The producers of "The Raven" insist they aren't giving Baltimore the bird.
It seems that a heavily fictionalized movie version about Charm City's favorite son, Edgar Allan Poe, is in the works. The film stars John Cusack, and even is set in mid-19th-century Baltimore, where the master of the macabre is buried.
So, it makes sense that filmmakers, in search of locations that will evoke our city's authentic essence, that unmistakable dash of Old Bay, are shooting in … Budapest?
Yep. And Belgrade.
But, Marc D. Evans, one of three producers of "The Raven," said that in an ideal world, filming would be taking place right here. In fact, co-producer Aaron Ryder initially prepared a budget for shooting the project in Maryland.
"But, as much as you want to film in a particular place, sometimes it doesn't make as much financial sense as shooting somewhere else," Evans said.
"So you have to be a bit inventive. If I had studio-level resources at my disposal, and a few million dollars weren't quite as precious to us, we would have shot there anyway. But we have to make a few million go a long way."
"The Raven," slated for release next year, is set during the last five days of Poe's life — a period when he disappeared before turning up dazed and incoherent. He died shortly thereafter.
The film begins with Poe's return to Baltimore for the second and final time. A serial killer is terrorizing the local citizens, and it is apparent that he is being inspired by Poe's stories. Initially, the novelist is a suspect. After he clears his name — and after his fiancee is kidnapped — the author works with a Baltimore police inspector to solve the crimes.
Ryder is the same producer who brought "My One and Only" starring Renee Zellweger and Kevin Bacon to Maryland in the summer of 2008, and he spoke highly of his experience filming here. Last March, he and the film's director, James McTeigue, scouted possible locations for "The Raven" in Baltimore.
"They took a bunch of pictures and explored a lot of neighborhoods," Evans said. "They went into Fells Point and into the taverns and tried to get a sense of the waterfront."
Jack Gerbes, director of the Maryland Film Office, showed Ryder the little house at 203 Amity St. where Poe once lived, as well as the dun-colored gravestone bearing a side view of a raven at Westminster Hall, where the author is buried.
"At the time, we had incentives to offer to shoot 'The Raven' here," Gerbes said. "But they could not have made up the difference in the labor costs."
But Evans said that a more enticing offer might have made the difference.
"It certainly would have made that alternative weigh more heavily in our minds," he said.
He added that the film makes no attempt to re-create the real-life Baltimore, circa 1849, but instead evokes an imaginary version of the town.
"We took a little artistic license," Evans said. "We're really seeing the Gothic version of Baltimore through Poe's eyes and the nature of his stories."
"The Raven" will include scenes set in a church, a grand ballroom and in the office of a newspaper called The Baltimore Patriot.
Evans hopes that lifelong Baltimoreans will be willing to overlook occasional historical discrepancies — especially if some details are accurate. For instance, costumes worn by actors portraying Baltimore police officers are close to the uniforms actually worn during that period.
"I hope people will still feel, 'That's Poe's Baltimore. That's cool.'" Evans said.
Be that as it may, it could prove difficult to persuade one of Poe's living descendants to take the flight of fancy that producers seem to have in mind.
"Obviously, the filmmakers are intending this movie to be in the style of Monty Python or Mel Brooks," said Hal Poe, a professor of faith and culture at Union University in Jackson, Tenn., and the family spokesman. (His great-great-grandfather was Poe's cousin.)
"On the other hand, if they are serious, it's a sad undertaking. From the little bits and pieces I've seen, it sounds as though the only thing 'The Raven' will have in common with the real Poe is the name."
Cusack also seems to be making an attempt at verisimilitude, though the small goatee he sports in an early publicity shot has some Poe purists up in arms. (The author's facial hair was limited to a rather sinister-looking mustache.)
Recently, Cusack's agent contacted Jeff Jerome, curator of the Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum, to pick his brain about the author and the city.
"John had all these questions about what Baltimore was like in the 1850s," Jerome said.
'He wanted to know what caused Poe's death, what kind of person he was, was he obsessed with death and darkness. I've never tried to whitewash Poe. I told them Poe had a definite problem with alcohol, though it was greatly exaggerated by those who didn't like him.
"But, I also told them that Poe wrote comedies, and that on a one-to-one basis, he was one of the nicest guys you'd ever want to meet.
"I hope I didn't burst their bubble."
If so, the filmmakers can take heart from observations made by Jeff Savoye, the secretary/treasurer of the Edgar Allan Poe Society. He claims that positioning Poe as a 19th-century action figure isn't as far-fetched as it might sound.
"Poe never actually solved a crime," Savoye said. "But, he did get reasonably close."
On July 28, 1841, the body of Mary Rogers, a "cigar girl" hired to entice rich buyers into tobacco shops, was pulled from the Hudson River. She was tied with strips of her own clothing.
Rogers' death mesmerized the population, including Poe. The following year, he published a short story called "The Mystery of Marie Roget" based on the real-life crime.
"Poe had a fine analytical mind, and he loved puzzles," Savoye said.
"He got a fair amount right. He determined that some of the leading theories of the day were inaccurate, and that one of the main suspects was almost certainly not guilty. He also thought that Mary probably died during a botched abortion, and that her body was dumped in the river.
"To this day, the mystery has never been solved. But, the solution Poe chose is still the most likely explanation."
It's worth noting that Poe himself wasn't above taking liberties with the truth. Perhaps finding that the location of Roger's death wasn't sufficiently romantic, he moved the action to Paris.
So if Evans & Co. determined that in their film Budapest and Belgrade are worthy substitutes for Baltimore, Poe might well have sympathized — especially if he could have seen what Baltimore looks like in 2010.
"Say they were shooting in Fells Point," Gerbes said. "They'd have a huge expense just taking down telephone poles and wires. But some parts of eastern Europe look exactly the same way they did 150 years ago.
"Would I like to see a movie about an iconic Baltimore figure shot in Baltimore? Most definitely. But I also understand the economic realities of today's Hollywood."