Steve Yeager, talking 'Trash' FILM

The Baltimore filmmaker's movie about John Waters is still not in national circulation, but a major obstacle has been cleared.

December 27, 1998|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,SUN STAFF

How gloriously 1998 opened for Steve Yeager! The 53-year-old Baltimore filmmaker had made movies for decades that brought little recognition and less income. Then, in January, good fortune finally tracked him down. At Sundance, the most chichi film festival not on the French Riviera, Yeager's documentary on Baltimore guerrilla moviemaker John Waters won the Filmmaker's Trophy.

Suddenly, Yeager was no longer just another anonymous documentarian. He was an anonymous documentarian with actual possibilities.

In short order, Yeager signed a distribution deal for his film "Divine Trash," and in May, the Senator Theatre premiered the movie to a thoroughly delighted full house. In a quaintly provincial sign that he had arrived, the Senator unveiled one of its sidewalk tributes for Yeager beneath its marquee, right alongside those of Barry Levinson, Waters and other luminaries who have made films in Maryland.

With a national release of "Divine Trash" planned for the fall, if Yeager wasn't exactly King of the World, he was at least a prince in his hometown.

Now skip ahead to Reel Two of Yeager's 1998. Suddenly, it's as though you're watching a different biopic altogether. Yeager is still the subject, but he's no longer a Man-in-Full. He's forlorn, frustrated, angry; more Tom Joad than James Cameron. For the first time in his life, he's even in therapy.

What happened?

His troubles actually began on the triumphal night of the Senator's May 5 screening of "Divine Trash." Among the glitterati in attendance that night was Paul Cohen, president of Stratosphere Entertainment of New York and the man who had struck the distribution deal with Yeager after seeing "Divine Trash" at Sundance. A few minutes before the Senator showing, Cohen, Hollywood cool in an Italian suit and delicately manicured beard, was all but gloating over his wisdom in grabbing up Yeager's film.

Afterward, he was reportedly apoplectic.

"He was clearly agitated," says John Pierson, a well-known figure in independent films who sat with Cohen that night. "In his own mind, he decided the film in spirit and in fact had been altered tremendously from what he thought he bought at Sundance."

Yeager agrees that the film did change over those four months. "Divine Trash" is a biography of Waters and a look at his early film career. It includes behind-the-scenes footage of Waters on the set of his breakthrough film, "Pink Flamingos." But it also has plenty of other television and movie footage that Yeager uses to evoke the era and to show the popular influences on Waters.

The problem was, Yeager couldn't afford to pay the fees for all of that footage or otherwise secure rights to use it. So, he was forced to cut some, including clips of B-movie bombshell Jayne Mansfield and scenes from "The Howdy Doody Show" and "Flesh," an underground film by Paul Morrissey.

Waters himself also insisted that Yeager do without a few shots from Waters' movie "Female Trouble."

In all, Yeager says, he cut about eight minutes from "Divine Trash," which still left a film nearly 100 minutes long. Yeager says he always knew he'd have to take out the unlicensed footage. But he felt the Sundance version of the film was too long for artistic reasons. It dragged, he says. "Everyone who has seen both versions thinks the version at the Senator was more fluid and cleaner," says Yeager.

Everyone, perhaps, but the folks at Stratosphere, who no longer care to talk publicly about "Divine Trash." They also don't want to distribute it, which put Yeager's work into limbo for months. Finally, last week Yeager said the Independent Film Channel, the cable network that helped finance the film, negotiated a settlement with Stratosphere. Yeager can now look for a new distributor.

Yeager was devastated by the squabble with Stratosphere. He believes Cohen and Stratosphere overvalued the missing minutes of "Divine Trash," but he's also willing to accept much of the blame. Although it is common for films to undergo editing after early screenings at film festivals, Yeager concedes he should have let Cohen know what he was up to.

"Maybe I should have been more communicative with Stratosphere," he says. "I'm not guiltless."

Already Yeager has lost a golden opportunity. The original plan was to release "Divine Trash" in the fall around the same time Waters opened his most recent feature, "Pecker." Now, it looks as if "Divine Trash" won't be in any theaters before late winter at the earliest.

Meanwhile, Yeager has finished work on a made-for-television sequel to "Divine Trash." Financed as well by the Independent Film Channel, "In Bad Taste" traces Waters' career since "Pink Flamingos." The Independent Film Channel plans to air "In Bad Taste" Jan. 29 (and repeat it several times thereafter).

Of course, it will be far from the ideal situation. Usually, sequels are shown after the originals.

Nevertheless, Yeager is finally starting to see himself as something other than a tragic character - the Sundance winner who had a distribution deal and lost it.

"Yeah, the year ended on a positive note," he says. "I'm going to fire my therapist."

Perhaps the therapist could now offer his services to Paul Cohen, whose 1998 also suddenly soured. Last week, Cohen resigned from Stratosphere after a falling-out with his co-founder, billionaire financier Carl Icahn.

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