The Collaborators

They're The Quiet Force Behind Baltimore's Trio Of Top Filmmakers - John Waters, Barry Levinson And David Simon

November 13, 2009|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,

Casting director Pat Moran, a co-founder of John Waters' Dreamland Films, helped create the human tapestries that give Waters' midnight specials their Fellini-like ebullience. But she has also done her part to imbue such Barry Levinson memory plays as "Avalon" and "Liberty Heights" with their gnarly warmth and David Simon's hard-hitting TV shows, "The Corner" and "The Wire," with their bluesy grit.

On the eve of the famous trio's first joint appearance for the Maryland Film Festival (Saturday night at MICA's Brown Hall), she characterizes these three Charm City giants with typical bluntness and aplomb.

Levinson is "the Godfather." Waters is "the Outlaw." Simon is "the Beatnik."

And she makes a lot of sense. "Barry was the godfather of the gang because he was out in the real industry when John and our friends were outlaws. And David is a beatnik. He's a writer-producer, not a writer-director like those guys, but I think he's as intense as Marlon Brando when we first saw Brando - not as an actor, as a storyteller."

Ace production designer Vincent Peranio also speaks as a collaborator and ally of all three men. He's another member of Team Waters who went on to Levinson's "Liberty Heights" and "Homicide" and Simon's "The Corner" and "The Wire."

Chat with Peranio, and you learn all over again how crucial TV and movies can be for defining the strength and weakness of a city. "These three contributed to how the world sees Baltimore visually and to how Baltimore thinks about itself," Peranio says. "Whether Baltimoreans like it or not."

After all, what print materials or paintings have done more to establish Baltimore as a center of funk than Waters' "Desperate Living" or "Pink Flamingos"? Or as a mesh of neighborhoods that sometimes overlap (and often don't) than Waters' "Hairspray" or Levinson's "Diner" and "Liberty Heights"? Or as a city with aggressive crime and law enforcement than Levinson's "Homicide" (developed from Simon's 1991 book "Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets")?

And apart from Simon's own books (including, with Ed Burns, "The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood"), what literary creations have done more to portray Baltimore as a metropolis that epitomizes the 21st-century urban crazy-quilt of racial and social problems than Simon's miniseries version of "The Corner," and, especially, his long-run series "The Wire"?

Lounging across from the Fells Point Recreation Pier that he turned into a police station for "Homicide," Peranio reminisced: "Baltimoreans loved that show because basically murder can happen anywhere; it wasn't just the ghettos, it was rich people, poor people, all kinds, old, young. My mission at the start was to show as much Baltimore as possible - so they couldn't take the show to Los Angeles!"

But he feels a special fondness for the Baltimore movie Levinson made during the series' final year, "Liberty Heights." "Barry's vision has a sweetness, a nostalgia, in that particular film. And I'm a lover of Baltimore and Baltimore history myself, so I could get into that. I used the old Hippodrome when it was still derelict; we put $50,000 into the marquee, to make it the Royal Theater, then dressed all the buildings across the street. People would see it and have tears in their eyes."

Peranio summarizes, "Whatever work we've done, whether with John, Barry or David, we've done True Baltimore."

Moran and Peranio were part of the funky bohemia that produced the underground sensation of Watersmania that erupted at midnight showings nationwide with the success of "Pink Flamingos." Moran got there first. A Catonsville Catholic schoolgirl, she drifted into Waters' demimonde in the early 1960s, when she returned as a young woman to Mount Vernon's Estelle Dennis Dance Studio, where she'd studied as a girl. After class, she and a friend would drift into Martick's for a drink. There she met men who were interested in opera and theater, not sports.

"Long story short, an unusual friend we had made downtown, from another neighborhood, namely Lutherville, introduced me to John, who was also from Lutherville."

Waters needed someone to help him slip into Martick's for a drink, because he was underage. He and Moran became inseparable, as neighborhood misfits who found new lives downtown.

Peranio says, "We're talking 1968. I had just graduated from art school, just starting out, having little shows, when a group of eight of us who had graduated that year found a place in Fells Point that was 22 rooms for $100 a month. So it became a big artist commune party house. A friend of mine who also went to the Maryland Institute, Susan Lowe, ended up playing in a lot of John's films. To one of our little parties, she brought John, Pat, Mink, Divine, David Lochary [Waters' own Star Factory] and [costume designer] Van Smith. We met the whole Dreamland studio at once."

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