Casting director Pat Moran, a co-founder of John Waters' Dreamland Films, helped create the human tapestries that give Waters' midnight specials their Fellini-like ebullience. But she has also done her part to imbue such Barry Levinson memory plays as "Avalon" and "Liberty Heights" with their gnarly warmth and David Simon's hard-hitting TV shows, "The Corner" and "The Wire," with their bluesy grit.
On the eve of the famous trio's first joint appearance for the Maryland Film Festival (Saturday night at MICA's Brown Hall), she characterizes these three Charm City giants with typical bluntness and aplomb.
Levinson is "the Godfather." Waters is "the Outlaw." Simon is "the Beatnik."
And she makes a lot of sense. "Barry was the godfather of the gang because he was out in the real industry when John and our friends were outlaws. And David is a beatnik. He's a writer-producer, not a writer-director like those guys, but I think he's as intense as Marlon Brando when we first saw Brando - not as an actor, as a storyteller."
Ace production designer Vincent Peranio also speaks as a collaborator and ally of all three men. He's another member of Team Waters who went on to Levinson's "Liberty Heights" and "Homicide" and Simon's "The Corner" and "The Wire."
Chat with Peranio, and you learn all over again how crucial TV and movies can be for defining the strength and weakness of a city. "These three contributed to how the world sees Baltimore visually and to how Baltimore thinks about itself," Peranio says. "Whether Baltimoreans like it or not."
After all, what print materials or paintings have done more to establish Baltimore as a center of funk than Waters' "Desperate Living" or "Pink Flamingos"? Or as a mesh of neighborhoods that sometimes overlap (and often don't) than Waters' "Hairspray" or Levinson's "Diner" and "Liberty Heights"? Or as a city with aggressive crime and law enforcement than Levinson's "Homicide" (developed from Simon's 1991 book "Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets")?
And apart from Simon's own books (including, with Ed Burns, "The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood"), what literary creations have done more to portray Baltimore as a metropolis that epitomizes the 21st-century urban crazy-quilt of racial and social problems than Simon's miniseries version of "The Corner," and, especially, his long-run series "The Wire"?
Lounging across from the Fells Point Recreation Pier that he turned into a police station for "Homicide," Peranio reminisced: "Baltimoreans loved that show because basically murder can happen anywhere; it wasn't just the ghettos, it was rich people, poor people, all kinds, old, young. My mission at the start was to show as much Baltimore as possible - so they couldn't take the show to Los Angeles!"
But he feels a special fondness for the Baltimore movie Levinson made during the series' final year, "Liberty Heights." "Barry's vision has a sweetness, a nostalgia, in that particular film. And I'm a lover of Baltimore and Baltimore history myself, so I could get into that. I used the old Hippodrome when it was still derelict; we put $50,000 into the marquee, to make it the Royal Theater, then dressed all the buildings across the street. People would see it and have tears in their eyes."
Peranio summarizes, "Whatever work we've done, whether with John, Barry or David, we've done True Baltimore."
Moran and Peranio were part of the funky bohemia that produced the underground sensation of Watersmania that erupted at midnight showings nationwide with the success of "Pink Flamingos." Moran got there first. A Catonsville Catholic schoolgirl, she drifted into Waters' demimonde in the early 1960s, when she returned as a young woman to Mount Vernon's Estelle Dennis Dance Studio, where she'd studied as a girl. After class, she and a friend would drift into Martick's for a drink. There she met men who were interested in opera and theater, not sports.
"Long story short, an unusual friend we had made downtown, from another neighborhood, namely Lutherville, introduced me to John, who was also from Lutherville."
Waters needed someone to help him slip into Martick's for a drink, because he was underage. He and Moran became inseparable, as neighborhood misfits who found new lives downtown.
Peranio says, "We're talking 1968. I had just graduated from art school, just starting out, having little shows, when a group of eight of us who had graduated that year found a place in Fells Point that was 22 rooms for $100 a month. So it became a big artist commune party house. A friend of mine who also went to the Maryland Institute, Susan Lowe, ended up playing in a lot of John's films. To one of our little parties, she brought John, Pat, Mink, Divine, David Lochary [Waters' own Star Factory] and [costume designer] Van Smith. We met the whole Dreamland studio at once."
It was the beginning of a 40-year-partnership in what Peranio calls "creative play. John would call up on Friday night and say 'Bring some blankets and sheets, we're going to do Stations of the Cross.' Or the next weekend, we'd meet at his parents' house to do 'the cavalcade of perversions.' In between painting, I would find myself doing a film." Peranio calls the resulting films "true visions" of the "over-the-top side of Baltimore." They were "brightly colored cartoons" made "from what we found in the trash."
Moran first worked with Levinson on "Avalon," which for her was like "doing 'Ben-Hur,' it was so big. Waters showed me that I could do what I do, but Barry legitimized me." She had long admired Levinson's eye for talent. "Barry could find actors under rocks and get great performances from them. The minute I saw 'Diner,' I thought, 'Whoah!' These actors were something different. Mickey Rourke had pimples! Kevin Bacon was a goofball!"
Moran says her job is to cast a picture or series so that any actor - say, Josh Charles, discovered for "Hairspray," or Sean Hatosy, for "Homicide" - looks like just the guy or gal meant to deliver a line. "That's not how it started out with John," Moran says. "That was what I did with Barry. My theory on acting and actors is that there's a role for every actor; you just have to find it. It could be 'Telephone!' or three pages of dialogue. My job is to make you believe the words come out of his mouth naturally."
Soon Peranio, like Moran, made the leap from burlesque to realism with Levinson. "He was looking for a place to have the big location for the police station in 'Homicide,' " and I'd always loved the Recreation Pier and knew it was empty. ... I took Barry over to the pier, and I said 'Look - it says Baltimore Police,' because it said BP, initials for Baltimore Pier. He liked it." Peranio embarked on a nine-year creative scavenger hunt through his beloved city, and Moran's determination to show what it was really like in a police station grew on "Homicide" from year to year.
"Before we did that show, you couldn't see a fat girl in a station house, but when we got rolling, you could put in a drag queen without explanation, just because that's what you'd really find there."
Moran's and Peranio's entrance onto the bullet-train of television - and their ever-deeper tunneling into realism - also reflected Simon's journey from novice to master. From 1993 to 1999 he evolved from Baltimore Sun crime reporter and author of the book "Homicide," to writer-producer on that series. He wrote and produced the HBO miniseries "The Corner," and then became the creator-producer-writer-showrunner of "The Wire."
Peranio says, "David's big thing on 'The Wire' was not to do it like 'Homicide,' so I almost didn't get the job. But I was determined to make it look different - and it was. ... I decided I wanted it much bleaker than 'Homicide' ever was. The hard thing was continuing that thought for years."
Moran says all three men have acute senses of humor, though "John can't stop talking. He's like Shecky Greene. And Barry is more cerebral, maybe more like Mort Sahl. David Simon's humor is way out there, more off-the-wall - again, like a beatnik's!" She says they share the directness and generosity that come with values forged beyond the glad-handing of conventional show biz.
She'd like to see them jump way out of their comfort zones. "Maybe Simon should do a musical. Maybe Waters should do a Hitchcockian thing based on some real murder trial. Maybe Levinson should do one of those things in which something blows up every three minutes."
Mostly, though, she and Peranio want them to keep making movies in Baltimore. And so should Baltimoreans. They've made Baltimore a capital of the American imagination. They haven't just "put the city on the map." They're the guys who drew the map.
If you go
"Three Movie Visionaries" starts at 8 p.m. Saturday at MICA's Brown Center, 1301 Mount Royal Ave. Tickets are $125-$250. Call 410-752-8083 or go to md-filmfest.com/fof.cfm