Milk: How Gus Van Sant Shot the Biopic in San Francisco


Writer Dustin Lance Black recalls that the first day of shooting was “the day I finally breathed a sigh of relief. Something I had started four years earlier was coming to fruition. We had done it; it was really happening. I started crying when we saw a rainbow that day. Cleve Jones had tears in his eyes, too.”

 

Jones elaborates, “It was the worst possible morning, drenching and cold. We were out in the Excelsior District (Dan White’s district) to shoot the first scene. Two minutes before the cameras were to start rolling, the clouds parted, the sun came out and this enormous rainbow appeared over the set. A sign, I thought.”

 

Gus Van Sant and his frequent cinematographer Harris Savides were unfazed by weather concerns – and not always bound by convention. Embarking on their fifth movie together, Van Sant notes, “Every picture that Harris and I have done has been in a journey in terms of our figuring out how we’ll be filming it.  For Milk, we knew it would be different than the smaller films we’ve made together.” Despite the larger scale, the director and cinematographer did not avail themselves of storyboards, and hewed to their collaborative and exploratory approach.

 

Van Sant adds, “Each time, I think we start out knowing that the possibilities are endless; we then pare down which possibilities are interesting to us. Sometimes we reference films or photos. We consider everything, and end up with a handful of ideas we like.

 

“Frederick Wiseman was an inspiration for us on Milk, and was on our earlier pictures Elephant and Last Days, too. The reason that we like him is that he is usually shooting something completely compelling and somewhat rough, because the situations he is filming in don’t allow elaborate equipment or lights. Yet he is completely relaxed in the face of very intense places and people. Now, Wiseman is a big influence, but we have a few others – you can see a little Robert Flaherty in Milk.”

 

Bruce Cohen reports, “Certainly, some of the excitement of making Milk was recapturing the look of the 1970s, as part of bringing an authentic feel to the film. Gus said, ‘How about Harris Savides’ and we said, ‘Yes, please.’ We knew he had done brilliant work not just with Gus, but also recreating landscapes of the 1970s in American Gangster – also with Josh Brolin – and Zodiac. With Harris filming this movie, you are going to feel that you are a part of something that is happening right now, not sitting back and saying ‘Oh, this happened a long time ago.’”

 

On the set, Black reports, “I learned so much from watching Gus. His style is different than any other director I’ve worked with – it’s very organic; he steps back and understands how to let things happen and find the unexpected. He allows the actors and artists around him to discover things.”


 

Dan Jinks remarks, “This is not a director who says things necessarily just to be heard. He says things when it is necessary to – and, as a result, everybody listens. It may be just a couple of words, but you’ll then know what he’s looking for.”

 

Alison Pill enthuses, “It’s sort of flying by the seat of your pants. A lot of times two cameras will be filming at once. With the huge element of trust, it’s the most inspiring way to work because you have to be present in every single moment during the entire day.”

 

Emile Hirsch offers, “Gus makes you use your own legs as an actor, instead of being a crutch that never lets you find them. Because of that, his actors are always pushed to be brave and trust their instincts like they’ve never done before. He is extraordinary to work with.”

 

On Location

 

Milk was filmed entirely on location in San Francisco (where Harris Savides had also worked extensively just a couple of years prior as the cinematographer of Zodiac) with a home base at Treasure Island. For the filmmakers, it couldn’t have been done anywhere else. “The spirit and energy of this film is San Francisco,” Dustin Lance Black says. “The film was made the right way, in the right place.”

 

Mayor Gavin Newsom and the San Francisco Film Commission worked closely with the filmmakers, coordinating with executive producer and unit production manager Barbara A. Hall to ensure that the production had every access to the city. This included filming in and at City Hall; however, the production respectfully declined the mayor’s offer to film in his own office, mindful of the city’s need for him to be in it. Milk further benefited from the city’s film production incentive program, “Scene in San Francisco,” which Mayor Newsom had signed into legislation in May 2006. The mayor cites Harvey Milk’s story as one that “must be told. His spirit and legacy manifest today in real change.”

 

Bruce Cohen adds, “All of us felt from the very beginning that San Francisco was a character in the story. The story changed the city forever, and is woven into its history and its fabric.

 

“We went looking for a place we could recreate Castro Camera, and we ended up going to the exact location where it used to be, at 575 Castro Street. We went into this shop and said, ‘Can we kick you all out for nine weeks and turn this back into Harvey’s camera store the way it looked in the 1970’s, and film here’ It was like taking history and making it feel like it was happening again right now.”

 

The owners of 575 Castro Street, which is now a gift shop called Given, were happy to comply. Production designer Bill Groom and his team of art directors and set decorators protectively “built fake walls about three inches in,” Dan Jinks reveals. But the look is exactly the way that Castro Camera looked back then.”

 

Upon seeing the complete re-creation, some people who were there the first time had highly emotional reactions. Michael Wong, whose diary had been such a boon to Black during the screenwriting, was one; Black remembers, “I called Michael to come see the camera shop. I knew he probably didn’t want to, but that he would later regret it if he didn’t. He came in and walked around. When he got to the back and saw the printing press that Bill Groom had made sure was the exact model that Harvey had been lent for the victorious election, Michael stepped outside and started to cry, and he is not a particularly emotional guy. He turned and hugged me and said ‘Thank you,’ and that got my waterworks going too. It was one of the most meaningful moments for me on Milk.”

 

Members of Milk’s inner circle found themselves hanging out at “Castro Camera” all over again. James Franco remembers, “They would walk in, and they would get a look in their eyes; it was almost like they were time-traveling. This one shop played such an incredible part in the worldwide gay movement.”

 

Danny Nicoletta notes, “Propelled by the urgency of the politics of the time, the Castro was a very vibrant, socio-artistic epicenter. The camera store reflected that. You might come in to drop off film, and then stay to talk about opera or politics, or to put up a poster saying come in and register to vote.”


 

Groom and his staff availed themselves of the research and recollections. He states, “We all felt very fortunate to be part of this project, and we shared a responsibility to tell this story as truthfully as we could. Over and over, I would try to catch Lance on a possible inaccuracy in the script – but I never could. He was so well-researched that he became the person we went to with questions, but all of the people who were with us and were around then had memories that helped us recreate everything. We were working already from thousands of photographs and hours of film and video, but everybody helped us interpret those materials. There were a lot of ‘aha!’ moments along the way when someone stepped in and put the pieces together.

 

“We would even dress the insides of drawers so that the actors would be surrounded by welcoming atmosphere and things they could make use of – especially since Gus Van Sant’s style can be improvisational, like jazz.”

 

Groom marvels, “People who have been in the Castro for a very long time just started coming forward with, not only photographs, but objects from Harvey’s camera store; actual signs that were hanging in the windows, for instance.”

 

But much had to be re-created, too. Groom remarks, “The camera store is full of movie film, print paper, developing chemicals, and materials that doesn’t exist anymore. All of those labels had to be created. So we had a graphic designer and printer in our department and we were producing all of that material in-house.”

 

Set decorator Barbara Munch, herself a Bay Area resident, adds, “I have a warehouse full of things, and everyone would say to me that it would never be used on a film. On Milk, we used it all! We built certain pieces of furniture to match the research. Other pieces we found, like the red Art Deco couch that everybody would hang out on.”

 

The department did its job so well that, as art director Charlie Beal laughs, “One day, three young women tourists came in wanting to buy a battery for their camera. I suddenly felt like Harvey was there, and was about to try to get them to register to vote.”

 

Michael London affirms, “Bill, Barbara, Charlie, and the crew did the best kind of work – not showing off, but helping everyone live inside that world. Being in the camera store was a highlight of being on the set; it brought back some vivid memories of 1978 San Francisco.”

 

Cohen reports, “The Castro Street merchant’s association and its members were so supportive. Luckily for us, very little on Harvey’s end of the block had changed structurally.” Some shops had both changed and stayed the same; Swirl wine shop was reverse-aged into McConnelly Wine & Liquors, for a scene where Milk brings in gay customers to unify the neighborhood.

 

Groom adds, “San Francisco’s Gay and Lesbian Archives houses photographs that were a vast resource. We dressed two blocks of the Castro, about 50 storefronts from 17th Street to 19th Street. Different sections of the block were dressed differently, because we were covering six years in San Francisco’s history. Some sections of certain blocks were dressed for 1972 and 1973, while other sections were dressed for 1976 or 1977.”

 

Jinks remarks, “Gus didn’t want anything inexact or incorrect. If we had a sign for a business up, it was because that business was open in the year the scene was taking place – per the research.”

 

Costume designer Danny Glicker and his staff made copious use of the various collections of photographs, too.  Glicker notes, “From a strictly visual standpoint, my guardian angel was Danny Nicoletta. In the 1970s, San Francisco was the place where cultural change was exploding and constantly evolving. The energy there just attracted more energy. As a costume designer, this was an enormously appealing challenge. It was important to be detail-driven as opposed to having a grandiose concept.


 

“I love old clothes and whenever possible will use the real thing. Getting skintight ‘70s jeans for everyone was a huge challenge because bodies have evolved since. I went to some serious dumps to look for jeans – and sometimes we had to pay large amounts of money to get beautifully broken-in Levi’s from the 1970s!”


Glicker adds, “I feel that the clothes give us insight into why someone wants to look good and what they’re hoping to achieve by dressing a certain way. It wasn’t all about glamour then, but a sense of openness.

 

“Harvey’s relationship with his clothes was not that different from a lot of people’s in the Castro; they had very little money. One of the first things that Cleve Jones told me, and this is reflected in the movie, is that Harvey always had the same few items of clothing on. When he needed more clothing for his political career, he bought a couple of suits at secondhand stores and would wear them consistently. His shoes would have holes in them, and when he was being carried out of his office after being assassinated, Cleve saw shoes on with holes in them and knew it was Harvey. We had an entire book, a binder, on Harvey. Based on the research, if a scene corresponded with an actual outfit, we labeled it. I had a copy and Sean Penn had a copy.

 

The other actors were sparked by their research, too. Glicker says, “I looked forward to the actors coming to me with ideas. Some of them wore items from the real people they were portraying. For instance, Alison Pill in many scenes wears an earring that Anne Kronenberg wore every day back then; Lucas Grabeel wore one of Danny Nicoletta’s own vests; and, perhaps most touchingly, George Moscone’s son Jonathan brought one of his father’s ties to the set so that Victor Garber could wear it for the scene in which the mayor swears in Harvey as supervisor.”

 

Today’s San Franciscans found part of their city going back in time for weeks on end. Baker’s Rainbow Flag, which now adorns streetlights, had to be temporarily removed or covered up because much of the film takes place prior to its 1978 unveiling. Seeing resurrected hot spots like Aquarius Records, China Court, and Toad Hall, people did double takes. Stories were told, memories were exchanged, and the excitement of a time of change and realized potential was palpably recalled. As ever, Harvey Milk was bringing people together.

 

The Castro Theatre movie house had its façade and sign redressed to look as it did during the 1970s; in a more permanent upgrade, the neon marquee was repainted and restored – and the cinema now looks better than it has in 20 years.

 

With Rob Epstein’s help, the production arranged a screening of a restored 35mm print of The Times of Harvey Milk at the Castro Theatre (where the film had first screened for San Franciscans in 1984) for extras just prior to filming of a march and rally led by Milk.

 

On February 8th, 2008, one of the most important sequences was filmed. This was a re-creation of the peaceful candlelight vigil march which united tens of thousands of San Franciscans – of all ages, races, and sexual orientations – as they struggled to cope with their shock, grief, and rage over the murders of Harvey Milk and George Moscone by Dan White.

 

The production was able to engage several thousand extras. There were a number of people in the march re-creation who had marched the night of November 27th, 1978; and, as they had 30 years prior, Cleve Jones and Gilbert Baker were among those putting out calls for San Franciscans to participate.

 

London says, “It was as if the city had stopped again, 30 years later. There was an outpouring of people. It wasn’t people who just wanted to be on film; from the moment they started walking and the cameras started rolling, you felt why they were there. You felt the loss, and the actors did, too.”

 

Jones remembers that November night in 1978, when “we marched in absolute silence down Market Street. It was gay and straight, black and brown and white, young and old, people who were so devastated by the loss of these two fine men who had loved this city so deeply. Every year on November 27th, we have re-enacted the candlelight march.


 

“We made history on those streets and now we’ve done it again. I look into the crowds and recognize some people from 30 years ago. It’s bittersweet, because this neighborhood was decimated during the AIDS pandemic; there are thousands upon thousands of people who marched with us then and who are no longer with us. I’m so glad to be alive and to see that this movie finally happened.”

 

Gus Van Sant marvels, “It was wonderful to have the help of so many San Franciscans. They really got into it and were an enormous help.

 

“Thank you, San Francisco.”

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