Milk: Interview With Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black

Every movement needs a hero. As the years pass and the change that hero fought for has been effected, it is common to forget just how much one person made a difference.


Milk screenwriter Dustin Lance Black first heard about Harvey Milk from a mentor while working in theater in the early 1990s. A few years later, Black watched the Oscar Award-winning 1984 documentary feature The Times of Harvey Milk. He remembers, “Harvey Milk is giving a speech at the end and he essentially says, ‘Somewhere in Des Moines or San Antonio –’ which is where I’m from – ‘there’s a young gay person who might open a paper, and it says ‘Homosexual elected in San Francisco’ and know that there’s hope for a better world, there’s hope for a better tomorrow.’


“I just broke down crying because I was very much that kid and he was giving me hope. He was saying, not only are you okay but you can do great things. This was during a really difficult time for the gay community, with the AIDS crisis. And that’s the moment I thought, we have to get that story back out there, we’ve got to continue the message.”


Milk as Charismatic Leader


He adds, “I saw Milk as a charismatic leader and a father figure to his people – some of whom might have lost their fathers because of their sexuality – who accomplished so much in a short period of time.


“His legacy is telling people, if you’re gay, don’t closet yourself. You should see yourself as different in a great way, and you should aspire to something. Kids today might not know where these gains came from, but you see them aspiring to be out doctors, lawyers, actors. We’ve lost some ground in the past decade, but Harvey’s message can still save lives.”


A few years later, Black had gained a foothold in film and television, working as a writer, producer, and director. He felt that he could tell the story of the man who has been called “the gay MLK [Martin Luther King Jr.].” However, he notes, “I didn’t have the rights to a book [on Milk, of which there are several] so I started to do research on my own. Several industry folks told me to forget about it, that it was too risky. But my credit card and I pressed on.”


Although a quarter-century had passed, he was glad to discover that many of the people who were close to Milk and had been instrumental in his efforts were still alive. Black notes, “My strategy from the beginning had been to make use of firsthand accounts and stories. I knew it would mean a lot of interviews and trips, but I wanted to find out the details for myself rather than reading it somewhere else – things a writer can’t get out of a book or an article. Finding that the people Harvey surrounded himself with were still alive and doing their thing got me excited. I thought, okay, I can write this.”


The first person Black that met with was Cleve Jones, one of Milk’s protégés and among his closest confidants. An activist on the front lines with Milk, Jones had (and has) led many marches, protests, and rallies. He is the founder of the Names Project and the designer and creator of the Project’s AIDS Quilt, the internationally recognized symbol of the AIDS pandemic.


“Dustin Lance and I were introduced by a mutual friend,” Jones says. “I was impressed with him because he’s genuine, kind, and smart – and because he knew who Harvey Milk was.”


When Black told Jones he wanted to pen the story of Milk for the big screen, Jones was immediately on board; he would ultimately remain with the project all through filming, as a historical consultant, on the set every day.


“Boy, is Cleve a gift for a writer,” Black says. “I initially interviewed him over two days and filled eight hours’ worth of little cassette tapes – all of which I transcribed myself, because I couldn’t afford to pay anyone to do it…”

Over the course of a year, while writing on the first season of the television show Big Love, Black would drive up from the program’s Santa Clarita base to San Francisco on weekends. Jones introduced him to – among others – Danny Nicoletta, Anne Kronenberg, Allan Baird, Carol Ruth Silver, Frank Robinson, Tom Ammiano, Jim Rivaldo, Art Agnos, and Michael Wong. All of these people knew Harvey Milk well and had been side-by-side with him in the political and sometimes personal arenas.


But, as Black says, “Initially, there was skepticism from a lot of these people.” Others had come to them before with promises of telling Milk’s story – and that of the gay rights movement in San Francisco – in a feature film, but still it had not happened in the nearly quarter-century since the Oscar-winning documentary. A 1999 Showtime telefilm titled Execution of Justice, based on the stage play of the same name, had concentrated on Dan White (portrayed in the telefilm by Tim Daly) and the slayings of Milk (portrayed by Peter Coyote) and Mayor George Moscone (Stephen Young) rather than on Milk’s life and achievements.


Black admits, “It took a lot to convince some of Harvey’s real-life contemporaries that I was someone who could make this thing happen and that they weren’t wasting their time again. I made these assurances, but I myself wasn’t really sure I could pull it off. Some of them became like family to me and confided in me some painful memories, and I was terrified of letting them down.

Wong's Detailed Diary

“Michael Wong, as a key advisor to Harvey, had kept an extremely detailed diary of his interactions with him. I knew that it would be incredibly valuable; I kept asking him about it. One night after dinner at a restaurant near City Hall, he flopped this big thick stack of photocopied pages at me. He said, ‘Yeah, that’s my journal.’  It was fantastic.”


Wong’s diary helped Black in his intent to tell the significant personal story in addition to the political one. The first-person interviews were further backed up by research; there was a wealth of source material from documents at the San Francisco Public Library’s Gay & Lesbian Center’s Harvey Milk Archives – Scott Smith Collection and the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Historical Society’s archives.


If anything, there was too much material; Black says, “You’re always looking for the personal story. I uncovered so many amazing ones that Harvey was directly connected to. But I knew I only had room for maybe a handful of them, out of hundreds.


“I decided that the structure would be Milk’s journey through a movement which he helped to create, from the time [in 1972] that he arrives in San Francisco until his assassination [in 1978]. There is a dramatic framing device with the assassination because I wanted to indicate right away that this was someone very important who something very bad happened to. That starts the clock ticking, which was in Harvey’s head as well; in his recorded will, he voices his strong suspicion that he would be killed. Separately, to his friends, he had said, ‘I don’t think I’ll make it to 50.’”


Just as he felt all of Milk’s 48 years of life couldn’t be covered, Black concentrated on which relationships were key to Milk and which ones were representative of the movement that was changing peoples’ lives. As was so often the case with Milk, the two would converge.


Black muses, “The personal met the political, sometimes beautifully; Harvey Milk had had significant romantic relationships before Scott Smith, but that was the one that helped lift him into office. I don’t know that Harvey could have done it without Scott.


“Harvey was personally connected to why he was doing what he did. It wasn’t just about rights or electoral politics, it was about the fact that he was in love with Scott or he was in love with Jack Lira – and he wanted that to be okay. He didn’t want to be judged for it. He wanted to have the right to be himself, because when he was a young man, and even when he first came to San Francisco, it was against the law to be in a gay relationship, to dance with a man, or to be in a gay bar. So, his is an intensely personal story, even when it is a political one. As a screenwriter, this was one of those rare chances to tell a story where the two are absolutely connected. It was politics for the sake of love.”

To put Harvey Milk into cinematic narrative terms, Dustin Lance Black went through numerous screenplay drafts over a nearly four-year period. “I gave up a lot of nights and weekends,” he remembers. “During the week, it was, Big Love until 6 or 7 at night, then Milk from 7 to midnight.”


Once he was done, he reveals, “I didn’t have any money to make the movie myself, and I had to get everyone to sign off on my using their stories.’”


“I thought Lance’s script was beautiful,” Cleve Jones says. “It had a very simple, elegant structure. Harvey’s voice was clear in it; I could hear Harvey saying the words Lance had written.


“I would say to Lance, ‘When you’re ready, I’ve got a director for you,’ but I didn’t tell him who it was. I knew that if my friend Gus were the director, the film really would be about Harvey and not about the director.”


Black says, “When Cleve told me his friend who wanted to direct was Gus Van Sant, I said, ‘Oh, that’s good!’”

Please Read Review of Milk as well as a Chronology of the Real-Life Harvey Milk (in Popculture)