South By Southwest Film Interview - I AM DIVINE director Jeffrey Schwarz
By Jason Whyte
Posted 03/06/13 18:11:38
“I AM DIVINE is the story of how an overweight, effeminate, bullied Baltimore kid transformed himself into an internationally recognized drag superstar. He became known around the world for his leading roles in films by John Waters, his appearances on the stage, his recording career, and touring with a disco act. Divine is an inspiration to misfits, outsiders, rebels, and freaks and I hope this movie reignites interest in this incredible individual. He's a poster child for misfit youth.” Director Jeffrey Schwarz on I AM DIVINE which screens at this year's South By Southwest Film.
Is this your first SxSW/Austin experience?
I've been to Austin before and have been enchanted by the migas tacos but this will be my first trip to SXSW. I'm looking forward to seeing lots of great movies, especially EVIL DEAD, along with meeting fellow filmmakers and suffer from sleep deprivation. I'm most excited to unveil I AM DIVINE in front of an audience for our World Premiere. It's always a thrill for me to watch my work with an enthusiastic crowd and that NEVER gets old!
What do you love the most about Austin?
The people, the beer, the food, the aforementioned migas tacos, and those cool swarms of bats that fly over the river. I hope to be reunited with them this trip.
Tell me a bit about your background and how you became a filmmaker. Also would love to hear about anything else you have made in the past!
I've spent the better part of this century making "behind-the-scenes" documentaries and DVD extras so I'm the guy responsible for all those featurettes, audio commentaries and other "added value" as the studios like to call it. I've gotten to work with some of my filmmaking heroes like Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, John Carpenter, Wes Craven and so many more. A few years ago I started making feature documentaries 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 (SPINE TINGLER! THE WILLIAM CASTLE STORY), 70s porn icon Jack Wrangler (WRANGLER: ANATOMY OF AN ICON), and of course Divine fit into that category. My most recent film was HBO Documentary Films' VITO which was about a beloved gay activist and film scholar named Vito Russo. I fall in love with these people, warts and all, and want to illustrate their journeys on film and take an audience for a ride.
What was the biggest challenge, or challenges, in making the film?
The biggest hurdle to jump before starting to make the film was of course getting the blessing of the Pope of Trash, John Waters. I would not have made I AM DIVINE without his support, so that was the first call I made. He's in SPINE TINGLER! and a TV special I did called IN THE GUTTER about gross-out films, so he knew my work and trusted that Divine's story would be in good hands. He said, I trust you. This will be a good movie. So that's all I needed to hear. John helped us so much by getting in touch with all these people I was hoping to interview, letting them know it was okay to speak with me. 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 mother who was still alive at the time. She was totally supportive and sent me some incredible rare photos and home 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.
What was your single favorite moment out of the entire production?
There were so many, but going to Baltimore and getting to meet and interview so many of the original Dreamland crew (Mink Stole, Sue Lowe, Mary Vivian Pearce, Vincent Peranio, Pat Moran) was such a treat. There is a lot of history under the bridge with these folks, and they've been through so much together. Making movies, loving each other, fighting with each other, sleeping with each other. We should all be so lucky to have friends and creative partners like they do. But going to the alley where Divine ate dog shit was a religious experience. Everyone should go to that alley and pay homage.
What keeps you going while making a movie? What drives you?
Honestly I feel I don't have much control over any of this. The movies already exist in some alternate universe, and I'm the vessel that has to push them forward into existence. Most doc people feel the same way. We're not in it for the money or the glamour of where there is little of either. But I get obsessed with these subjects and want to share them with the world and insure they are not forgotten.
I would love to know about the technical side of the film, your relationship to the director of photography, what the movie was shot on and why it was decided to be filmed this way.
We shot in multiple formats over several years. I honestly can't tell you the names of any of the cameras. I don't get into the technical nitty gritty. I'm aware of it and know it's important but I'm much more focused on archival materials and the archeology of making films about popular culture. But I did work with some excellent cinematographers in Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco and Baltimore and bow down to their expertise.
What do you want audiences to take from the film?
Divine did not consider himself a drag queen. He was a skilled actor who played female parts. 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 get to know the man behind the wigs and eyeliner and hairspray; a sweet soft spoken guy with so much love in his heart. And he was also kind of insane too, and we definitely go into aspects of his personality that drove some people nuts. Mostly, I want kids who didn't grow up with him to get to know this amazing character who can inspire them to be whoever they want to be.
How important do you think the critical/media response is to film these days, be it a large production, independent film or festival title?
Film critics certainly don't have the cultural sway they had in the past, which is a shame I think. Studios are starting to use tweets from random idiots in their advertising. It's embarrassing actually, and many thoughtful film writers I know can't make a living any more from it. But Divine always got terrible reviews, up until HAIRSPRAY pretty much, and those critics were all wrong. So who knows. I try to ignore the bad reviews I've gotten and pretend they don't exist.
After the film screens at South By Southwest, what is the future release plan for the movie? Where would you like it to go?
We are booked as the opening night film at the BFI London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival, and then about a dozen festivals after that are confirmed. And more coming every week. I think the film will have a robust festival life this year, and in a perfect world would be picked up for distribution. We have a top sales agent on the case who was just thanked by the director of SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN at the Oscars. He sold that film so he certainly knows what he's doing.
Alamo Drafthouse and Paramount theaters in Austin aside, if you could show this movie in any cinema in the world, which one would you choose and why?
Well, the late, great Elgin in New York City of course. It's been closed for years, but that was the Radio City Hall for Midnight Movies. EL TOPO played there, and PINK FLAMINGOS played there forever. But my favorite theater in the world is the Castro in San Francisco so fingers crossed that we will play there at some point. Hopefully the film will cause riots wherever it plays.
What would you say or do to someone who is talking or texting during a screening of your film?
I am that guy who will get up and walk across the theater to shame someone into turning off their phone. If someone starts doing it next to me I just turn to them and say, "No. Just no." It usually works. That is one of my biggest pet peeves and there is a special place in hell for these people.
There are a lot of up and coming filmmakers both at SxSW and reading our site. I was curious if you had any advice to aspiring filmmakers?
Yes, don't wait for permission from anyone to make your movie. Look around you and see what resources are at your disposal. Find people you trust and want to work with. Don't expect to make a dime from your filmmaking, at least at first. The first one's always free. In terms of documentaries, they seem to take about five years. So if you have multiple projects going so you can move from one to the next. I'm already on to the next one, TAB HUNTER CONFIDENTIAL, the story of matinée idol Tab Hunter. He was one of the biggest Hollywood stars of the 1950s, an idol to millions of teenage girls, all the while living a secret gay life. We have started production and if fundraising goes well, hope to finish shooting and start editing before the end of the year.
And finally, what is the single, greatest movie that you have seen at a film festival?
I saw CAN'T STOP THE MUSIC with the Village People at a midnight show at Frameline Fest in San Francisco in the 90s. The late Mark Finch programmed it. He tracked down the one and only print in existence. It was at the Castro and nearly brought the house down. That was a sublime experience!
This is one of the many films screening at the 2013 SXSW in Austin, Texas between March 8-16. For more information on the film’s screening, point your browser to www.sxsw.com/film.
Jason Whyte, efilmcritic.com
Twitter: @jasonwhyte Facebook: jasonwhyte