IT WAS AFTER THEY'D FINISHED JOHN WATERS' movie "Cry-baby," says Gregg Mason. Director Barry Levinson had called to ask if Mr. Mason and his partner Pat Moran wanted to take on the casting of the movie "Avalon" as their next assignment.
You and I would wait about four seconds before shouting "yes," but not Mr. Mason. He went to Montreal and sat on a rock and thought, "Do I want to go any further with this?"
Eventually he did say yes, and Mason & Moran cast about 50 character parts for "Avalon," plus an incredible 6,000 to 7,000 background parts. And Mr. Mason says he's very glad he did it. But his second thoughts -- or doubts, or creative reluctances, or whatever you want to call them -- continue.
"I won't be doing casting forever," he says. "You have to grow and do different things."
Which he has done: Although Mason & Moran will still be doing casting, he says, he won't be as "full time" with it as he once was. Instead, he'll be doing some of those "different things": This summer he wrote the script for a movie; in less than two months he found a producer for it, and next spring he will be directing it. And when that's done, if he has another idea cooking, he says he'd be glad to write and direct a second film, too.
But not automatically a third. Not "automatically" anything. Gregg Mason does not want to do things automatically; he doesn't want to do a job just because it's a job. That's not what it's all about for him. Perhaps by the time he's made a second movie he will want to make a third -- or perhaps his creative instincts will be taking him in a different direction.
"Ten years from now it might turn out that I'll be a painter," he says. "Who knows?"
THERE AREN'T A LOT OF CERTITUDES IN THE universe of Gregg Mason, but in the uncertain field of American entertainment he has turned that lack into an asset.
This contradictory phenomenon has its roots, you suspect, in a powerful imagination, which allows him to excel at the creative arts of casting and script-writing, and at the same time projects before him the vision of a world in which things don't necessarily turn out the way he wants them to. And because he can imagine things turning sour, he takes steps to make sure they come out sweet instead.
To put it another way, this dreamer and doubter is also a pragmatist. Which is why when you ask his friends what is characteristic of him, they say things like "he's very level-headed" (filmmaker John Waters), or "Gregg is a walking regulation book, he knows all the rules and regulations" (partner Pat Moran).
"He's a very good businessman, which I think a lot of people don't realize," sums up his best friend, David Martz, who is himself an accountant. "For example, he hired close to 7,000 people for 'Avalon,' . . . and it went off without a hitch. How many people can hire 7,000 and nothing go wrong?"
This dual imagination of Gregg Mason couldn't have found a better place to express itself than the world of entertainment, that solid world of commerce built from fragile imaginative tissue. But he doesn't choose to play the part of the young man making good in the world of glitz and big bucks. His hair is in dreadlocks, not for political reasons but to save on trips to the barber shop. He seems to live in T-shirts and baggy Bermudas, though his slenderness and loping grace give this casual attire a striking elegance. He has no pretensions -- that is, no pretensions that would be recognized as such by a society high on premium cars, loud mouths and pumped-up sneakers.
He is 33, but he could be older or younger: His face gives few clues. "He doesn't reveal much," says David Martz; "he is very guarded, but it comes across as being very laid-back."
You can guess at intensity beneath the quiet surface when he talks about doing what's important to him -- or not doing what he doesn't want to do, such as casting movies that don't interest him. He scrutinizes every script he's sent to see if there's something interesting in it, something with scope for imagination in it, something about which he can say, "OK, I can do some neat stuff with this." It doesn't have to be the whole movie that grabs him -- "sometimes I can just be turned on by just one scene."
But without that scene, without that sense of something that grabs him, he won't do the picture. Not any more.
"Of course in the beginning you'll do anything, you've got to eat," he says. But then came "Her Alibi," a Tom Selleck movie without an imaginative vision -- or with too many of them. "I woke up every morning and it was just a job and I hated it," Mr. Mason says, and when it was over he knew he wasn't going to do another film just to do it.
And with that decision made, the worrying side of his imagination starts up again talking to him.
"The phone will ring, and I'll think, 'Do I really want to do this?' and I'll think, 'Are you crazy, you really should be working.' "
He laughs and, perhaps reminding himself as much as you, he says, "It really does depend on whether I'm turned on or not."
LIKE MANY ANOTHER IMAGINATIVE young person, Gregg Mason didn't get all that involved in school. While he was at Randallstown High, he says, "I was more apt to be pondering my own little world somewhere outside of school."
At the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, where he had a dual major in theater and social work, he became involved with tutoring a bunch of kids at a group home. From working with them grew the idea of an all-kids TV production company, and Mr. Mason applied for, and got, a grant to finance it. Youth Productions Ltd. produced television shows that were by kids for kids and which appeared on cable TV in Baltimore and Howard counties. After about six years of Youth Productions, Mr. Mason moved into the world of television free-lancing: working as a sound man for WJZ-TV, Channel 13, shooting or editing or doing promos. He also continued to be the agent for some of the young people he'd met earlier.
Then, with a friend from WJZ, he became involved with a TV dance show called "Shakedown." "I would go to nightclubs to find dancers to be on the show, and it became very popular," he says. (Buses, he remembers, had signs on them saying, "It's 11 o'clock, and do you know where your feet are?")
L After a time, though, the show folded, and he met Pat Moran.
Ms. Moran has been part of John Waters' inner circle since its beginning about 30 years ago, and she has also been the casting director for all his movies. When time came for casting Mr. Waters' first big-budget movie, "Hairspray," one of the people Ms. Moran called to find kids to appear in it was Gregg Mason. And when she and Gregg Mason met, they hit it off and started, as Mr. Mason says, "hanging."
"Next thing I knew I was doing a film called 'Clara's Heart,' " he says, "and it just went from there."
THUS WAS BORN THE CASTING FIRM of Mason & Moran, which in addition to doing casting for feature films also has worked on TV shows such as Fox TV's "America's Most Wanted." (All the Most Wanteds they've cast have been caught, Mr. Mason says.)
At first sight they're an odd couple, Mason & Moran: Pat Moran with her gravelly voice, flaming red hair, pungent speech, outsize presence; Gregg Mason so soft-spoken, wary, low-key, almost self-effacing.
But they have worked smoothly together, almost always agreeing on who's right for what. Both of them use the same metaphor for the movie work they have done together in the last few years: They say casting a feature film is like painting a vast canvas, in which you've got to get every piece right. Not just the stars in the foreground, but also the little people in the background: It all has to come together and express the vision the director had in mind.
People think it's glamorous, but it's not, Ms. Moran warns. It's often an exhausting matter of sorting through thousands of photos sent in by agents and would-be actors, and it means endless hours on the phone, to make sure everyone's where they're supposed to be when they're supposed to be.
So casting is hard work and attention to details -- but it's also imaginative grasp of what it is that the director of a film wants to do.
Mr. Mason "understands what I'm looking for, he understands exactly the kind of person I'm looking for," says John Waters. But, Mr. Waters adds, "a strong point of Gregg is that he could do that even for a completely different sensibility," for someone who didn't share the Waters view of life. (A good thing, Mr. Waters notes, since "let's face it, not every director wants people like I have.")
In one year Mason & Moran ran the spectrum from casting for "Avalon," for "Cry-baby" and for the Public Broadcasting Service. Which is good and bad: "That may have been it," Mr. Mason says, "the most fun you can do," and it's not likely to happen like that again.
"I'm trying to be realistic," he adds. "It means trying something else. . . . I don't want to be sitting back five years from now and saying, 'Well, I casted "Avalon." ' "
He and Ms. Moran closed their Mill Center office at the end of August. Most casting directors don't maintain offices, Mr. Mason notes, and "Pat and I will always be doing something together" -- but it also seems it's time for one half of this duo to cut a solo album.
HE LIVES ON A QUIET CITY block just north of Monument Street, on a street lined with modest, two-story brick row homes and young locust trees. Upstairs, his study window gives a typically Baltimore view of roofs in tidy rows.
The study is a small room, furnished only with a tall white bookshelf, a desk, two chairs. On the wall is a painting of a telephone, the cord of which is twisted to shape the word "hell." On the floor are some stacks of photos. On the desk stands a personal computer.
One morning early last July, Gregg Mason woke up and there was "a sound missing up here -- it was the computer that was off." He'd been working day and night on his script -- and on that morning it was finally finished and winging its way to three or four producers who'd expressed interest in seeing it.
He'll tell you that much, but he's what he calls "superstitious" about discussing the subject matter of his movie-to-be. All he will say is that it's "a fun romp about these three teen-agers who are faced with a task of righting some wrongs."
He's more comfortable saying what it's not: a message film.
"If somebody gets something out of my films, that's great -- certainly I put a lot in there," he says, but "It's not a political thing. I deal more with just presenting a show. I don't care about presenting a statement. My statement is in not making one."
He doesn't want to be an activist, he says -- he just wants to make movies. Art is his point, not politics. He reads about outspoken black director Spike Lee, and although he thinks Mr. Lee's movies are well-crafted, he doesn't agree with his attitude.
"As a filmmaker you make your film and you put it out there and you shut up, and that's all there is to it. Let's not try to say, 'Well, this is the meaning of this, and this is what this is all about,' " he says.
His feelings about racism are similarly unprogrammatic: Although believes racism made breaking into the business harder for him, he refuses to get polemical about it.
"People at the beginning did look at me and think, 'Well, what does this guy know?' " But "one of the things I never did was say, 'Well, I'm going to stand up and yell on a soapbox about it.' I just figured, well, ignorance equals fear, and I'll just move somewhere else. Move on -- there's going to be somebody out there who's not going to approach me with that. . . .
"We have a world where black people fought for civil rights, and white people fought for civil rights, and that's law, and we have to move on. Stop standing at an unlocked door and knocking on it. That's what it's really all about to me."
SPEAKING OF UNLOCKED doors, three weeks after Gregg Mason sent out his script, one of the producers was already working on putting together a package and an offer, and Gregg Mason was asking himself, in typically Gregg Mason fashion, "Is this real or is it just a joke?"
But three weeks after that he had a deal, with Maryland-based Emeralde Productions Inc. And it was the deal he wanted: Not only will he direct the film, but it also will be made in Maryland, with talent that either lives here or comes from here.
"There are a lot of talented people in Baltimore," he says, though he believes the lack of recognition on the home front often makes them leave. He doesn't want to, though.
"It's kind of like a goal to stay here and to make whatever I want to do from here and hope that it doesn't get too draining," he says. "I'd like to think that someday we can have a base here that's recognized in all ranges of entertainment."
Peter Quigley, one of the two partners in Emeralde Productions, plans to make that happen. He and his partner, William McCutcheon, "always talked about doing this," he says. Now they plan to put together not only Mr. Mason's film, but others as well. Like Mr. Mason, they want to establish a local "foundation or base so that people in the film community will know there's a stream of films coming out of this community and they will find work here."
It sounds idyllic, and you might think Gregg Mason would be in the clouds about it. But the worrying pragmatist part of him is still working overtime to remind him of the terrible things that could happen.
"One minute I'm sitting down and thinking of people that I want to bring to this project, and the next I feel like balling up the piece of paper and saying, 'What, are you nuts? This is fantasy.' . . . A part of me says, 'Just loosen up, Gregg, it's OK,' but the other part of me just stays so guarded" that the champagne bottle never gets uncorked.
Even when it's time to roll the cameras, he imagines, he'll still be standing there asking, "So, you sure you want to do this? So, you sure you want to do this?"
BUT SUCH PLAGUES OF THE imagination seem far away at 12:30 in the morning at the Club Charles.
The word for the day, says the board behind the bar, is "fantod." It hasn't scared anybody away, though: The usual Friday-night crowd is in attendance, a Club Charles kind of crowd. People who wore black before the fashion editors did, who knew David Lynch from "Eraserhead," that kind of crowd. Plus there are wannabes, of course -- wannabes come with the territory at the Club Charles.
Gregg Mason has to watch out for them, says Vicki Mabrey, a WBAL-TV, Channel 11 reporter who knows Gregg from when "we were both working on television years and years ago." Wannabes, especially would-be actors, always want something from him -- a role, a foothold in the door, some rubbed-off glamour, some whatever-it-is that successful people have and wannabes don't. They're put off the scent for a while by the T-shirts, the baggy shorts, the lack of hype, but eventually they figure out who Gregg Mason is and then they track him down.
zTC It's a problem for many in the John Waters group: They work in the high-profile fields of movies and television, but that doesn't mean they want to act the high-profile part when they go out for a drink with some friends.
So those of the group who are here tonight are drifting doorward. Their inconspicuousness has been destroyed by the Sun photographer with his lights and the Sun reporter with her notebook, and they are leaving. Tonight they include Peter Koper, writer-producer for Fox TV's "America's Most Wanted," Hal German, writer-producer for WBAL-TV's "11 On-Your-Side," Gina Koper, costumer and wife of Peter, and Vicki Mabrey, John Waters, David Martz, Gregg Mason.
Outside, the heat of the day has melted down into the glowing pinkish-gray air of a summer night in the city. Up a block or so, the Friday-night cars line North Avenue, traffic barely moving. In front of the Club Charles, Gregg Mason and the others lean for a while against a red car and continue talking, but soon they move off into the night.
Then there's no one on the sidewalk but some young people from the Depot bar next door, and the inevitable Charles Street beggars, one of whom asks again and again "Is your name Kenny?" (It never is.)
A car passes on Lafayette, going east. Ms. Mabrey and Mr. German are talking in the front seat. In the back is Gregg Mason, looking out the window, in his own world again, going somewhere. Don't ask him where. Time will tell.