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Baltimore Faux Real

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Hometown fans and film workers shredded their garments and tore their hair when producers decided to shoot Hairspray the movie musical - based on the Broadway musical, based on the 1988 John Waters film - in Toronto instead of Baltimore.

But, as filmgoers will see Friday, the moviemakers have done more than build a duplicate Baltimore in sets and sound stages: They put a sheen on Charm City. Though it's debatable that they had to go north to do it, maybe it took outsiders' eyes to bring out the Emerald City in East Baltimore.

"Baltimore is our Oz," co-producer Craig Zadan says over the phone from Los Angeles. "This is the place the heroine is obsessed with and loves and adores."

New Line Cinema's $75 million movie musical turns the City that Reads into the City that Sings and Dances. And the design team heightens Highlandtown just enough to make it seem like a dream even in harsh noon light.

The film's story hasn't changed since Waters cooked it up 20 years ago. Set amid the social tumult and towering hairstyles of 1962, Hairspray is still about ebullient, obese Tracy Turnblad, who changes hometown views of attractive body types - and, more important, helps integrate Baltimore's answer to American Bandstand (The Corny Collins Show, based on The Buddy Deane Show). Tracy lives in Highlandtown with her rotund home-laundress mom, Edna, and her charmingly obtuse dad, Wilbur, who owns a joke shop.

The movie's Highlandtown streets are wider than the actual Formstone canyons, while the Hefty Hideaway storefront pops your eyes with period dazzle. And as MGM boasted in its Oz days, the cast features "more stars than there are in heaven": John Travolta, Michelle Pfeiffer, Queen Latifah, Zac Efron and the breakout female lead, Nikki Blonsky.

But if director-choreographer Adam Shankman and the other non-Baltimoreans involved can project Highlandtown as Emerald City, they haven't forsaken any of the fun and funk of Waters' Remembrance of Platter Parties Past. They just do it with extra brio: Shankman says the motto on his set was, "Go big or go home."

As a director, Shankman quickly became known for crass but phenomenally lucrative big-star comedy vehicles such as The Pacifier and Cheaper by the Dozen 2. But his choreography credits were more promising and all over the map: everything from Addams Family Values to TV's Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Hairspray was different; when it came along, it made Shankman feel, "I need to do this movie. It's like a one-way ticket inside my brain."

In 2005, he actually was producing the teen dance drama Step Up in Baltimore when he landed the job to shoot Hairspray.

"I immediately texted John Waters to introduce myself," Shankman recalls. Waters shot an e-mail right back. They made a date for lunch the next day in Fells Point.

Unlike some American movie-lovers, Waters didn't for a nanosecond doubt Shankman's ability to pull off the movie.

The musical's composer and co-lyricist, Marc Shaiman, had told Waters that Shankman was the man for the job. So when they met, Waters gave Shankman the freedom to be himself.

"You're fabulous. Go be fabulous," Waters instructed. Waters said Shankman should take what he wanted from the original or from the Broadway show, and depart from them wherever he wanted - thus avoiding a film that pallidly echoed its predecessors the way the movie musical of The Producers did.

Shankman was raring to go. He says he'd considered his previous movies the way he did his early jobs as a dancer - as gigs - but this movie would be "Adam Shankman splattered all over the screen. As a gay Jew growing up in a WASPy section of Los Angeles [Brentwood], I identified with Tracy as an outsider." And he, too, was a teenager whose parents didn't want their child to elevate dancing over high school.

Waters says it took a choreographer-director to do this movie right. Shankman's Hairspray credo was to keep his steps true to the early-'60s dance moves of the Pony, the Mashed Potato and the Madison.

"I just have the kids do them really, really aggressively and throw in enough high kicks so that it looks different," he says.

Highlandtown hairFor Waters, lunch was merely a prelude to an aesthetic immersion. As Shankman recalls, he "threw me in his car and said 'I have to show you this.' He took me on the whole Highlandtown tour."

Waters picks up the story: "It's basically out Eastern Avenue, which used to be the hairdo aorta of all of Baltimore. The Buddy Deaners were really big in East Baltimore and Highlandtown, and that's where the hairdos were the highest.

"And I knew once I got Adam down here, there's a little street I always take them and then they want to film here. It's a little alley street in Highlandtown with amazing little rowhouses on the inside of the street and in the distance you see the cranes, and factories - it's the perfect shot."

Shankman says Waters told him to abandon whatever prejudices he had about working-class neighborhoods like Highlandtown and see it as "kind of upper-lower-class. These are proud people, who are proud of their possessions. ... What little they have they keep really clean, and they keep it up and they are proud. And I thought, 'Wow, that's really interesting: Edna keeps things really clean. She doesn't just keep her own things clean; she keeps everybody else's things clean.'"

Everywhere there was Formstone - what Waters calls "the polyester of brick." Baltimore's signature fake-rock surfacing, along with the housedresses and the step-sitters, made a mental imprint on Shankman.

"I sent my production designer down there, and I said, 'I want you to take pictures of every inch of this part of town.' If we got it right, it's because of that."

"Whatever Mr. Shankman says," the brilliant production designer, David Gropman, concurs with comic yes-man timing. "We did an enormous amount of research - obviously of Highlandtown today, and more important, Highlandtown of 1962."

In February 2006, Jack Gerbes, director of the Maryland Film Office, spent two days scouting locations with Gropman. When the producers decided to go to Toronto, Gropman knew Gerbes was going to take heat, so he phoned him.

"Please, you can trust me - when you see the movie, it will look like Baltimore in 1962," Gropman recalls saying.

Shankman instructed Gropman to steer away from kitsch and exaggeration: "I'm going to have John Travolta in a fat suit - I don't want the world of the film to be the cherry on top of that. I want a very real, believable world, as subtle as you can and want to make it."

One of Gropman's prime tools for scouring views of 1962 Baltimore was the picture collection at the New York Public Library.

"It was hard not to introduce a little bit of kitsch and specific colors that were part of the cultural world of that time," Gropman realized.

"We took all the colors you'd expect to see - aquas and pinks and yellows and greens - and desaturated them and found a range where they fit together."

Shooting in the real Highlandtown might have been a little easier because "there is an enormous amount of architecture still reminiscent of or from that period," down to the window-sashes and awnings.

One of Gropman's biggest inspirations was the unique configuration of alleyways, driveways and backyards in Baltimore homes, as if the outdoor spaces themselves were doing a dance.

The Turnblad backyard became one of the biggest and most intricate sets he built on three large Toronto sound-stages.

Gropman also put the movie's visual stamp on a real commercial district just outside downtown Toronto.

"They still have electric trolleys there, and we had a pair of electric trolleys from the period - and it turned out they had been purchased from the Baltimore transit authority and may have run on Baltimore tracks in the early 1960s. The last year the electric trolleys ran there was 1962."

Trash and joyBaltimore's Pope of Trash was the moviemakers' ultimate touchstone. Shankman says he went to school on Waters and sprinkled delicious naughty touches throughout the film as if they were "glorious accoutrements."

So he gives us pregnant women drinking and smoking at a bar, looking big and proud in chic maternity wear. Screaming kids wave their arms out of cars while their seat belts hang out the bottom of the doors and scrape on the asphalt. A trio of students dripping bad-girl attitude smoke in the high school girl's room and stare at an elated, love-struck Tracy as if she were an alien life form.

Shankman wanted to position his version of the material somewhere between the inspired show biz of the Broadway musical and the archness and grit of Waters' oeuvre. He succeeded. The movie has its own firm and glowing feel and look. It's tough in the way 1960s teens used the word: "tuff," as a friendly form of "cool."

Zadan and co-producer Neil Meron wanted to pull a 180 from their smash 2002 Oscar winner, Chicago. "Where Chicago was cynical and dramatic and stylized in a different way," says Zadan, "we wanted something that was filled with joy and incredibly emotional."

Zadan and Meron were the ones who cast Travolta in the adult lead.

"We thought of the role as musical comedy," says Meron, "and that meant there was only one person for the job, the greatest musical star of his generation, in his first musical since Grease."

In choosing Travolta, they helped cement the film's Baltimore identity. "From day one, John wanted to do the [Baltimore] accent; he thought that was the key to the character," says Meron. "And it was somewhat controversial because no one was quite sure of what the Baltimore accent was. But it became so identifiable with his way of doing Edna, so we loved it."

Travolta was the only cast member brave enough to try to duplicate the Baltimore sound. He felt close to the city after filming the 2004 firehouse saga Ladder 49 here.

The star credits his Baltimorean friend Linda Favila, an associate producer, for coaching him. "Iron" becomes "ahrn," and the way Travolta says it, the "o" in a word like "negotiate" comes out something like the double-o in goo or the u in gnu.

Getting it rightBut when Travolta detonated all of Edna's funny lines about "ahrning," it was in Toronto, and his was the one Baltimore accent to be heard for hundreds of miles around.

Before the final location decisions were made, Zadan served as point person for talks with the Baltimore and Maryland film offices. "I asked, 'Do you have big sound stages?' and the person said 'No.' And then I said we had nothing to talk about, because when you produce a big musical, whether Chicago or any of the others, you need to build very big sets with very high ceilings."

Hannah Byron, then head of Baltimore's film office, says if Maryland's financial incentives for filmmakers were more competitive with Toronto's, the city and state commissions could have helped the producers find spaces large enough to accommodate their sets and cranes. "I really think New Line would have liked to see at least a portion of it filmed here, but we couldn't make the figures work."

According to Shankman, "Everyone knows you have terrific crews down there. You get facilities and the right tax incentives and the movies will come."

Waters didn't succeed in keeping the production in his hometown, but he does think Shankman and his collaborators "really felt Baltimore." He loves when Shankman's movie shows kids "dancing in a bus." The late Cookie Mueller, who acted in five of his movies, would always tell her director, "It's the only city where you always see people dancing at bus stops." Waters says, "I still see that. ... And that kind of thing, you feel it."

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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