Send in the Clown

Writer-director Sara Moore wants Homo Heights to make 'em laugh.

To those aspiring filmmakers schooled in cynical second-guessing--i.e "I doubt I'd ever find the money to make a movie, and if I did they'd probably force me to change the entire thing"--a look at writer-director Sara Moore would probably either baffle or inspire. This upbeat, Twin Cities-based filmmaker somehow managed to complete her debut feature, Homo Heights, on time, on budget, and with the ideal cast and crew. Moreover, the success of the final product has given her better-than-average odds that the film will be picked up for distribution. (It's screening Saturday at the State Theatre in a benefit for the queer community foundation Philanthrofund.)

After meeting Sara Moore in her tiny apartment in South Minneapolis, the mystique around Homo Heights suddenly snaps into focus, making it clear how she was able to rally the vast support needed for a project of this scale (the official budget is "under a million"). Before we settle down to talk about her, Moore looks me square in the eye and asks, "Well, what do you want to do?" This knocks me a bit off guard; the "What do you do?" question is common enough, but adding the word want changes the meaning entirely. She listens to my halting reply and says, sincerely, "That sounds so exciting--you should go for that." This unaffected enthusiasm--combined with talent and hard-earned experience--is Moore's stock in trade, and it's no surprise that so many others have chosen to invest in it.

If you believe Moore and her producer Kate Lehmann that the best way to return a film's investment is to make it seem more expensive than it is, then this surreal comedy-drama about an all-gay neighborhood hits the mark. Flaunting actor and Elton John-impersonator Steven Sorrentino as a drag-queen "head of the gay Mafia" named Maria Callous, and the iconic Quentin Crisp as Callous's elderly ex-lover Malcolm, Homo Heights leaps from lurid nightclub to elegant tea party without taking a breath. Occasionally, the serial plot becomes confused, and it's tough at first to keep track of who's lusting after who and why. But in fact, those details don't much matter: Like John Waters's films, the opulently garish atmosphere (underscored by Elizabeth Fine's production design and Lounge Lizard Evan Lurie's tasty original soundtrack) provides a home for Moore's tangled web of characters and plot lines.

"I didn't know what I was getting into," Moore says, laughing about the endless struggle to keep all the elements in line. "This was a huge process, with a lot of people involved, so my job was to be the general on the hill. In a movie like this, where you have no money and no time, it's like being on stage: You don't get another take, so you have to do it right the first time. I think having been an actor myself helped a lot because I understood how to get out of them what I needed without making them feel too pressured." At this, Moore takes a pause, staring out over my head. "Well, there may have been a few who felt pressured, but they were too professional to complain to me about it." Moore's bulldozer approach to directing may be attributed to the fact that, lacking a film-school degree or any prior movie experience, she doesn't hail from the traditional indie-film background. Instead, by using film to expand upon her carefully honed theatrical craft, Moore takes her cue from such physical comedians-turned-directors as Charlie Chaplin and Jerry Lewis. "I was a professional clown for years," Moore says, pulling out a box of old photos and tossing me snapshots of herself hugging Carol Channing, joking with Tim Conway, and acting the happy Harpo in a dressing room filled with scantily clad showgirls.

"I worked at amusement parks, and I worked for the Ringling Bros., Circus World, and Merv Griffin," Moore says. "I wanted a career in acting, but I knew I wasn't going to be Meryl Streep--if anything, I was going to be some oddball. So I quit school and ran away with the circus. Then I started doing these tits-and-glitz shows in Atlantic City. I was the comic relief--if you couldn't guess." Giggling, Moore hands me a photo of herself stuffed into a black rubber dress with yarn braids sticking out from either side of her head.

Eventually, Moore's contract ran out and she was forced to assess the costs of her clowning. "There was really no money in it," Moore says. "It's of another era that was over in the '20s. So I sat down and thought, 'Is there anything that I really want to say? Or do I want to go to Vegas and continue trying to be Fanny Brice for this part of the century?'" As Moore tells it, the story for Homo Heights literally poured out of her as soon as she decided to type out the title, and the subsequent pages spelled a change of direction. "I had no idea that I was going to do a gay film," she says. "I'd come from this background of family entertainment, so it was partly a backlash. I was so tired of being this nice, wholesome character. I wanted to write something that I wanted to talk about." As it turned out, what Moore wanted to say was something that other people wanted to hear.

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