Best known for his portrayal of larger-than-life Baltimore mom Edna Turnblad in John Waters’ Hairspray, Divine, née Harris Glenn Milstead, spent two decades as Waters’ muse, collaborator and leading lady. The documentary I Am Divine, produced and directed by Jeffrey Schwarz, offers a tender look at the life of an artist who was committed to an in-your-face style, and also committed to his friends, family and the sweet side of life.
"I Am Divine" producer and director Jeffrey Schwarz
Did you make specific choices for production equipment based on a look you were going for?
Jeffrey Schwarz: This being an indie documentary, we filmed the interviews catch-as-catch-can with various cameras and different DPs over several years. I worked with some excellent cinematographers in Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco and Baltimore and bow down to their expertise. Our online and color maestro, Michael Garber, helped unify the look of the interviews and made them warm and hospitable.
Where did the film’s archival footage come from?
That material came various archives around the country. Footage was taken on the set of Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble by Steve Yeager. Home movies were given to us by Divine’s mother. Many, many photographs came from various friends and professional photographers. Divine loved being photographed, so we had plenty to choose from. John Waters conducted a lengthy interview with Divine for his book, Shock Value, and the audio has survived, so we used that liberally. Whenever it was possible for Divine to tell his own story or comment on it, we used it.
What did you find most challenging in terms of the production process?
Divine (photo by Robyn Beeche)
Certainly the fundraising. Our producer, Lotti Pharriss Knowles, spearheaded an online fundraising drive—the entire film was funded by Divine’s fans from around the world. We spent two years cultivating a lively community on Facebook, and now we have over 20,000 fans. We used Indiegogo and Kickstarter and provided some unusual incentives. We wanted fans to feel they had a stake in making sure the film got finished. The campaign was a way for people to give back to Divine and feel personally connected to something special.
What does this film mean to you?
As a teenager, Divine was bullied mercilessly. When he met John Waters, he was able to take that trauma and channel it into the Divine character. With all the talk of bullying today, I wanted to show young people someone who was able to overcome all that and live an authentic and happy life by accepting and loving himself. It’s kind of the ultimate it gets better story. He’s a poster child for misfit youth.