We catch up with director Jeffrey Schwartz…

I AM DIVINE is released in Irish cinemas this week. We caught up with Jeffrey Schwartz, director of the critically-acclaimed biopic of the celebrated actor, singer and female impersonator.

Glen would have loved this documentary, mainly because it concretes his fame that little bit more. Was it a love letter, or were you keen to explore the ugly truths as well?
Jeffrey Schwartz: It was very important to go beyond the layers of eye liner and wigs and hairspray to find the very real man inside. Divine never considered himself a drag queen. He 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 to get to know the man behind the mask of the Divine character. He couldn’t have been more different than the characters he played in the John Waters films, but people just assumed he was that way. In the documentary, we wanted to avoid hagiography and certainly Divine 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.

As with all great creations, Divine was all about commitment – even if it meant eating fresh-out-of-the-oven dog shit. Was there any madness mixed in here, or was it all just a craving for fame?
JS: He says in the film that he gained an underground kind of stardom that he loved and appreciated, but he couldn’t make any money from it. He was worried about getting older and being impoverished. He didn’t make much from appearing in John Waters’ films, so he had to develop a second career as a disco performer just to pay his bills. He wanted stability, to be able to earn a living, and be respected. He didn’t want to schlep around the world appearing at discos and being treated like an animal at the zoo. Divine wanted to live a comfortable life and not be taken for granted.

Fame being as much about acceptance as adoration, was Divine born out of frustration or inspiration?
JS: 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, and throw everything that people made fun of him for back in their faces. Being the Divine character was an empowering thing for him.

What sparked the documentary? An anniversary? A re-release? A drunken bet?
JS: 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 can certainly relate to the world that they created and they 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 JOURNEY 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. There hasn’t been a proper feature documentary about his life so I wanted to fill that cultural void. 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.

Glen was about to go mainstream with an appearance in Married With Children, perhaps the biggest sitcom on TV at that time – do you think he would have gradually left Divine behind?
JS: 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.

There was, thankfully, a real sense of happiness just before the end, Glen reconciling with his parents and getting to work in the mainstream as a straight actor. Nice way to exit this life…
JS: 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.

Do you think Glen would have had a future in Hollywood and beyond?
JS: My guess is he’d still be doing drag once in a while and would be considered an elder statesman of filth, just like John Waters. Maybe they’d be on tour together today.

Do you think Glen would have had a much easier – and therefore perhaps less eventful – life growing up in America today?
JS: Certainly, but LGBT community has always had a complicated relationship with drag. On one hand drag performers are worshiped and adored by gay men, on the other hand they’re not looked upon as the “politically correct” image for straight society to accept us. At this time where the LGBT community is quickly becoming absorbed into mainstream society, I think it’s important to celebrate outsider artists like Divine. It’s always the rebels and the freaks that make life easier for the rest of us. Divine was not outwardly political and didn’t get involved in any gay causes. He wasn’t a poster child for gay liberation. But just by being so outrageous and unique, just by being himself, he empowered everyone who saw him and told them it was okay to be who they were. He ate shit so we don’t have to.

John and Glen loved everything that was bad about America – the mainstream seems to have caught up with them, given the abundance of Kardashians, rednecks and other fame-hungry slappers clogging up our TV screens.
JS: Yes, but I’m pretty certain we won’t be talking about any of the current crop of reality TV schlockmeisters 25 years from now, and we’ll still be watching Female Trouble.

Where to next for you?
JS: My next project is called TAB HUNTER CONFIDENTIAL. It’s the story of matinée idol Tab Hunter and how he went from being a teenage stable boy to one of the biggest Hollywood stars of the 1950s. He was gay of course and the movie is about the tension between being presented as the boy next door and every girl’s dream date, but in reality keeping a very big secret. I met him when we interviewed him for I AM DIVINE about co-starring in John Waters’ POLYESTER. We are in editing now and hope to be on the film festival circuit next year.

I AM DIVINE is released in Irish cinemas on July 18th 2014

Words: Paul Byrne