“I Am Divine” Director Jeffrey Schwarz Explores the Life of the Iconic John Waters Muse


Divine in the cult classic “Pink Flamingos”

The documentary I Am Divine made its world premiere at this year’s SXSW Film Festival and as the title suggests, it documents the life and times of the iconic Divine, the mother of all drag performers. Divine worshippers and newbies will be happy to know that this movie has all the crazy and outlandish antics expected from the late great performer, but it’s also surprisingly intimate, heartfelt, and a bit somber.

All of us remember our first encounter with the lovely Divine (born Harris Glenn Milstead). More than likely, you know her from John Waters’ Pink Flamingos (a.k.a. The movie where she eats dog poo). It wasn’t any different for Jeffrey Schwarz, director of the film. He was in his teenage years when he started worshipping at the altar of Divine.

“I had read about Pink Flamingos before actually seeing it, in Danny Peary’s Cult Movies and John Waters’ book Shock Value,”says Schwarz. “At the time I had no tangible connections to gay culture, so John and Divine’s sensibility certainly helped lead me down a creative path and was an inspiration. And then finally getting to see Divine in those movies was just mind blowing.”

Jeffrey Schwarz, director of “I Am Divine”

Sure, Pink Flamingos may be known as the movie where Divine eats dog poo, but as Schwarz points out, “watching him on screen was thrilling. He was so fully committed to the characters he played.”

One of the main things Schwarz wanted to accomplish with making this film was that, although Divine was John Waters’ muse, that was just one thing on a long list of accomplishments. He aimed to make a documentary that preserved the counterculture legacy that Divine left behind. More than that, he wanted to explore her life fully, including his life as Harris Glenn Milstead – which many people tend to overlook.

“It’s been 25 years since his death, and I realized the icons that we take for granted aren’t necessarily part of the conversation with the next generation,” says Schwarz. “There had not been a proper documentary about Divine’s life so I attempted to fill that cultural void. Divine is an inspiration to misfits, outsiders, rebels, and freaks. He’s a poster child for misfit youth and proves that anything is possible.”

We had the chance to talk to Jeffery Schwarz more about his career as a filmmaker, interviewing Divine’s mom, sorting through tons of Divine footage, and the possibility of a Divine biopic.

 

What made you want to become a filmmaker and who are some of your influences?
I started making films to celebrate iconic, larger than life individuals with a great story to tell. The people I choose to make movies about all created a finely tuned persona that helped cover up any insecurities they may have had. People like horror movie maestro William Castle, ’70s porn icon Jack Wrangler, and of course Divine fit into that category. That’s the main motivation – helping to secure the legacy of people. I feel have been somewhat neglected or unappreciated by the mainstream culture – and they’re all rebels and outsiders. My documentary heroes are Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, Errol Morris, the Maysles Brothers and also narrative filmmakers that make docs like Jonathan Demme, Martin Scorsese and Werner Herzog.

How easy/difficult was it to get all of these great people to participate in the film? Was there anyone you wanted that you didn’t get?
I would not have made I Am Divine without the blessing and support of John Waters. He knew my work and trusted that Divine’s story would be in good hands. John personally called many of the people I wanted to interview to let them know they should participate. That was huge for us. He’s been nothing but supportive of this project and I worship this man. After getting John’s blessing I got in touch with Frances Milstead, Divine’s mom who was still alive at the time. She wanted to see this movie get made and sent me some incredible rare photos and movies of Divine when he was growing up. She had a great life in Florida, surrounded by all these gay guys who adored her and made every day special. I’m so glad we were able to interview her before she passed away so she could talk about her boy. She was a lovely person. There is a lovely man in New York who was close with Divine and was his roommate in New York in the ’70s who told me some hilarious stories and provided us with photos but didn’t want to go on camera. He was camera shy. He probably would have added more about Divine’s private life, but I’m very happy with our colorful cast of characters.

The Pope of Trash, John Waters with Harris Glenn Milstead (Divine) at the premiere of “Hairspray”

How long did it take you make this film? Where did you get all footage and was it hard to find?
The film took about five years. The first phase was research & development, initial fundraising, (and) shooting all the interviews. The footage came from many sources. Various archives around the country, footage taken on the set of Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble by Steve Yeager, home movies from Divine’s mom, and many, many photographs by various friends and professional photographers. Divine loved being photographed so we had plenty to choose from.

What was the most difficult part in making this documentary?
Fundraising is always difficult especially in today’s economy, so we turned to Divine’s fans to help us get this movie made. We spent a couple of years cultivating a very lively community on our Facebook page. At this point we’ve got over 20,000 fans even before most people have seen the film. We decided to use crowd funding through Indie-Go-Go and Kickstarter and we made our goals. We wanted the fans to feel they had a stake in making sure the film was completed. It was a way for people to give back to Divine, to feel personally connected to something really special, and to show that Divine still has a thriving fan base. There really wasn’t a plan B. Between our online campaigns and the big donor angels that made larger contributions, we were able to complete the film.

Why do you think now is a good time for this documentary to come out?
When he was growing up, Divine was picked on, teased and abused mercilessly. After meeting John Waters and the Dreamland crew he found a group that accepted him, loved him, and encouraged him. He was able to take all his teenage rage and channel it into the Divine character. He threw everything that people made fun of him for back in their faces and empowered himself. He became an internationally recognized recording artist and screen icon. He gives courage to anyone who’s ever been mocked, ridiculed, or ostracized. With all the talk about bullying today, I feel his story shows that there is a light at the end of the tunnel if you love yourself. I Am Divine is kind of the ultimate “it gets better” story and he’s a poster child for misfit youth. He can inspire people, whether they’re queer or not, to find inspiration to fulfill their own creative destiny.

How did you decide what to include in the film and what to edit out?
There are so many hilarious and legendary stories about Divine, but if it didn’t relate to his journey of empowerment, we had to let it go. The original cut was about two hours, but it becomes clear the more you work on it what’s really important. The movie is 90 minutes, the perfect length. You’ll have to wait for the DVD to find out about Divine being a suspect in a murder case, his adventures in Provincetown with Holly Woodlawn, and how his high school girlfriend came to terms with Divine’s new identity.

A shot of Divine in one of her many performances

How do you think the allure of Divine has changed over the years? Specifically today with the gay – and even the hetero – community?
An entire new generation has come of age without Divine in their lives and I hope this film reminds us that he is the Queen Mother of us all. John has said he made movies for gay people who didn’t get along with other gay people. John and Divine were outsiders even within the gay scene. The appealed to other outsiders and freaks and reveled in shocking people who were humor impaired. Divine did play all the gay clubs when he did his disco act, but his appeal wasn’t limited to a gay audience. Even though the gay community loves drag, there’s always been a tension there. Sometimes they’re not looked upon as the “politically correct” image for straight society to accept us. Divine wasn’t outwardly political and didn’t get involved in any gay causes, but just by being who he was I’m sure empowered people to accept themselves. Today’s queers need to remember people like Divine and the people on the fringes who made it easier for the rest of us.

You’ve directed many documentaries – and I am sure you have been asked this MANY times before, but I am going to ask anyway. Do you plan on making a feature narrative film and what would it be about?
Yes, I would love to direct a narrative when the right project comes along and it would likely be along the lines of the docs I’ve made. If the stars align, making a Divine biopic would be a dream come true. I’ve been developing a feature about the legendary underground gay filmmakers George Kuchar and his twin brother Mike. We’re also developing a feature about the relationship of Jack Wrangler and Margaret Whiting, based on my previous doc Wrangler: Anatomy of an Icon. The casting possibilities are delicious.

Do you have any other projects in the works?
My next project is called Tab Hunter Confidential. It’s the story of matinée idol Tab Hunter and how he went from being a teenage stable boy to one of the biggest Hollywood stars of the 1950s. He was gay (of course) and the movie is about the tension between being presented as the boy next door and every girl’s dream date, but in reality keeping a very big secret. I met him when we interviewed him for I Am Divine about co-starring in John Waters’ Polyester. We have started production so if there are any sugar daddies reading this that want to help us get this movie made, send them my way!


For more information on filmmaker Jeffrey Schwarz and I Am Divine, visit the documentary’s official website.