Interview - Jeffrey Schwarz : Our exclusive interview

By Mulder, Paris, hôtel Normandy, 20 march 2014



Q: When and how did you heard about Divine for the first time?

Jeffrey Schwarz : I first heard about Divine even before I saw the movies. I just saw the image : it was that face from Pink Flamingos, with the giant eyebrows, the insane make-up. So, for years I was seeing that image.  Then I started to actually see the films, starting with Hairspray, that was the first one I saw on big screen. Then I went backwards and I watched Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, Polyester, and Multiple Maniac, I became completely obsessed with that world. And I think it was probably about six or seven years ago where I had a light bulb moment, when it’s time to make a film about Divine. Because I figured the next generation needed to know about Divine.

Q: To make this movie took you six years…

Schwarz : Six or seven years. From the first phone call to John Waters saying “Can I make a movie about Divine, do I have your blessing ?” to today, yes, about six or seven years.

Q: How would you sum up this experience ?

Schwarz : How I would sum up this experience ? You know, documentary, if you going to start it, you never know if you gonna finish it, you just take a leap of faith. But I just had this feeling in my heart that the film will be done. And we reached out to Divine’s fans all around the world to help us make the film. So we did crowdfunding, and we did Kickstarter, and Indiegogo, and we asked all the fans to help to support us. And they did ! They came forward, Divine was so important to them. They were invested to make sure that the movie turned up well, and that they could play a part in its making.

Q: I know that you are a documentary maker. But Divine also could be the subject of a biopic. Do you think that a documentary is a better way than a biopic to talk about someone like Divine?

Schwarz : Well, could there be a biopic on Divine, could there be somebody playing Divine, an actor playing Divine… Sure, that could happen. But I like the real things. There is no one like Divine, nobody look like that. Any actor playing him would be a pale imitation. But could it be a movie about Divine and who can play Divine, that’s a good question. You probably have to be someone we’ve never seen before, just coming out of nowhere, and giving us an amazing performance as Divine. But we will see if that comes to be.

Q: Your movie’s outline is rather classic, but it is very successful. Didn’t you fear that such a ‘bigger than life’ personality doesn’t fit with a documentary quite conventional?

Schwarz : Actually Divine’s story lays out very classically. You know, it starts in a place where he is not the person he wants to be. And, as the film unfolds, you get to go step by step with him, to see how he overcomes , like any film, like any scripted film, it’s very similar. And there’s also the moment where he triumphs, where he wants to overcome something and he triumphs. Like the story of his mother : in the beginning they are strangers for each other, and you don’t know what’s gonna happen, you don’t know if they will see each other again. And then, there is a big reunion at the end. And of course, the way he died, he gave to the film this tragic ending. So, I have to thank Divine for giving us a great ending for the film. It’s horrible that he died, but he had a sense of show business and drama, and I think he probably would have appreciated the fact that the end of the film is so ironic. And, you have mixed emotions, because he was at the top of his game, he was the happiest he has ever been, and then he’s gone, like that. So, not good for life, but for storytelling, it’s probably a good ending.

Q: The mother’s accounts are very touching because she talks more about Glenn than about Divine. Could you tell us about her role in the movie?

Schwarz : Frances Milstead was Divine’s mother. And unlike a lot of mothers of her time, she knew that Glenn was different. She knew that he was not like other boys and she accepted him, and she protected him ferociously. You know, she would go to the school and yell on the principal because “why are other boys beating my son ?!” So her presence in the film was so important to show that love. Even when they were strangers for others, love for him never went away. And when they were reunited, it is a powerful thing. Because she got to see her son living his dream. So Frances gave this film its heart and soul, and I am so grateful that we got to interview her. She passed away few years ago, so she never got to see the film but she knew that it was happening. And she was a very beloved figure herself, you know, she was living in Florida, and she was surrounded by all these gay guys who loves her, adored her, and made her every day happy. And she marched in the gay parade, she hanged out in gay bars, and judge at Divine lookalike contests, and things like that. So, she was a real character, you see from the film she’s a character.

Q: In your opinion, what is Divine’s influence on the current cinema, what did he bring to the current film?

Schwarz : The influence of Divine on current cinema… You know, drag has always been part of movies, even from the silent films. It always been part of the theatre, it goes back to Shakespeare ! And movies like Some like it hot, and Tootsie, and things like that. But it’s so interesting because Divine was never playing a man in a dress, he was always playing a woman. And it’s never coming to dawn that he is a man playing a woman, he just is. So now you see movies like the Taylor Perry’s Madea movies, where it’s not Taylor Perry in a dress, it’s Madea. So, it’s interesting how now you actually do see that’s happening more often, but there’s still movies where the guy has to go undercover in drag, like White Chicks, or something, I don’t know, those movies that still use that theme. But I don’t know, I think Divine is very unique, that collaboration between John and Divine is very unique, there never was anything like it, there never will be anything like it, so… I think, the remake of Hairspray, maybe a lot of people who saw that didn’t even know that it’s a remake. I hope we’ll go back and look at those older films, because they are so inspiring for young people who wanna make movies : they can look at what John and Divine did. It’s very similar, now they probably making movies and put them on Youtube. In the 60s, it was all about the underground, underground films, and it was just the perfect marriage of director and star. So I think today, there are probably the John Waters of the future making his movie in the basement, and putting him on Youtube. And we’ll see what happens, we’ll see in twenty years from now who those people are, if they gonna be the icons of tomorrow.

Q: In your opinion, nowadays, is it still possible to shock just like Divine did, or does provocation become mainstream?

Schwarz : Is it possible to shock today ? I don’t know… It feels like we seen everything. And now, these films that come from Hollywood, the humor in those films could be John Waters’ movies. Something like Jackass, with Johnny Knoxville, there’s things in those movies that are unbelievable, hilarious, but they are made by major studios. So it’s very mainstream, television just deals with shock : all these reality shows, you know… But, those reality shows seems like we supposed to look down on those people, we supposed to make fun of those people, I don’t know how popular they are in France, but you know in the US, Honey Booboo and all this stuff, it’s just tacky, it’s no fun. With Divine, you’re always on Divine’s side, you wanna see Divine triumphs in all his films. I think maybe the thing that could shock the most today is just to be sincere, just to be not ironic at all and to be sincere.

Q: Most of your work is based on iconic people and non-conformist personalities, just like Divine, Vito Russo, Jack Wrangler, etc. Why are you interested in these people, and how do you pick them?

Schwarz : I’m attracted to larger-than-life personalities, I’m attracted to people who live on the edge, and also people who are not respected, maybe so much in their own lifetime or due more respect, and they are actually more important than we give them credit for. And these people, some of them created these larger-than-life personas to protect themselves in some sense. Maybe not Vito Russo so much, because he always was who he was. But Divine, William Castle, Jack Wrangler, they created these larger-than-life personas to cover-up some insecurity they might have. And these characters will help them achieve their goals and move through the world. And I think we can all learn about that.

Q: John Waters had a significant role in the life of Divine as an actor. What is your favorite John Waters’ movie, and why?

Schwarz : My favorite John Waters movie is gonna be Female Trouble. It’s so hilarious and insane, and ahead of its time. You get to see Divine go through somebody’s stages. Of course, the famous scene in which she is a teenager and wanna her cha-cha heels, and then becoming a stripper, and then becoming a mom, and then… And then we going completely insane, shaving her head, and being a murderous. It’s just amazing. And it goes on and on and on… You can’t believe what you’re seeing. And now, you know, everybody wants to be famous, even for the wrong reasons : murderous and serial killers are just as famous as Brad Pitt these days. So that movie really predicted a lot of the today’s culture. So that’s probably my favorite, but I love Polyester, of course I love Pink Flamingos, I love seeing Divine dressed up as Jackie Kennedy in Eat her make-up, because the real hardcore John Waters’ fans even have never seen that film. They’ve never seen it so we have footage of that in I am Divine. When I saw that for the first time, I couldn’t believe it, because it’s legendary. Finally, we can see it.

Q: You have worked with him on your movie Spin Tigler, The William Castle Story. Could you tell us about this collaboration ?

Schwarz : Spin Tigler, the William Castle Story is the first documentary I made, and it’s the story of William Castle who was a horror movie director in the 1950s. He was sort of the poor man’s Alfred Hitchcock. He made very cheap movies, that all had crazy gimmicks that go with the film like if you went to see one of his films, you had your life insured against death by fright. You actually had a nurse in the theatre giving you a life insurance certificate. In one movie, he had little electric seat buzzers, and at one point of the movie the seat’s buzzers go off and everyone goes crazy. He had skeletons flying over the audience, that come up behind the screen. And these are movies that John Waters saw when he was a kid, and he became totally obsessed with William Castle. He has written about William Castle. So, when I made the documentary, John Waters had to be in the film. That’s how I met John Waters, and then we kept a friendship after that. And so, when came time to make I am Divine, he knew the story will be in good hands, so he trusted me because he knew my work.

Q: Except from John Waters, what are your other influences as a movie director?

Schwarz : Ah, that’s a good question. You know, I love all movies : I love documentary, I love fiction films, I want to continue to make documentaries, I’d like to make fiction films. But for me, it’s all about the character, and I look at my documentaries as entertainments. I try to make films to people who don’t necessarily go to see documentaries. I don’t really see any difference in the storytelling between a fiction film and a documentary film. Just trying to provoke a response, and to try to get the audience to identify with people that they might not think have anything in common with. I would like a very conservative person to go see I am Divine, and get something out of it, identify with what Divine went through, and learn to love Divine at the end of the film.

Q: Can you tell us a little about your current project, Tab Hunter Confidential?

Schwarz : The next film I’m working on is called Tab Hunter Confidential, and it’s about the life on an idol named Tab Hunter, who is the biggest movie star, really, one of the biggest in the world, in the 1950s. But he had very big secrets. He was living a gay life. He had to keep that secret in a very, very repressive time. He was the product of Hollywood and they were selling him as the dream date of all the teenage girls in America, and that was very far from what he really was. So we’ve been filming Tab Hunter, he’s 83 years old now, and he looks he is the best-looking 83 year-old I’ve ever seen. He finally does come out, and he’s ready to tell his whole story.

Q: Finally, it’s up to you to ask a question: if you can ask one to Divine, what would it be?

Schwarz : Oh my God, that’s such a good question ! What would I ask Divine ? I’d like to know if he had an affair with his hairdresser. His mother’s hairdresser. Because there’s a rumor that John still doesn’t know. When he was a teenager, he got a job in her mother’s hairdresser’s salon. And John thinks he maybe had an affair with the hairdresser. So I’d like to know if that’s true. It’s probably not a very good question to ask Divine, but it’s good gossip, so I’d like to find out that.

With thanks to Zeina Toutounji-Gauvard
Interviews, photos and video: Noodles