Piece by piece, members of the crew filming the TV miniseries “Lady in the Lake” got to work Tuesday dismantling an illusion.
Down came the elaborate facade that had transformed the 200 block of Park Avenue in 2022 into Pennsylvania in the 1960s. Down came the menu for a fictitious restaurant called “Little Willie’s” that advertised an oyster sandwich for 50 cents, and the vintage traffic signs and the poster advertising an upcoming performance by the late, great singer Ella Fitzgerald at the Royal Theatre.
It took just a few hours to bring the neighborhood back to its 2022 appearance. Baltimore arts advocates hope it’s as easy to restore the city’s reputation as a film-friendly town.
Filming on the Apple TV+ miniseries, based on a novel written by former Baltimore Sun reporter Laura Lippman, halted temporarily Friday. Police said they were told that a group had attempted to extort $50,000 from the production starring actresses Natalie Portman and Moses Ingram. The individuals allegedly threatened to return later to shoot a member of the cast or crew if the bribe was not paid.
This early report — which the Baltimore Police Department now describes as “inaccurate” — seemed to confirm negative stereotypes about Charm City. The misinformation made news nationally and was widely debated on social media.
As Baltimore bashers described the city as riddled with violence and its inhabitants as “scum,” members of Baltimore’s close-knit film community rallied to its defense.
Author and producer David Simon estimates that he has shot over 200 hours of film in Baltimore neighborhoods for projects ranging from “Homicide: Life on the Streets” in the 1990s to ”The Wire” in the 2000s and earlier this year, “We Own This City.”
“Baltimore is good people,” Simon wrote in a tweet.
He later elaborated in an email to The Sun: “Our experiences in Baltimore have been positive in every neighborhood for twenty years. It is a fine city in which to film, has a strong crew base, and serves productions that come here well.”
He is married to Lippman, who also is a producer for “Lady in the Lake.” She did not respond to requests for comment.
Police now say they have arrested just one man, a local clothes vendor who was upset that the filming was interfering with his business. No gun was found, officers said, and the man was charged only with narcotics violations.
The false report might have attracted less attention if it hadn’t occurred about a month after another widely publicized crime story out of Baltimore. Motorist Timothy Reynolds, 48, was fatally shot July 7 after he got out of his car at a downtown intersection and confronted a group of squeegee workers with a baseball bat. A 15-year-old boy has been charged with Reynolds’ murder.
Local film lovers worry that the recent double whammy of bad Baltimore publicity could damage an industry that since 2011 has contributed an estimated $900 million to state coffers, according to the Maryland Film Office.
“Lady in the Lake” alone is expected to have an estimated economic impact of at least $47 million on Maryland, the film office said. About 650 local residents have been hired to work on the production.
“We always saw this as an isolated incident,” said Michael Ricci, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s spokesman. State officials are pleased, he said, “that the production is committed to moving forward in the city.”
Moreover, Ricci said, another major film production plans to begin shooting in the next few weeks in Maryland. He declined to provide details, but a recent social media post said producers for a show called “Lioness” had contacted the Waverly Improvement Association about plans to film in the area beginning Friday.
Trade publications say the Paramount+ espionage series will star Zoe Saldaña. King Street Productions, whose name could be seen on the post, could not be reached for comment.
Baltimore has had a national reputation as a film hub for at least four decades since director Barry Levinson shot his breakthrough 1982 film, “Diner,” here. Every few years since then, the state has been home to at least one major film or television production, from “Sleepless in Seattle” in 1993 to “Runaway Bride” in 1999 to “He’s Just Not That Into You” in 2009. And don’t forget John Waters’s cult films.
So when half a dozen local filmmakers heard the rumors of trouble on the “Lady in the Lake” set, they all used the same word — “unprecedented.”
“We’ve never had something like this happen before,” wrote Debbie Dorsey, director of the Baltimore Film Office, in an email. “Baltimore’s locations, crew and film infrastructure is some of the best in the business and the Film Office continues to work with the City to ensure a safe and positive place for film production.”
Longtime casting director Pat Moran, who has worked in virtually every Baltimore neighborhood since the 1970s, said she has received more than a dozen text messages, phone calls and emails from colleagues nationwide since the story first was reported.
“Everyone was just shocked,” she said. “No one had ever heard of anything like this happening anywhere — not in New York, not in New Orleans, not in LA. A film production is a big presence. It’s basically like working inside a traveling village.”
Annette Porter, producer of “The Conductor,” the recent documentary about Baltimore Symphony Orchestra conductor Marin Alsop, said the film industry has a long-established list of best practices intended to minimize disruption of local neighborhoods and avoid unsettling encounters between film crews and residents.
Location scouts typically meet in advance with residents and the owners of local businesses — legal and otherwise — in areas where they plan to film. The filmmakers emphasize that when possible, they will hire community workers and patronize community stores and restaurants.
“Filming is by its nature disruptive to a neighborhood,” said Porter, co-director of the JHU-MICA Film Center. “You try to minimize the disruption as much as possible.”
She said large film productions nearly always have their own security teams designed to protect expensive film equipment and ensure that safety protocols are followed. Nor is it unusual for stars to be accompanied by hired bodyguards.
“I was completely surprised when I heard the reports of the threats,” she said. “Everyone I know in the industry was equally surprised.”
She doesn’t expect that the story — whether it’s unfounded or not — to have a chilling effect on Maryland’s film industry.
“I don’t have a crystal ball, but I can’t imagine that it would,” she said. “I haven’t heard from anybody who is changing their plans to film here.”
Jed Dietz, founder of the Maryland Film Festival, said Baltimore has built a reputation over decades as being a city with difficult-to-duplicate advantages to offer film productions.
“The crews here are unbelievably good,” he said. “They’re in demand all over the country.”
And compared with cities such as New York, Los Angeles or Washington, he said, filming in Baltimore is relatively inexpensive. The city also has such a variety of building stock that it can convincingly stand in for another era or locale.
Just as important, Charm City has, well, charm.
“The actor Danny DeVito talked about shooting in Baltimore with Barry Levinson, and how the local people would bring them homemade cookies,” Dietz said.
“In Baltimore, we have a decades long track record of film crews being able to go into all kinds of different neighborhoods where people are friendly and will help you. That kind of reputation doesn’t change overnight.”
Baltimore Sun photographer Amy Davis contributed to this article.