I’m sitting in the basement of the Soho Hotel, having chosen to sit in a huge red leather chair, opposed to the huge cow hide one I could have sat in, and I have just been to a screening of Gus Van Sant’s, award nomination laden film Milk. The film industry’s indie king is back with one of this years must see films, a heart wrenching, earnest biopic of the late Harvey Milk, the legendary gay rights activist who became the first openly gay man to be voted into public office in California.
The film is fantastic. Chronicling Milk’s work towards achieving civil rights in a time of massive social upheaval and change. The film really brings home the attitudes and struggles through which gay rights fought in 1970’s America and how one man, working out of his tiny camera shop in the Castro District of San Francisco became a symbol of hope and freedom for so many across the U.S.
A few minutes pass before the man behind the camera strolls in looking a little jet lagged and prepared with answers to questions he has most likely been asked roughly 1000 times already this week.
The story of Harvey Milk, although made into a documentary in 1984 (The Times of Harvey Milk) seems like such an important story, and one that, considering he was assassinated (no that doesn’t spoil the film) I am a little surprised I had never heard of until now. So why hasn’t it been made into a film before?
“Well I knew that Oliver Stone had tried to make one in 1991, but it fell through,” explains Gus, “He’d just made JFK and I think he didn’t want to make another assassination movie. After meeting Lance [Dustin Lance Black, the films scribe], and Cleve Jones [one of Harvey’s close friends and fellow Castro Street activist] I got interested. Lance’s script narrowed in on a particular part of his life. I think others tried to tell too much, too many parts of his life. They were just too extensive. This story’s really important and you need to focus on the right bits.”
Gus has never been one to shy away from a challenge. His career has been some what under the radar, the director feeling the need to search for more difficult subjects. Elephant epitomises this ethos, the Columbine
massacre flick was heavily controversial and you can’t help seeing the tag line for Milk, ‘Don’t Blend in’ as a credo for Van Sant’s career so far. With the types of film he’s attempted, it would be interesting to know if there was some kind of through line tying his works together.
“Don’t blend in? Well, in terms of Milk I think it was something Harvey would have felt meant don’t be straight just because you feel like you have too, rather than in the sense you mean. But for me? Yea, I guess. But I think all film makers are trying to make something that stands out, something that is a little different. Is there a through line? I’m trying to work that out myself really! Family, I guess. If there is a through line in my films its family – a group of people put together to get something done and who become, in a sense, a family. That’s probably it but it’s not been intentional! It wasn’t by design.”
Milk has been nominated for a handful of BAFTA’s including best film, best screenplay and Sean Penn is very deservedly up for best actor. His performance as Harvey is a kind, warm, yet impassioned performance. No best director though? Gus employs a spade full of modesty to any praise over the nominations; you can’t help but think he might feel a little disappointed.
On being congratulated he shrugs off his own involvement: “oh…yea…er…I’m happy. It’s great. I don’t really feel like it’s me.” To this Dustin Lance Black can’t help but interject: “what! it’s up for best film. That’s definitely you! And Sean’s up.” “Oh yea,” mutters Gus, “and Sean.”
Sean Penn, it seems, was more or less always in mind for the role. “I actually offered the role to Sean in 98. I actually tried to get Tom Cruise to play Dan White,” the role finally played by Josh Brolin. If there is a bad guy in this film then it would have to be Dan White. A confused, complex character that becomes a fellow city supervisor the same time Harvey gets into office and becomes somewhat of a thorn in Harvey’s side. “I didn’t think the film would be that much of an earner,” recalls Gus, “I guess I thought if I could say I had Tom Cruise and Sean Penn it would definitely get made!”
Sean seemed to be the perfect actor for Gus, fitting the character both in acting ability and in political vigour.
“When I offered the role to Sean later he was part of a list. He gave me a typical Sean answer of the phone, just saying ‘it’s interesting’. You could tell he was really interested though. I think the role was kind of irresistible to him. Sean is one of the celebrities that is very politically active and let his feelings under the Bush regime heard. After 9/11 and before the beginning of the Iraq war celebrities were kind of expected to be quiet and show some support. Sean wouldn’t have that. He wanted to fight back. I guess he believed in this role and he saw it as a challenge. I guess a challenge makes it more interesting for most actors, right?”
Thankfully, Gus has nothing to regret in his choice of lead actor. This film is important and deserved the best. He depicts a period of history which is often looked over and hushed up. The oppression, and that is definitely the word for it, that gays and lesbians went through is portrayed relentlessly, the film being intercut with actual footage of frequent police violence that occurred, unprovoked during this period and the legendary Stonewall riots that saw the police fought back.. The film is a moving depiction of Harvey’s life told through a monumental lead performance accompanied by a superb cast .
This film (pardon me) won’t go sour.