Ahead of the 27th BFI Lesbian and Gay Film Festival (now BFI Flare), The New Current sat down with director Jeffrey Schwarz to talk about his latest documentary feature I AM DIVINE which opened the festival.
Hi Jeffrey it's been a pretty hectic year for you so far, any chance of it slowing down soon?
Not likely. We just finished our sound mix and colour correct on Friday, so it's all systems go for I AM DIVINE. We are premiering in a couple of weeks at SXSW in Austin, Texas and then it's off to London for our European premiere.
Your documentary 'I Am Divine' is going to be the opening film at this years 27th edition of the London Lesbian Gay Film Festival, what was it like getting the news from the BFI?
I was at LLGF last year with my last film VITO and had a wonderful time. I loved the energy of the festival, saw some excellent movies, and met many fellow filmmakers. We started a conversation then about possibly showing I AM DIVINE since we were well into post-production at that point. It was a thrill to find out not only that we were programmed, but that we were the opening night film. Divine loved London and had a lot of friends there. In fact, he was banned from Top of the Pops so it will be quite a homecoming!
Tell us a little bit about the film, how did it come to life?
I have always worshipped at the altar of Divine and of John Waters. Anyone who feels like an outsider growing up can certainly relate to the world that they created and the way they lived their lives. The first thing I did when I decided to try and make the film called John Waters. He's in my first film SPINE TINGLER! THE WILLIAM CASTLE STORY, and he's been a major influence on me over the years. He knew my work and trusted that Divine's story would be in good hands. Without his support and blessing, I would not have moved forward on this. He actually said I trust you. This will be a good movie. So that's all I needed to hear! John got in touch with all these people I was hoping to interview, telling them to speak with me. He's been nothing but supportive of this project.
What was it about Divine that made you want to tell her story?
Divine was the ultimate outsider. He spits in the face of the status quos of body image, gender identity, sexuality, and preconceived notions of beauty. Divine succeeded in becoming an internationally recognized recording artist and screen icon. He gives courage to anyone who’s ever been mocked, ridiculed, and ostracized, and gives us all hope that anything’s possible.
"I want people to get to know the man behind the glamour, a sweet soft-spoken guy with so much love in his heart."
What was the first thing you saw featuring Divine?
I got into the films first through reading about them in John Waters books first, then seeing them when I got to college. HAIRSPRAY was actually the first one I saw. Just after the release I opened the newspaper and saw that Divine had died. It seemed so cruel and unfair that after receiving the best reviews of his career and on the verge of mainstream acceptance, he wouldn’t be able to enjoy the fruits of his labour.
You have gained access to some exceptional material during your research where you spoilt for choice when bringing it all together?
Yes, we worked with many different sources - Divine's films of course, but he was such a striking presence that many artists and photographers wanted to work with him. He loved being photographed of course so we had access to so many wonderful sessions with people like Greg Gorman. The shots of him out of drag are also striking because you get a sense of the soft-spoken, shy, and serene person beneath the insanity.
Was making a film on such a cult icon daunting?
I had no doubts that this was a film that needed to be made, but it's tough out there raising money for independent films. We started an online fundraising campaign where fans can have a say in making this movie. It's 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. At the end of the day over 2,000 people donated to make sure Divine's story made it to the big screen.
What have been your biggest challenges in bringing the film to life?
The biggest challenge was not so much a challenge, but a hurdle that I wanted to jump before starting to make the film. I would not have made I AM DIVINE without the blessing and support of John Waters, which I mentioned. After getting John's blessing I got in touch with Frances Milstead, Divine's mom who was still alive at the time. She was totally supportive and sent me some incredible rare photos 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.
Would you do anything differently now?
It's hard to say because I feel that these things are pre-ordained in a way. When I started making the movie I already saw the finished product in my head, so was just following orders from the universe to get it done. I suppose I would have tried to get it done sooner, but you really have no power over these things especially when you're working on an independent production.
How did you get into filmmaking?
I started as an editor and then got into producing DVD bonus features for the studios. Since 2000 I've been making these DVD extras and have done hundreds of featurettes, audio commentaries, and other added value. Now I'm focusing on making documentary features, and this is my fourth film.
What would you hope people will take from your film?
Divine never considered himself a drag queen. He was an actor who played female parts - and those are always the best roles anyway! He was a fantastic performer, a great actor, and a warm, generous person who couldn't have been more different from the roles he played. I want people to get to know the man behind the glamour, a sweet soft-spoken guy with so much love in his heart. And he was also kind of nuts too. I especially want kids who didn't grow up with him to get to know this amazing character and I'm hoping this will help secure Divine's legacy for the future.
And finally, what has been the best advice you have been given, and would give to fellow filmmakers?
I always say don't wait for somebody else to give you permission to make a film. especially a documentary. The tools are at your disposal. Of course, it's a challenge and it takes time and it will drive you insane, but it's worth it. Just go out and do it and be tenacious and obsessed until it's done.