24 Jul Cinema Confidential: A Memoir Series by B.L. Strang-Moya
CC-01: “The First Time I Met John Waters”
THE FIRST TIME I MET JOHN WATERS was at a book signing in Hampden’s Atomic Books. It was Thursday May 28th, 2015. Carsick was his latest release. The book chronicled how he hitchhiked across the country, supplemented with speculative chapters on the best- and worst-case scenarios respectively. My friends and I were eagerly waiting in line, anxiously anticipating the autograph and selfie opportunity. The book I had brought with me was called Director’s Cut and it was gifted to me by a family member. When I received Director’s Cut I had no idea who John Waters was beyond a gif I once saw of a creepy-looking old man with the quote “I’m just your normal everyday pervert.” The book was already autographed – previously to a Carolyn.
It was my turn in line and John greeted me with a warm smile, and his big bright eyes locked with mine. I don’t remember a damn thing he said at that initial exchange, but I asked him to cross out Carolyn’s name and replace it with “B.L.”. We posed for a selfie, for which I smiled widely. He commended my enthusiasm.
As a Maryland filmmaker with a lifelong appreciation for the purposefully crude, I grew a vast appreciation for John’s legacy. Pink Flamingos was the first film of his that I watched and holy crap. From that moment on, I wanted to spread his gospel.
ON SATURDAY, MARCH 4th I arrived at the Ocean Downs Casino at 7am. I spent the majority of the previous day missing out on festival goings-on as I had to pick up LED panels from Salisbury (Thank you Tom Taylor, PAC 14) and rig them just right for John Waters’ stage. How the hell did we get here? I wondered all morning.
At the Princess Royale, I drank coffee with a handful of filmmakers. Some new, some returning. I was so physically uncomfortable between sleep loss and nausea from having eaten too early after waking up. At the next table over, I heard a couple of filmmakers venting doubt about their showtimes. Who is going to see a film at 10am? That is not primetime. I writhed inside and interjected into the conversation, attempting to carefully articulate our rationale for programming. Not only did they understand, but their screening would be standing-room only. I do not take for granted that this is a somewhat typical situation for the festival.
I later found myself sitting on the regional film industry panel. At approximately 12pm during the panel, I knew that John Waters was just a couple of miles down the street checking into The Hilton Oceanfront Suites. This tickled me because he has a striking resemblance to Chelcie Ross in his depiction of Conrad Hilton in Mad Men. Waters is no cowboy, but god damn if he isn’t a trailblazer. Showtime drew ever closer.
Record scratch, rewind, you’re probably wondering how I got here…
IN MAY 2017, I volunteered at the Maryland Film Festival, scanning tickets with my now-wife Kristin. It was one month prior to the first ever Ocean City Film Festival. As well as the final month of my undergraduate career at Towson University. I scarcely recall what was going through my head those days. The idea for the Ocean City Film Festival came just 6 months prior in January. I was helping my friend Erich Gelling shoot his thesis film Take Away in Ocean City. It followed a mentally unwell young man who indulged an obsession with extraterrestrials and was ultimately underwhelmed to come face to face with them. In a last-minute pinch, we needed a location for a spaceship interior, so I called the Art League of Ocean City. Rina was receptive to having us film there. Not long after I recall sitting down in her office to discuss having a screening of the film at the gallery, which became a conversation about how the organization was interested in having a film festival. Kristin was waiting outside in the car. I remember getting in the passenger seat, dumbstruck, I explained to her that I would be organizing the Ocean City Film Festival. The punchline is that I didn’t know a damn thing about where to start.
In movie school, my classes were structured so that at the end of each semester the video and audio projects are screened for an audience. This was truly my only exposure to a film festival format at the time. There were screenings, Q&As, elbows to bump, and refreshments. When it came to organizing events, I had minimal experience from personally booking DIY punk shows when I was a teenager.
I had no job prospects for after my undergraduate career. I was too busy pissing off and trying to be cool to really think about what I should do with my life. I knew I wanted to work in film in whatever way I could. I was honestly quite pessimistic about my prospects. Being entrusted with this festival, no matter how big or small it turned out to be, became my call to action.
It happened again.
THE SECOND TIME I MET JOHN WATERS was at the 2017 Maryland Film Festival. As Kristin and I scanned tickets for a documentary called Austerlitz, we looked up the stairs to the lobby and there he was. Sunglasses indoors, an assistant at his side. I nudged Kristin. “Look it’s him!” We exclaimed to each other and tried to keep it cool. As soon as he approached, we both in unison said “Hi, John Waters.”
I think he said hello back to us. I don’t remember. We scanned his ticket and as he was about to walk away I said, “You should come to the Ocean City Film Festival.” To which he replied, “No one invited me.” He never looked up. Or if he did, I couldn’t notice because of his sunglasses.
A few minutes passed and the projectionist at the venue was anxiously poking her head out of the booth. Whoever was supposed to introduce the film was late. Like 10 or 15 minutes late. This is incredibly valuable time at a film festival, especially when the auditorium is filled to the brim with audience members. It wasn’t long before John came out of the theatre and commanded the projectionist to play the film, citing that people were getting pissed. Or something to that effect. The look of devastation on the projectionist’s face after having gotten mildly chewed out by the Patron Saint of Maryland Filmmakers is something I remember vividly. It was a humanizing moment to have witnessed. This projectionist, likely a student volunteer from MICA, was at the mercy of an impatient audience, festival higher-ups, guest talent, and now John Samuel Waters. That is a damn lot to balance, especially when one recalls how easily technology can fail the projectionist. Showing films is the essence of a film festival, and the projectionist is entrusted to make sure it actually happens. Wherever this AV technician is, my heart goes out to them still to this day.
MOST OF MY TIME AT THE FILM FESTIVAL IS SPENT PACING BACK-AND-FORTH. Whether physically, or in my mind, I am totally restless. On the afternoon of Saturday March 4th, 2023, I could only think about getting to Ocean Downs and making sure we hit all of our marks for the JW itinerary as we called it. I arrived at the Casino in the early afternoon. I planned on being there for the rest of the night. The afternoon was mostly a blur between chatting up volunteers, indoor smoke breaks, and the occasional cocktail. What calmed my nerves more than anything was knowing that I had some of my closest friends working on this with me. Our technical director Dylan was probably just as stressed, if not more. But I am thankful that the two of us vibrate on a similar plane of consciousness. We have worked closely together for years under a variety of circumstances whether on a film set, online streaming event, live music event, and a whole lot of film screenings. Dylan was now tasked with stage management for John Waters.
At 5:45pm we had to be at our posts. Dylan had to be on standby for a soundcheck, the Ocean Downs staff needed to have Evian water on hand, and our tech A-Team had to be ready to assist in staging, or any other such prep. I received the message that JW’s driver was almost there. I sprinted across the casino. Once outside, I caught my breath. One of the Art League team members Rachel was walking in for her shift. “Hey Rae! Want to see John Waters?” This wasn’t me trying to flex, but succumbing to the fact that I absolutely needed the least bit of moral support before I experienced a cosmic event.
The Jeep pulled up and down rolled the window. Waters withdrew his ID and passed it to me. “Don’t steal it!” he said with a snarky smile. Immediately the charm put me at ease. I went back in to retrieve his security credentials, rushing back out to the front. He was then en route to the stage for sound check. I sprinted all the way back to the stage, meeting him at the door. It was kind of ridiculous how quickly I made it back and forth across the building, but adrenaline is a hell of a thing.
I saw my assistant director Davis backstage. I didn’t remember discussing with him that he would help escort Waters around, but I figured, screw it- good for him. It should also be noted that the “backstage” guest area was basically just a security hallway with high-tops and a refreshment table. We made every effort to accommodate John, but it felt like we were one degree short with every accommodation. Either way, it was going to have to work. If for some reason he turned out to be a diva, I would absolutely hate to be tasked with reminding Mr. Waters that at the end of the day, he’s still just some guy.
Two hours to showtime…
Although he obviously had demands and expectations, I was thrilled to see how well he treated not only festival personnel, but also the casino staff. At the stage, he had a brief conversation with the Art League marketing and PR coordinator Elaine Bean. She was a still photographer on some of his early films like Female Trouble. They had a heartwarming exchange, and it was the first of many in which his former acquaintances and crew members would reconnect with him that night. The word of the day was Smalltimore.
I rode to the “green room” with him. We made small conversation about Ocean City, the current festival climate in Maryland, and Chris Rock’s latest special which was filmed in Baltimore. The green room was a conference room in a private section of the building. For Waters, it was equipped with a mirror, light snacks, and cold chardonnay per his request. He was very startled to discover that the door didn’t have a lock. The security guard and I determined that we would have a staff member watching his belongings at all times, which Waters really insisted against because he didn’t want to ask too much of us. He was so stressed about keeping his belongings safe because he himself used to be a career thief before fame. I will not elaborate further, because he did not elaborate further.
It was 90 minutes to show time, and I was waiting outside the green room as Waters needed privacy to prepare for the show. I had serious fomo about the party I was missing downstairs. The funny thing about how much time I spent at the Casino during and before the festival is that I got real chummy with the security team. By Saturday, we were joking around and talking about movies. Despite their tough exteriors, they were really sweet folks with hilarious stories about the kind of debauchery they have to address at their workplace from belligerent drunks to actual wanted criminals. The guard I was stationed with outside the green room was an older gentleman who enlightened me about his recent surgeries, military career, and miraculous weight loss.
AT 7:45PM WE WENT DOWNSTAIRS FOR THE SHOW. Dylan was waiting for us with the microphone, and Jack Gerbes introduced Waters. The front rows were largely occupied by local big-wigs, movers, and shakers. Waters was greeted with an overwhelming enthusiasm from our audience. He was Maryland, we are Maryland, and we loved each other for it. If you haven’t seen or heard his stand-up comedy, I can assure you it is every bit as unholy as you could imagine. Between phrases like “Keep the foreskin, give me the smegma,” and scrutinizing mother nature herself for phallic and vaginally shaped trees, I was tickled to see Mayor Meehan appearing stone-faced the entire time. Waters dragged democrats, republicans, and even RuPaul Charles—of course, only to suggest that RuPaul is such a successful Drag Queen for being attractive both in and out of drag. I was so relieved that my grandparents didn’t attend—I come from a family of closeted sailor mouths, but Waters’ profane prose would have surely given my grandmother a heart attack.
All things considered; the show was going relatively smoothly… And then of course the wireless microphone started cutting in and out. This problem varied from subtle and scarcely noticeable, to obnoxious- going so far as to interrupt punchlines. I saw Dylan’s soul leave their body multiple times. I personally was terrified that this problem was racking up a major tab that would be paid off in an intensive post-show chewing-out. Even after I nudged Dylan to pass Waters a new stick, the problem persisted on and off throughout the show. Our esteemed guest made no mention of the situation.
PERHAPS MORE IMPORTANT THAN THE COMEDY ROUTINE, Waters had brought a special guest from the Library of Congress to our festival. Hairspray was being added to the Library of Congress and the Ocean City Film Festival served as the site for this ceremonial recognition. Holy shit. A big piece of me has only ever wanted to make history in the world of cinema. And though technically that already happened long ago, this particular situation made it egregiously obvious that the Ocean City Film Festival has become a major player in our corner of the independent film world. That corner being the lesser-recognized Mid-Atlantic arts community of the Delmarva Peninsula. A region that was famously recognized by former Maryland Governor William Donald Schaefer as a “shithouse.” This is my shithouse. And I am here to fight for it.
Backstage, Waters posed for pictures with the Library of Congress placard. I purposely did not bring my DSLR camera with me that night because I did not want to be rude and impose gratuitous photo and video opportunities. And of course, there I found myself equipped with nothing but my Motorola POS 5G to commemorate this piece of history. The same phone that I fished out of a portapotty toilet at Maryland Field of Screams less than two-years prior. Backstage, Waters’ guest list featured a number of his personal friends and former collaborators such as prop artists Steve and Lorrie Walker who offered a virtual presentation in the 2021 Ocean City Film Festival. One of the guests was a younger woman who clearly was having a lot of fun that evening. Seeing how visibly inebriated she was, I asked if she was on the list. She and her partner assured me of their credentials and she then asked curiously who I was. “I am the creative director of the Ocean City Film Festival,” I replied sternly. She then laughed hysterically at how serious my demeanor had become. Admittedly, I found this incredibly rude. But I couldn’t really blame her. This was incredibly unusual for me. I have not been a particularly confident person in my lifetime, and I have also struggled severely with imposter syndrome. Without realizing in the moment, I had apparently overcome these obstacles. I don’t remember that girl’s name, but I hope she’s doing alright.
THE MEET AND GREET WAS THE BEST PART OF THE NIGHT. A few folks who I won’t name were slick enough to find their way in without a pass. It was so strange for my team and our extended OCFF film family to be in that room and acknowledge how far we had actually come. Waters shared even more stories with us, screened more audience questions, and posed for so many pictures with just about everyone in the room. I told him the story of how I met him at MDFF just a few years prior, and he alluded to the fact that he was finally invited and did finally show up. He had an extensive one-on-one with the mayor, and as it turned out, they grew up together in Lutherville or some such thing. Rina told Waters about how in season 1 of the OCFF, I had named an award the “Pink Flamingo” to award the most Maryland-themed film. I was genuinely embarrassed that she would share this story, though Waters assured me I shouldn’t be. At the end of the night, I asked to shake his hand in case I never saw him again. He responded with a handshake, saying “Shut up, you’ll see me again.”
After a quick debrief with my team, I floored it back to North Ocean Pines. My wife, cats, and dog were waiting for me.
I WAS REALLY IN MY HEAD ON THE LAST DAY OF THE FESTIVAL. We were in the home stretch, and I was so twisted up about what went wrong, what went right, and how big this damn thing had become. In the end, we did a killer job in this latest season despite the usual technical hiccups, challenging personalities, and two typos in the program, which I will not specify here.
Shortly after the 2022 festival, my existence felt stripped down to its core. I spent the majority of 2022 addressing my spiritual struggles in the wake of unmanageable depression, undiagnosed ADHD, and the grief of losing my father-in-law. Season 7 was the last thing I wanted to think about. For once, the bullshittery of my professional endeavors became secondary as I re-oriented my life. Leading up to the 2023 festival, we scaled back operations and enlisted a lot of additional help. As the event drew closer, it felt like a large shadow looming over me. I can’t quite remember what I was so scared of. The festival has always been a lot of pressure that I seemed to manage effortlessly. I didn’t want to crumble under the pressure of this great task- which I felt was so closely linked to my identity. When the 2023 festival was over, I experienced an overwhelming sense of gratitude in which I found myself weeping on the floor just moments into folding laundry. This was Tuesday, March 7th.
I RECENTLY SPOKE TO A FRIEND OF MINE about my experience working on the festival this year. I explained the mixed emotions I had leading up to the event, and the new vision I had for my future with the festival. He shared his experience as an event organizer. He explained that there really is a shift from when you think your work is only important to you, but then there is a moment that demonstrates how important it is to other people as well, whether they’re your audience, the community, or contributors. It was very validating to hear.
The state of the festival has changed. I received calls and messages from people I’ve been trying to connect with for years. Festivals and organizations that had left us on read were now actively reaching out to us. Even greater than that, we received commitments for future festival seasons. Season 8 of the Ocean City Film Festival laid a foundation. In the early, early years of the festival, it was easy to feel discouraged. On multiple occasions folks in the industry told me that a festival lifespan is approximately 6 years, followed by a plateau. I gave too much weight to these meaningless sentiments that I now suspect were only uttered from a center of self-preservation in the ever-competitive film world.
If you only skimmed this, the major points of this writing are that:
- A LOT of work goes into this festival.
- John Waters is just a guy.
- Support public television.
- I am an emotional man.
IF YOU READ THIS WHOLE BLOG POST, I would like to thank you. I anticipate releasing a monthly blog post about the various goings-on of the Ocean City Film Festival as well as my own work in and around moviemaking in Maryland. Between subjects like the writer’s strike, the intensely evolving regional film festival scene, and my own film projects, I have much to talk about.