SXSW ’13 Interview: Jeffrey Schwarz on the Divinely Entertaining Biopic “I Am Divine”

The director of a new documentarian on the life of famed drag queen and longtime collaborator of John Waters talks about the incredible access he received, why Waters always...
Divine in Jeffrey Schwarz's movie I Am Divine

“I Am Divine” opens in a moment of celebration, befitting of its main subject. At the 1988 premiere of “Hairspray” in Baltimore heralding what was supposed to be a glorious new chapter for Harris Glenn Milstead, better known to the world as the drag queen Divine and soon to really be better known to the world after his turn as Edith Turnblad in the John Waters comedy would cement his place in the mainstream pop culture lexicon after spending years corralling a faithful cult following ever since he first appeared in the outrageous “Pink Flamingos.” Yet the only shocking development around “Hairspray” was that only three weeks after the film opened nationally, Divine passed away at the age of 42, due to an enlarged heart, leaving many, including a young Jeffrey Schwarz, with the sad realization that “There’ll never be another Divine movie.”

Fortunately, Schwarz has rectified that as much as humanly possible with “I Am Divine.” The filmmaker is no stranger to tackling larger-than-life subjects, having previously made films about the consummate showman William Castle (“Spine Tingler!”) and “The Celluloid Closet” author Vito Russo (“Vito”). But in the case of Divine, he was tasked with his biggest challenge yet in making a film as entertaining as the multitalented performer with a personality as big as his full-figure and succeeds enormously in recounting all the highs and lows of his longtime collaboration with Waters, his foray into disco music and the many other eccentric events he turned into happenings, whether it was his stints on the Off-Broadway stage (where “Women Behind Bars” drew the likes of Warren Beatty) or the set of the western “Lust in the Dust.” However, it’s the rare look into Divine’s life away from the lights that is most intriguing since the film boasts childhood photos of a rose-cheeked Glenn illustrating how he and his family came to terms with the unique person he would become and suggests that it was not dressing up in women’s clothing that was ever the biggest cosmetic change for Glenn Milstead, but rather keeping a strict division between his personal life and his professional career as an entertainer.

While in Austin for the film’s world premiere at SXSW, Schwarz took the time to talk about how he first got interesting in making a film about Divine and the incredible access he received, as well as the impact of Milstead’s mother Frances and Divine’s cultural impact overall.

How did this film come about?

I started with John Waters. I was growing up in high school feeling like an outsider and a bit like a freak. No one really understood me and I couldn’t share my obsessions with anybody else, but John Waters was somebody I felt like a real kinship with. So even before seeing the films, I read Shock Value and Crackpot and once I got to college, I met a group of people I clicked in with and who did understand. I ended up seeing “Hairspray” – that was my first encounter with Divine, but that was right around the time that Divine died and I remember thinking at that time how unfair it was that we’re being robbed of this incredible person, that there’ll never be another Divine movie.

Years later, I made a film called “Spine Tingler: The William Castle Story” that featured John Waters, who was the one who turned me onto William Castle because he had written about him in Crackpot and there was a line in that essay, “It’s about time someone makes a documentary about William Castle.” So I followed his challenge and made that film and when it came time to think about doing the Divine film, that was the first phone call I made. I asked for John’s blessing, which he gave to me, which was very, very generous of him and he ended up telling everyone that I wanted to interview, “You should say yes to this guy, you should do the interview.” The second phone call was to Divine’s mother Frances Milstead, who has since passed away, but she lost Divine when he was young, so she had gone through a long period of bitterness and anger about losing him, but came through the other side of that and realized that now Divine belonged to the world. She was very invested in seeing this movie get made, so of course she said yes immediately, and provided home movies of Divine as a little kid, which were incredible that no one’s ever seen before and photographs and a wonderful interview, which I feel is really the heart and soul of the movie.

I understand her interview was filmed right before she passed away. Did it change how you approached the story in the editing room?

It didn’t necessarily change Divine’s story, but it made that throughline of his relationship with her even more important. We also ended up dedicating the film to her at the end. When Divine was growing up, he was a very rambunctious, rebellious, crazy-making kid and his parents accepted him and wanted to do everything they could to encourage him, to help him, but he couldn’t be tamed. When he really pursued being an underground superstar and being Divine, he did leave and there was a ten-year period where they weren’t talking at all. And his parents didn’t even know that he was Divine. They didn’t even know their son was becoming this underground superstar. But when they did reconnect with him, which was right before “Hairspray,” they really did become family again. I always felt like that was going to be the heart and soul of the film, especially for kids who are experiencing similar things. In “Female Trouble,” he says, “I hate you, fuck you, fuck you!” and he throws a Christmas tree on his mom, and I feel like that was maybe a little bit a touch of reality. But at the end, you only have one mother, you only have one father and they reconnected. That’s a beautiful thing. So John Waters always asks drag queens that come up to him, “Have you called your mother lately?”

Having John Waters onboard must be a blessing and a little bit of a curse since everything he says is gold and yet it’s not his story, it’s Divine’s. Was it challenging not to let him overwhelm the film?

Yeah, you could just let the camera roll for an hour-and-a-half on John and people would be entertained, but it’s not just about that period of Divine’s life. The films were only one part of the Divine story, so I think people who are already familiar with the movies are going to learn so much more about his career. There’s his theater career doing the off-Broadway plays, there’s the music career and also the work he did with the Cockettes.

John was part of some of his life, but not all of his life. They had a very loving relationship and as Divine said in the film, “Sometimes I thank him for it and sometimes I hate him for it” because he did create this character along with Divine and Van Smith, who did the makeup – he created this character that was so iconic that at a certain point, Divine felt trapped by that character. All people wanted to ask him about was eating shit in “Pink Flamingos” and he was so much more than that. They did that to leapfrog ahead and to get people talking about them and to become famous overnight and it totally did work, but then what’s next? So John is definitely a throughline through the whole film, but he’s not the only person. There’s so many other avenues that we go down.

And you are able to get Divine in his own words. How much of that did you want to put in the film and how much did you get to put in the film?

My last film “Vito” was the same thing. In a way, in these biographical films about people who are no longer with us, you’re really resurrecting the dead. That really works even better when you can get the person to tell their own story as much as possible, so we just found as much as we could that still exists of Divine doing interviews on camera, audio tapes from reporters who interviewed him over the years who held onto that material and most importantly, John did a very long interview with Divine when he was writing Shock Value, his book about his career. Those tapes still existed and John let us use that as much as we wanted, so we were able to sprinkle throughout the entire movie Divine commenting on his own story, giving his perspective on things. I was so surprised by some of the material that we found. We found one interview that was done towards the end of his life where he’s very candid about being a cult movie star and how that’s not lucrative. He’s very candid about the frustration that he had of being marginalized in some sense and craving mainstream legitimacy in the interview, so I’m so glad we found that.

Divine makes such an immediate impression on people that there’s a very fixed image of him in people’s minds. Was there anything that you came across during the making of this that really conflicted with what you thought going in?

People had told me about Divine, oh, he was overweight and he was so sad and he was lonely and all that stuff. There was that aspect to his life too, but he also had a voracious sexual appetite and he got a lot of play too. He wasn’t shy about going after what he wanted and one of the people in the film says, “He had one in every port,” so I love that that defies a stereotype, like drag queens never have a boyfriend. That is a stereotype that’s totally not true, especially in Divine’s case. He had several people in his life that were very important to him. He even dated one of the biggest porn stars of the ’80s, Leo Ford, which was a total surprise to me. I had no idea they even knew each other. Greg Gorman, one of our interview subjects says, “Oh, I introduced him to Leo Ford.” It’s the most unlikely pairing, but [Divine] was able to make people laugh and it’s not in the film, but Greg Gorman told me, “You know, if you can make someone laugh, you can always get laid.”

Was it also interesting to look at gay culture through this particular prism? Divine hit many of the trends.

It was. But Divine never really felt like he was a part of the mainstream, even the mainstream gay culture because gay culture’s always had a complicated relationship with drag. There were so many battles early on in the movement between the gay men…white gay men, usually, who wanted to marginalize drag queens, transvestites, and transgendered people because that was not part of the image that they wanted to project necessarily.

And Divine, I’ve never actually heard him out himself. He never talked about it. I would love to have met Divine to talk about that, but I actually saw an interview he did once where someone just came right out and asked him, “Are you gay?” And he said, “Well, I have a wife and six kids in Canada.” [laughs] It’s like what a ridiculous question. Of course he was. But he wasn’t a politician. He didn’t get involved in gay politics. But he probably did more for gay liberation than he even knew, just by being who he was and making it okay for other people to be who they were.

What was the premiere like?

It was so much fun. Last night was our world premiere here at South By and we had a packed house. The movie was showing on two screens right next to each other, which I didn’t know until after it was over. I didn’t know there was an alternate universe going on right next door. We were working on this for so long and this is the first I’ve gotten to experience with an audience and you know, I asked if there were any Divine fans in the house and of course, everyone went nuts. And it was at the Alamo [Drafthouse], so people were able to eat during the movie, which Divine would’ve probably appreciated, so I can’t say enough about it. It was pure happiness from the beginning to the end.

“I Am Divine” does not yet have U.S. distribution. It will next play the Florida Film Festival on April 6th and 8th and at Cleveland International Film Festival on April 13th and 14th at the Tower City Cinema.

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