BH Interview: 'Carnivale' Creator Daniel Knauf Brings Supernatural Storytelling to the Web
Probably best known as the creator, writer and producer of the incredible HBO series “Carnivàle,” Daniel Knauf is looking to add "Internet innovator” to his resume.
Knauf's newest creation is the website bxxweb.com, which will launch its first production, titled “BlackBxx: Haunted” (it’s pronounced “Black Box”), tomorrow evening. I was one of the lucky 3,100 people who signed up ahead of the official launch to get a sneak peek. The site contains what Knauf calls a “Box-Narrative,” which is, well, hard to explain. This is why I went to the man himself to discuss his latest venture.
BH: What is a Box-Narrative?
KNAUF: Beats the hell out of me. Basically I wanted to create a narrative that would only work on the Internet. That was sort of my acid test. I was discovered on the Internet. “Carnivàle” was actually found by a producer on the Internet, and that’s what started my career. I had a web site where I had all of my stuff posted, and somebody found it so I kind of owe the Internet. I was into the Internet a long, long time ago and continue to be.
And it always frustrated me how the Internet has never really been taken seriously as a medium in and of itself by the entertainment industry, outside of online games companies, those kinds of things. The dinosaur entertainment industry, the movie business, the TV business, tend to regard it as sort of a “me, too” thing.
And so what they do is they just take their stuff and throw it up without any change. They don’t do an adaptation. They just take the material and they do one of two things. They either treat the internet like it’s just another TV screen, which it isn’t, it’s much more than that, or they decide to get a little jiggy with it and what they’ll do is say “we’ll come up with a game.” And it’s always some lame-ass game that nobody plays except maybe the writers in the writers’ room when they’re bored.
It’s like they just regard it the same as they would bus bench advertising. This is a completely different kind of medium. It’s something that you interact with very differently than you do with your TV set. What I wanted to do was come up with a narrative form that was specifically created for this medium, the Internet. So what I had to do is take a look at it and see: what is the Internet? How does it work? And the first thing that stuck out is it’s non-linear. It kind of replicates our process of memory in a way that you see something that interests you, which leads to something else, which leads to something else. And they may or may not be any more than tangentially associated with one another.
And so what I wanted to do was create a non-linear kind of narrative. I modeled it on the black box of an airplane in that, you take an incident that has a specific duration, there’s definitely a moment where that incident began and a moment where that incident ended.
In the case of an airplane, we have when the airplane took off and when the airplane crashed. And everything that happens between those two points is completely recorded on a variety of different media. It’s recorded on audio, video, we’ve got documentary information, we’ve got all kinds of stuff. You just compile it into this big box of material. You almost approach it like an archaeologist in that you find the story as you dig through it. So it’s a completely non-linear experience. And it’s weirdly compelling. As a writer, generally my job is to figure out which specific moments tell the story and dole that out in a specific order. That doesn’t exist with a Box-Narrative. It’s like all these incidents are contained inside this site, and it’s up to you to discern patterns, track the story and find the story yourself. It’s a much more interactive kind of experience.
Although it’s not “choose your own ending.” There are no alternate endings. The plane crashes every time. The question is what caused it to crash? What happened? What happened in that cockpit? And if it wasn’t something that happened in the cockpit, what happened in the kitchen? And if it didn’t happen in the kitchen, what happened in the passenger compartment? So you’re constantly searching and finding different stories within the story. It’s really kind of a trippy way of experiencing a story, a narrative. So that’s kind of a Box-Narrative in a box. I like to look at it as, if a movie is a trail of jellybeans, this is basically a jar of jellybeans. You just eat whatever jelly beans you feel like eating.
BH: How much of “Haunted” was scripted?
KNAUF: It depends on your definition of a script. If your definition is everything that happens during the course of a story, then it’s one hundred percent scripted. If your definition of a script is every line of dialogue, then it’s almost not scripted at all.
BH: Is it more of an outline?
KNAUF: It’s more of a series of incidences and they’re written down in a very specific way. You can’t anticipate emotional components, because you don’t know where the actor is going to be at any given time during the narrative because the actor is actually living the narrative. So you can’t put down parenthetical remarks like “angrily” or “he yells at her” because you don’t know where the actor will be during the course of the story, and you don’t want to suddenly have him switch gears and break the fourth wall and follow some sort of emotional direction that he isn’t necessarily tracking.
So it’s a very dry kind of list of here’s what occurs, here’s who’s driving the scene, here’s who initiates the scene, here’s everyone’s basic reaction to that particular incident. One person believes it happened, one person doesn’t believe it. One person saw it, one person didn’t see it. That kind of thing. It’s really a list of various occurrences and the actors stick to that all the way through. And that’s exhaustively outlined. Most of my work went into creating very deep character backgrounds. You normally wouldn’t do this on a script; character bios that are very exhaustive, so that the person can submerge themselves into that character before we even say “action.”
And the other aspect of it is defining what’s this person’s headset going in? What do they want? Why are they there? What is their purpose at that point in their lives where the incident starts? Where are they at and what are they after? It’s a different kind of scripting than a normal TV or film script. But it’s very much scripted. There’s lots and lots of pages. So I hesitate to say it’s non-scripted because I scripted the shit out of it. I just didn’t write any dialogue. It would be impossible. We tried it. I actually scripted parts of it and I was thinking I’ll do a mix of scripted and non-scripted, but the scripted felt so false. The minute you tried to dovetail it withthe non-scripted it just stuck out like a sore dick. It just didn’t work. It really was a process oftrial and error and experiment until we found what worked.
BH: How did the filming process work?
KNAUF: If you’re doing a stage play, a guy who is classically stage trained is trained to burn brightly for two hours at a time. You can’t burn brightly for thirty-two hours. There is no off stage. You’re on stage one hundred percent of the time.
BH: You even stopped filming early.
KNAUF: I had to. I had to pull the plug because I began to see signs of emotional exhaustion and distress, and I got very concerned about the mental health of my actors. If you can imagine living a role for three days, and you’re being attacked by a house, there’s not a lot of difference between that and being attacked by a house. If you’re submerged in that reality, what’s the difference between pretending and real? Lines get very blurry after a while. But the key is we sort of had to devise a new way of acting. That was one part of the process. My director, Cliff Osmond, is a very well-established acting coach. He was one of the few people I think could have probably pulled this off. We had to basically experiment with an entirely new approach to the craft of acting, and then we had to reinvent the rehearsal. How do you rehearse a thirty-two hour drama? You just can’t. It’s actually easier to over-rehearse it than to under-rehearse it.
There’s twenty-two people involved in this. It’s just a handful of us. I’m doing this out of my own pocket, so there’s just a handful of us doing it. And we had no permits; we shot it totally guerilla style. We found ourselves a house, we set up sixteen cameras inside the house, we dressed the house, did all of the construction, put all of our effects in and hid all of our speakers and set the house up. We had an RV parked out front and we were wired to the cameras.
We basically just directed in shifts for the 32 hours. The special effects guy had an inflatable mattress in the driveway, and he’d go to sleep for a while then we’d say okay, now make the baby cry. So it was a very weird shooting process. We had cameras in the bathrooms. We’re shooting the actors sleeping. We’re shooting the actors going about, cooking their meals, but there’s a little flap so they’d have a little privacy if they wanted to relieve themselves. That’s what I mean when I say there’s no off stage. There really was no off stage. There was no place where you could just go and break character and kind of chill for a second and recharge your battery. You just had to be that character the entire time. It was a marathon for the actors and for everybody in that RV too. It was very intense.
The language in this thing is out of control. There’s a lot of really intense stuff. I wouldn’t let my kids watch it. It’s not family entertainment. It’s not meant to be. I would caution people. If Icaught my kid on it, they’d be off the computer for two weeks.
BH: How will access to the site work? Is it a monthly fee, a one-time fee?
KNAUF: It’s a no-time fee.
BH: How are you making money off of it?
KNAUF: I’m not going to make money on this. I’m not going to say it’s a gift. In a way it’s a demonstration. I’ve pitched this thing to people and nobody even understands what I’m trying to do. I want to show them that the format works and that people will watch it and are engaged by it and they’re able to enjoy it and it’s a different way of telling a story. So in a way we’re testing the viability of the format.
It’s been very successful so far. The thing that’s been remarkable to me is the amount of time people spend on it. Thirty percent of the people who are logging onto the site are spending a half an hour plus on the site. And fifteen percent of them are spending over an hour on the site. And it stops measuring after that. When people sign in, they start digging really deep, which is really exciting. We don’t have any advertisers. We don’t even have any banner ads. What’s going to happen is, if you go to bxxweb.com, you can access about eighty percent of the material that’s up without even registering. If you choose to register for free, there’s a whole bunch of other supplemental material. We have police interrogations with the characters after the event. We have all kinds of documentation. We have EVPs that are recorded. We have all kinds of audio and documents and stills. We have all the hand-held footage. When the actors picked up a camera, they were actually shooting video. We have all of the characters’ notes and logs and all that stuff.
Once you register, you’ve got access to that. Anyone who registered early will have full access to all of this. If you’re new and you log on and register, you’ll see tons of documents and videos and all sorts of stuff, and they’ll all be locked. What will happen is, let’s say you’re watching a video and the cast discovers the little girl’s diary, you’ll get a message that says you’ve unlocked the diary. Would you like to read it now or later? And that diary now is unlocked and it goes over to your “My Evidence” folder so you can review it. As you’re watching the videos, you’re basically unlocking additional information that you can access.
BH: What’s next?
KNAUF: The next one on deck is going to be BlackBxx: Mars. We’re going to have twice as many cameras. It’s going to be seventy-two hours. It’s a supernatural, sci-fi story about a group of astronauts that face being marooned. It all takes place inside a Mars habitat. And that will be in HD.
BH: When do you anticipate that?
KNAUF: Once we see how many people are watching this thing and what kind of an audience we’re generating. Because nobody’s ever done this before, we had no models to use. Then we can go to the investors and say we can anticipate this kind of return on your investment. Once we do that, what I plan on doing, and I’m not sure whether we’re going to do it in Nashville, or Austin or Florida, is building a studio on the basis of these things and starting to kick one out on a regular basis. My attitude is, I want to build a factory. And I want my factory to be creating Box-Narratives, maybe seven or eight of them a year.The beauty of the platform is I can cut into this and I can pull a two hour feature film out of one of these. I can pull 12 hours of television programming out of one of these. I can multi-platform the shit out of this.
The other thing I can do is bring in an American cast and shoot BlackBxx: Mars. Then I can bring my Chinese cast in and I can shoot BlackBxx: Mars. Then I can bring in my Hispanic cast and shoot BlackBxx: Mars. I can platform this out to an international audience very easily. Once the dominos have all been set up and we have everything poised and ready to strike, all we have to do is introduce the human element into the world and say “action,” and 72 hours later say “cut,” and we’ve got the content. It’s very post-production heavy. Production wise it’s very simple to do it in several different languages with several different sets of actors if we want.
I like making entertainment. It’s what I do.
To learn more about the making of bxxweb.com and Daniel Knauf, check out his blog at http://blackbxx.blogspot.com/