Squarely in Baltimore Director Agnieszka Holland, here to shoot a period film, found the city playing itself.

Fortunately, filmmakers could work around that.

October 16, 1997|By Tamara Ikenberg | Tamara Ikenberg,SUN STAFF

You might think the most difficult part of making a period film is getting everything accurate, from costumes to accents to architecture.

Not when you're shooting in Baltimore.

"During the shooting, we had many times an actual shooting happening around the corner with the sirens and helicopters," says "Washington Square" director Agnieszka Holland. Her film, shot almost entirely in Baltimore, opens tomorrow.

"You have this elegant drama with costumes, beautiful children, flowers, and you hear, bop, bop, bop, whoo, whoo!"

The diminutive 48-year-old director, with short, peppery gray hair, sips Earl Grey tea with lemon in the restaurant at the Harbor Court hotel. Her challenging Polish accent has a habit of twisting a word; revenge becomes "reevahnge." But her vision is clear, even if the pronunciation isn't.

Holland, whose previous films include "Europa, Europa," "Bitter Harvest" and "The Secret Garden," jokes dryly, with an intelligence that instills those around her with a fear of saying something stupid. The restless veteran of Eastern European suppression is not the type to let careless comments slip. She channels this tenacity and perfectionism into "Washington Square."

The film, based on the Henry James novel, is the Polish director's first American film. It's the story of the tragic courting of awkward heiress Catherine Sloper, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh. Catherine is patronized and emotionally abused by her wealthy, intellectual, elitist father, Dr. Austin Sloper (Albert Finney), because his beloved wife died during childbirth. In early adulthood, the neglected, childlike Catherine finds herself the target of gorgeous, penniless charmer Morris Townsend's (Ben Chaplin) affections. She absorbs the long-awaited affection with gusto, while her disapproving father suspects her suitor of purely financial motives.

No one would be likely to guess that this melodrama was taking place in locales where used drug needles had to be collected and disposed of before shooting, Holland says.

But despite the difficulties of filming in Baltimore, Holland could think of no better location to stand in for New York's Washington Square in the Federal and Empire periods and the beginning of the Victorian period.

"Baltimore was actually the best," says Holland, who lived in Federal Hill during the filming. "And the city was very welcoming." It was chosen over cities including Toronto, Montreal and Boston.

Union Square is the locale of the Sloper home's exterior. Shakespeare Street in Fells Point poses as New York's Bowery district. The Clarence Mitchell Courthouse serves as Dr. Sloper's office. Mount Vernon also stands in for a Paris alive with fireworks and street performers. And many interiors were shot at Flite Three Studios in Baltimore.

To further the illusion of an 1800s setting, air-conditioners were pulled from windows, antennae came off roofs, and cars were hidden from the camera's eye.

"It's difficult to make a period movie of this kind in America, because there's not this tradition of realistic period moviemaking," says Holland, who currently lives in France.

She points out that "The Age of Innocence," set in the same time period, was filmed in England.

"It's difficult to find the people who know how to do it," Holland says. "To find the furniture is difficult, [but] in Europe is not a problem, especially in France, Italy or England."

However, several people and companies in the area, such as Dubey Antiques on Howard Street and furniture dealers in Alexandria, were of considerable help to set decorators. They contributed both advice on the era's look and the products themselves.

With their expertise, breathtaking gardens glow with parasols and delicately falling pollen, while rich, sepia parlors burst with polished authenticity.

But not all of the settings are idealized.

In one scene, Catherine trips, falls face-down in the mud and two rats patter across the background.

Holland is indeed a realist. And not just when it comes to Baltimore's rodent population.

More than a period piece

"When I'm doing something I like, it has to look real. It has to be accurate," Holland says. "Even if it's not important to the story, I think that to be universal, you have to be specific first."

Despite the massive attention period detail demands, Holland doesn't want the film to be categorized as a period piece where corsets and curtains overpower the emotional substance.

"I tried not to do the 'Masterpiece Theatre' thing. I tried to give it energy," she says. "But frankly, I think the people didn't change so much. The exteriors are different, but what was in their minds was similar. If you concentrate on the human beings more than on the sets and the dishes, I think an important truth is coming through."

And the personal truths at the core of "Washington Square" are ones Holland believes are consistent throughout her work.

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