Jeffrey Schwarz is the director of I Am Divine, the new documentary on groundbreaking drag and performance artist Divine, which premieres at the Sydney Film Festival in June. The Star Observer spoke with Schwarz about the movie, the man and the legend that was Divine.
I Am Divine premiered at South by Southwest in March – what’s the reception been like so far?
It had its world premiere in Texas, and people loved it. Since then it’s been madness – everywhere we’ve gone it’s gotten a fantastic response. I’m really excited to see how far we can go.
The film’s been about five years in the making. What inspired you to devote so much time and energy into telling Divine’s story?
Divine had a huge impact on me as a kid – I was pretty shy growing up and I worshipped at his feet. Movies like Hairspray and Polyester were huge for me. It didn’t occur to me for a long time that other people didn’t revere this great performer the way I did. Nowadays, a lot of people have never heard of Divine. Hopefully the movie will please die-hard fans, but I want it to expose Divine to people who don’t know much about her or the huge impact she had on drag and cinema.
The movie was made with a lot of support from director John Waters, who together with Divine really pioneered the transgressive, gross-out cinema movement of the 1970s. What was he like to work alongside?
Working with John was the biggest privilege. When I started making the movie he was the first person I called. He basically gave it his seal of approval; he would call people I was interested in speaking with and let them know he was behind the project, which made things a lot easier. Apart from that he let me do my own thing. The only thing he asked me to do specifically was not to include the footage of Divine eating dog shit in Pink Flamingos. He only did it for that one film because it was in the script, but it kind of defined him for a while.
You’ve focused on gay and gross-out themes in your filmmaking before – Wrangler told the story of gay ‘70s porn star Jack Wrangler and Spine Tingler was an exploration of low-budget horror films. What is it about the seedy side of cinema that interests you?
I kind of consider I Am Divine, Wrangler and Spine Tingler a trilogy in that they all deal with people whose performance life was very different to how they were as people. I’m really drawn to how performers with insecurities create this persona, this huge alter-ego. Glenn was the polar opposite of Divine – he was very shy and withdrawn, you wouldn’t notice him if you passed him in the street, whereas Divine was this brash, larger-than-life creation.
You’ve gone over a huge amount of archival footage and testimony in the making of this film. How did you decide what to include and what to leave out?
I cut out a lot that didn’t give any insight into who the guy behind Divine actually was. I wanted to look at Glenn Milstead the man as well as Divine the character. John Waters said once that “Glenn is dead” and that Divine is all there is. He kept reinventing himself, first as a drag queen and then as a nightclub disco performer and then as a character actor, but people just called him ‘Divvy’ throughout. But I did want to show Divine as a person, not just as this amazing on-screen presence.
I Am Divine has its Australian premiere in June – what kind of reaction are you anticipating?
I wish I could make it! I’ve never been to Australia, but Divine had a pretty big following in Australia among the gay community – she did some tours out here and performed at a lot of nightclubs in the gay districts. We raised money for the film by going online on a crowdsourcing site, and a whole lot of people from Australia donated. I hope they get to see their names in the credits.
INFO: I Am Divine is playing on Saturday, June 15 and Sunday, June 16 at Event Cinemas on George St. www.sff.org.au