Baltimore’s Filmmaking Scene in Focus
Baltimore's film scene is what directors John Waters, Barry Levinson, David Simon and Matt Porterfield have in common. And it’s what they love about Baltimore that takes centre stage.
Baltimore looks good on film. Its working-class neighbourhoods and peculiar charm have long appealed to natives such as John Waters and Barry Levinson, who’ve immortalised it in movies such as Hairspray and Diner. But it also exudes historical elegance and a gritty urbanity that make it a great stand-in for New York, Washington, DC, and even Paris.
“I would never want to live anywhere but Baltimore,” Waters has famously said. “You can look far and wide, but you’ll never discover a stranger city with such extreme style.”
Waters’ films certainly reflect that, with all the outrageous hairdos, Formstone row houses and art house panache. To a lesser extent, so do Levinson’s—though his take on the city is more nuanced and sepia-toned—and both directors exude fierce pride for their hometown.
So does David Simon, creator of HBO’s The Wire. “I always felt our bumper stickers should say, ‘If you can’t live here, you ain’t right,’” Simon told the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association. “There’s a lot that’s really vibrant about Baltimore. I love its idiosyncrasies. I love the architecture. I love the accent.. . . There’s something about Baltimore that gets under your skin.”
That sort of pride trickles down to young locals such as Matt Porterfield, director of Putty Hill and Hamilton, films that depict the city with an edgy realism infused with an insider’s affection. Porterfield, who’s been lauded by The New Yorker and Variety as a budding cinema star, has cited Baltimore’s “physical environment and its people as a real source of inspiration.”
Those same qualities lure outside filmmakers to town, notes Debbie Donaldson Dorsey, director of the Baltimore Film Office. “The people here are very friendly,” she says, “and they welcome film crews to their communities. The city also has a great variety of neighbourhoods and architecture, so it has a little bit of everything, which filmmakers absolutely love.”
That’s why movies as varied as Sleepless in Seattle, Twelve Monkeys and Washington Square have been shot in Baltimore, along with recent HBO projects such as Veep, starring Seinfeld’s Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Game Change, with Julianne Moore as Sarah Palin and Ed Harris as John McCain.
“Baltimore has so many different looks,” says Dorsey. “It can be a seaport, a European city, or it can double as the nation’s capital—all within a 15-mile radius, so it’s amazingly accessible. And the food is great.”
Porterfield sums it up: “I don’t think I’ve ever lived in a place where people are so completely ready to share their lives with strangers. People walk around with their masks on, certainly—but just underneath, right below this surface, they are ready to be loved.. . . Most people in this city want to connect. If a filmmaker is interested in people, this is a great city to make movies.”