Writer, Producer Dustin Lance Black takes us through the life and times of Harvey Milk…
When Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to hold major elective office in the US, was assassinated back in 1978, future screenwriter Dustin Lance Black wasn’t even born yet. But 30 years on, Black – the Texan son to Mormon parents – would go on to write one of the most critically celebrated tales of the life of this often overlooked hero of the gay rights movement. Directed by Gus Van Sant and starring Sean Penn (who should be working on his Oscar speech if his performance as Harvey Milk is anything to go by), Movies.ie spoke to screenwriter Dustin Lance Black about bringing “Milk” to the masses:
Q: How did you first become aware of Harvey Milk, considering he was assassinated a year before you were even born?
Well I grew up in a Mormon military family out in Texas. Thankfully my mom remarried and we converted to Catholic and moved to San Francisco. At that stage I wasn’t out to anyone; I’d never even considered that it was a possibility. Eventually I got involved in a theatre group and the program director there told me about an openly gay man called Harvey Milk. And not only was he gay but he went on to be elected to public office. Of course this was all very shocking to me, growing up in Texas in the Mormon Church. I don’t think I would have come out for years had it not been for that story.
Q: Why did you it was important to bring Harvey’s life to the big screen?
Well even today, many people don’t know who Harvey Milk is. He’s such a significant figure for the gay and lesbian movement but there has never really been anything done to document it, aside from one fabulous documentary back in the ‘80s “The Times of Harvey Milk”. Given that so many people don’t know him, I personally felt this film needed to be made.
I mean this is a man who, in space of eleven months in office, managed to create and pass gay and lesbian legislation that were previously unheard of. He even managed to defeat Prop 6 in California, which would have removed gay and lesbian teachers from public schools. That sounds so radical, but such laws were passing quite easily back then. Harvey managed to win the people over, even with the polls at upwards of 80% for passage when he started fighting against it. It makes us ask a lot of questions about why he could win then, and why Proposition 8 was such a defeat for us a few weeks ago.
Q: Was it an easy movie to get made?
Well it took four years in total – a lot of that was research. I started back in 2004; a friend took me to meet Cleve Jones. That’s really when it all kicked started. At first he was hesitant to tell the story again but as time went on (and drinks went on) he began to open up about Harvey. He started telling a different kind of story about the man; very different from what I’d heard before – more like a man who was very human. Harvey was a man with many problems. He didn’t have a very successful love life or personal life in general. He got a very late start in life. He didn’t really do anything he was proud of until he was in his 40s. And yet he still managed to change the quality of life for so many. I left Cleve’s thinking how much more I admired him knowing that wasn’t this perfect, all-knowing legend. He was a man. So I decided on the drive home that I was going to write this story. And here we are 4 ½ years later…
Q:And after researching, why did you decide to focus on such a short period of his life?
That was a tough call. After doing so many years research I had heard a ton of fantastic stories about him. In the end, I felt like the period I selected would have greatest resonance with what was still going on today… It’s really just those San Francisco years, that six-year period [1972-1978]. It’s really about a man in this specific moment in the gay movement. … I wanted to keep it personal, and I felt like it needed to be about the man in that particular moment of the movement.
Q: The film doesn’t tiptoe around the fact that we’re dealing here with a homosexual character. Two minutes into the film, they are already kissing…
Well that’s something I was passionate about from the beginning. Life in the Castro for Harvey wasn’t closeted. I didn’t want the film to be a closeted Castro. I didn’t want there to be any build up to the kiss. I didn’t want people waiting to see James Franco kiss Sean Penn and not paying attention to the story. The kiss was to be natural, part of their lives but not the story. So I always had the sex scene at the start of the script. It’s a case of here it is; now lets move on to more interesting stuff – i.e. looking at this very special man.
Q: Just in terms of casting, you have the wonderful Sean Penn playing the role of Harvey; was he someone you had in mind from the get-go?
When I’m writing fiction, I tend to have actors in mind for each part but with true life features, I think it’s important to concentrate on the actual person portrayed. It was hard enough trying to keep Harvey in mind, without adding a second persona to the mix. When I finally finished the script and Gus and I discussed casting, Sean was the first name we mentioned. I always knew I wanted the film to capture both a straight and a gay audience, because that’s what Harvey did – he appealed to both groups. We knew Sean could do that for us because when he acts he quite literally transforms himself into the person.
Q: Finally there are rumours you are getting ready to work with Gus Van Sant again?
Yeah we’re going to team up for “The Electric Kool-aid Acid Test” – the Tom Wolfe novel. It’s the story of the Merry Pranksters and their LSD adventures in the 1960s. They are one of the most celebrated collections of weirdoes in American pop culture and it’s really exciting to work on. Thankfully most of them are still around so at the moment I’m doing a fair bit of research for the script. It’s certainly a challenge but it’s a project we’re both really passionate about and we get to work in San Francisco again!