t do everything off his own back. Though he has sunk considerable funds from his own pocket into the project, he’s hoping to also crowd-source part of the funding to ensure the future of the BlackBxx concept. He’s set up a Kickstarter page offering rewards for those who invest, from subscriptions to the finished product through to executive producer status and having Knauf himself fly out to your house and watch your favourite episode of Carnivàle with you. Though the Kickstarter campaign received a generous amount of pledges early on – including from Carnivàle actors Clancy Brown, Debra Christofferson and Amanda Aday – in the past week it has stalled somewhat at just over 30% of the target amount, with little more than a week left. But Knauf certainly isn’t negative about the shortfall. “I’m astonished we’ve been able to raise as much as we have, especially since we’ve done no press whatsoever or received any special support from Kickstarter,” he says. “And I’m especially gratified that, with the exception of my friends, the overwhelming majority of the support has come from fans.”

“Hopefully, we’ll see a surge in the next few days as people realize it’s now or never. In the entertainment spectrum, it’s a fairly unbeatable bargain; a pledge of as little as $5 gets you access to over 600 hours of content. More importantly, every pledge will send a message of encouragement to a lot of very frustrated, very talented writers and artists that there’s a viable alternative path to the audience while delivering a well-deserved and overdue bitch-slap to the current Hollywood power-structure. As for Plan B? We’ll burn that bridge when we get to it.”

[Ed’s note, 1st December: you can now help fund the project directly, for various rewards, via the BlackBxx website]

Irons in the Fire

Though his focus is well and truly on BlackBxx now, Knauf continues to work in whatever formats allow him to ply his trade. He has recently worked on Year Zero – a science fiction storyline conceived by Nine Inch Nails frontman, and Oscar-winning soundtrack composer, Trent Reznor – though he is unable to say too much about it. “It’s still in the pipe, so I can’t really discuss it,” he says apologetically. “I can say that I’ve concluded the stage of development I was hired to do, so I’m not really tight in the information loop. I can tell you that Trent is deeply involved in the project and absolutely committed to seeing his vision to the screen.  The concept is brilliant, and I’m just like everybody else – can’t wait to see it.”

In recent years he has also worked on comics – including Iron Man and The Eternals (the latter previously written by genre giants Jack Kirby and Neil Gaiman). However, he confesses that those contributions were largely inspired by his son Charlie, whom he worked with on the stories. In fact, Knauf confides, he was somewhat of a late-comer to the Marvel Universe. “I’m a child of the ’70s, and back then, if you were older than 12 and got caught reading a comic book, you’d be kicked to death on the school playground. So while I was into D.C. books as a kid, the only comics I read as a teen and young adult were underground titles like Zap and The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers.”

“I know it would bump up my geek-cred to say I was a major fan [of Jack Kirby].  But, though I’d heard of him, like I said, I was a D.C. kid, and even then, I didn’t really pay any attention to who wrote and drew the stuff.  My son, Charlie, on the other hand, is a huge fan of superhero books.  So when Marvel approached me to take on a title, I stipulated that I’d do it, but only if I could collaborate with Charlie.” 
And despite his innovative nature – as evidenced by Carnivàle and BlackBxx – Knauf admits to being worried about disrespecting the comics genre. “One of my pet peeves is when mainstream talent takes on genre work with the attitude of ‘elevating’ it, intent on ‘transcending’ the genre.  A perfect example is Ang Lee’s version of The Hulk.  To me, that is the absolute pinnacle of hubris. Comics had done fine without me to that point, thank you very much; the medium and superhero genre had fully evolved and has it’s own traditions and grammar.  In order to serve the medium, I would have to respect those conventions – or at least be aware when I was breaking them. My son, Charlie, was fully versed in what worked and didn’t work in comics.  That’s what he brought to the party. I knew scene-work and character. It was a great collaboration and we both learned a lot. These days,I’ve developed a bit of a palate and have a few favorites like Gaiman, Garth Ennis and Frank Miller.  And I really love Eric Powell’s stuff.”

Given his work in multiple genres, his description of himself more as a world-builder than story-teller, and the interactive nature of BlackBxx, I ask Knauf if he’s ever considered writing for computer games. He says that while he “certainly wouldn’t rule it out,” he’s not sure what he would bring to the genre. “While I’m awestruck by the effects and visuals in digital games, I’m rarely engaged emotionally by them beyond the visceral satisfaction of destroying something or surviving a threat. What’s difficult to explore or impart in a gaming environment is the terrain of the human heart. I suppose that once the measure of a game’s success moves from, ‘That was awesome’ to ‘I don’t think I’m ever going to see my world in quite the same way again’, I may have something to offer.”

Finally, I ask Knauf the question that nearly all fans inevitably want him to answer, hopefully in the positive: will we ever see a continuation of Carnivàle? Originally slated as a six-season storyline, the cult drama was cancelled after just two seasons. Though he remains in many ways disillusioned with the current state of the television industry, Knauf remains surprisingly upbeat. “I’ve always had this weird feeling that, someday, the rest of the Carnivàle trilogy will be green lit to conclusion.” And perhaps the time is right: “Season 3 was set 4 years after the last episode of Season 2. In the finale, the characters were seriously damaged, so despite the fact that the actors would be much older, I can see Nick and Clancy playing Ben and Justin anytime within the next decade or so. It really is purely HBO’s call. They own it, and could in fact resume production at any time at their discretion, even without my participation.”


The undertone of ambivalence is not surprising. Though his ‘baby’, the fate of Carnivàle is now largely out of Knauf’s hands. But with BlackBxx, Knauf may just have found a way to keep control of his creations, and additionally, jump over one of the great hurdles he sees in television production. “Among all my motives to create stories – sundry, silly or splendid – you decidedly will not find a burning desire to impress the shit out of a handful of entertainment executives,” he says. To Knauf, right here, right now, the audience has the ability to seize control and dictate what they want to watch, and who they want to support. It’s just a matter of when they will realise that fact.

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