THE POPCORN REEL FEATURE: GUS VAN SANT'S "MILK"



Top left: Sean Penn as Harvey Milk; Alison Pill as Anne Kronenberg and Emile Hirsch as Cleve Jones; Diego Luna as Jack Lira.  Bottom left: "Milk" director Gus Van Sant; James Franco as Scott Smith; Josh Brolin as Dan White.  All star in Mr. Van Sant's film.  (All photos: Phil Bray/Focus Features)

The "Milk" Movement, Re-Ignited For Today's Fight For Tomorrow

By Omar P.L. Moore/The Popcorn Reel
November 13, 2008

SAN FRANCISCO, California --

Less than a week before the fateful California vote on Proposition 8, which allowed for same-sex couples' right to marry to be removed from California's State Constitution, an assemblage of cast members from Gus Van Sant's new film "Milk" came to town in the very city where Harvey Milk himself made history as the first openly gay man to be elected to a major political office in the United States.  The year was 1977.  Mr. Milk was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.  He forged alliances with the gay community, fighting for their respect and right to political power and justice and worked hard to help empower the poor, the working class, blacks, Latinos, the elderly, union workers and a plethora of other groups of people.

A year later, on November 27, 1978, Harvey Milk would be felled by an assassin in the Board of Supervisors -- Dan White -- a political rival uncomfortable in his own skin, to the point where he eventually committed suicide.  Mr. White, who had also killed San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, had shot Mr. Milk at near point-blank range in the head at least three times, and at trial asserted the "Twinkie defense", stating that due to his high sugar level he had a diminished capacity and was therefore incapable of knowing what he was doing and lacked the intention to do it.  He was convicted of voluntary manslaughter by a jury, much to the anger and consternation of many gay people in San Francisco, a galvanized community which took its outrage to the streets in 1979 immediately after news of the verdict in what was known as the White Night Riots.  Ten years before, in New York City, the Stonewall Uprising gave many gays and lesbians a voice against the backlash of a hateful, homophobic society, and today the threads of struggle for justice and equality amidst a fearful majority continues. 

It is with this backdrop in place, as well as the now-infamous "yes" vote on Proposition 8 on November 4, that Mr. Van Sant's film, shot entirely on location in San Francisco back in January through to early May, arrives.  Mr. Van Sant had the screenplay handed to him by his friend Cleve Jones, a longtime gay activist for people afflicted with AIDS-HIV victims and the Project Names Quilt.  Mr. Jones was one of Mr. Milk's political lieutenants.  The "Milk" screenplay was written by a young man, Dustin Lance Black, who was born in 1979, the year after Mr. Milk was murdered.  Mr. Black was perplexed as to why a feature film hadn't been made about Harvey Milk and after meeting with former San Francisco mayor Art Agnos, Mr. Jones and lesbian activist Anne Kronenberg (who was Mr. Milk's campaign manager), having seen the documentary "The Life And Times of Harvey Milk", Mr. Black, who is often called Lance, resolved to write a script, which he did.

Mr. Black joined Mr. Van Sant, Sean Penn, Josh Brolin, James Franco, Alison Pill and Emile Hirsch here before a gaggle of press from around the country late last month, just a day after the city's famed Castro Theater held the red carpet world premiere for "Milk", which opens here and in New York and Los Angeles on November 26, while expanding to other U.S. cities on December 5 and 12.  Mr. Penn and Mr. Brolin were in an especially playful mood, with Mr. Brolin doing his best to keep things light-hearted amidst such a serious, emotional subject of Harvey Milk.  Mr. Brolin, who plays Dan White, didn't see his character so much as a victim as he did an anguished man.  "I see him as being an incredibly frustrated guy.  You know a lot of questions were asked whether he was a latent homosexual and all that -- who knows? -- you know it's all conjecture.  But it's a very sad moment . . . when they feel that the only resort is to do something that's tangible -- that's how I always saw that moment, as being the only tangible thing, you know, cause and effect.  Dan White was not a ready-made politician," Mr. Brolin said, citing some of the immense pressures that Mr. White, who was married with one child, faced.  At the premiere at the Castro Theater here last month couple of nights before these interviews, Mr. Brolin revealed someone handed him a Twinkie.  "I laughed because it was stupid," the actor said.

A few minutes later, Mr. Brolin, attired in a dark gray charcoal suit jacket, black shirt and blue jeans, playfully chided a bespectacled journalist who had mispronounced "W.", his most recent film prior to "Milk".  "It's Dubya.  Get it right!," admonished Mr. Brolin, bringing the assembled press sitting under a tent to laughter.  When asked how he was able to convey his performances in both films, Mr. Brolin drolly replied, "I don't know."  He later mocked an excited reporter who fumbled and staggered for almost three minutes to ask the actor a question.  "I don't think there's a question there," Mr. Brolin intoned, "but if you want to come up and sit on my lap, I'm fine with that," he said dryly, before responding that he appreciated opportunities to play complex characters.  "I carry around a memo pad and I just ask myself a lot of questions, 90% of which are meaningless and 10% of which are very interesting to me." 

What is also interesting is how Harvey Milk will look in a feature film to some of those who knew him best, as well as those who form the heart of gay San Francisco in the city's Castro District, where Mr. Milk had his Castro Camera store.  Mr. Penn rued Mr. Milk's death and opined that the way AIDS is dealt with today would have been radically different had Mr. Milk been alive to see the 1980's.  "There's no question in my mind that Ronald Reagan would have talked about AIDS if Harvey Milk had made him.  And a lot of people's lives would have been saved.  And I think that speaks to any activism -- that when people stand up things change.  So the spirit of that, certainly, you know I think Gus and Lance did a great job of getting that feeling in there.  I hope it does -- you know, not only in terms of gay rights -- but just in general, become an inspiring tool for participation," said Mr. Penn, himself an activist, who has traveled around the world including to Iraq, from where he wrote dispatches for the San Francisco Chronicle during the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.  Mr. Penn had also placed a series of large one-sheet newspaper ads in The New York Times and Washington Post decrying the invasion, and invited millions to e-mail him with reactions to his opinions which were detailed in lengthy editorials in the one-page ads.


"Milk" screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, on the set of Mr. Van Sant's film.  Mr. Black has also written numerous episodes of the HBO cable television series "Big Love".  (Photo: Phil Bray/Focus Features)

Earlier, Mr. Penn supplied levity to the atmosphere, getting almost all members of the press to roar with laughter when he said to one journalist who identified herself as a lesbian: "Did you notice that after you brought up the name of the lesbian street that Josh Brolin (hurriedly) scribbled it down?"

"I hate Sean," Mr. Brolin wearily replied amidst the laughter.

Emile Hirsch, whom Mr. Penn directed in last year's "Into The Wild", made a parallel between Barack Obama (who was six days from winning the presidential election at the time) and Harvey Milk.  "A lot of what he's saying Harvey Milk was saying and these really inspirational figures (mean something) to young people.  It's not all about the XBOX 360," said Mr. Hirsch, who plays Cleve Jones in the film.  Alison Pill, who plays Anne Kronenberg, mentioned that she had spoken with Ms. Kronenberg about the generational gap and differences between them (Miss Pill will turn 23 on Nov. 27, the same day of the 30th anniversary of Mr. Milk's death.)  "Growing up when I did, I'm lucky enough to not have to think a lot about these issues because they don't factor into my equation at all, so it is an amazing history lesson and an important one to me, and my friends are just realizing what all this means, how historical this really is.  And it's something that can't be forgotten.  And so I was very glad to have learned about, you know, this chapter in San Francisco history, in gay rights history . . . I've just never had to deal with any of the real prejudices that are still so prevalent, which I'm grateful for but I also recognize through this film that it is still very much alive," said Miss Pill, who was born and raised in Toronto.

"Milk" director Mr. Van Sant said that gay rights activist Anne Kronenberg was "really representative of the lesbian community . . . it's part of the story (Harvey Milk's) alliance with the lesbian community, you know, getting votes . . . it's a piece that's not in the film, but Anne kind of represents that one piece . . . there are a myriad of things that we covered that were missing."  Mr. Van Sant went on to say that he shot a scene where Anne and others in the lesbian community mobilized to break up a speech by political opponent Rick Stokes, who opposed the gay agenda and supported Proposition 6 in 1978, which would have made law preventing gays from teaching in schools.  The proposition, which had led 60% to30% less than three days before election day, failed resoundingly despite the efforts of Mr. Stokes, John Briggs, after whom the proposition (entitled the Briggs Initiative) was named, and celebrity singer Anita Bryant, who virulently opposed any legal rights for homosexuals.

The film's writer Dustin Lance Black, spoke about today's battle with Proposition 8, just days before it passed 52% to 48%.  "I saw two (No On 8) commercials last week that do have gay people in them.  So I do think it's important to have self-representation in them -- you know I hope we have more of that", said Mr. Black, who was raised in a Mormon family before coming out of the closet as a gay teenager.  "That's why I think this film is important because then we are sort of repeating that history of Prop 6 in so many ways and sort of to get this film out there to have this documented piece of history so we don't keep repeating the mistakes . . .", the writer concluded.

James Franco, who plays Scott Smith, one of Mr. Milk's lovers, talked about the way the relationship is portrayed in Mr. Van Sant's film.  "It's just presented like any heterosexual relationship would be presented in a mainstream movie.  But that's not the issue . . . I'm sure a lot of actresses are so sick of being offered the supportive housewife role, but it's the first one I've ever been offered," joked Mr. Franco of his supportive role to Mr. Penn's character.

Finally, Diego Luna, who played Jack Lira, another man who had a relationship with Mr. Milk, said in a separate interview about his hopes for "Milk" and its potential success as a highly relevant story. 

"The film that matters is that film that has something to say obviously, and I believe the story of Harvey Milk is a story that needs to be . . . told to a bigger audience than the documentary audience.  I think the documentary ("The Life and Times of Harvey Milk") -- it's amazing, but I do believe that my generation and the generation that is behind me -- they need to know there was someone that care about respect and about celebrating differences . . . I think Harvey Milk saw politics as I see love.  That's the only way, I think we can . . . live in the same world together. 

"I think that politics should be about sharing and about curiosity, you know, first than anything else . . . it's just, have love as the first motor and energy for things, you know . . . I think Harvey was very important and we should remind people that there's a few stories like Harvey's you know, and these stories have happened and they're part of us, and we cannot forget . . . I believe this country needs a thousand Harvey Milks . . . I just hope that people don't see ("Milk") as, 'okay -- a film about the gay community.'  It's a film about differences, it's a film about respecting them . . . it's a non-specific story that says a lot about the global problems we're living in, which is, we don't know how to share.  We want everyone to behave as we do, or as we, what we think is the right way to behave.  And no one has that, no one has that answer.  No one is that important."

"Milk" is directed by Gus Van Sant and written by Dustin Lance Black.  The film, released in the U.S. and Canada by Focus Features will open in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles on November 26, while expanding to additional U.S. cities and Canadian cities on December 5 and 12.


Audio Popcorn:   Sean Penn         Josh Brolin        Gus Van Sant


The Blog Reel: 
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Awards Season 2009:  Sean Penn as a Best Actor nominee for "Milk"


"Milk" trailer


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