Milk: Interview With Director Gus Van Sant

How Gus Van Sant Got Involved with milk

True to his word, Cleve Jones called director Gus Van Sant and set up a meeting. Black declined to give him the script at that meeting until he did one more draft, at which point it was sent to the Oscar-nominated director in Portland. A week and a half later, Van Sant called Black and said, “Let’s make this movie.”


Van Sant reflects, “The Times of Harvey Milk had set the bar pretty high, but I felt a dramatic version would be an important continuation. I knew pretty much about the story at that point I got this script, and there was always a difficulty in telling it because of the many elements of Harvey’s life and the many other intersecting stories at Castro Camera. But Lance got it in line and wrote a succinct script that was largely about the politics and less about the day-to-day lives of the characters.


“Harvey Milk is one of the more illustrious gay activists, and since he died in the line of duty, he has achieved sainthood in the gay world. One reason to make this film was for younger people who weren’t around during his time; to remember him, and to learn about him.”


Given that many of the director’s films have had as their protagonists people who are not being given their quarter by society, Van Sant allows that Harvey Milk “fits in with many of those other characters’ outside-the-mainstream status. Yet this is also the story of someone living in the mainstream, or at least my mainstream.”


Black was friends with the producing team of Dan Jinks and Bruce Cohen, Academy Award winners for American Beauty. Both knew of Milk when they were growing up; Jinks’ father had been editor of The San Jose Mercury-News, which followed Milk’s campaigns and triumphs.


Jinks notes, “I read that Lance had written a screenplay about Harvey Milk and that Gus Van Sant would be directing it, so I called Lance up to congratulate him and he said, ‘You know, we don’t have a producer. Would you be interested in reading this’ I said, ‘Are you kidding Absolutely!’


“I mean, here’s a guy who made a difference in the world, fighting against prejudice at an important time in the history of gay rights. The movement had a leader in place who was effective at stopping something that really needed to be stopped.”


Cohen adds, “When we read the script, we were unbelievably excited because we thought, ‘Finally! This important story about a hero is going to get to the screen with a strong script and the perfect person to direct it, and if we can help to get it told that will be incredible.’ It’s both an intimate and an epic story.



“We felt that the film could be moving and entertaining, whether you know Harvey’s story or not. This man was not your average politician; he came out to San Francisco with Scott Smith with the goal of expressing himself and living his life and being out and creating this new world for himself there. He didn’t have a plan to go into politics, but he felt he could make a difference. And here we are, in a presidential election year where the theme is change…”


Jinks remarks, “One of the benchmarks of the script is authenticity, since Lance researched it extremely well. The script tells Harvey’s heroic story so powerfully – but also hilariously, and sexily. Combine that with the confirmed involvement of a world-class filmmaker, and we immediately said, ‘We have to be a part of this.’”


Jinks, Cohen, Black, and Van Sant convened to talk about their next steps. Van Sant discussed his plan to use archival and news footage at certain points in the movie, not merely before or during the end credits as most biopics do, an inspiration that Jinks found “marvelous.”


For instance, the actual announcement by Dianne Feinstein (then the president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, now a U.S. Senator) on the steps of City Hall of the assassinations of Milk and Mayor Moscone “is such an iconic image that we didn’t want to attempt recreating it,” says Jinks. Actress Ashlee Temple was cast as Feinstein for newly filmed narrative/linking scenes, but that 1978 announcement to the press was, says Cohen, “such a powerful moment in history that we decided the best way to convey the shock and horror of that moment was to let it speak for itself.”


Joining the coalescing project was the new production and financing company Groundswell Productions. Groundswell principal and founder Michael London, an Academy Award nominee for Sideways, had found himself drawn in by the personal and historical detail captured in the screenplay.


He remarks, “In reading Lance’s script, I brought my own history to it. I had gone to college in the Bay Area and spent a lot of time there. I was aware of how essential Harvey Milk was to the city, and to the community that was building there at the time.


“He was an extraordinary American hero – at a time when we didn’t have a lot of them; we don’t today, either. Very few times in your career do you get the opportunity to be involved with a story so powerful and timely with artists of the caliber of Gus Van Sant and Sean Penn.”


Penn had leapt to the forefront of everyone’s minds as the project coalesced. Cohen notes, “He has this way of just inhabiting a character where you couldn’t find the actor underneath if you tried.”


Jinks adds, “Sean likes to be surprising in everything he does, and I think he can do anything.”


Van Sant knew the Oscar-winning actor – who now lives in the Bay Area – and sent the script to him. Penn responded even quicker to the script than Van Sant had, and within a week, Black and Van Sant were meeting with him to confirm the project. Penn wanted assurances that the filmmaking team would be as authentic with Milk’s personal relationships as they were with his politics.


Black admits, “We were mindful of whether a lead actor would take risks. But Sean said ‘Let’s do it right. Let’s tell it like it is.’ Sean made a real effort to make it as true as possible. He is dedicated to accuracy, and he wound up completely embodying the mind and spirit of Harvey Milk.”


Jones states, “When I heard that Sean Penn had agreed to do it, I started whooping and hollering and running around my living room like a madman. He’s one of the great actors of our time.”


Jinks said, “Every day on the set, it became this thrill for all of us to see Sean transform himself into somebody who was really so much Harvey. The people who were in Harvey’s life and have been involved in the film were astonished at the transformation.”



Van Sant comments, “Sean brings real old-time intense excellence in portraying a character on the screen.”


Cohen says, “Milk lifts and soars on Sean Penn’s performance as Harvey Milk, whom he embodies. There were moments where it was important to Sean that he deliver a certain line or speech exactly as Harvey did it. On the set, I had goosebumps watching that happen.”


Penn remarks, “There was not only an excellent script to be guided by here. There was also a good amount of archival material. I fell in love with Harvey, with this person, this spirit of this human being, which transcended my own agenda as an actor.


“Gus Van Sant is a director who never makes a bad movie, so as an actor, one feels enormous faith in his process.”


The production came fully together once Focus Features committed to co-finance the movie with Groundswell, and to take worldwide distribution rights. London comments, “Everyone at Groundswell and Focus had an emotional connection to the story; we all felt the urgency to tell it.”


Real Life/Reel Life


Michael London notes, “A rule in the making of the movie was, if people responded without equivocation to the project and wanted to be involved, then we wanted them.”


Given just how many real-life personages would be portrayed on-screen, casting would be even more crucial than usual to a feature film. Francine Maisler was engaged as casting director.


Bruce Cohen elaborates, “Actors wanted to be part of the film that finally told Harvey Milk’s story, and were also jumping at the chance to work with Gus and Sean. We cast sexual-preference-blind – which is to say, we have straight actors playing gay people, gay actors playing straight people, gay actors playing gay people, and straight actors playing straight people. We felt that for this movie to have not included all those different permutations would have been a mistake.”


Beyond even the sexual-preference-blind casting, the roster proved to be full of surprises. As Dustin Lance Black had found, many of the real-life people who knew Milk best were still alive; therefore, the actors were able to spend time getting to know the people they were about to portray. In a testament to Milk’s legacy and to the filmmakers’ enthusiasm and care, Milk’s long-ago friends and compadres spent a significant amount of time on the set. Cohen marvels, “These people have helped our movie come together and come to life.”


Black reflects, “Having already spent so much time with them during the research, one of my prime goals during production was to make sure they got involved with everyone as much as possible, whether it was in the wardrobe process or just being there on the set.”


Some ended up in front of the cameras, too; Dan Jinks remembers, “Gus said ‘Why don’t we get the real Tom Ammiano to play the role of Tom Ammiano’ Then he had the idea to get Frank Robinson, Harvey’s speechwriter, to play himself hanging out in the camera shop and participating in marches and rallies. Then Harvey’s Teamsters Union ally Allan Baird agreed to play himself when Gus asked him to. They were in Harvey’s world back in the day, and now would be again.”


Others played not themselves but people close to them and/or Milk. While Emile Hirsch plays Cleve Jones, the real-life Jones plays a cameo role as another real-life activist and Milk supporter, Don Amador. Carol Ruth Silver plays Thelma, a volunteer staffer through all of Milk’s campaigns for supervisor. Silver (now director of Prisoner Legal Services for the City and County of San Francisco) herself served on the Board of Supervisors and was staunchly allied with Milk; actress Wendy King portrays Silver in the City Hall sequences in the movie.



Over the years, Gus Van Sant has worked with all manner of actors and non-actors. He offers, “Whether they are seasoned pros or newcomers, as a director I talk to them in a similar way; we discuss stage direction, emotion, other characters, and the overall story. Part of this is because I was self-taught and have always used non-actors in my films.”


Jim Rivaldo, the political consultant who was such a key architect of Milk’s campaigns, had met not only with Black but also with his on-screen portrayer Brandon Boyce before he died in October 2007 (three months before filming began). Boyce remembers Rivaldo as having “a very dry sense of humor. In researching his life, I found that he had a madcap spirit, but he backed up what he believed with his actions.”

Rivaldo’s longtime colleague, Dick Pabich, had passed away several years prior to the start of filming on Milk. A vital strategist on Milk’s campaigns, Pabich also worked in City Hall with him and Kronenberg. Actor Joseph Cross, cast as Pabich, marvels that “Jim and Dick did things with the ads for Milk’s campaigns that hadn’t been seen or done before. Their company, Rivaldo/Pabich and Friends, went on to work with all sorts of political underdogs. Brandon Boyce and I worked closely together on establishing a dynamic for them.


“Most helpfully, Anne Kronenberg had me over for dinner and talked to me about Dick. She said that he was super-smart, didn’t have time for anyone’s bulls—t, and loved wearing very nice clothes. Meeting Anne, and Cleve and Danny Nicoletta, I was able to understand the power of the community and also how excited and scared they all were during those times. Watching this movie, I think that people are going to understand a lot more about gay culture and the fight for their rights.”


For all the real-life figures who had shared their stories with Black and lent their support to the project, Milk was like a time machine back to the birth of a movement in which they were a part. Some of them have moved on to different places and parts of their lives. Milk supporter Gilbert Baker, the creator of the LGBT movement’s iconic and inspiring Rainbow Flag, now lives in New York. Cleve Jones resides in Palm Springs. Anne Kronenberg remained in San Francisco and is now Deputy Director for Administration and Planning of the city’s Department of Public Health.


Bringing things perhaps fullest circle is Tom Ammiano. Once a schoolteacher who fought back and came out when targeted by the Proposition 6 initiative that Milk and his colleagues worked tirelessly to successfully defeat, Ammiano himself is now a San Francisco city supervisor – as Milk was.


Ammiano reports, “Sean would look and sound more and more like Harvey every time I saw and heard him – especially with Harvey’s New York accent.”


Similarly, Baker filmed a small cameo role (more or less playing himself, as a Milk supporter) and visited the set, but he says that when he “saw Sean, I had to stop in my tracks. For a minute I thought I was looking at Harvey. I looked into his eyes, and I thought he’s really got that sparkle, he’s got that charisma.


“Harvey would call me up and say, ‘I need a banner for a march,’ and I would make one. It’s funny; here I was making them again in San Francisco for this movie! My friends who call me ‘the gay Betsy Ross’ say, ‘You never sewed that well in 1978.’”


Kronenberg confides, “I didn’t know whether I could even be on the set, whether it would be too painful. It was the exact opposite. For three decades, I had put a wall up because of losing my friend, my mentor, my father figure. But by blocking the pain, I had blocked all of these great times that I was now able to relive. Sean would take my breath away – on the set, he looked like Harvey and he had the mannerisms down.


“When they filmed the victory election night scene, Gus said, ‘Come on, Anne, you have to be in the scene.’ So there I was, partying on election night 1977 for a second time. How many people get to relive their lives 30 years later”



Dan Jinks marvels, “All of them would come by and share with our cast what happened, and how it was. They would sit down with our wardrobe department and say, ‘Well, this is what I wore on that day,’ or they would say about a scene, ‘I was standing over there in Castro Camera that day.’ Sometimes they would have pictures.”


Van Sant was careful to integrate this fidelity with his style of filmmaking. He clarifies, “The way I make scenes seem real is to try and not be too overly dramatic. This way, the moment seems like it’s really happening. It’s a naturalistic quality that is just my style; for me, it’s what makes a scene work.”


Cohen adds, “We were already striving for as true-to-life a recreation of the story as possible in the sets, the costumes, the performances, and the dialogue. Since these are the people who have very detailed, sometimes painful but also beautiful memories of what really happened, that helped us recreate so much more; there was this whole other layer of meaning and truth and beauty in making Milk that you don’t usually get on projects. It was extraordinary.”


One of the most extraordinary days on location came towards the end of filming; over 3,000 volunteer extras from around the Bay Area showed up to recreate the 1978 Gay Freedom Day Parade, where the recently elected Milk and the debuting Rainbow Flag were both prominent.


Kronenberg recalled how she drove Milk (who was up top, not seated next to her) in his old Volvo down Market Street, with an emergency escape route to the nearest hospital – should he be attacked or shot – already mapped out. Instead, a different threat materialized that day; “Some queen with a snake came running up to the car to show it to Harvey. I hate snakes, and was so scared that when the snake started to slither down through the sunroof, I panicked and gunned the engine!”


Frank Robinson’s career as a writer has encompassed not only numerous books (including The Glass Inferno, used as a basis for the blockbuster movie The Towering Inferno) but also speeches for Harvey Milk. A point of pride came during filming while he sat on steps behind a podium where Sean Penn was delivering Milk’s famous speech in which he taunts anti-gay crusader Anita Bryant by opening with “My name is Harvey Milk, and I want to recruit you.” Hearing it said aloud anew, Robinson grinned and said, “I wrote that!”


On another day, there was a recreation of a lavish birthday party for Milk – which would be his last. Although Milk loved opera, 1970s disco icon Sylvester (played in the film by performance artist Mark Martinez, a.k.a. Flava, in his feature debut) performed his classic “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” for his friend Milk at the party. Those who were there also remember how the guest of honor had a joke played on him – getting pies in the face – that he had always enjoyed playing on others. Danny Nicoletta remembers, “Harvey got five pies in his face that night; I was one of the people throwing them. On the set, I sat in the corner weeping, because to hear Sylvester’s music again and watch all this was amazing and terribly poignant.”


Similarly, reports Jones, “I cried every day during the first week of production. When Josh Brolin walked by me as Dan White, it was horrifying. He said to me, ‘The look on your face tells me everything I need to know.’”


Brolin reflects, “I read the script and cried at the end. This is a love story, a civil rights story, and a coming-of-age story. I then watched the documentary feature with my daughter and was extremely moved by that. I said yes right away to doing this movie. Harvey Milk was willing to put himself in harm’s way for the betterment of people’s moment on earth, and we should not forget how George Moscone made a lot of things happen for Harvey.


“What had a huge impact on me was speaking to family members and also to Frank Falzon, who was a friend of Dan’s and – as homicide inspector –took his confession. I think Dan was kind of myopic in the way that he only saw what was right in front of him; sadly, he didn’t have that macro picture to understand politics for what they were, to understand that this may not be your time this year. Other things were coming up; women’s lib, gay rights. If he waited it out and took a back seat for a little while,


then he probably could have made a major difference for his constituents in the future. He had insecurities that were very deep.”


Department head make-up Steven E. Anderson notes, “I created a pair of sideburns for Josh that fit him, his hair color, and the shape of his face – yet pushed him into Dan White. Josh would go through the hair department, have his hair dressed in that wonderful little side part. I would widen his forehead, bring out his eyebrows, and the minute I would stick the sideburns on, he was there. He went to a dark place and became Dan.”


London remarks, “Dan White is a mystery, yet Josh got under his skin. A key for him was that Dan really wanted to be liked.”


Cohen offers, “Josh brings a humanity to Dan. We didn’t want any of these people to be portrayed one-dimensionally. These were living, breathing human beings and we wanted that.”


Similarly, Diego Luna acknowledges that in playing Milk’s (last) lover, the late Jack Lira, “I wanted to portray him in a fair way. I know a lot about him without really knowing him, because every Mexican goes through a struggle here; imagine being gay and Mexican at that time. I believe he was a bit lost, and searching for someone to take care of him. I decided not to contact his family, but I talked a lot with Danny Nicoletta and Cleve Jones and then developed my own take on who Jack was.


“Sean Penn was so generous to me, and knows what’s good for the film. He understands what acting is about; it’s about communicating. I could find him there every time in our scenes together.”


Having recently been directed by Penn to great acclaim in Into the Wild, Emile Hirsch would now again be collaborating with him, this time as fellow actors. Hirsch states, “Working with Sean was incredible. Because of our intense relationship on Into the Wild, I wondered what it would be like suddenly acting with him, because at that point he was only a director to me. But all the things that made him brilliant as a director, like his instincts and insight, he brought to every second of every scene – and instead of me alone so often like I was in Into the Wild, I had someone to play with.”


In Into the Wild and other previous features, Hirsch had played real-life figures. But, he notes, Milk “was the first time that I was ever able to portray someone who was also on the set every day. Any question I had was just a few words away from being answered at all times. Cleve Jones is endlessly funny and deeply caring about everyone around him. The man just has a magnetic charisma; he can go up to the most uptight conservative guy, and after five minutes they’ll both be having a laugh.”


Jinks reports, “Even off-screen, Emile would be doing Cleve-isms, and when he would improvise a bit on-screen it would be something that we knew the real Cleve would say!”


London comments, “Emile is such a bold, daring actor. He’s come of age before our eyes on film. On this movie, he went after the challenge of learning about, from, and with Cleve. He took in the essence of what Cleve is about. The portrayal is seamless and authentic.”


The lone prominent female role in the story went to Alison Pill. Jinks states, “I’ve followed her career for a few years now, especially in the New York theater world. She’s so gifted. A lot of people haven’t heard of her yet, but they will. She’s great as Anne Kronenberg.”


Pill was able to spend plenty of time with the woman she was portraying. The actress marvels, “Anne is a powerhouse. For the scenes where I’m playing her coming to work on the campaign, she advised me, ‘You have to walk in there and own it; talk to these people like you know what you’re doing!’ She had to fake it for a little while, but then figured it out and became incredibly organized. Part of that came from meeting with Harvey for two hours early in the morning each day, before everyone else came in.


“She and I talked about what it’s like coming into a group that is already so settled. Now, I had met a lot of the actors when I first came for rehearsals, but for the first couple of weeks I wasn’t filming. So, I too was coming into a group of people as the only girl and had no idea what to expect. Like political campaigns,


film sets have odd hours and on this one we had a great deal of fun in the trenches together; sometimes we’d just want to watch Sean Penn work but we’d have to remember that we too were in the scenes.”


Black reports, “Anne, Cleve, and all the real-life people created a camaraderie with and amongst our cast that mirrored what must have existed in the real shop back then.”


For another of the real-life portrayals, Lucas Grabeel, known to millions for his role in the High School Musical features, impressed the filmmakers at his audition for the role of Danny Nicoletta, and continued to do so through all phases of production. Black reports, “One weekend day, we did a read-through of the script before several actors had arrived on location. I read the stage directions – and Lucas, in addition to his own, played every role in the script for those actors that weren’t there. He then proved even better during filming than at the audition – and the bar was high, what with Danny on the set watching him…”


Grabeel notes, “This project was the first knowledge I’d gained of Harvey Milk. What drew me to his story was that he fought for everyone being treated equally. As soon as I booked the part, I read up on the history and did my research. Danny, in his photographs, has this unique style of capturing the essence of people and events. I was extremely fortunate; seeing his pictures and talking with him helped me get a sense of what the Castro was like in the 1970s. It was a place where it wasn’t about believing what everyone else thought; it was about believing in yourself.


“On the set, I started taking a few pictures myself. I’m using the same kind of 35mm camera that Danny used back in the day. I was worried they were all going to come out completely dark, but actually they turned out pretty well!”


Another franchise star, the Spider-Man movies’ James Franco, portrays the late Scott Smith. Milk’s most loyal lover and supporter “was called ‘the widow Milk’ by some,” notes the actor. “After Harvey was assassinated, a lot of Scott’s life became about preserving Harvey’s memory. [The Times of Harvey Milk director] Rob Epstein showed me interview footage of Scott that didn’t make the final cut of the documentary, and I got a good sense of who he was. They had broken up by the time Harvey was elected, but they still cared about each other; Harvey thanked Scott in his election-night speech.”


Nicoletta remembers, “My remembrance is that Harvey and Scott were profoundly and poignantly in love, but it was also very tumultuous. The pressures of the campaigns would manifest in extreme passionate arguing.”


Jinks remarks, “I think audiences will be surprised by James in this role, which he plays so sensitively. Part of the emotional core of Milk is the relationship between Scott and Harvey, and how it was affected by Harvey’s political career.”


Franco states, “Harvey Milk was one of the brave ones, and making the film where the events happened was an incredible experience. Gus and Sean have been heroes of mine for years, so as an actor I couldn’t have asked for anything more.”


As a non-actor, Robinson wound up getting a Screen Actors Guild card on Milk in part because, he reveals, “Franco is a real agent provocateur; I was in the scenes in the shop to be seen, not heard, but he would nudge my foot and address me – ‘Hey, Frank…’ – and, having written dialogue for 50 years, it would come out naturally…”


Upon being cast as the city’s mayor, Victor Garber did research on his role and found “the whole period of history just so intriguing. I felt honored to be a part of this movie and to be playing an extraordinary man like George Moscone. He believed in freedom for all, and civil rights.


“Individuality must be celebrated, and people must be reminded of that. There is still a struggle for so many young people today. Hopefully, Milk will awaken the need for people to do something against intolerance and bigotry.”



Kelvin Yu, cast as Milk’s close advisor Michael Wong, spent time with the man he would be portraying but also availed himself of the journal that had been such a help to Black. The actor reports, “It’s like 370 pages, all in first person, and Michael’s bulls—t meter is perfect. In Harvey, he saw somebody who was the real thing.


“The journal provided Michael’s own point of view, and I talked to other people as well. Michael was a rebel, and he did it in ways that are more substantial and less cosmetic than what people would think being a rebel is like. He was galvanized to use the political system to fight for civil rights, with voting and with democracy.”


Wong, who emphasizes that today he “is not interested in any politics,” states simply, “I hope the film will show that you can be an ordinary person who happens to be gay and who can do something extraordinary like Harvey Milk did.”


Hirsch adds, “Milk will inspire anyone who has ever been hard up without a spot of luck in sight, or has ever felt like an underdog.”