If moviemaking won't come to Baltimore, Charm City's own budding moviemakers will make it happen, using all the means at their disposal - digital technology, eloquent locations and craft friendships developed in the years when this city had an amazing 2 1/2 film crews at work on movies such as "Liberty Heights" and "Cecil B. Demented," and TV shows such as "Homicide."
That's the overriding hope behind the Baltimore-based films in this weekend's Baltimore Women's Film Festival. Elena Moscatt, creator of the Web series "Life After Lisa," stunningly illustrates that audacity of hope as well as persistence and ingenuity.
The series promises to mix madcap mystery and heartbreak as a film student investigates the death of Lisa, a student in a Charm City girl's college in the mid-1980s. But its behind-the-scenes saga is more epic. It spans the early days of the Internet and the cutting edge of Web production, as well as such hot topics as the drop in Maryland filmmaking because of the state government's reluctance to provide incentives for film production.
Moscatt grew up in Charles Village and spent time at Goucher before transferring to Maryland Institute College of Art. She never officially got a degree. But ever since she was a child, she knew degrees didn't matter to her future: She was directing and writing plays from age 6.
She interned in the wardrobe department of the original "Hairspray" (1989) and then worked as Kevin Bacon's personal assistant when he was filming "He Said, She Said" ( 1991) in Baltimore.
She found her niche in 1993 when she joined Local 487 of IATSE, the stagehand and movie technician union, and swiftly became "the queen of crafts services," the department that keeps the other departments lubricated and energized with liquids and between-meal snacks. She was John Waters' main craft-services person on all the movies he's made since then, and also was "the key craftie" on all five seasons of "The Wire."
She never relinquished her childhood hopes of becoming a writer-director, and in 1998 she created a Web show called "Jamie's Way." At the time, Web series were so little known that when she described hers, "people didn't understand what I was talking about." But Moscatt's brother, Paul Moscatt, who owns a computer store, Little Shop of Hardware, clued her in; he's been on top of the Internet almost as long as Al Gore.
And Mascott's 11-year-old goddaughter Kristen said she wanted to be an actor. So Moscatt devised a chronicle of a girl "picking her way through the jungle of junior high school." Then she shot it at MICA, at her house and at any apt spot where the managers realized just how low-budget Web production had to be. The series stretched over four years, and Kristen went from 12 to 16. To keep Internet fans engaged, Moscatt kept staging photo shoots and putting new material up on the Web site.
She landed in the forefront of DIY entertainment: "We got to be in a couple of national magazines: a cheerleading magazine, an Internet magazine. And we were on 'Coffee With' [with WJZ's Don Scott and Marty Bass]."
"Life After Lisa" was a project Moscatt had started thinking about in high school and writing in college. She never let go of it. When she was assisting Bacon, and he was studying his lines in his trailer, she was scribbling dialogue for "Lisa."
"The Wire" gave her a steady job but also soaked up her energy. When it ended, "Baltimore was not attracting enough union work. ... I was watching more and more Web series popping up and thought, 'I should be there.' " Everything clicked when Moscatt had lunch with a friend she hadn't seen since Goucher. "There we were, sitting at Phillips at the harbor, and she asked what I'd been doing for 20 years. I told her about 'Jamie's Way,' and she asked what I had done with 'Life After Lisa.' "
On Moscatt's earlier show, the "hardest part was finding the right actors for the characters. This time, with CraigsList and the Internet, I knew it would be easier. I created a Web site and did character descriptions, and got tons of head shots."
Moscatt thought she had become too sentimental about her own material to direct it properly - she was worried about crying all the time as her characters came to life. (Palmer Endfield directed the first two episodes.) "Life After Lisa" is a murder mystery, a ghost story, a back-to-school drama, and a journalism comedy. But to Moscatt, it is mostly about love and friendship, so the litmus test for auditions was "who would make us cry." The key judge here was Moscatt's friend Perry Blackmon, the lead security guard on "The Wire." If this tough guy couldn't hold back the tears, Moscatt knew the actor in front of them had something.
The most difficult challenge has been physically re-creating the years from 1983 to 1987. Michael Simon, a costumer on "The Wire," is the costume designer for "Life after Lisa." He has fashioned diverse looks conjuring Pat Benatar's dark proto-Goth aura and the thrift-shop or vogue-ish moods of Madonna. "Cyndi Lauper, Madonna, Pat Benatar, also lead singers for bands, like Debbie Harry for Blondie, were all huge. How we danced then was different from how we dance now. Even when I was going to frat parties with Hopkins boys or hanging out at the Rat in Fell's Point, it was more about bobbing and swaying, not so much about dirty dancing and grinding. AIDS was a scary thing. Everybody was more innocent, partly because there was a fear of sex."
Moscatt loves high tech - she wouldn't enjoy a noncrafts-services career without it - but she's nostalgic for the 1980s. "I just think people should live in the present and talk to the people in front of them. We still had bonfires that you'd gather around while you'd drink and tell stories. Or you'd go to bars and dance all night."
In "Life After Lisa," a Cincinnati-bred journalism student named Jessie enters Baltimore's fictional all-girl Brighton College to study journalism and gets placed in the dorm room of a student who lived there before a fatal car wreck. It boasts such spooky-movie standbys as red graffiti screaming "Get Out." But it's loose and amiable even when friends of Lisa surround her and act weird. The product placements promise to be amusing: So far, Ban deodorant gets the biggest plugs.
In an era when "smart" movies such as "District 9" promiscuously switch from pseudo-documentary to conventional storytelling modes, Moscatt and company have the true smarts to establish that they'll alternate between Jessie's video-cam point of view and the multiple perspectives of Lisa's pals.
Web-watchers won't be able to see new episodes of "Life After Lisa" on a monthly basis. Only two have been posted. Each new chapter will be a fight for funds and good locations. And Moscatt is still fiddling with the overall pacing. She wonders whether she can tell the whole story in 22 episodes or, say, 28.
Moscatt's efforts have been paying off in excitement and prestige. In September, her production company, Kapri Productions, became one of the first digital media producers to sign with the Writers Guild of America, East. The girls in and around "Life After Lisa" might listen to Cyndi Lauper, but they don't just want to have fun. They also want to be taken seriously - and so far, they're succeeding.
If you go
The Baltimore Women's Film Festival starts tonight and continues
through Sunday at the Landmark Harbor East Cinema, 645 S. President St. A three-day pass costs $50;
individual screenings cost $10.
Call 800-838-3006 or go to bwfilmfestival.com