John Waters (c) Greg Gorman

Artscape may be canceled and the Inner Harbor fireworks may be off, but one festival has received permission from Baltimore City government to hold an in-person event outdoors on city property.

The Maryland Film Festival announced this week that Baltimore filmmaker John Waters has been allowed to host a “special double feature drive-in movie night” in Druid Hill Park on May 21 as part of its otherwise-still-mostly-virtual film festival, which starts Wednesday, May 19, and runs through Thursday, May 27.

“Resident filmmaker and local legend John Waters revives his signature Festival event with two recent movies from Russia that speed careening past the guardrails of believability and good taste: RUSSIAN SHOCK NIGHT AT THE DRIVE-IN,” festival organizers announced on their website.

“This is the only outdoor event Baltimore City has approved and permitted this year, and the city’s Recreation and Parks department is partnering to support this special outdoor, drive-in event,” said Sandra Gibson, executive director of the Maryland Film Festival and its home, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Parkway Theatre. “We just received permission…two days ago.”

“I’m thankful that they’re letting us do it, and I’m proud to be the first one,” Waters said of the city’s decision to allow the event, adding that he knows the area well. “I used to live across the street at Temple Gardens Apartments for many years.” 

But don’t try to get in without a ticket, he warned movie lovers looking for a free show, because he’ll be there and he’ll be watching:

“I’ll be catching you if you try to sneak in in the trunk, let me warn you,” he said. “I know all the tricks sneaking in the drive-in.”

Waters traditionally introduces a movie of his choice on Friday night of the annual film festival, and it’s a highlight of the event. Last year it didn’t happen because the festival was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

For 2021, the 23rd annual film festival, organizers wanted Waters to bring back his signature event. He didn’t want it to be online, so he proposed a drive-in.

“I said I hate virtual. I’m so sick of virtual,” he recalled. “They knew I had done a drive-in at the New York Film festival, where we showed Salo and the Gasper Noe movie, Climax.”

The New York event was held at The Bronx Zoo. Waters also hosted a double feature night last year at the Wellfleet Drive-In Theatre on Cape Cod for the Provincetown Film Festival. He said it’s a good way to have a safe film event with a live audience.

“It works well in the drive-in,” he said. “I do the introduction. You’ll see me on the screen. I love the idea of the drive-in. I think it will be good, and it is safe. Everybody’s in their car. Even if you haven’t been vaccinated. Well, I hope you don’t come if you haven’t been vaccinated. But still, everybody’s in their car. It’s at a social distance.”

Gibson and her staff had the task of finding a suitable location for a drive-in. She said she explored a variety of options, including parking lots near M&T Bank Stadium and Johns Hopkins University, but couldn’t get approval.

The historic Mansion House.

Finally this week, city officials agreed to let the film festival use the lawn of the historic Mansion House at 1876 Mansion House Drive, headquarters of the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore.

Organizers will set up a 52-foot-wide inflatable screen and there’s room for 93 vehicles, which can arrive starting at 7 p.m. The program will begin at 8:30 p.m. and everyone has to leave by midnight.

Waters said he’s delighted with the location, in part because it reminds him of Betsy the finger-painting chimp, who was a star at the Zoo in the 1950s and is featured in his latest book.

“I’ve always liked Druid Hill,” he said. “The Zoo is there. Betsy was there. I think it’s going to be a fun night.”

He said he’s hoping the 17-year cicadas are out when the movies are showing.

“I wouldn’t even be mad,” he said, if cicadas “were smashing into the windshields while we were watching. But then we should have shown The Swarm.”

Given the park setting, “you can bet there might be some,” he went on, imagining the possibilities of an insect invasion on his movie night. “It would only add to the disaster theme and the insaneness of the first public event, to be attacked by nature at Druid Hill Park and watching crazy Russian movies.”

Waters said he’s always been a fan of drive-ins.

“I’ve spent my whole life in the drive-in,” he said. “I’ve written about them. I grew up in the  Timonium Drive-in…We went every single night. With the same movie playing.”

There was a point when he almost had had enough of drive-ins, when he was filming Cecil B. Demented at the Bengies Drive-In, but that’s in the past.

“I literally spent a week on the roof of the concessions stand there shooting the finale of Cecil B. Demented,” he said. “It almost burned me out on drive-ins. Now it’s a good time to go back.”

In Polyester, “I had an art drive-in,” he said. “The joke was that they showed art movies and in the concession stand they had caviar and champagne. That was filmed at the Edmondson Drive-In.”

Waters said he’s a little bit suspicious that the city allowed the Maryland Film Festival to have an event when it didn’t approve Artscape or the fireworks because of COVID-19.

“Maybe they hope we all get it,” he said. “That’s a new one. We had the censor board. Maybe this is a different way to censor.”

But with all the construction activity currently underway at Druid Hill Park, he’s not too worried.

“They can’t kill us and bury us in the middle of the lake,” he reasoned. “The whole lake is torn up. Have you seen it?”

Actually, Waters said, “I’m not criticizing the city at all.” He said he’s glad the city sanctioned the event because it will introduce more young people to drive-ins, which have made a bit of a comeback because of the pandemic, and drive-in culture.

“When the pandemic happened, it did bring drive-ins back,” he said. “Most young people have never been to a drive-inI think it’s a good answer, and it’s a good atmosphere for certain types of movies.” 

When he was growing up, drive-ins were “the first apartment” where “kids could actually get away from their parents,” he said. “I used to go and drive in alone with two cases of beer covered in a blanket and with four people in the trunk.”

The movies he’s selected are: Why Don’t You Just Die! (“a grindhouse, seat-ripping blood-drenched family revenge comedy that begs to be seen in a drive-in with a crazy audience cheering from their cars”), and The Road Movie (“A dashcam documentary from hell that puts you live in the car accidents and near misses all for your rage viewing pleasure. You’ll drive home safely after this one, I guarantee you.”)

Waters said both are in line with the kinds of movies he usually picks for screenings in the Parkway, “but these two I think are even better for a drive-in setting.”

Why Don’t You Just Die!, written and directed by Kirill Sokolov and evoking the early work of Quentin Tarantino, made Waters’ ‘Best movies in 2020’ list for Artforum magazine. It’s about a detective and horrible father, his resentful actress daughter, an angry thug and a cheated cop, all seeking revenge, who come together for a violent version of Meet the Parents. Spoiler: People die.

The Road Movie features footage compiled exclusively from Russian dashboard cameras, “It didn’t make my 10 Best list but it’s perfect for this,” Waters said. “It was a close runner-up. It was number 11.“

Why a Russian theme?

“Just because I loved these movies and I knew that Russia was especially kind of unmentionable these days,” Waters said. “I’m not a fan of Russia either, but maybe everybody could come dressed as Nikita Khrushchev and his wife, or Putin.”

Given the political climate in Russia, “it’s just kind of amazing that these two movies ever got made there,” he added. “They’re pretty radical movies. Especially Why Don’t You Just Die! You’ll have a great time with it. It’s a seat-ripper, as I say. I could have seen it on Howard Street a long time ago and it would have been a big hit.”

Tickets went on sale this week on the festival’s website, The price is $25 per vehicle, which can be anything from a two-seater to a flatbed truck. There’s no limit on the number of people who can be in a vehicle, and people aren’t required to show proof of vaccination. As of yesterday, more than half of the tickets have been sold. In case of inclement weather, the event will be rescheduled.

To make sure the first-permitted outdoor event is held safely, the city and its parks department have a number of rules for moviegoers. No food or drink is allowed to be consumed outside of vehicles. Car windows must be up when eating. Masks must be worn at all times when outside of the vehicle. Tailgating is not allowed. Everyone in every vehicle must pre-register and sign a parks department waiver before arriving for the event.

Gibson said there will be porta-potties, but no concessions stand for health reasons. Movie-goers can presumably bring food and beverages with them.

In a way, he said, the list of COVID rules and regulations fits in with the theme for the night:

“It will feel like the Russian government is watching.”

Festival passes for the 2021 Maryland Film Festival are now on sale and include the all-encompassing, VIP All-Access Pass as well as the festival’s new Exposure Pass. Learn more and purchase 2021 Festival passes here.

Gibson said most of the event will be virtual because the Parkway is required to operate under the city’s limited capacity rules. Even though it has more than 412 seats, she said, the theater can only offer about 40 seats when it has to adhere to social distancing guidelines. During the festival, she said, it will have in-person screenings over the weekend for people who buy All-Access tickets to the festival.

The lineup includes 104 films and 33 programs. Individual tickets for all 2021 festival films and programs can be purchased on the official festival website.

“With 13 shorts programs and 20 features, this year’s line-up truly has something for everyone,” said Christy LeMaster, Artistic Director of the film festival and the theater.

For the first time this year, the festival offers new and returning audiences an accessible way to navigate a selection of 2021 festival films. The “Baltimore Pathway” features stories made in and about Baltimore and celebrates emerging and established local filmmakers and the breadth of stories Baltimore inspires. The “Family Pathway” includes films for movie lovers of all ages and features stories of discovery, family, and growing up.

“There are fast-paced crowd-pleasing comedies, like First Date; uplifting, family-friendly documentaries like Lily Topples the World; auteur takes by emerging directors, like the animated narrative Cryptozoo; and several excellent short and feature-length movies of all types made by Baltimore-based filmmakers,” said LeMaster.

“I heard of the Maryland Film Festival because Kathryn Bigelow was the first female director to ever close it,” said Lissette Feliciano, the writer, director, and producer of Women Is Losers is a feminist coming-of-age drama set in 1960s San Francisco that is the festival’s closing night film. “You cannot be what you cannot see. It’s an honor to be here ten or so years later as the first Latinx woman to ever close the Maryland Film Festival.”

Click here to explore the full 2021 Maryland Film Festival lineup, including feature-length and short film programs.

Ed Gunts is a local freelance writer and the former architecture critic for The Baltimore Sun.