Christopher Bryant talks to Jeffrey Schwarz about his documentaries Vito and I Am Divine, the latter of which launched the 2013 BFI London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival.
The opening night gala of the 27th BFI London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival featured the documentary I Am Divine, directed and produced by Jeffrey Schwarz. The film premiered at the South by Southwest festival on March 9, and this was its second screening. Schwarz is a regular at the LLGFF. His documentary Vito, which is about the life of the activist Vito Russo, was a highlight in 2012. His is documentary making at its very best: rich, informative, effortless and deeply human. I met Jeffrey Schwarz the following day to talk about the DVD release of the remarkable Vito on March 25, as well as the wonderful I Am Divine, his love letter to Harris Glenn Milstead and his alter-ego, the drag queen extraordinaire Divine.
How old were you when you first saw Divine?
There was a book called Cult Movies by Danny Peary that I got hold of in my early teens. It was full of movies that were forbidden and a plot description of every single thing that happened. Pink Flamingos was in there. I read about it way before seeing it, and I couldn’t imagine that such a movie existed.
It wasn’t until I got in to college that I dove into the world of John Waters and Divine. I started with Hairspray and worked backwards. It was right around the time that Divine died, and I remember thinking how cruel that was. He was poised for mainstream success, and there would never be another Divine movie. Then I saw Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, Polyester, and was completely obsessed with the world of John Waters and Divine. That was the path to this film, that’s been in the works for about 5 years.
Why make the documentary now? Did something trigger it?
Divine has always been on my mind, but I started to feel that the younger generation didn’t have a relationship with some of the icons that I thought everyone knew.
In the States there’s a lot of talk about the effects of bullying and how difficult it is to see light at the end of the tunnel for people who are bullied because they’re gay, or their body type is different from most people, or whatever it is that sets them apart. I thought the Divine story was a perfect example of this. Here’s someone who faced adversity early on in life, and then through creativity, friendship, acceptance and learning to love himself was able to push through all the negativity and become the creature he was always meant to be.
One of the moments that struck me watching the film was when John Waters talked about how being gay back in the early 1970s was more fun. The scene was so different, it was underground, it was more edgy. When you think about gay politics now it’s focus is on mainstream concerns such as marriage, military and the family. If you imagine yourself in the future, looking back at this era, who is there today that you’d like to make a documentary about? Is there anyone as interesting as Vito Russo, or Divine?
That’s a great question. I tend to make films about people in the recent past. I’m kind of obsessed with the 1970s and ‘80s. I’m not sure why that is. I’m sure there are people today, but they’re maybe not as interesting or exciting.
I am attracted to the rebels, the outsiders, the people who don’t fit in and who rub up against the norms. Ask me that question 20 years from now. There are people in the States that I admire. Dan Savage is someone I admire. I’m sure there are people … I’ll think of a good answer to your question soon.
The icons of today tend to be very pre-packaged. I don’t want to dismiss anyone, but someone like Lady Gaga is taking all of the messages of people like Divine, or people who had this iconic outsider status, and packaging it for a mass audience. So I’m a little less interested in the mainstream stars that are regurgitating this message … although Lady Gaga has a similar message to Divine, and she’s telling kids, “you’re ok the way you are”, so I can appreciate that. Maybe she’ll be someone of interest 20 years from now.
You’ve made documentaries about people who were coming to terms with their sexuality at a time when when it was still illegal, and people who were on the front line of gay rights – Vito Russo was right on the front line, as was Divine. Is that part of the attraction for you?
I think so. The reason I’m attracted to this period is that everything was starting to open up in this incredible way, and that there was so much repression. People like Vito Russo, Divine and Jack Wrangle were able to ride this wave, this explosion of queer sexuality, but to also help to create the environment.
Vito was clearly a gay activist. Divine would never have considered himself an activist, but at the same time just being who he was he inspired so many people. He really did encourage people to be who they were no matter what society was telling them. He just said be yourself, and love yourself. Vito had the same message, although he was doing it in a more explicitly political way. It was political for Divine to walk down the street in downtown Baltimore in full drag. That was a radical statement. To me that was all those years of repression exploding, to be able to walk defiantly down the street. He would never have been able to do that as Glenn, but as Divine he could do that.
It’s hard to imagine what someone could do now to have an impact that was that radical. You’d probably have to go really far.
I don’t even know what you can do today to really shock people. I think that people try to do that these days, but it doesn’t have the same sort of impact. It’s pre-packaged. Especially when you have major corporations trading in it. With a film like Jackass, with Johnny Noxville drinking horse semen, it’s in the mainstream. John Waters doesn’t even try to do that any more, he’s made his contribution. The most radical thing that John Waters had done is to make Hairspray, a PG feel-good for families.
Going back to the idea of the underground, I was thinking about the activist work Vito Russo did on the public access cable channels, and the boundaries that John Waters pushed in his early films. With current technology anyone can easily make something and put it onto YouTube. Do you think the underground scene is possible any more, or is diluted by websites like YouTube, with people looking for material that reflects the interests they already have?
I don’t know if there is an underground any more because everything is so accessible. Divine became a star through word of mouth, with the right people in the big cities saying, “have you heard about this movie where this queen eats dog shit, you have to go and see it”. It was an authentic, grass roots way of becoming a star. He wasn’t being talked about on the front pages of the New York Times, but he was being talked about on the covers of all the underground gay publications.
I’m sure there must be an underground, but it’s a different kind of thing. I don’t think kids today know that it was possible to be a superstar and not to make a dime off it. He wanted to feed himself, but at the beginning it was enough for Divine that people appreciated what he was doing. Now it seems that if there’s not a dollar sign attached it’s not worth doing. I’m not sure if that’s the right way to go.
On that subject, I was looking at your producer credits on IMDB. Does your work as a producer pay the bills, whereas it’s the documentaries that are done for the love?
I’ve been lucky as my day job is producing DVD content for studios, and I’ve been doing that since the late ‘90s. They are so much fun to do, as they are about being creative, and making documentaries. Some content is more promotional, and some looks back at the history of the film. That pays my bills.
I love to make documentaries, as that’s what I’m supposed to be doing in life.
When you make a documentary, do you think of it as a love letter to that person? I ask because I certainly had that feeling from both Vito and I Am Divine.
Oh good. I think it is a love letter but you have to avoid hagiography. It can’t be, “oh, what a wonderful person this was”. You can’t have a fully fleshed portrait without going into the darker areas, where they’re conflicted, where it’s warts and all. With Divine, certainly he had his issues. He had an addictive personality, for sure, and he had issues with food. The reason he was so popular was because of his weight, but it also caused a lot of problems for him, and he died because of it.
He had issues in his love life, as well as a conflict with his family. The heart of the film is in that conflict, and in his relationship with his mother. Thank god we got to interview her when we did because she passed away a couple of years ago. That was the first interview we did and it was the last interview she gave.
To see him reconnect with his family was so touching, and it’s what so many people can connect with, as so many of us have had difficulties with our families, and this shows no matter how difficult it is at the beginning you can reconcile.
You start the film with the story of Hairspray, and how Divine died at this point his career was about to go mainstream. It seemed like it would end up as a tragedy, the story of a life cut short, but it didn’t feel that way at all. It felt that his real success had happened.
John Waters said he didn’t know how it could have a happy ending. Even though Divine reached mainstream success he didn’t live to reap the benefits of that, which is a tragedy, but at the same time he went to bed that night with a smile on his face. He was about to start filming on Married With Children, the happiest he had ever been, and he didn’t wake up. Of course it was a tragedy but I am not sure it’s the worst way in the world to go out.
What do you think would have happened to Glenn had he lived?
I’m convinced he would have gone on to have a successful mainstream career as a character actor, which is what he always wanted. I think he would have played more male roles, and taken the wig out of the box every once in a while for a special appearance. I would have loved to see him play Alfred Hitchcock.
One last question. What’s your favourite Divine film?
Female Trouble, for sure. You really get to see all the faces of Divine. I love Polyester. It’s like a Douglas Sirk movie, and you get to see Divine as a victim, but Female Trouble is the one I can watch over and over and quote all the lines.