How Acclaimed Indie Director Gus Van Sant Finally Got Milk
Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear, 1992 to be exact. Gus Van Sant, the filmmaker who had just thrilled the world with his young-hustlers-in-love classic My Own Private Idaho, was picked to direct The Mayor of Castro Street. Already six years in development, this proposed adaptation of Randy Shilts’ biography of Harvey Milk — the openly gay San Francisco supervisor whose 1978 assassination remains a tragic watershed — was shaping up to be Hollywood’s First Big Gay Movie. Producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron had initially brought powerhouse writer-director Oliver Stone onboard, but after criticism leveled (by this writer) at Stone’s gays-conspired-to-kill-Kennedy epic, JFK, he decided to step down as the project’s director (while staying attached as a co-producer), allowing Van Sant to step in.
But as all too frequently happens in Hollywood, “creative differences” arose. Van Sant left the project to make an extremely commercial name for himself with Good Will Hunting, the 1997 film that made Matt Damon and Ben Affleck household names and won co-star Robin Williams a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Ironically, it was Williams who was supposed to play Harvey Milk when Van Sant had been attached to Castro Street.
The project then drifted along in “development hell” for many years afterward — years in which Van Sant went from a successful run at commercial filmmaking (climaxing in the Sean Connery vehicle Finding Forrester) all the way to the furthest fringes of the avant-garde (with his shot-by-shot color remake of Psycho; Elephant, his nonstar rendering of the Columbine massacre as a kind of conceptual art piece; and his skateboarder epic, Paranoid Park). Now, Van Sant comes full circle with Milk, a straightforward neo–Sidney Lumet docudrama, based on a script by 29-year-old screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, conceived independently of the now-dormant Castro Street project. As someone who has spent the better part of his life involved in gay activism, to say that I found Milk moving is an understatement. Genuinely political Hollywood films are rare; gay-activist Hollywood films are nonexistent. Milk is both. It’s also a film whose emotions and ideas speak directly to every audience, regardless of political commitment or sexual orientation.
L.A. WEEKLY: It looks like, after all these years, you’ve finally made the film you’ve always wanted to make about Harvey Milk.
GUS VAN SANT:Well, The Mayor of Castro Street wouldn’t have been like this. If I’d gotten its screenplay the way I’d have liked back then, it really wouldn’t have resembled Lance’s much at all.
At the time, you said the thing that most interested you about the story was the idea of this guy who had a camera shop in the Castro and all these friends, and became involved in politics. It was also about the birth of the Castro as a gay mecca. You said you’d remembered when the Castro went from hippie to gay overnight.
Did you ever read any of those other scripts?
There were a ton of them. They always included the Castro, but to varying degrees. Becky Johnston wrote mine initially. I wrote a really wacky one later on that resembled a Charlie Kaufman movie.
Was that the one I heard about, with the giant Twinkie walking down the street?
Yes, that was it. It was all about the “junk food” that the defense claimed drove Dan White to kill. When he committed the murders, we had him go into this hallucination-possessed-blackout mode. He was dressed as the Twinkie Sheriff; he shot [George] Moscone, who was Mayor McCheese, and Harvey was Ronald McDonald.
When Craig Zadan and Neil Meron started out, this was going to be the first big gay Hollywood movie. Rob Epstein and Jeff Friedman’s The Times of Harvey Milk had won the Best Documentary Oscar, but a narrative drama could go into the story more intimately.
Yes, but the main problem with The Mayor of Castro Street was that delving into Dan White’s psyche took away screen time for anything else you’d want to do. Oliver was so monolithic in those days. “Why did Dan do it?” That’s what he wanted to know. Not the history of the Castro and the blossoming of Harvey Milk.
Wanting to get at the truth about the murders is all well and good, but ultimately no explanation will satisfy anyone. I was glad your film didn’t try to do that, and also that you set Dan White at some remove from the homophobia of [antigay activists] Anita Bryant and John Briggs. He had his own demons.
One of the details we came across in researching the film was that the redistricting that made Harvey Milk a supervisor after so many failed attempts created a new board completely different from what had been before. The city didn’t even have an integrated police force back then. So, when Harvey showed up, it was the first time anyone had broken through the ranks of professional conservative white straight Catholic politicians. Dan was the one straight white Catholic man witness to “anarchy” in the supervisor chambers, and for him, it was too much.
In the film, Milk states that he thinks White may be a closet case: “I think he’s one of us.”
That’s his theory, and he says, “Just a theory.” His friends say, “No, no, no.” And it is just a theory.
Milk liked to joke with people, get into a lot of back and forth, and charm them that way. Dan White seemed incapable of dealing with that. If he can’t get what he wants, he doesn’t know what to do. That scene where he’s drunk and crying in front of Milk makes him sympathetic to a degree. But the way things were going, even if Milk hadn’t come along, [White] would have had a hard time.
That’s true. Politics was something Dan White wasn’t good at. Politicians are strange, don’t you think?
Oh, yes. They sell the sizzle and say it’s steak. What’s different with Milk is he was talking about actual, tangible things going on in his community: police harassment; the Briggs Initiative, which would have fired gay teachers. And now, here we are so many years later, with people demonstrating in the streets again. It’s a new generation. The fight is over gay marriage, but it’s become a watershed for people to declare themselves part of this political struggle. Young gays and lesbians are saying, “This is our Stonewall.”
Oh, I agree. One of my friends, who’s a devoted, pissed-off gay boy — he’s 43 now, but still a boy — says there’s a whole lotta cute goin’ on at these demos.
I get the impression this production came together fairly quickly.
The first time I saw the script was May 2007. We finally started shooting on January 15, 2008. So it took a while. We were happy, but we wanted it to be instantaneous. There was some idea of shooting it in August 2007. We weren’t sure if The Mayor of Castro Street was going to start at the same time.
After you left that project, Stone moved on too, and it went back into development. When last heard from, it was going to be directed by Bryan Singer. But Singer got hung up on Valkyrie, and when Milk went into production, Zadan and Meron finally pulled the plug.
It was funny, because Sean wanted us to promise him that we weren’t going to be shooting in City Hall or even San Francisco, while another film was being made about Harvey Milk — only for his own psyche.
Did he have any directorial input?
Sean didn’t want to, because he knew it would be disastrous. We’d lose two or three hours in the morning because he had makeup to put on, and it didn’t make us fall behind, but it made our shots kind of austere. Harris [Savides, Van Sant’s frequent cinematographer] is happy shooting from one angle, but the studio was, like, “How about some coverage?” And we said, “No we’re not into coverage.” But Sean said, “You can shoot with two cameras,” because he has. I never have. Harris shoots with five cameras when he’s working with Ridley Scott. But Universal offered it, and I liked it ’cause we were getting all this extra stuff. We had the same A.D. Sean had on Into the Wild, David Rudd, and he said, “Hey, what happened to the Sean who’d show up two hours before the shoot?” And Sean just said, “Different guy.” There’s the actor guy and then there’s the director.
It’s a very interesting project coming off your whole “film as objet d’art” period, culminating in Paranoid Park. To me, the film of yours Milk most resembles is Mala Noche.
Because you’re playing around with different kinds of film stocks, focal lengths.
Oh, yes. The cinema!
So next is the life of Ken Kesey?
There’s a script being worked on by Dustin, but I don’t know if it’s next. Something else may come up first. I’ve learned that when it comes to movies, you never know.
David Ehrenstein is the author of Open Secret: Gay Hollywood 1928–2000 (Morrow/Harper-Collins), a chapter of which is devoted to the nonmaking of The Mayor of Castro Street.
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