Send in the Clown

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.  

"It's a blatant attempt to lampoon the stereotypes of the gay community," Moore says of Homo Heights, a film in which the effeminate Malcolm continually sighs over his fabulous collection of movie-star memorabilia; a cab-driving dyke named Clementine (Lea DeLaria) is referred to as "everybody's ex"; Maria Callous's worst nightmare is getting her beehive wig torn from her head; and cross-dressers Paprika and Queenie (Daniel Jones, Emil Herrera) get dragged to the docks by the gay Mafia to watch their color-coordinated high heels get thrown off a bridge. These characters' concerns are so absurdly shallow that they become laughable--which reflects Moore's deliberate strategy of creating an affinity for them.

Moore was happy with her script when she brought it to Minneapolis from New York almost three years ago, but it took Lehmann to convince her that making Homo Heights should be a top priority. "I came here with a script for a TV pilot called As the Mood Swings, a farce about a recovery clinic," Moore recalls. "A friend of mine said, 'You need to get a budget--get Kate Lehmann to draw you one.' I took it to Kate, who read the script and said, 'Look, between you and me, you're not going to get this on television. What else do you have?' So I showed her Homo Heights. She read that and said, 'I've never read anything like this. This is really provocative.'"

According to Lehmann, who has worked for more than 20 years with such indie-film and -video groups as KTCA-TV, Film in the Cities, and ITVS (the Independent Television Service), the decision to devote two years to producing an offbeat gay comedy by a first-time writer-director wasn't as rash as it sounds. "You have to chose projects very carefully because you are going to have to be married to them," Lehmann says. "For me, it was a combination of liking the whole concept of the film, enjoying working with Sara, and being optimistic about raising the money to make the film--and also about selling it."

Although this was the first time Lehmann had solicited investors and potential buyers, she seems the very picture of confidence--which can't hurt when you're trying to get people to stake their money in your work. When I ask exactly how a producer goes about finding investors, Lehmann smiles and says, "It's the biggest-kept secret." Then she explains hers. "For our plan, we decided early on that we needed to target people of means who were either gay and lesbian themselves or who had a direct connection to the subject matter."

For Moore, finding support seemed inevitable. "One of the things that I like about myself," she says, sounding not at all immodest, "is that I've never once talked myself out of falling off a ladder or eating fire or being shot from a cannon. Making this film was an enormous risk for me personally, but the people willing to take the risk with us were investing a very large amount of money--a drop in the bucket in the Hollywood world, but a lot of money to us."

Exactly how much money isn't up for discussion. But if Moore and Lehmann seem coy about specifying the budget, that's understandable. "We want to find a distribution deal, and a good one," says Moore, waving her hand at the packs of Ramen noodles and cans of soup she's been living on for the past couple of years. "I want to be in a position to pay the people who worked on Homo Heights, and if it's public knowledge how much it cost, then the distributor will be willing to pay us only that." As for her current job of trying to sell the movie, Moore is nonplussed. "In terms of competing with other films--well, you're always going to have to compete with somebody and I'm not afraid of that at all. Coming from an acting background helps, because as an actor you may go into an audition and there will be 30 people who look just like you, all going for the same role. So now, in front of distributor's reps, my job is to show up and say that I love this film, and you have to love this film too--and please let me make another one."  

Speaking of which, Moore and Lehmann are already planning their next collaboration: a comedy-drama titled The Silent Shill, based on Moore's script about a family of clowns on the wrong side of the Atlantic City circuit. Now that her first movie is in the bag, Moore feels a new rush of energy that appears difficult to contain; during our interview, this former clown is literally all over the place, leaping up to get books, pictures, and video boxes with which to pepper her story.

"Homo Heights is not like Jeffrey, it's not like Go Fish--it's not like any other film that's out there," Moore muses, displaying her confidence that the movie's unique brand of comedy will allow it to recoup. "Because of the humor in it, I think the film stands a fairly good chance of crossing over to the straight audience--as well as taking 'gay cinema' to a new level. If there's a role for the comic in society, it's to make people mock themselves. And this film will do that."

Homo Heights screens Saturday at 8 p.m. at the State Theatre in a benefit for the community foundation Philanthrofund. For ticket info, call 339-7007.

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