Vincent Peranio is one of the go-to guys for Baltimore movies. He served as art director for nearly all of John Waters’ films and was a location scout and production designer for Homicide: Life on the Street, The Corner, and The Wire. He was also production designer for Barry Levinson’s Liberty Heights. Peranio worked on numerous other films, including Bedroom Window, Something the Lord Made, and Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2. He was interviewed by Bruce Goldfarb.
WTBH: You’re from here, aren’t you? You grew up in Glen Burnie?
Peranio: Yeah. Actually, I was born in South Baltimore, right near School 33, Clement Street. I lived there until I was about 11 years old, and then my parents moved to Glen Burnie.
Moving to Glen Burnie was a total shock to me because I grew up as a city boy. I loved the alleys and walking all over the place and the different kinds of architecture. Suddenly, my parents moved to a brand new house with all brand new furniture, in 1956, and it was like moving into The Jetsons. All the houses looked alike, everything was new, all the people were young.
I just couldn’t wait to get back to the city. The minute I graduated [high school] I got into Maryland Institute of Art and moved to the city. I’ve been in the city pretty much for the rest of my life.
WTBH: You graduated from the Maryland Institute in ’68?
Peranio: 1968, yeah.
WTBH: I understand that your original intention was to become an artist. Fine art?
Peranio: Yeah. I had a fine arts degree. I was a painter and loved it–I still love painting–but right after graduation, a group of friends and I moved to Fells Point. At that time, most of the buildings were boarded up. It was slated to be torn down.
It was really cheap rent, and you didn’t need to have a year’s lease. It was a month-by-month lease because they didn’t know when they were going to tear the whole place down.
We just loved it down here. It was totally urban docks, like the movie On The Waterfront–tanning factories, the trains coming down the middle of Thames Street and Wolfe Street, down the middle of Fleet Street.
I had an apartment where I just looked out the second-floor window, and there were the boxcars going by on Fleet Street.
WTBH: This was before it was full of bars. There was nothing for people to be down here for.
Peranio: The only thing that was down here was Jimmy’s on Broadway and just a few struggling shops and a few seaman’s bars that we, as young people, loved because we could go in those bars and drinks were cheap. It was like 15 cents a draft. You could go in the bars, and six people would buy you drinks because they were so cheap. You’d start out with six beers in front of you.
We moved into a place that was a former bakery called the Hollywood Bakery, in the 700 block of Broadway. Right next door was Pete’s Hotel bar, and Edith Massey was the bartender.
We’d send the girls out to do grocery shopping–all they’d have to do is go across to the [Broadway] market–and they’d come back four hours later all drunked up with no groceries. They didn’t get past the neighbors.
It was kind of like a party central for young artists and writers at the time. We’d have big parties on the weekends and stuff like that. Nothing to lose.
WTBH: You were living the life.
Peranio: Living the life of a young artist, so to speak. During one of the parties, John Waters, Mink [Stole], Divine, Bonnie Pearce, David Lochary, Van Smith, and Pat Moran showed up. A friend of ours, Susan, brought them.
They had just finished doing a movie called Mondo Trasho. They had a little nude scene at the Hopkins campus and were picked up and put on trial for that, and released. Playboy had just done an article about that. I think that was John’s first publicity. His group and my group became friends.
That year, he was beginning another movie, Multiple Maniacs, and he needed a 15-foot lobster. He said, “Hey Vince, you’re an artist. Can you make me a 15-foot lobster?” So I said, “Sure.”
My whole thing is that I never say no. That’s why I got in this business. You never say no in this business.
I did the lobster. My brother and I were inside it, making the pinchers and claws work. In our scene, the lobster rapes Divine. So my first experience with film was raping Divine.
And then it went on. Every time John needed something, a prop or something like that, he would ask me. That was the beginning of a 40-year career with John. I’ve done every one of his films.
And, of course, like me, John is a Baltimorean and truly loves the city.
WTBH: Did you have the idea at the time that the work you were doing would lead to mainstream commercial films and a Broadway show and popular acceptance?
Peranio: No, it never would have occurred to me at that time. I thought, well, Pink Flamingos is a fun little thing and might play at some colleges, something like that. And it did. We had no idea it would be in some theaters playing at midnight for 30 years.
I went on painting for many years. I’d paint for six months at a time–I was in galleries and things–and then John would do a movie. Half the year I’d do a movie, half the year I’d paint. It was working out real well until eventually the film career took over.
It wasn’t anything I planned. It just kind of worked out that way. I could do my art, and I could also, after the first few films, make some money at it.
I just loved Baltimore. I was stubborn and didn’t want to go to LA for a career. I didn’t like suburbia anyway, and LA seemed like a suburban city to me.
I love the idea that we’re doing films in our hometown. Back then it was a little more unusual. And now everything is locations.
WTBH: You’ve worked with John Waters, and David Simon’s franchise, and with Barry Levinson. Each of them has a different perspective of Baltimore. Are any of them closer to the truth of what Baltimore is to you?
Peranio: I think they’re all truths. Those are just three directors of what could be a million stories about Baltimore. It’s so different in so many places. Even though it’s a fairly small city, it’s a city with a lot of ethnic variety, it’s an old city…it’s always fascinated me as a city.
John’s movies, maybe, compared to the others, are more burlesque. He loves that era of the strippers and concentrates on the lower-class people in the communities and the quirkiness of the communities. He likes the perversity and the quirkiness of the city. His city is much brighter, tackier. And it’s true. I see characters who could be in his films walking down the street every day in all kinds of neighborhoods.
David’s approach…he’s a novelist, a genius in my thoughts. But he’s a journalist–just the facts, ma’am. And of course he was writing about a part of Baltimore that nobody every wrote about or cared about. It was the neighborhoods that nobody really spoke about. They were really neighborhoods hidden from the white community.
And then Barry Levinson, in his Baltimore series, was really writing an autobiographical approach. Each one of his films is another aspect of his family.
WTBH: And they’re more sentimental.
Peranio: They’re sentimental and nostalgic. He’s thinking back; he’s thinking nostalgically. So everything is a little cleaner, a little more idealized, but it’s also a different part of Baltimore than what John or David are talking about.
So they’re all telling truths about Baltimore. It’s just different truths from different minds.
WTBH: Your sensibilities were involved in, or largely responsible for, this caricature of the gaudy, trashy, big-haired…
Peranio: The hon. I don’t think John Waters invented the hons. The hons have always been here. But somehow that got associated with him through Divine and Hairspray and some of that. And it really took. I know we revived the pink flamingo.
WTBH: The films have really made some significant contributions to popular culture.
Peranio: Yeah, I think so. There was no intention to do that. The intent was just to tell a good story that takes place in Baltimore and kind of be a chameleon to those characters, which is what I try to do.
WTBH: You made bad taste cool.
Peranio: Well, we liked it back then. First of all, we were poor artists. It was the stuff you could get at junk stores, what was around cheap. Half of the bad taste came from the fact that we had no money.
But at the same time, you embrace it. That’s how to conquer it.
WTBH: You own it, make it yours.
Peranio: Yeah. A lot of we picked out of alleys, took things off of people’s porches…
WTBH: Is it true about the orange couch from The Wire, that it came from a dumpster?
Peranio: The orange couch came from a dumpster, the first day we were scouting up in Marble Hill. It was perfect. We weren’t going to start for another month, so I had them put it in one of the vacant houses to hold. And we used it. It ended up being a central part of the pilot.
The pilot was over and everything was dispersed. And then a month later [The Wire] got picked up. We certainly didn’t expect it to get picked up that fast. So I was talking with my decorator and said, “Well, it’s a good thing we still have that couch.” And he went mute. I said, “Oh no, you didn’t throw that couch away, did you?” It’s like a centerpiece for the show. He said, “Yeah, we did.”
We had to make that couch. Make the frame, send away to Scalamandre in London for the fabric because they were the only place that had crushed orange velvet. It was not popular at the time we were shooting the show. Then we had to age it, split it, pull the stuffing out. It ended up being a $5,000 couch. But we made it as close as possible to the other couch. I don’t think anybody knew. We didn’t even tell the producers.
I’ve always felt that the different films I’ve done here were, in a way, chronicling Baltimore. It was my own little thing, that I was showing Baltimore to as many people as possible. And showing them as real a version as possible, even though one might be more colorful or more nostalgic or more realistic. It was still the city.
In Homicide especially, since it was all about murder, you could have murder anywhere in the city. We went everywhere. We went to the B&O train museum, we had had murders in Ruxton, we also went to the drug dealer neighborhoods. I probably went to 20,000 locations for that show alone. Of course, that was seven years’ worth of scouting.
I’m always finding new discoveries in Baltimore. Even after I think I’ve seen everything, somebody comes up with something else.
WTBH: Is Baltimore a good canvas for film?
Peranio: Baltimore is a tremendous canvas for film. The city has a tremendous amount of architecture from all eras. And different neighborhoods. We’ve got Victorian neighborhoods, the Eutaw Places, the Federal neighborhoods of Bolton Hill. We’re always turning those into Georgetown. And the historical businesses of Fells Point. Twice now I’ve turned Fells Point into the 1800s.
WTBH: What are some of your favorite places? There are some locations that seem to recur, such as the American Brewery.
Peranio: Well, I love the American Brewery. I’m so glad it’s been restored. It’s an incredible building. It stands like a castle on a hill over the short buildings around it. Ever since I’ve been a child I’ve been fascinated by it.
There are a lot of places still, a lot of buildings, that really need help fast. The lighting district, on Wolfe and Oliver, is a whole complex that the city used for their lighting warehouses. I don’t know if it was a factory or what, but it’s a whole group of buildings that were done in the 1880s that I don’t think will last another ten years unless somebody does something. And I hope they do.
I love the Peabody Library, Mount Vernon Place–the most beautiful part of the city. We turned that into Paris once. And it worked very well.
It’s amazing that there are little pockets in the city, of all different periods, that I guess because the city was so poor for so long didn’t get so corrupted with modern buildings and things like that. Fells Point was like that for many years. Now with Harbor East right here, it will be a little harder to film in if you want to do a period piece. Now, though, they can take all that stuff out.
I enjoy showing Baltimore to people, even if they are murder sites.
WTBH: Are there places where you would like to film but have not had the opportunity to work in somewhere yet?
Peranio: You know, I’ve shot so many things here that I think I’ve got most of the ones I would like to film in. But, when you film you’re lucky if you see 20% of what you do.
I’d like to film in all of them again. Peabody Library I’ve filmed in a lot because it’s a gorgeous building and looks beautiful on film. I love downtown, Howard Street. We have Dickeysville, which can instantly be turned into colonial days. These are for period pieces. The ‘30s, ‘40s, ‘50s are easy to do here.
WTBH: Are there clichés, places that have been done to death?
Peranio: Well, except for the three guys I’ve worked for, most directors come in from out of town. So they don’t know a thing about Baltimore. They all fall in love with Mount Vernon Place, they all fall in love with Peabody Library. Unless that’s the only place to film, I try to take them to other places that haven’t been filmed so much.
WTBH: How does the process go when you’re working as a location scout? You start with the script?
Peranio: Basically, they’ll send me a script. I’ll read through it to see the story, but in the back of my mind certain places will come to mind. Then I break it down–how many houses, how many offices, schools, all the different scenes we have to do. I look at it, think about the characters and where they would live, and take it from there.
We have a location manager who I go with. Eventually he gets scouts who are scouting places to show us. But in many cases, because I’m so familiar, I know I’ll want to go to Calvert and 33rd Street or this delicatessen in this neighborhood.
WTBH: This is all from memory? You don’t have an album?
Peranio: Yeah, from memory because I’ve been doing it for years and years. I’ve forgotten more places than I remember.
WTBH: If a Wire script says that a scene takes place in an alley, you have a choice of thousands of alleys in Baltimore. How do you choose one?
Peranio: Here’s how you work that out. Let’s just talk about The Wire. It’s a good example because it’s really just one type of look of a neighborhood.
An alley, don’t even bother to look. Find the hard things, like Marlo’s lair. We knew it was going to recur. We didn’t know how long, it could have been for a couple of years. So that’s a constant. Pick your constants. Over the years, we picked constants that were in this neighborhood or that neighborhood. Part of it is not very aesthetic. The trucks do not want to move. We have four blocks of trucks and 200 people. To move them from one place to another takes two hours of filming time that we don’t want to waste.
You have your clusters of places that you know you have to show. Then you find an alley near them, a bar near them. There are some times when you can’t find it, and then you build it or change a place.
We were shooting at the courthouse, and we had a couple of hours that day to do something, so we rented a second floor across the street from the courthouse and turned it into a tattoo parlor because there was a tattoo parlor in the script. That’s how we could combine it.
I’ve got favorite tattoo parlors, favorite restaurants, cafes, bars, and stuff that I use for my research. I might take a tattoo parlor on Baltimore Street that I really like and reproduce it on Calvert Street.
WTBH: A lot of The Wire was right here in Fells Point. You had Orlando’s, Stringer Bell’s copy shop. Was Carcetti’s campaign office also on Broadway?
Peranio: No, Carcetti’s office was on Conkling [Street].
I’d say we shot the majority of that show on the east side, even though it was supposed to be the east and the west side. For two reasons. East Baltimore was a lot more bleaker than West Baltimore. West Baltimore might have the same amount of crime, but it has more trees. It has more houses with porches on them, and lawns in front of them. For our story, especially after Homicide, I didn’t want it to be the same look. I really thought bleakness was really the thing. It worked out for us because East Baltimore has very few trees. You just see lines and lines of rowhouses, boarded up rowhouses and stuff like that. It was very close to us because our offices were on Conkling Street, so the trucks didn’t have to go far. It was convenient for the crew.
And that’s one of the things about Baltimore. You can’t judge a book by its cover. One rowhouse you go in and it’s totally Victorian, another you go in and it’s totally open and modern. I’ve been in thousands of people’s places. You can be in the worst ghetto and go in this one house and it’s neat as a pin, a sweet little house. Those are the people I feel sorry for. They’re trying so hard to live in the city under adverse neighborhood conditions.
I used to try to figure out what kind of people lived in the rowhouses from what I could see outside. If they fly flags, it usually means they’ll let you in the door because they’re exhibitionists, so to speak. They’re usually friendly people. Looking for the kinds of curtains, if I’m looking for an old lady’s house or a modern house. Is it lace curtains in the window and little knick-knacks, or is it the pleated shades?
One time we needed a boy’s room. My location person and I, we knew what neighborhood we wanted. We went to that school, and we followed some kids home that we thought looked like our characters. When they went home, we knocked on the door and spoke to their parents.
WTBH: And you’d say, “I’m a location scout, can I see your kid’s bedroom?”
Peranio: I say, “I’m a location scout, and we’re looking for boys’ rooms.” ‘Oh yeah, I got boys. Come on in.’”
The amazing thing is how many people in Baltimore, in all types of neighborhoods, will let you in the door. I mean, who comes knocking at the door anymore? There aren’t traveling salesmen anymore. Most people were very friendly, especially after they knew about the show, after it had been on a couple of years. They’d say, “Oh, can I be the victim?”
WTBH: People wanted to be victims?
Peranio: Yeah. We had several of the house owners as the victims. “Now, we have to put fake blood on you,” that kind of stuff.
When we were doing the morgue–that’s another thing I reproduced. The first year of Homicide, we shot in the morgue quite a bit. The second year, they had a main character who was the chief coroner. It was too awful being at the morgue. You’d get in there at 5 o’clock and everything was cleaned up, but it smelled weird and all of that. So we reproduced that. Then everybody wanted to be victims on the slabs in the morgue.
WTBH: Did friends get to be cadavers?
Peranio: Oh, friends, people at locations. It was a fun thing to be.
WTBH: I’ve been to the Medical Examiner’s Office. That scene in The Wire when McNulty brings his kids to the morgue, that was not the lobby of the real morgue in the lobby in front of the elevators, with the rows of pictures on the wall? That was reproduced?
Peranio: Oh no, the lobby was real. The downstairs was not. The basement is a set.
WTBH: You also do production design. To a civilian such as myself that’s one of those terms like key grip and best boy. What exactly does a production designer do?
Peranio: I really liked the term art director before they changed it to production designer. That’s basically what you do, you direct the art.
The easiest way to see what a production designer does: you have your actor in costume; they’re lit beautifully, and they’re in a white limbo. I fill in the white, whether it’s foreground or background. I make the world the actors participate in. Sometimes it’s taking a location and changing it.
One of the hardest things we ever had to do was filming a murder in a Chinese restaurant. We went to tons of Chinese restaurants. They were all lovely, lovely people, but no, they were not interested in letting us film. We finally realized that they are very superstitious people, and a murder in their restaurant could be a sign or something. They just weren’t going to cooperate, so we had to make a Mexican restaurant into a Chinese restaurant.
So even when it’s a location, you’re still making the worlds. You’re picking a place to make a world.
Three days of the ten-day shoots were always done on stage. That’s where the mayor’s office and hallway and conference room complex was. Three police stations–the central, the Western District, and the Major Crimes Unit. Then different apartments–McNulty’s apartment, drug dealer’s apartments, things like that. Sometimes we could have found them on a location, but the fact is that scene is on a day we’re supposed to be on the stage, so you make it rather than just picking it.
So that’s what I do, I run the art department. I have about 6 set dressers, a decorator, probably about six carpenters, and six painters on a normal day, [as well as] a designer and an office person. Around 30 people. And when we’re building a set that can go up to 60 people.
WTBH: If you do your job well, people don’t notice it. It all blends in.
Peranio: That’s the thing. It’s not like fantasy films. We do reality films.
We’ll take an alley that’s all messed up, clean up the alley, and then re-dress it as a filthy horrible alley with clean things like bundles of clothes and couches from Goodwill. Because, you know, the actors and crew don’t want to spend the day in filth.
WTBH: So it’s good trash, artistically designed trash.
Peranio: Yeah, but it can’t look like good trash. It’s aged and everything like that.
I do a lot of stuff that people don’t realize. I hope they just accept it for what it is and what it tells us about the characters or their situations, and just go with the story.
WTBH: It would seem to be a terribly difficult career path to try to aim for. Are there courses on production design? How do you learn how to age trash?
Peranio: People have been doing it for centuries. A lot of it is from old theatre stuff. Throw the trash on the ground, then you get some aging. You make some paint that looks like dirt and filth and spray it on the stuff, throw some of this other junk on it. And then you clean up after yourself. That’s the thing, to leave Baltimore still unscathed. Then you can come back.
WTBH: Speaking of trash, it seems that John Waters has become mainstream.
Peranio: Oh, absolutely.
WTBH: What changed? Did his sensibilities change, or have American tastes changed to embrace his?
Peranio: I think his sensibility helped change American’s tastes. When John first did his films, we had a censor board. We were the only state in the union with a censor board. We kind of made fast work of that. I think the censor board eventually closed because of John’s work.
At least in the state, he helped bring that about. I think John’s become a personality now. Even more than a filmmaker, because he does so many things. He has art shows around the world, he’s just written a new book–which is a good little book, I just read it.
We just burn up. We were young kids trying to find who we were, trying to be different from everybody else. John’s whole thing was, I can’t afford to do a whole blockbuster movie, what can I do to get attention?
WTBH: But he wasn’t aspiring for mainstream commercial success, was he?
Peranio: He was aspiring to be a star. He and Divine always wanted to be stars. Now, he didn’t want to be an actor star. But a celebrity. From day one, it was their little wish.
WTBH: Part of that acceptance is not including things like eating dog poop and that sort of thing. I don’t know if he would include something like that in a movie today.
Peranio: He wouldn’t do it now because it wouldn’t be shocking anymore. The whole thing of shocking audiences is much harder to do nowadays. I mean, I saw Pink Flamingos on TV. It was cable, but never in my lifetime would I have I thought it would be on TV.
WTBH: It’s funny how far all that stuff has come.
Peranio: Yeah, and we look at it with amusement. We were just doing it because it was fun and goofy and underground.
WTBH: What a life. What a period of time, to have that freedom.
Peranio: It was a great time. It was a great freedom because there was no filming done in Baltimore. They didn’t have any permit system or anything like that. We’d just take a crowd of 60 people and Divine in a bad bathing suit, and she’d be chasing people all over Fells Point on a Sunday morning. No notice to neighbors or anything like that. We were artists. Guerrilla artists.
I can’t talk for John. I think he still loves Baltimore and all that. But he doesn’t need to do the shocking stuff anymore. It’s been done. By him.