Assistant managing editor Amy Mulvihill attended the Maryland Film Festival's "Three Movie Visionaries" talk with Barry Levinson, John Waters, and David Simon at MICA. Here is her report:
It was like the G-8 (G-3?) summit of Baltimore filmmaking at MICA on Saturday night when the heavy-hitting triumvirate of Barry Levinson (Avalon, Diner, Liberty Heights, Tin Men), John Waters (Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, Cry Baby, Hairspray, Pecker), and David Simon (The Corner, Homicide, The Wire) convened for a wide-ranging discussion of their careers. The freewheeling, highly-entertaining talk was moderated by celebrated film critic Elvis Mitchell and framed by VIP dinner and dessert receptions.
Ostensibly, the occasion was a fundraiser for the Maryland Film Festival, which goes down each May, but it seemed just as much like a good excuse for the three colleagues to sit around and talk about how weird and wonderful Baltimore is.
Before I dive into my recollections of the event, I must make some disclaimers.
One: I only had a notepad with me so I jotted down notes as best I could but much of the dialogue is "as remembered." Two: The opinions expressed by the three filmmakers and host do not necessarily reflect those of Baltimore or this writer!
Now, on to the good stuff.
As I mentioned, the evening began with a red carpet where the press got a few minutes with each director as they entered. I kind of can't remember what I asked them because I was seriously nervous, but my photographer assured me that I managed to maintain a calm façade.
I do remember asking David Simon what he thought about some universities using The Wire as a teaching tool, particularly in sociology courses. Unsurprisingly, he thought it was great, although he maintained that wasn't his intention when he created the show. What I really wanted to ask David Simon was, "How come The Wire is so awesome?" but I thought that might seem unprofessional.
The dinner/cocktails reception for the VIPs-and those who forked out $250 for all-access tickets, admission for the talk was $125-followed. Thanks to my media credentials I was allowed into the VIP reception and got to surreptitiously observe (it's not stalking if you were invited!) the directors.
Barry Levinson and Elvis Mitchell spent most of the evening huddled in a corner in deep discussion. I didn't try to eavesdrop-even I have my limits!-but they were friendly to those who approached. Actually, the thing I noticed most about Barry Levinson was his shoes. They were black sneakers, the kind with the shock absorbers built into the sole. I don't know why that made such an impression on me, but it just tickled me pink.
Speaking of wardrobe, David Simon wore a vintage, blue, nylon Colts Corral jacket in honor of Barry Levinson's latest project The Band That Wouldn't Die, a documentary about the Colts' abandoned marching band. He circulated affably, having just flown in from New Orleans where he was on day four of filming for his new series about post-Katrina New Orleans.
Of course, the beau of the ball was the human quote-generator John Waters. I mean, really, who is more entertaining than him? He is the rare argument for a celebrity reality show. Seriously, how can I get fewer Kardashians and more John Waters on my TV, stat?
The discussion was hilarious and insightful with the three guys sharing war stories about shooting in Baltimore and raising money in Hollywood ("It never gets easier," Waters assured the audience). The conversation jumped around so quickly and touched on so many disparate topics that I'm just going to bullet point the highlights for you starting with John Waters's Brad Pitt casting story. Yep, you read that correctly.
- He and right-hand casting director Pat Moran auditioned Pitt when they were casting for Johnny Depp's sidekick in Cry Baby. The then unknown gave a solid audition but could never have toned-down his natural charisma enough to play second fiddle to the equally-beautiful Johnny Depp.
"When he left, Pat and I turned to each other and said, ‘Can you believe it? He's going to be the biggest movie star in the world!' You could just tell." Still, he wasn't right for the part so they passed. "I'm the only person in the world who's turned Brad Pitt down!" Waters declared to the delight of the audience.
- Shortly after David Simon's book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets was released in 1991, it was shopped around to various film and TV studios. At the time, Simon had no intention of leaving his job at The Sun and didn't expect that he would ever have the opportunity to anyway. One night, he was working the rewrite desk when he got an unexpected call. "There was this computer at The Sun that, for some reason, wouldn't automatically update the weather so you'd have to manually put the temperatures in, like Pittsburgh, 74, or whatever. So I was doing that and the phone rang. I picked it up and this guy says , ‘Hi, This is William Freidkin.' Not knowing or particularly caring who it was, Simon grunted, "Hi. What do you want?" Freidkin, the director of ‘70s classics like The French Connection and The Exorcist, introduced himself and explained that he had read Simon's book and really liked it. Skeptical, Simon believed it was his colleague playing a trick on him.
"Alvarez, quit effing around! I'm doing the weather," he huffed.
Eventually, Simon came to believe it really was the lauded director on the other end of the line. But, when his hopes started to rise, they were quickly dashed when Freidkin ended the call saying, "Well, just wanted to say I liked your book. Bye," leaving a bewildered Simon to complete the weather chart.
- Though it was the first time the three Baltimore auteurs shared a stage publicly, they had all met before and are admirers of each other's work. Simon and Levinson go way back as collaborators. It was Levinson who did eventually option Simon's book and turn it into the NBC drama Homicide. Levinson and Simon were able to shed light on Homicide's downward slide in quality during its seven-season run. The basic explanation: It's NBC's fault. Levinson had a deal with NBC to produce the series that included no interference from the network for the first six shows: They couldn't weigh in on scripts, casting, directing, cinematography-nothing. Levinson was liberated. The network was "apoplectic."
"They were like, ‘Why is the camera moving around so much? Who are these people?' Can't you have a shoot out?'" Levinson recalled. Eventually, network pressure forced the show to compromise its gritty vision of dead-end investigations and ne'er-do-well detectives. "By the end, the cast looked like the cast of Friends," Simon snarked.
- Though all three have distinct visions of Baltimore, there was one big thing they could all agree on: Non-natives should NOT attempt a Baltimore accent. "Actors always want to do it," Levinson said, rolling his eyes, "and most of them can't." For the sake of continuity then, the directors all agree that's its best to discourage the actors lest they end up with one half of the cast speaking Bawlmorese and the other half speaking some weird mixture of southern and Midwestern dialects.
- This brings me to the most un-PC story of the night, related by (who else?) John Waters. On the mid-80s TV show The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd, the main character had a cousin from Baltimore, played by Maryland native John Glover, whose accent was no affectation. Apparently, the network received lots of viewer mail saying, "Love the show, but what's up with the retarded cousin?"
- Most importantly, the three bemoaned the state's lack of support for the film industry. Currently, Maryland is 48th in the nation in offering tax-rebates to productions. Despite having an experienced, well-trained crew available, diverse landscape and housing stock that can double for almost any location, and easy transportation access, the Land of Pleasant Living is commonly passed over in favor of states that offer better incentives. Levinson was particularly vocal about his displeasure at the legislature's myopic policy. "It's like, if I gave you $1 and you gave me back 20¢, you'd still have made 80¢. But the state doesn't think of it as making 80¢. They just think, ‘Hey, we gave you 20¢!'"
Here's hoping the legislature figures out a way forward or, as Waters noted, "a lot of [film business] people who live here will have to move."
Photo credit: Richard Lippenholz