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FilmOut Q&A: “I Am Divine” and Jeffrey Schwarz | VIDEO

(Editor's note: "I Am Divine" is playing from Sept. 27 to Oct. 3 at MACSD's Digital Gym, 2921 El Cajon Blvd. in North Park. 619-230-1938 or www.digitalgym.org/cinema.)

(Editor's note: SDGLN is featuring Q&A interviews with leading filmmakers from around the world who are participating in FilmOut San Diego's 15th annual LGBT Film Festival, running May 29 to June 2 at the historic Birch North Park Theatre. Follow SDGLN for all the news about one of the top LGBT film festivals in the U.S.)

“I Am Divine” is one of the most anticipated movies of FilmOut San Diego’s 15th annual LGBT Film Festival, and is already the hottest ticket among advance sales. The documentary is having its California premiere on Sunday night, June 2, in America's Finest City.

The Closing Night selection is a fascinating documentary about the legendary Divine, a bigger-than-life drag queen personality who was “discovered” by John Waters. Divine starred in Waters’ most famous movies, including “Pink Flamingos” (1972), “Female Trouble” (1974), “Polyester” (1981), “Lust In The Dust” (1985), “Trouble In Mind” (1985) and “Hairspray” (1988).

Harris Gleen Milstead was born on Oct. 19, 1945 in Baltimore, Md. As a misfit in school, and being gay, and overweight, he didn’t fit in until he became part of the Waters circle of friends. And it was Waters who gave Milstead his nickname of Divine, and it stuck forever. Divine would eventually build a wildly successful career beyond Waters, performing in theater and nightclubs, and recording music during the disco era.

The diva was romantically linked for some time with 1980s porn star Leo Ford, and swooned when she finally met her childhood crush Tab Hunter while filming "Lust In The Dust," the documentary reveals.

Divine died on March 7, 1988 at age 42, of an enlarged heart.

The documentary was produced and directed by the acclaimed Jeffrey Schwarz, president and CEO of Automat Pictures. Schwarz is known for “Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story” (2007), a look at the legendary Hollywood showman; “Wrangler: Anatomy Of An Icon” (2008), a portrait of adult film star Jack Wrangler; and “Vito” (2011), a closeup of gay activist and author of “The Celluloid Closet.”

Producer/director Jeffrey Schwarz chats with San Diego Gay & Lesbian News about his documentary, "I Am Divine," and shares with readers the biggest surprise he learned about Divine while researching background for the movie.

SDGLN: How long have you been wanting to do a docudrama on the late, great Divine?

Since I was a teenager I've worshiped at the altar of Divine and of John Waters. Anyone who has felt like an outsider can certainly relate to Divine's story and his journey. I had read about “Pink Flamingos” years before actually seeing it, in John Waters' book “Shock Value.” At the time I had no tangible connections to gay culture, so John and Divine's sensibility certainly helped lead me down a creative path. And then finally seeing Divine in those movies was just mind blowing. I'd never seen anything like it and watching him on screen was thrilling. He was so fully committed to the characters he played. Once he came into his own, he lived his life not caring what anyone thought about him and empowered himself via the Divine persona.

It's now been 25 years since his death and I realized that the icons that we take for granted aren't necessarily part of the conversation with the next generation. There had not been a proper documentary about Divine's life so I attempted to fill that cultural void. Divine is an inspiration to misfits, outsiders, rebels and freaks. He's a poster child for misfit youth and proves that anything is possible.

SDGLN: During your research, did you learn anything new and shocking about Divine? Leo Ford, Tab Hunter and eating pooh - those are just three “shockers” you reveal.

I was most surprised to find out more about his relationship with his high school sweetheart, who we interviewed. They dated all through junior high and high school. Divine, who was Glen then, took her to the prom and treated her so well. He even did her hair and makeup and told her how to dress. She was really smitten with him, in a very sweet high school puppy love kind of way. When he started dressing in drag, she was completely unfazed and supportive. They even went to a high school party together with Glen dressed as Elizabeth Taylor. When he started hanging out with John, David Lochary and all the cool Baltimore beatniks, she really felt left behind.

SDGLN: Did anybody from Divine’s past refuse to cooperate in the film? If so, why?

No, pretty much everyone I wanted to interview said yes. No small thanks to John Waters, who encouraged all of Divine's friends to participate.

SDGLN: John Waters “discovered” Divine. Why do you think he never did a retrospective on Divine?

He's written extensively about Divine in “Shock Value,” and based his writing on interviews he did with Divvy. Excerpts from that interview made their way into “I Am Divine” so in a sense this movie started to be made in the early 1980s so it's very lucky for us that John recorded those sessions.

SDGLN: What is the genesis of this movie, and what is the buzz on the gay film festival circuit?

As far as the LGBT community, it's always had a complicated relationship with drag. On one hand, drag performers are worshiped and adored by gay men, and 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 OK to be who they were. He ate shit so we don't have to. And so far the movie has been received warmly on the circuit.

SDGLN: Where did you shoot the movie, and why did you choose this location?

We shot in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and of course Baltimore. All the places where Divine lived, loved, worked and ate.

SDGLN: What do you want audiences to remember about the film after they leave the theater?

When he was growing up, Divine was picked on, teased and abused mercilessly. After meeting John Waters and the Dreamland crew, he found a group that accepted him, loved him and encouraged him. He was able to take all his teenage rage and channel it into the Divine character. He threw everything that people made fun of him for back in their faces and empowered himself.

With all the talk about bullying today, I feel his story shows that there is a light at the end of the tunnel if you love yourself. “I Am Divine” is kind of the ultimate "it gets better" story. He can inspire people, whether they're queer or not, to find inspiration to fulfill their own creative destiny.

SDGLN: Do you prefer the LGBT genre?

I like good movies, whether they're gay themed or not, but I'm certainly drawn to the subject matter. And I wouldn't call LGBT a genre - remember, there have been queer movies in all genres. We've had horror films, westerns, mysteries, dramas, docs, and of course a lot of porn.

SDGLN: Has LGBT cinema grown up, is it “crossing over” to attract mainstream audiences, or do you sense it will remain a niche product?

Mainstream audiences don't necessarily have a problem with queer content, but will they get the opportunity to see those films? It's an extremely challenging time for any kind of independent work. Getting films financed and distributed right now is incredibly difficult. It's important that we support filmmakers who are telling LGBT stories - go to film festivals, buy or download the movies, contribute to Kickstarter campaigns. And so no to piracy. That's a big one.

SDGLN: What’s next for you?

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 have started production so if there are any sugar daddies reading this that want to help us get this movie made, send them my way!

SDGLN: Single or taken?

Most definitely taken.

SDGLN: What is something your fans don’t know about you?

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. That's my day job and I love it.

SDGLN: Will you be coming to California for the FilmOut San Diego LGBT Film Festival?

Sadly, no, since I'll be in another city for another festival. I love San Diego and hope to be there next year with my next film.

SDGLN: If you were granted three wishes, what would you do with them?

Unlimited financing for my projects, world peace and Hillary for president.


Time: 7 pm – Closing Night Selection
Sponsored by SDGLN and SDPIX
Co-presented by CICA and Imperial Court

“I Am Divine” (2013), directed by JEFFREY SCHWARZ, 85 minutes , U.S.
California premiere

“I Am Devine” is the story of Divine (Harris Glenn Milstead) following his humble beginnings as an overweight, teased, Baltimore youth to an internationally-recognized drag superstar through his collaboration with filmmaker John Waters. Spitting in the face of the status quos of body image, gender identity, sexuality and preconceived notions of beauty, Divine was the ultimate outsider turned underground royalty. With a completely committed in-your-face style, he blurred the line between performer and personality and in the process revolutionized pop culture. “I Am Divine” is a definitive and entertaining biographical portrait that charts the legendary icon’s rise to infamy, juxtaposed with his emotional complexity and insecurity during the process. Featuring: John Waters, Ricki Lake, Jackie Beat, Sue Lowe, Bebe Zahara Benet, Frances Milstead, David Decoteau, Pat Moran, Dennis Dermody, Michael Musto, Brian Entler (“Lady Bear”), John Epperson (“Lypsinka”), Mink Stole and many more!

I AM DIVINE - Teaser from Jeffrey Schwarz on Vimeo.

* Shown with “Cold Star” (2012), directed by Kai Staenicke, 7 minutes, Germany

A boy experiences new desires while watching a mysterious man at an indoor swimming pool. Forced up
a diving platform by his rowdy friends, he receives unexpected help, which in turn unleashes his friend’s
own inhibitions.

* Shown with “The Divine Decadence Of Cheesecake” (2012), directed by Peter Savieri, 13 minutes, Australia

“Golden Girls” fanatic Ash Flanders is split in two: the more feminine and indolent Ashleigh, and the slightly masculine and elegant Ash. In a desperate hope to connect his two sides, Ashleigh reads a letter detailing an account of old friends Blanche and Dorothy spending an unexpected erotic afternoon together.

Festival tickets are now on sale at the FilmOut San Diego website HERE.

Ken Williams is Editor in Chief of SDGLN. He can be reached at ken@sdgln.com, @KenSanDiego on Twitter, or by calling toll-free to 888-442-9639, ext. 713.