RT Interview: Gus van Sant and Dustin Lance Black on Milk

The director and writer tell RT about the journey to screen for the biopic.

by | January 22, 2009 | Comments

Gus van Sant and Dustin Lance Black - J. McCarthy/WireImage.com

Gus Van Sant and Dustin Lance Black look rather exhausted at this stage in their publicity whirlwind for Milk. The day RT sits down with them, the film has just received four BAFTA nominations, including one for Lance’s original script. The jetlag seems to be getting to them, but they perk up when they start talking about Harvey Milk and their very different journeys into this project.

Milk is an interesting companion piece to Rob Epstein‘s Oscar-winning documentary The Times of Harvey Milk, which is credited as a key reference.

Dustin Lance Black: It was an inspiration because of a speech that’s in it, and I heard that when I was in college. I’m from San Antonio, Texas, and Harvey says, “There’s a kid out there in San Antonio who’s going to hear my story and it’s going to give him hope.” And it’s true – it really did do that. I’d heard of Harvey about six years before that, from a theatre director who told me his story, and it was a revelation to me that there was such a thing as an out gay man, much less one who was elected to public office and celebrated. You don’t have that in Texas!

But it’s tough to do a comparison between the films. The thing I wanted to do in the script was get much more personal. The documentary doesn’t have most of the stories that I was drawn to. It doesn’t have Cleve Jones’ story, which is a father-son story, which I related to the most. And it doesn’t have Scott Smith and Harvey’s story. It doesn’t have Jack Lira. It doesn’t have any of the actual love stories. But it has the political framework, which is great. And the most transformative time in Harvey’s life was that political time, so obviously both Rob Epstein and I were drawn to that. I just thought it was an opportunity to get more into the personal stories – of what it was to be gay in that transformative time. In narrative I can take liberties and create that; in documentary maybe there wasn’t the material there to dive into those stories. To me it felt like there was more to be told.


How did you get in contact with the people from Harvey’s life?

DLB: It was a challenge. It was unfinanced, and there was no movie or book to base it on, because I didn’t have the rights to anything. But also it was a great opportunity, because I was forced to make those drives to San Francisco to meet all the real people. It started with Cleve Jones in 2004, because a friend introduced me to him and he started telling me the stories. He’s very candid, so he didn’t tell me the stories that would lionise Harvey or make him into a saint, but stories of a failed businessman who really messed up his relationships. And that humanised him in the kind of way that said to me, “Hey you can make a movie out of this!” Because if it’s just pure hagiography, who cares? You want to know that a real human being who’s kind of like you could achieve these things.

Next were Danny Nicoletta and Anne Kronenberg – meeting all of his allies – and then I moved on to meeting his political foes. It was difficult at first because these people had been told that a movie was going to be made for two decades, but it never happened. They’ve been sharing these stories, but they aren’t easy stories. It’s entertaining, beautiful and moving for us, but for them it’s incredibly painful. So once that dam broke and they did trust me enough to share, then a lot of people came out of the woodwork. I was just trying to build a history and get a sense of a man who I could never meet – and you can get that by talking to the people who he shaped, because they were so young back then.


Gus, you’ve been living with this project for quite a lot longer.

Gus van Sant: Well, I was involved in the other project, which was in 1992. Oliver Stone had attached himself to a project that producers Neil Meron and Craig Zaden had begun with Randy Shilts’ book The Mayor of Castro Street. It’s a pretty grand book – it’s a grand story and there’s a cast of lots of characters, with tens of thousands of people marching in the streets. It’s the birth of the “out” part of gay history, and at the centre is Harvey becoming a more out person, and his rallying cry to come out. And then Oliver joined on and it was like the jackpot: Oliver Stone, major Academy Award-winning films from Platoon to Wall Street. JFK was about to come out, and he was developing this script – it was edgy and hard-hitting and it was backed by $40 million from Warner Bros. And Robin Williams was going to play the role.

Then when JFK came out, Oliver decided he wasn’t going to do it. I don’t know what his other projects were – he might have had 10 other things in development at Ixtlan, his production company. So the studio was in an awkward place because they’d had one of the biggest guys. They did go to Ron Howard, because he told me, and Coppola, Spielberg – well, I would have if I was them. Then one day I was meeting with Rob Epstein socially – we’d met on the festival circuit in ’84 – and he told me Oliver had just dropped out of the film. I didn’t know there was a film – I didn’t even know there was a book! I’d seen Rob’s film about Harvey, and he was saying, “Oliver dropped out and they’re looking for a director – you should do it!” And when I told Warner Bros I might be interested in being considered, I was all of a sudden pushed in.

GVS: Oliver was a big supporter of my work, and I think that what was going on was that Oliver was looking at me as a compatriot, someone he respected as a director, whereas at Warner Bros, the executives and the producers, were looking at my demographic. I’d made Drugstore Cowboy, which made $5 million, and My Own Private Idaho, which made $15 million, which was pretty good, but I was a low-budget filmmaker. I hadn’t made a big-budget film, and in Hollywood there’s a sort of man and boys situation. You’re a man, you make $80 million movies! As if it’s harder to make an $80 million movie. Well, I guess businesswise it is because you have more executives to argue with.

DLB: Well, the meals are better!

GVS: Yeah! But making a $3 million film is a different business. So I lasted about one draft. I didn’t really have the support, not for any real reason, but my ideas were like, “This doesn’t look like a gay movie because they don’t look gay, they don’t kiss, nothing happens to signify that they are gay.” And I was met with, “You don’t understand why this is an important thing.” They just wanted me to do Oliver’s script, which was really asking the question: why did Dan White shoot these guys? That was really the theme. Harvey was the guy he shot, and he happened to be from the Castro, but Harvey wasn’t the central character – it was about the overall begging question, which is a big begging question. So that’s where I was.


Are the studio – and the public – more ready for a film like this now, with its more emotional approach?

GVS: Yeah I think there’s a lot of that. The media has gone through lots of things that make it a less foreign thing to have your lead character be gay. I think Ellen helped changed that.

DLB: I think society has opened, but we’re now in a post-Aids, gay rights era. We’re talking about rights again instead of survival. And so that’s starting to sound more like Harvey’s era. So it feels like it’s a part of the dialog of today. And in that way I think the public is ready to discuss this again.

How did you feel about the parallels between Prop 8 last November and 1978’s Prop 6?

GVS: There was no indication that was going to happen, at least not while we were shooting. And also, Barack Obama wasn’t the candidate, and Sarah Palin didn’t exist. All this stuff happened during our editing period: the world began to resemble some things in our movie. Obama, because he used the word “hope” so much, started to resemble Harvey and especially his hope speech. And Sarah Palin because she just looked like Anita Bryant.

DLB: And sounded like her! But there were clues when I started writing. Because it was 2004, so you had the re-election campaign of George W Bush and the Karl Rove strategy with the language of it sounding so much like Anita Bryant and the “save our children” campaign, bolstering their base through fuelling this fight between evangelicals and the gay community. We started hearing the same lines that I was looking at in my research!


You’re working together on a film of Tom Wolf’s 1968 book about Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. This subject is also getting the doc approach, and I know you’ve been in contact with Alex Gibney about his project.

GVS: He’s a lot further ahead with his film than we are. He’s incredible, and his filmmaking’s incredible. But Lance is writing our script, and I haven’t seen it.

DLB: Yeah, I’ve got to go now – I’ve got to get back to work! I have a draft, I just haven’t had a chance to work on it in like two weeks.

Have you taken the same approach as with Milk, interviewing the real people?

DLB: Yeah. You have to kind of act like there’s not a book, at least for a bit, and just discover the story yourself. But the book is wonderful, a great thing to guide you. When we finally get done with these press interviews for Milk, hopefully I can find two hours to read it head-to-toe with no break – to read it like it’s the movie. It’s that far along, but then we’ll see what Gus says.

Milk opens in UK on Friday and in Australia on 29th January. It’s out now in the US. Also on RT: Milk star James Franco chooses his five favourite films.

Tag Cloud

DGA game of thrones archives strong female leads Disney Channel E! black psycho USA Network suspense Country aliens target scene in color space FX on Hulu directors halloween Certified Fresh CBS 2020 LGBT french japan nfl MGM Warner Bros. wonder woman 2021 chucky Trivia cancelled TV shows Christmas Spring TV screenings 21st Century Fox Apple TV+ rt labs VICE PaleyFest Calendar scary FXX GLAAD venice TV renewals Native scene in color Women's History Month Schedule comedies Focus Features Comic Book witnail royal family Writers Guild of America robots kong Best Actress Reality medical drama New York Comic Con FOX hispanic Video Games Prime Video children's TV Pacific Islander Marvel Studios asian-american Alien satire elevated horror Vudu Syfy Showtime Netflix Christmas movies Box Office political drama Discovery Channel indie Quiz die hard worst movies BBC 2019 slashers james bond rotten Super Bowl book adaptation Tarantino Pop TV Film Turner Broadway miniseries Classic Film sports Arrowverse Exclusive Video ABC Pop fresh ABC Family dc X-Men Best Picture The Arrangement high school Hollywood Foreign Press Association Pixar boxing emmy awards Spike Cosplay adenture First Look critic resources HFPA comiccon Hulu Grammys mutant cars CBS All Access A&E USA transformers theme song Cannes The Witch series Awards Tour richard e. Grant DC streaming service hist Amazon Studios feel good TCA Winter 2020 ABC Signature Paramount art house stoner President Esquire IFC Films E3 South by Southwest Film Festival broadcast police drama Instagram Live festival cops Mary poppins Apple halloween tv saw canceled dogs BBC One jurassic park stand-up comedy Tomatazos king arthur Winter TV TNT trophy scene in color film series franchise OneApp dreamworks godzilla A24 Ovation Summer spy thriller Fox Searchlight hollywood summer preview child's play international a nightmare on elm street Wes Anderson classics Valentine's Day action-comedy remakes 24 frames Apple TV Plus scorecard Lucasfilm dramedy hidden camera slasher Sneak Peek Travel Channel live event Best Actor natural history toy story Stephen King CW Seed Sony ghosts Comedy rotten movies we love TCM parents fast and furious historical drama Chilling Adventures of Sabrina 1990s 99% Rocky mockumentary debate women cults Marathons Winners Character Guide ID 72 Emmy Awards Kids & Family Oscars Musical binge marvel cinematic universe know your critic Podcast posters cooking Neflix werewolf spider-verse true crime revenge target CNN PBS sitcom 45 YA Drama SXSW 2022 mission: impossible First Reviews period drama vs. Lionsgate SXSW Oscar DirecTV green book Binge Guide Opinion docudrama all-time American Society of Cinematographers serial killer SundanceTV crime thriller italian Paramount Plus Television Academy animated YouTube Premium zombies APB marvel comics comic books Red Carpet SDCC Ghostbusters ITV Peacock Tubi TCA Awards toronto Star Wars Celebration Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Awards documentary diversity Teen spanish batman travel prank cancelled TV series 71st Emmy Awards AMC Sci-Fi sopranos christmas movies Brie Larson Nickelodeon new zealand Elton John BET TCA 2017 Mary Tyler Moore live action mcc Shudder 73rd Emmy Awards joker PlayStation RT21 Comics on TV Rom-Com Rocketman war IFC tv talk cancelled CMT Disney streaming service Reality Competition disaster crossover superman japanese Hear Us Out VH1 Endgame versus doctor who hispanic heritage month TLC TV Logo rt labs critics edition Hallmark based on movie reviews NYCC foreign best 93rd Oscars Black History Month movie concert Sundance Now The Academy adaptation scene in color series Horror San Diego Comic-Con summer TV BAFTA Photos comic book movie Nat Geo Disney Plus films Fantasy HBO twilight Funimation Western MCU Spectrum Originals politics The CW DC Universe golden globes Action Academy Awards Bravo 2018 cancelled television Ellie Kemper new star wars movies ratings lord of the rings Freeform name the review basketball blockbuster singing competition Avengers romance Pet Sematary Adult Swim Chernobyl Election dark Dark Horse Comics Watching Series Lifetime Christmas movies Premiere Dates El Rey Baby Yoda Cartoon Network Heroines Paramount Network Superheroe leaderboard 2016 Interview Polls and Games finale festivals Fall TV 20th Century Fox anthology Acorn TV video on demand talk show YouTube Television Critics Association discovery technology justice league Fox News dexter OWN Emmy Nominations Trophy Talk See It Skip It aapi Biopics Superheroes Mindy Kaling Mary Poppins Returns reboot IMDb TV National Geographic sequels Captain marvel Mystery Tags: Comedy Thanksgiving cartoon AMC Plus young adult LGBTQ indiana jones NBC Marvel Food Network adventure trailers TV Land FX Tokyo Olympics Sundance 007 video composers nbcuniversal ViacomCBS Turner Classic Movies Paramount Pictures streamig Music superhero History Martial Arts WGN screen actors guild cats Amazon Prime Video boxoffice Disney+ Disney Plus biopic Family sequel Universal Pictures free movies blockbusters science fiction australia TCA Indigenous Amazon book spain vampires laika deadpool Animation Song of Ice and Fire obi wan olympics Infographic Anna Paquin universal monsters dceu monster movies Holiday spinoff Set visit Pirates zero dark thirty Universal 4/20 Masterpiece docuseries NBA comic Rock blaxploitation renewed TV shows 90s rom-coms romantic comedy comics kids casting GIFs critics biography mob streaming movies social media Epix harry potter TIFF pirates of the caribbean heist movie Musicals Year in Review obituary Nominations canceled TV shows south america RT History television thriller Columbia Pictures supernatural stop motion Sundance TV Disney scary movies Legendary Best Director GoT 2017 sag awards quibi news Creative Arts Emmys game show Fargo Starz Best and Worst anime unscripted TV One independent Walt Disney Pictures Geeked Week spanish language TV movies The Purge rt archives MSNBC MTV dragons telelvision jamie lee curtis spider-man Star Wars Britbox worst 94th Oscars Netflix Extras golden globe awards streaming Crunchyroll football summer TV preview Holidays TBS what to watch psychological thriller Shondaland new york Black Mirror ESPN Sony Pictures Countdown kaiju facebook teaser Lifetime genre black comedy Trailer interviews crime The Walking Dead comic book movies Amazon Prime BET Awards 2015 Star Trek gangster TruTV Tumblr latino criterion Comedy Central Image Comics Hallmark Christmas movies king kong razzies YouTube Red breaking bad HBO Go Pride Month award winner crime drama legend Mudbound HBO Max Film Festival WarnerMedia nature Crackle Emmys DC Comics The Walt Disney Company Comic-Con@Home 2021 popular 78th Annual Golden Globe Awards VOD movies documentaries zombie Toys Marvel Television 79th Golden Globes Awards BBC America cinemax