If you’re closeted to anybody in your life, Harvey Milk wouldn’t just want you to come out and see the new biopic about him — he’d want you to see the film and then come out.
In 1977, 47-year-old Woodmere, NY-born Harvey Milk became the nation’s first openly gay man to be elected to major public office, as a San Francisco City Supervisor, and was instrumental in defeating the infamous, antigay Proposition 6. Although after less than a year in office Milk was gunned down by a bitter conservative colleague, Dan White, his accomplishments paved the way for openly gay politicians and LGBT rights campaigns since, and his rally cry of “everyone must come out” in order to change the hearts and minds of those who would relegate us to second class citizens — as with Proposition 8 — resonates deeply still.
Directed by out filmmaker Gus Van Sant from an original screenplay by out writer Dustin Lance Black (HBO’s “Big Love”), Milk stars Sean Penn as the iconic politician. Following a brief prologue during which Milk makes an audacious pass at a random cutie, Scott Smith (James Franco), in a Manhattan subway station, the action picks up in 1972 San Francisco. Completely out of the closet and living with Smith, Milk opens a camera store in a burgeoning gay neighborhood, the Castro, but uses the space primarily for community organizing. Milk turns fulltime politician, and with a scrappy group of young LGBTs — including sassy Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsch), fledgling photographer Danny Nicoletta (“High School Musical” alum Lucas Grabeel), lesbian Anne Kronenberg (Alison Pill) and Asian-American advisor Michael Wong (Kelvin Yu) — wins a seat on the City’s Board of Supervisors. But this victory, and a fight against Proposition 6, which would see California’s LGBT teachers banned from their jobs, takes a toll on his personal life, and he finds an enemy in White (Josh Brolin), an Irish-Catholic city supervisor from a conservative district.
While Milk’s life and death (and the “White Night” riots after White received a sentence of only five years thanks to the infamous “Twinkie Defense”) were chronicled in Rob Epstein’s 1984 Oscar-winning documentary, “The Times of Harvey Milk,” a dramatized take has long been in the works. A 1999 cable TV film starring Tim Daly, “Execution of Justice,” focused on White’s story, but the cream has finally risen to the top with “Milk.” Black’s tightly constructed, eloquent script was a labor of love, the result of many years’ self-financed independent research. Cleve Jones, founder of the Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, served as one of his greatest sources and allies, and was instrumental in the film’s coming together.
“Cleve took me to San Francisco and introduced me to everyone [from Milk’s circle],” Black says. “He’s like my savior and is definitely family now, which made it all the more horrifying when I asked, ‘Hey, can I have the rights to tell your story?’ and he said, ‘Well, you can only do it if you take it to the director I want to direct it.’ I had visions of San Francisco State film students and was horrified. But because he’s quite a prankster, I knew he was f—king with me and in classic Cleve style he said, ‘Oh girl, don’t worry, my old roommate Gus Van Sant is who I want.’ I think I owe Cleve a commission because he really set this thing up.”
Van Sant first met Black at a party thrown by their mutual friend, cinematographer Bobby Bukowski, seven years ago. When reintroduced, Van Sant was impressed by not only Black’s script, but by his extensive knowledge of San Francisco city politics of the 1970s. He signed on, as did Academy Award-winning out producers Dan Jinks and Bruce Cohen (“American Beauty”), and co-financiers Groundswell Productions and Focus Features; Focus distributes the film worldwide.
In the spirit of authenticity, “Milk” was shot entirely on location in San Francisco. A number of real-life Milk associates acted as consultants and spent time on set — some, like Milk’s speechwriter Frank Robinson, former schoolteacher Tom Ammiano, Jones, and former Board of Supervisors member Carol Ruth Silver, actually appear onscreen — while Harvey’s store, Castro Camera, was recreated in the actual space it once occupied at 575 Castro St. (now a gift shop named Given).
For Milk’s surviving friends, visiting the set was like entering a time warp. Recalls Franco, “Here we are in this period wardrobe sitting in this camera shop and Frank Robinson walks in and you could see in his eyes he’s being transported back. He just started calling everybody by their [characters’] name, almost like he recognized everybody and we had taken him back. It was pretty incredible.”
Thanks to this company, Van Sant was privy to endless fascinating details and anecdotes about Milk’s life and times, some of which made it into the film and some of which couldn’t due to the film’s two-hour running time and streamlined nature. “We don’t have this in the movie, but when Harvey cut his hair [to look more presentable], some of his volunteers who were hippies refused to work for him,” he shares. “They called him a sellout and left in disgust. In the ’60s and ’70s there was a very strong dividing line between the younger generation hippies and the older conservative suit-and-tie-wearing generation.”
“There were so many possibilities [for things we could have gone into],” Van Sant adds. “His New York history, Fire Island, his other boyfriends, him being in the closet to the people in his building. When it comes to the Castro, there was obviously all the nightlife and gay bars and bathhouses and everything else, which is sort of the other story.”
For Van Sant, making “Milk” wasn’t just revisiting a pivotal era in queer history. It was also a return to a more conventional, accessible form of narrative filmmaking à la “Drugstore Cowboy” following a half-decade-long streak of formalistic works including 2003’s “Elephant” and 2005’s “Last Days.” However, one sequence recalls these latter works – an “Elephant”-esque, extended tracking shot that follows Dan White through City Hall on the day he shoots Milk and Mayor George Moscone. “It was something Josh [suggested],” Van Sant recalls, “and I said, ‘Oh yeah we can do that.’ Dan walks from the Mayor’s office over to the supervisors’ offices, which were across the building. It was actually quite a long distance and we filmed the whole thing but then we chopped it down.”