'Divine Trash' Steve Yeager's winning documentary on John Waters could be the start of something big
By By Michael Ollove and The Baltimore Sun
Feb 08, 1998 at 4:03 PM
While John Waters filmed "Pink Flamingos" a quarter century ago, Steve Yeager, another young moviemaker, filmed him filming "Pink Flamingos."
We know what happened to Waters' footage. After its general release in 1973, "Pink Flamingos" became one the most celebrated underground movies in American film history, a depraved, subversive and altogether hilarious bit of celluloid that established Waters as one of the truly original voices in American cinema.
The footage shot by Waters' friend Yeager had a more drawn-out trip to prominence. The 30 rolls of film languished in cardboard cartons in various Baltimore apartments for a couple decades. It was promising material to be sure, but to what end, Yeager couldn't quite fathom.
Until three years ago. That's when it occurred to Yeager that the 25th anniversary of "Pink Flamingos" was fast approaching, an event certain to bring renewed attention to Waters and his taboo-shattering film. It would be the perfect time, Yeager surmised, for a documentary on Waters and his early career. And, in such a documentary, that old footage of a frightfully young, long-haired Waters in the throes of creation would be pure gold.
Indeed. Yeager's "Divine Trash" was deemed pure gold at the recent Sundance Film Festival, garnering the 52-year-old Baltimorean the coveted Filmmakers Trophy for best % 5/8 documentary. The honor was bestowed by his fellow directors in the competition, who selected "Divine Trash" over films by such renowned documentarians as Ken Burns and Oscar-winner Barbara Kopple.
Though its national release has not yet been determined, "Divine Trash" will have its Baltimore premiere at the Senator Theatre in late April or early May.
Back home in his Charles Village rowhouse two days after receiving the award, Yeager's feet had not yet returned to earth. "I'm still flabbergasted," he admitted.
So are friends who know how close the hyperkinetic Yeager came to not finishing the film. Like most successful documentaries, "Divine Trash" represents an abundance of passion and a dearth of funds. "The guy was broke," said Yeager's long-time friend David Klein, a furniture artist. "He spent every penny to his name. I had more than one phone call that was 'Jesus, I don't know if I can finish it.' "
Even after Yeager learned during Thanksgiving week that his uncompleted film had been selected for the Sundance competition, he wasn't sure he could finish it in time. "There were a couple of days when I considered turning it down," he said. "Then I thought, 'That's crazy. Nobody turns down Sundance.' "
The final print of "Divine Trash" wasn't ready until the day before the opening of the festival, where it would have six showings. What film-goers saw was a paean to John Waters, one that establishes him as a pioneer in modern cinema, a self-made, self-taught filmmaker whose promotional gifts matched his outlandish comic sensibilities.
Photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, whose documentary on rock and roller Lou Reed also competed at Sundance, calls Yeager's film an education on underground filmmaking and a highly entertaining one.
"It's a fascinating documentary," Greenfield-Sanders says, "because it doesn't only show you the making of 'Pink Flamingos,' which is really a pivotal film because of the groundbreaking language and subject matter. It's also terribly funny. What's lacking in most documentaries is humor. It's a real loving documentary but also very, very informative and well-structured."
Three in one
"Divine Trash" is actually three films in one. First, it's a biography of Waters and his early career, complete with home movies of him as a child at the beach. We hear his mother recalling his early attraction to the bizarre, grotesque and violent.
"He became entranced with the wicked witch in 'Snow White' and Captain Hook in 'Peter Pan,' " a bemused Patricia Waters says in "Divine Trash." "He always seemed to go for the villain whereas most kids his age would rather go for the prince or the hero."
By his teen-age years, his favorite amusement was movie-going. Waters would often see two or three movies a day, and his cinematic favorites ran to the extremes. He loved the garishness and melodrama of exploitation, gore and soft-porn movies. But he was also drawn to the enigmatic artistry of foreign films, particularly those of Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini, and also to the experimentation in underground films, most notably Andy Warhol's.
In "Divine Trash," Yeager shows the influence of those different streams of movie-making on Waters while also making it clear that Waters is a filmmaker very much unto himself. His own films have, in fact, inspired younger directors in their own boundary-shattering works.
As director Jim Jarmusch ("Year of the Horse") says in "Divine Trash," Waters "gave me courage in a way. If you want to make movies about outsiders, if you want to make films in an outside way, there is an audience."
Finally, "Divine Trash" provides an evocative, inside look at the making of "Pink Flamingos," showing a waifishly thin, chain-smoking Waters giving birth to his signature work. The movie should help end one of the enduring myths about his films: that they are improvised acts of creation. As one admiring but uninformed director (who is dressed in drag) says in "Divine Trash," "he would just call his friends the night before and say, 'Let's go out to the trailer park and make a movie.' It seems like such a spontaneous moment."
But "Divine Trash" shows that Waters' movies are thoroughly scripted and that he discourages deviation (from his script, that is). It opens with Waters' rehearsing his most inflammatory scene, when a deliriously grinning Divine snacks on dog droppings at the end of "Pink Flamingos." In Yeager's film, we see Waters instruct Divine in exactly how he wants him to crouch behind the dog and scoop its business into his mouth in one motion. Waters could just as well be filming "A Man For All Seasons" for all his seriousness.
Part of what makes "Divine Trash" so enjoyable are the interviews with Waters, a sly, genial storyteller, as well as many of the performers who played such outrageous parts in his films: Mink Stole, Mary Vivian Pearce and the late David Lochary and Edith Massey ("Pink Flamingos' " Egg Lady).
One of the most vivid and comic characters is Waters' great nemesis, Mary Avara, head of the Maryland Censor Board until it went out of business in 1981. Her battles with the director created indispensable promotion for his work. Avara has retired to Florida, but Yeager interviewed her at her son's home in Baltimore. "She was at the top of my list to have in this film," Yeager says.
And so there is Avara in "Divine Trash," as revolted as ever by Waters and, as always, his foil. Nearly 30 years after seeing his "Mondo Trasho," she hasn't recovered. "To have sex in church, my God, how low can you get?" she tells Yeager. Later she says, "I had my own rating -- 'RT,' Real Trash."
But the most dramatic and moving presence of all in Yeager's film is Divine himself, whose over-the-top performances defined Waters' early style. "Pink Flamingos" made a celebrity of Divine, who died in 1988, and in "Divine Trash" he speaks with evident emotion about his pleasure in becoming a star after a childhood as a misfit. "People go bananas at just the sight of me, which is just thrilling," he says. "At the sight of me, not somebody else, not Elizabeth Taylor, but me."
Toward the end of "Divine Trash," Waters pays touching tribute to his friend. "He was my star, my Elizabeth Taylor, always," Waters says. "I thought of him as a great character actor. He started his career by playing a homicidal maniac and ended it playing a loving mother, which is a pretty good stretch, especially for a 300-pound man."
That scene was one of Yeager's favorite moments. "I had two agendas with this film," he says. "I wanted to show how important John is to American film, and I wanted my film to be an homage to Divine. I think he was a great actor."
There at the start
Yeager believes he is the only one who could have made the Waters film, in part because of that early footage but also because of his 30-year friendship with Waters.
The son of a Pepsi salesman and a Baltimore homemaker, Yeager was among a group of filmmakers and artists who hung out with Waters at Martick's, a post-beatnik, pre-hippie coffeehouse on Mulberry Street.
At the time, Yeager was a cinematographer and director at Maryland Public Television. He pitched the idea of doing a series of pieces on Baltimore avant-garde artists -- a poet, a sculptor, a painter and an iconoclastic young filmmaker named Waters who was about to start filming a new movie in Baltimore.
"There was already an aura around John," Yeager recalls. "A bunch of us were making short, experimental films, but here was a guy who had already done two feature-length films and was about to do his first in color."
Waters agreed to let Yeager film, and he shot about five hours worth of "Pink Flamingos" footage, including behind-the-scene moments from some of the movie's most memorable sequences: the burning of Divine's trailer, the transsexual exposing himself/herself and, of course, Divine's encounter with the dog, proof positive she was, as she claimed, "The filthiest person alive." Yeager even got to play a reporter in the movie.
MPT never approved the project. (In 1972, it was hard enough getting a Waters movie into an art-house let alone showing his out-takes on television.) So, Yeager moved on, pursuing a career in theater and directing commercials and films for corporations. He shot a documentary for the National Aquarium and for a couple years worked on "America's Most Wanted." In 1991, he directed a dramatic feature, "On the Block," shot in Baltimore's legendary porno district.
From time to time, Waters would pester him about the old footage, and whenever Yeager showed it at film forums and festivals, audiences roared with approval. But it was only three years ago that he and his co-producer, Cindy Miller, finally resolved to complete the documentary.
Waters readily agreed to help, which left the remaining but formidable funding hurdle. Yeager's brother Tom bequeathed Steve some money to help finish the film. Big Shot Productions, a Baltimore post-production company, came in as an investor a year and a half ago and, in September, the Independent Film Channel kicked in more. In total, Yeager says, the film cost under $500,000.
When Sundance accepted "Divine Trash," Yeager faced one more nerve-wracking test. On Christmas Eve, he delivered a copy of the film to Waters. "He said he might not be able to get to it right away because he had family coming for dinner," Yeager said. "But he ended up calling back at 1 o'clock in the morning. He said, 'You can breathe a sigh of relief. I liked it.' "
Waters recalled his own nervousness about the film. "I watched it totally from a selfish point of view," he said last week. "How mortified do I have to be? It was like watching 'This is Your Life,' but I thought it was very kind, very nice.
"I told Steve, 'you should hope I die, and then you'd have a very popular film.' "
At Sundance, moments after receiving his trophy, Yeager found himself on the phone to Baltimore, where Waters was asleep in bed trying to fight off the flu. "It means a lot psychologically for Steve," Waters said. "It's a very prestigious and popular award."
Yeager hopes the award means a distributor will buy the film. The signs are promising. At least two have made offers, and others have asked to see the movie. While documentaries are hardly as commercial as dramatic films, a number of them, including "Crumb," "Hoop Dreams" and last year's "When We Were Kings" about the 1974 Muhammad Ali-George Foreman fight in Zaire, have found their way to sizable audiences. Yeager says he expects to sign a deal in the next few weeks.
The trophy should also lead to financing for Yeager's next documentary, a history of underground film in America. But he doesn't expect Sundance to lead to riches. "Documentaries are a labor of love. You're never going to make a lot of money, and you have to be obsessed with your subject, or you'll never get it made."