Divine

I Am Divine

Posted on Posted in Diva, Film, Interview

Divine is a study in irony, from the top of her heavenly, teased wig to the bottom of her cha-cha heels. Her very name is associated with the sacred while her persona explored the very depths of depravity, obscenity, and vulgarity. It is this outrageous and humorous contradiction that hurtled an average overweight kid to a cult icon, leaving an enduring beauty mark on pop culture with a continuing source of inspiration to outsiders, misfits, punks, sluts and queers more than 20 years after his death. With legions of rabid, obsessive fans it’s surprising that up until now Divine has always shared the cinematic spotlight as actor and subject, so we applaud director Jeffrey Schwarz for finally creating a definitive and historic piece of work that will honor him in just the way he always craved — as a serious artist and immortal star.
Mild-mannered, Sunday-school-loving Harris Glenn Milstead was the opposite of your typical “muse”, yet the brilliance of John Waters, recognizing the potential of such a committed performer, encouraged the outrageous character of Divine to develop, and the two have been inextricably linked to one another ever since. It could be said that neither of them would have achieved acclaim and notoriety without one another, but Divine did expand creatively and enjoyed a successful (though still somewhat unknown) career as a stage actor and disco diva. It was these serious accomplishments that were so easily overshadowed by the cinematic terrorist we are all familiar with and made recognition as a character actor nearly impossible. The constant struggle between needing to work and desiring artistic credibility sets the stage for a fascinating look at who Divine really was and one that Schwarz was inspired to explore in this new project.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of Divine’s untimely passing. As beloved as she is, why do you think it has taken so long to honor her with a dedicated cinematic tribute?
I’ve worshiped at the altar of Divine and of John Waters since I was a teenager. Anyone who feels like an outsider growing up, for whatever reason, can certainly relate to the world that they created and the way they lived their lives. The idea to do the documentary came about when I was producing the DVD extras for the remake of Hairspray a few years back. We did a piece called You Can’t Stop the Beat: The Long Journeys of Hairspray, and it covered the entire phenomenon including the original film. Getting to finally meet and interview all the Dreamlanders gave me the bug to try and do an entire film just about Divine. Aside from that E! True Hollywood Story a bunch of years ago, there hasn’t been a proper documentary about his life, so I wanted to fill that cultural void. It’s really hard to believe it’s been 25 years. An entire new generation has come of age without Divine in their lives, and I hope this film restores him to his proper place as Queen Mother of us all.

Despite all the progress the LGBT community has made in recent years and the fact that drag has pretty much gone mainstream thanks to RuPaul, we still live in a very divisive society where anyone perceived as “different” is judged and bullied. What about Glenn’s story is most valuable for us to take note of and learn from?
As a teenager Divine was picked on, teased and abused mercilessly. When he met John Waters and the other Dreamland folks he found a group that accepted him, loved him, and encouraged him. He was able to take all that trauma and channel it into the Divine character, (then) throw everything that people made fun of him for back in their faces. Being the Divine character was an empowering thing for him. He succeeded in becoming an internationally recognized recording artist and screen icon and gives courage to anyone who’s ever been mocked, ridiculed, and ostracized. His story gives us hope that anything’s possible. It’s kind of the ultimate “it gets better” story and he’s a poster child for misfit youth.

You decided to take a risk by funding the post-production through Kickstarter and other social media platforms which could have ended poorly (no pun intended). Were you ever worried that the fan support wouldn’t come through for the project? Was there a Plan B in place to keep the venture alive?
We spent a couple of years cultivating a very lively community on our Facebook page, so at this point we’ve got around 13,000 fans even before anyone’s seen the film. We did an Indie-Go-Go campaign toward the start of the project to kick things off, and then recently did a very ambitious Kickstarter campaign. And we did make our goal. 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 on-line campaigns and the big donor angels that made larger donations, we were able to complete the film.

What have you learned about Divine’s fan base through that leap of faith experience?
I was really heartened that there is such passion and love from this community. And it’s all kind of people – young and older, gay, lesbian, straight, bi, trans, punk rockers, cult movie fans, artists, freaks, squares, you name it. It proved that Divine is still remembered and there was a hunger for this film. It was sad to think that we would never have another Divine movie, but now we do!

Being a superficial society we don’t often look beyond the outward appearances of people, but when we do, we often find interesting and complex personalities to connect with. That seems to be a large part of your motivation in making this film, to discover the man behind the mascara so to speak, and I’m curious to know what surprising things you learned about Glenn and/or Divine during the process?
Going beyond the layers of eye liner and hairspray and wigs to find the very real person inside was the most important aspect of making the film. Divine never considered himself a drag queen or a cross-dresser or a transvestite. He used to say he was happy with his equipment. Divine was a character actor who played female parts. He was a fantastic and brave performer, a fine actor, and a warm, generous person who couldn’t have been more different from the roles he played. I wanted people get to know the man behind the mask of the Divine character. He was a sweet, soft-spoken guy with a lot of love in his heart. People have told me they felt a sense of peace and loving when they were around Divine. But also we wanted to present him as he was and not gloss over his complications. Divine certainly had his insecurities — an addictive personality and a spending problem. It was important to look at the craziness, too, which I think makes him even more endearing.

What have you learned about Divine’s fan base through that leap of faith experience?
I was really heartened that there is such passion and love from this community. And it’s all kind of people – young and older, gay, lesbian, straight, bi, trans, punk rockers, cult movie fans, artists, freaks, squares, you name it. It proved that Divine is still remembered and there was a hunger for this film. It was sad to think that we would never have another Divine movie, but now we do!

Being a superficial society we don’t often look beyond the outward appearances of people, but when we do, we often find interesting and complex personalities to connect with. That seems to be a large part of your motivation in making this film, to discover the man behind the mascara so to speak, and I’m curious to know what surprising things you learned about Glenn and/or Divine during the process?
Going beyond the layers of eye liner and hairspray and wigs to find the very real person inside was the most important aspect of making the film. Divine never considered himself a drag queen or a cross-dresser or a transvestite. He used to say he was happy with his equipment. Divine was a character actor who played female parts. He was a fantastic and brave performer, a fine actor, and a warm, generous person who couldn’t have been more different from the roles he played. I wanted people get to know the man behind the mask of the Divine character. He was a sweet, soft-spoken guy with a lot of love in his heart. People have told me they felt a sense of peace and loving when they were around Divine. But also we wanted to present him as he was and not gloss over his complications. Divine certainly had his insecurities — an addictive personality and a spending problem. It was important to look at the craziness, too, which I think makes him even more endearing.

WP_T84_Divine02I 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. 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.

-Jeffrey Schwarz, Director of I Am Divine

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