Close Encounters of the Celebrity Kind...
Gus Van Sant-Dustin Lance Black Talk Milk
Expanded Edition of 11-26-08 Windy City Times Interview
by Richard Knight, Jr.
Van Sant on set with Sean Penn as Harvey Milk, at the film's premiere with screenwriter Dustin Lance Black
Milk director Gus Van Sant and the film’s screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, both openly gay, discussed the movie with Windy City
Q: Gus, does the fact that you’re openly gay give you a different or better perspective or insight into telling this story do you think?
GVS: Hmm, that’s a good question. I think it’s probably like, you know, people claim they can see the work of a gay director like a
female director and a straight director, they can see it their style where the vibe or maybe what the focus is. So maybe in that sense
but it’s hard for me to tell.
DLB: If I can tell whether you’re directing gay or not? (laughter in the room) Not really, not really.
GVS: I think it’s a sensibility. This story that gay filmmakers choose, you know when gay filmmakers started to be a thing in the
70s, when they were more out in the 70s, 80s, 90s, I think the response was always, “We like this because it’s not like the macho,
hetero thing” which is usually, I guess, the way the hetero/macho director might deal with like a love story. It would be a certain
attack or maybe even like Godard, his way of showing women is different than maybe a gay man’s way of showing women. It’s
different, it’s not necessarily macho but it’s not necessarily better or anything as far as the female category. But a gay protagonist,
yeah, maybe it’s appropriate.
Q: How did the project come to you?
GVS: I first heard about it through Rob Epstein who was the maker of The Times of Harvey Milk and it was an Oliver Stone project and
then Oliver dropped out. The reason Rob mentioned it was because Oliver had dropped out and I took over for about a year. We
developed a script and then we met a disagreement about the script and then years later Lance showed up with a different script.
DLB: Many years later.
GVS: Like 15 years later.
Q: Where were you when Milk was shot and how did the event impact your life at the time? Lance, you’re obviously too young to
GVS: I was driving across country. I didn’t know who Harvey was. I lived in L.A., I was in the movie business. I was working for a
comedian who was a director of The Groove Tube and I was driving across the country and the story was sort of encapsuled in a little
news flash that a San Francisco Supervisor and the Mayor were shot. I guess it was the Mayor of San Francisco had been shot by a
Supervisor who then shot a fellow gay Supervisor. So there was this sort of intrigue which actually is the story. You got the idea that
somehow there was an in-house argument and that the Mayor and the gay Supervisor were somehow connected and the one who
shot both of them somehow had something against both of them which was, in the end, the way it was. It was just a little news flash.
Q: Were you very aware of his election initially?
GVS: No I didn’t even know who he was before the actual news announcement.
Q: The film is coming out just at the time of Proposition 8. Do you think if there were more people out in Hollywood that
Proposition 8 might have been rejected?
DLB: How’s it sit with Proposition 8 now? Well when you see the film you see that there’s a very different strategy in defeating an
anti-gay proposition in the movie, in fact it takes kind of an attack on a closeted campaign in the movie. Harvey does directly which
was sort of a theme for Harvey which was self representation. That was missing in the campaign for Proposition 8, I think. We didn’t
hear the word “gay” in much of the mainstream campaign for No on 8. There were no gay people depicted in it. We sort of never
introduced ourselves and said, “Hey, we’re the ones that it’s being taken away from” and that was really the opposite approach for
Harvey. To me, I think it’s a important piece of our recorded history to help people understand how we did succeed at one time; how
we successfully beat these things using a very different approach, an approach of self-representation and really saying, “Hey, I’m
the guy who’s going to get hurt” and having that sort of bravery, that belief that if they know you, they’re not going to vote against
Q: Gus, why Sean Penn? He’s very good but there are a lot of very good actors. What made him the right choice?
GVS: I had offered him the role in, I think, ’98 or something like that. There was another draft of a script for Warner Bros. that I
was involved in later after the Oliver Stone introduction and I was trying to team him up with Tom Cruise (laughs in the room) and
Tom was going to play Dan (White) and Sean was going to play Harvey and I think Tom was an appropriate age but Sean was
maybe ten years younger than Harvey was but I figured that the two hot young actors would give it some spin and we’d deal with the
age and actually when we were working on this so many years had gone by and I’m not sure why I even had this happen but Sean’s
name came up with our group and we were like, “Yeah, let’s offer it to Sean.” I called him and said, “Would you like to play Harvey
Milk?” and he was like, “That’s interesting” which from him is a really great compliment. It took all the way until coming into San
Francisco for our first meeting when it dawned, “Wait a minute, I already offered him the role ten years ago.” For some reason I
It was unexpected to me even though after I’ve already gone through this process of how he could play the role I thought he was
the most macho guy in Hollywood so, “He’s gonna play Harvey Milk?” but also that surprise and challenge makes it really exciting for
him, too. It’s a hard job to do so it makes it interesting. It makes it so that it’s not just the obvious choice because that can be
sort of bland and make the movie itself not have vibrancy. And then you hope that Sean does the job that he actually did which is
completely infuse himself into Harvey which was incredible.
Q: Did you approach Tom Cruise about playing Dan White?
GVS: Yes, both times. The first time I talked to him he was on the set of Eyes Wide Shut and this time Matt Damon was going to
play the role and when he baled I think Tom Cruise was the next guy and he checked it out and decided not to do it.
Q: How do you go about directing a talent like Sean Penn?
GVS: When we had our first meeting Lance came to his house and we sort of were ready to get into – I was ready to get into it
hardcore – well, Lance was with me to help me get into hardcore political discussions – because Sean was known to be going all over
the world experiencing political situations and he said, “I’m not ready to talk about the politics. I guess I just need to learn my lines
and show up on time.” I thought, “Wow, that’s what we want him to do.” You know, make it simple and that’s what he was thinking
and I think from there it was really good for me because he was able to make things very simple in his head. Like, what the process
was which is usually what I’m trying to do with the directing side. You can make it really, really complicated, obviously. A lot of
times, for actors, too, they might study something to the point where it’s their main thing and then, in fact, you don’t use it when
you shoot. It helps the character anyway but still there can be a lot of red herrings in places that you tend to go when you don’t
necessarily need to. It was sort of like feeling each other out. We were both, I think, admirers of each other’s work which helped a
He would explain really succinctly how he worked like, “I will do this” and me reacting to that. I think one of the things he said at the
Toronto Film Festival when we had just started working on it, barely, was…somebody asked him how he gets so fired up making his
own speeches when he gets up in front of the press and makes these sort of doctrines or statements and he said, “Well, this is
something my director should know – I have to get very angry to really do that, to make a good speech or performance” and I was
like, “Okay, we’ll figure that out, how does that work” and I thought, “I guess I could throw coffee at him” (laughter from the room).
But it helps the performance. He didn’t look to me for the anger, fortunately but he found it in his own way of like, getting himself
angry for certain scenes like the speeches in particular.
Q: With you writing in this theory that Dan could have been closeted, was that something that came out about your research or
something that you added?
DLB: It’s both but it’s also Harvey’s perspective and Harvey had said that to several people in the last two weeks. Harvey had
mentioned to several of the folks that they worked with at City Hall. He actually did it as a warning. He said, “You know I’m worried
that Dan might be a closet case” and that seems dangerous to him.
GVS: But also, it’s not the statement of the movie that Dan was a closet case. It’s something that Harvey says and it’s not really
the perspective of the movie.
DLB: No, it’s a Harvey theory and Harvey has a lot of theories that he spouts off during the movie. It doesn’t mean that their true
or not. I don’t think we’ll ever know what Dan White’s sexuality was.
Q: Can I ask quickly about the lack of the lesbian presence in the film? Is this an accurate historical representation?
DLB: We struggled with that. That’s a really good question. I talked a lot with Anne Kronenberg about that and she helped. I have
a lot of lesbian friends and it did seem like they weren’t there when you look at the pictures of the Castro. It’s like, “Where were the
women?” and finally I found out they were up on Valencia Street – that had their own sort of movement going on up there. It was
very separate and Anne bridged that gap for the first time. She started bringing lesbians into the movement so if we could go to ’79
and ’80 we’d start seeing the lesbian and gay communities really starting to work together especially with the AIDS crisis. Then it
becomes this joint effort but in 1976, ’77, ’78, geographically, they were in two different places and they sort of didn’t work together
well until Anne came in and bridged that gap and kind of saving Harvey’s ass.
Q: Gus, what do you want people to take away from the film? Should gay audiences get something different than straight?
GVS: No, though it’s about a community that they’re a part of. It’s about, to me, grass roots political organizing and making it work
and that you can do it.
Check the Archives for other Milk Interviews with cast members and historical consultant Cleve Jones