Steve Yeager appears caught off-guard when asked if he set out to earn a reputation as a filmmaker focusing on Baltimore's marginalized. The thought, it seems, has never really occurred to him.
And yet, it's an obvious question. His first narrative film, 1990's On the Block, the story of a stripper struggling to go legit, was set and filmed in Baltimore's notorious red-light district. His biggest success, 1998's award-winning documentary Divine Trash, chronicled Baltimore's merriest bunch of misfits, the cast and crew of John Waters' reprobate 1972 masterpiece, Pink Flamingos. And his latest movie, Crystal Fog, which gets its world premiere Wednesday at the Charles Theatre, focuses on a love triangle with a drag queen at its center.
"I find those characters and those lifestyles much more interesting, dramatically, to portray," the 61-year-old Baltimore native says over lunch at Donna's in Charles Village. "They're not mainstream characters, and that's what I'm looking for, it's what I'm attracted to."
Yeager has come to know that world pretty well over the years. He was able to make On the Block, Yeager recalls with a grin, only because he went to school with one of the cooler beat cops patrolling that section of East Baltimore Street; the cop vouched for him among the club owners.
His connection with Waters goes way back. Yeager was there during the filming of Pink Flamingos, movie- and still-cameras in hand, documenting what all those weirdos were doing on the streets of Baltimore and in the woods of Baltimore County. That footage became the basis of Divine Trash, named best documentary at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival.
"He's always been in the film community, even when there wasn't one at all," Waters says from his summer home in Provincetown, Mass. "I don't remember when I met Steve. But when I made Mondo Trasho , he made a parody movie, called Petite Trasho. That's when we became friends."
Yeager's connection to Crystal Fog is even more personal.
In the movie, Tommi, a drag performer using the stage name Crystal Fog (Jordan Siebert) falls in love with Darren (Steve Polites) a young straight guy loved by Warren (Frank Moorman), an older gay man. The unwelcome triangle is based on an incident from the life of Yeager's younger brother, Tommi, a drag performer in several Baltimore gay clubs - including The Hippo, seen in Crystal Fog as the title character's performing base, The Eclipse.
While admitting that he only saw his brother's drag act once or twice, Yeager says there was no friction between the two (a third Yeager brother, Michael, is a computer programmer and teacher in Harford County). They might not have been close, but they were brothers.
"I wouldn't say we were estranged," Yeager says, "but we didn't travel in the same circles. I will tell you that the couple times I saw him in drag, he was a beautiful, really attractive man."
Not to mention an inspiration. Yeager says his brother once broke the heart of a boyfriend by starting a relationship with a younger guy who, until he met Tommi, had been straight.
Those looking for theater-of-the-outrageous in Yeager's canon are in for a disappointment. Crystal Fog is a movie about people, not about a lifestyle. And there's nothing flamboyant about it.
Movie director is only one item on Yeager's performing arts resume. He's an adjunct instructor at Towson University, where he teaches acting (he cast himself as the acting teacher who first brings Warren and Darren together in Crystal Fog). And he has, for eight years, organized and taught a summer filmmaking camp for kids at Park School.
Acting remains Yeager's first love; every few years, he directs a play on the local theater circuit. His most recent effort, a 2008 production of A Hatful of Rain for Vagabond Players, was named one of the year's 10 best plays by City Paper. He's been directing plays since 1970, when his Of Mice and Men marked the acting debut of teenager Howard Rollins Jr., who earned an Oscar nomination for 1981's Ragtime. In 1978, Yeager's take on Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde featured a former UMBC acting student, Kathleen Turner. She, too, would be Oscar-nominated, for 1986's Peggy Sue Got Married.
"I really admire his ability to work in various ways in film," says Jed Dietz, founder of the Maryland Film Festival, for which Yeager serves on the screening committee. "He works with students, he did a film with some doctors about malpractice, he's done all kinds of things. That's the most instructive thing for young filmmakers, to see how Steve has continued to piece together things that ... make a career."
For Yeager, it's a simple matter: "I've just tried to stay in the business." But that underplays his determination ever since a pageant at Margaret Brent Elementary School first showed him the way.
"I got the role of a prince in a fifth-grade play," he says. "And then in sixth grade, I was chosen out of all the kids to recite the Gettysburg Address at the commencement. Here I am, in my brand new little gray suit and tie, while Mary Jane Hunter played 'The Battle Hymn of the Republic' on the xylophone. According to my mother, there wasn't a dry eye in the house.
"That," he says, ending his tale with a flourish, "is when I knew."
If you go
Crystal Fog premiere, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Charles Theatre, 1711 N. Charles St. Tickets are $20, and include a post-film reception at the Windup Space Bar & Arts Venue, 10-30 W. North Ave.