Somewhere buried among my files, I have an inch-thick folder of newspaper clippings mapping Hollywood’s marathon on-and-off flirtation with the dramatic deeds and death of San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk. That checkered history—the movie-deal machinations, not the life and legacy of the first openly gay man to hold elected office in the U.S.—is finally rendered moot with the long-awaited arrival tomorrow night of Gus Van Sant’s vivid, vibrant Milk. The movie revisits a pivotal and still-relevant era in Bay Area history and, more so than last year’s Zodiac, deserves to be seen and discussed by local filmgoers. I interviewed Van Sant and the young screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, who are collaborating next on an adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s Haight-Ashbury-fueled The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, the day after the film’s star-studded premiere at the Castro Theatre.
SF360: Gus, I know several years ago you moved to San Francisco, and the Castro, for a while to write a script about Harvey Milk. Going back to the very beginning, do you remember when he was elected? When did you first hear of him?
Gus Van Sant: I didn’t know that Harvey had been elected, because even though I was living in West Hollywood, I was not really connected to the gay community and was pretty much in the closet. I wasn’t reading "The Advocate," for instance. I think I first heard about Harvey when he was shot. I was driving cross-country. And whatever the description was, it kind of laid it out quite well in my mind, because you had this image of one Supervisor going from the Mayor’s office to the out gay Supervisor’s office, and somehow you got the idea that there was a collusion between the Mayor and the gay Supervisor, the way this very brief announcement was describing it. And it was while I was driving across the country, so I could think about it. And then I was mostly informed through Rob Epstein [and Richard Schmiechen]‘s documentary, The Times of Harvey Milk.
SF360: Which came out in 1984. So let’s jump to when you were attached to direct a film about Milk.
Van Sant: Again, Rob Epstein figured in because I had gotten to know him because I had made Mala Noche, and I had met him in Berlin and also at the San Francisco Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, in ’85. Then in ’92, I was having breakfast with him at Zuni, and he said, ‘Oh, Oliver [Stone] just dropped out of ‘The Mayor of Castro Street,’ not really knowing what ‘The Mayor of Castro Street’ was—didn’t know the book even though the book came out before his film. And he said, ‘You should do it. They’re looking for a replacement.’ They were actively looking. So just through a series of chance meetings—I didn’t call the production and say, ‘I would like to do it.’ I was in a position of basically talking to Alex Ho [A. Kitman Ho], who was an older, ex-producer of Oliver’s who had big posters of all the Oliver Stone films in his office. And I was in a position of having had a project be not pitchable because the agent of the project didn’t want me to pitch it anymore. So I had this meeting where I had nothing to offer, and I said, ‘But I would be interested in the Harvey Milk project that Oliver’s now not doing.’ So all of a sudden I found myself having a job on that project. So that’s why I was in the Castro working on it.
SF360: Did you actually complete a script?
Van Sant: Yeah, there were a couple of scripts. One of them was written by Becky Johnston. That was the one that was done at that moment when Oliver was the producer and Janet Yang and Craig Zadan and Neil Meron [were also producers] and it was Warner Bros. Then a few years later at a meeting, one executive at Warner Bros. said, ‘How about the Harvey Milk story, because it’s still part of our thing,’ and To Die For had just come out that week or something like that. You’re kind of hot for like a week when your film comes out.
Dustin Lance Black: That’s it, huh?
Van Sant: Well, something like that, yeah. Because a script takes eight weeks to write, at least, and probably by the time I gave it to them it was like eight-and-a-half, maybe 10 weeks. By the time I handed it in, they had kind of forgotten why they asked me to do it.
Black: So I need to hand in Acid Test by December 5th? (Laughs.)
Van Sant: Well, no, it depends. Maybe. You have to hit when the number’s hot. It’s hard when you’re writing a project, because they do take time. Also, the script was really, really bizarre. It was like a Charlie Kaufman script. [To Black:] You have to get a copy of that. [To SF360:] That was ’95. Many years went by. At some point I tried to get Sean and Tom Cruise to play the role but then it was a year and a half ago, which was 2007, Lance appeared with [his screenplay].
SF360: I don’t recall that casting rumor.
Van Sant: Tom Cruise was going to play Dan White and Sean Penn was going to play Harvey.
Black: But this script was unrelated to all that.
Van Sant: That was all my association with the other project. And so, like 10 years went by, basically. Then all of a sudden, Cleve [Jones], who I was still in touch with, said that he wanted to show me Lance’s script. And so they brought it over.
Black: I’d been working on it separately, independently from those guys. It was Cleve who, in the end, gave it to Gus, which is kind of an amazing thing. Because [Gus] obviously knew so much about it and cared so much about it, and I had been working on it for less time but for a number of years. So when we first got together that day, we both knew what the talking points were. [To Van Sant:] You didn’t even have to read the script to know what I had done, by just asking a few questions about what was in there, what wasn’t.
Van Sant: You’d say, ‘Riot’s out.' 'Trial’s in?’ ‘No, trial’s out.’ ‘Childhood?’ ‘Out.’
Van Sant: But then within the main meat of the story, which character is in, which characters are out.
Black: Like Scott Smith, [Milk’s] main relationship. It didn’t necessarily have to be that way.
There are a lot of choices.
SF360: So you knew the documentary as well, I presume, before you started writing?
Black: I saw the documentary in college.
SF360: What are the pitfalls and what’s the challenge of doing a biopic—if I can use that crude shorthand—especially about someone who lived recently? Keeping in mind that a certain number of people also know the documentary.
Black: Yeah, there’s so much out there, there’s books that are great, there’s a documentary that’s great, there’s all these people who were around and are still active in San Francisco politics who were close to Harvey. So there’s so many stories, and the longer I was up here and asking questions and interviewing people, the more stories there were. That’s a problem as a screenwriter, in the screenwriting phase, because you don’t want to turn it into a miniseries. You want to keep it a feature film. So those tough decisions of what stories to tell—I mean, I always thought I had an idea of what the theme was, what I wanted people to leave feeling, because of what was meaningful when I first heard Harvey’s story. That was clear. Then it was just whittling away, getting rid of the other stuff, the excess, and then those tough decisions. I would loved to have included some of these people who were really important in the campaigns, in the movement, but there’s just not room, so I combined characters and tried to be as respectful to them as possible.
Van Sant: The documentary for me was always, and as we worked on the project in the ’90s, the benchmark, the watermark, something like that.
SF360: A high-water mark.
Van Sant: High-water mark. For what we hoped, in the dramatic film, we could attain. That was about whether or not the sentiment of the story could be as strong as it was in the documentary. For me, that was an unspoken desire, because the documentary was very powerful and it had received a lot of attention and it was known as just a great story. So a fictional story with dramatic scenes and characters, [has] a big potential to destroy what the documentary could do, because it was voiceover, because it was the real characters’ pictures and footage, and here we’re using actors. It was always kind of like, Will this destroy the story? My desire, my point of view, was hopefully do something that could keep up with that.
SF360: I might add that the documentary crosses over- to use another crude term-to straight audiences, and I know that’s one of your goals with Milk.
Black: It’s probably a couple years ago, I showed the documentary to my mom and my stepdad. My stepdad’s a pretty tough guy, ex-Army Ranger guy. Yeah, it made him cry. The goal was to be able to cross over in that same way, emotionally affect people who are totally heterosexual and never thought of our gay hero. Perhaps never even thought there was such a thing as a gay hero.
Van Sant: But there was also the problem of retaining their status as gay people. That was one of the difficulties of different screenplays that were written. How does their gay identity survive, and come across as the real thing, the real neighborhood that it was, and not alienate the straight audience? There was always a line there, and there were ways to go completely overboard so that it was a boilerplate City Hall story where Castro was just a cute street where these people happened to come from. Or it was a raging bar and disco, drug-fueled, bathhouse-fueled Castro with just a little side to City Hall. The balance was always a question.
SF360: Let’s conclude in a different vein. Gus, your last few films have been, if not experimental, experiential as opposed to story-driven. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test promises to be similarly impressionistic. Milk is more of a reversion to traditional classic narrative storytelling. It’s clear you’re comfortable in both camps, so where would you say you are as a filmmaker?
Van Sant: With this film? I don’t know, for me each film is its own entity. I’m a little bit a fan, at the moment, of just having the ability to rethink whatever you’re doing when you’re doing it. Obviously, you get into a technique that you want to investigate so you continue with it. But Stanley Kubrick, I have a big Kubrick book, the red book, he’s like a hero—but his heroism starts to pale when I think of his projects that followed Barry Lyndon. His projects were varied, he did rethink them, by the time he did 2001 that was quite different than Dr. Strangelove. There were elements that were similar to A Clockwork Orange, and Barry Lyndon was a refashioning. But then The Shining, Full Metal Jacket and Eyes Wide Shut basically resembled Barry Lyndon. It was like Barry Lyndon Revisited, [perhaps] because he thought of film as a process: You find the look, you get the sets and he sort of had the same process, it seemed. I thought that was not as interesting, maybe, as the previous part of his career. It seems like each subject needs rethinking from the ground up. It’s good if you can rethink, rebuild.
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