The entire MILK cast, director Gus Van Sant and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black all hit NYC this week to host screenings and shindigs in honor of the powerful biopic which opens in NY, LA and SF this coming Wednesday (Nov. 26th), and then wide on Dec. 5th.
Among the many events was a press conference at the Regency Hotel where they a lined up and fielded questions from reporters. Throughout the event Sean Penn sneezed and sniffled, and studly Josh Brolin cracked jokes and James Franco looked cute. They’re a lovable bunch! And they all truly adore this movie…
After the jump, get all the quotes: Sean Penn goes off (in a good way)! Josh Brolin recalls getting teary! And Emile Hirsch learns about gay sex, 1970s style! And somebody even brings on the first Mrs. Penn, aka Madonna.
Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black; Allison Pill as Anne Kronenberg in MILK.
The first question was posed to everyone: "Why did you choose to do this film? Why did you get involved?"
Sean Penn: Any actor would be glad to work with Gus, and then reading Lance’s sensational script, and then on top of that the particular values of the story and that Milk’s life had… Those were the initial things that drew me in.
Dustin Lance Black: For me it was just a really personal story. I heard Harvey’s story at a time when I needed to hear it as a teenager, and now it’s not out there anymore. I asked my friends “Do you know who Harvey Milk is, and they’re like… I don’t know. Some dairy salesman?” But it’s important that his message gets out there. That’s pretty clear, from the past two weeks. So for me it came from a personal place.
Alison Pill: I had a vague notion of the events, but it’s pathetic that I didn’t know more, and that he’s not as important of a historical figure as he should be. I hope this film rectifies that.
Josh Brolin: I had a very visceral reaction to the script. I read it, I cried at the end. And then Gus had also sent me the amazing documentary, The Times of Harvey Milk, which I watched with my daughter and both of us were crying at the end of that. So it was one of those things where it was less about the character and more about the story, and the fact that we were so moved by it.
James Franco: After reading the script I wrote Gus an email from London and told him I’ll be anything in this movie, just to be a part. I would have played the pool guy, and Gus was very low-key and we decided to meet in L.A. and fortunately he gave me a better role than the pool guy.
Gus Van Sant: I think one thing for me was that I’ve done a few films with gay characters, but not super-positive gay characters, and so I heard about the project from Rob Epstein who had heard that Oliver Stone wanted to make a version of the film, so I was interested in and got wrapped up in studying it.
Political stories are always really interesting to tell, but they’re often avoided because they can get boring. But Harvey’s personality—he resembled someone like Abbie Hoffman in that he was running for political office, but also represented his community, the gay community. So it was sort of an amazing opportunity to have all of these things in one story.
Emile Hirsch: I of course wanted to work with Gus and Sean and all of these actors, but as soon as I saw the documentary… I didn’t know anything about the gay community in San Francisco or Harvey Milk, but I did know many gay people growing up. Some were very good friend’s of my mother, and one of them had died of AIDS when I was 15, and I’d known him since I could walk. So for me was a chance to learn about the history of some of my family’s really good friends, and I just really wanted to be a part of it.
"We all know what just happened California with Prop 8, and it parallels what happened in the film with Prop 6. Can you speak the fact that civil liberties in the country are still being put to popular vote 30 years after Harvey Milk?"
Dustin Lance Black: Gay people and the gay movement need history like this so we don’t keep repeating the same mistakes. I think if you were watching the No on 8 fight, you didn’t see a lot of gay people representing themselves; there weren’t gay people in the commercials, it didn’t say “gay” or “lesbian” in a lot of the literature, and that was really one of the lessons of Harvey Milk. So in that way, I hope the film is helpful, and I hope it motivates the gay and lesbian community to start that outreach and to have some pride in a way that gets us to meet our neighbors so they can put a face on who’s being hurt.
"How did you prepare for the role, and how did you go about capturing Milk’s mannerisms?"
Sean Penn: The documentary—The Times of Harvey Milk—and all of its archival footage was very helpful. The best way to use that is just to watch it a lot, the same way you’d play music all day in the background; not necessarily thinking about it, but just having it on all the time, and over a period of time the synapses start to connect.
And it was clear to me, the most exciting version of Harvey Milk to me was Harvey Milk. If you’ve seen the documentary, you know that the guy is the movie star of that documentary. He is an electric, warm guy. Still, you can just reach and reach and reach and never quite get it all in there. So between myself and the director and the screenwriter, and all of the other folks working on the movie, we can just try and get his spirit out there the best we can.
"Some of you got to meet the real people your characters were based on—or people who knew them. What was that like?"
Emile Hirsch: I play Cleve Jones, and he was there on the set every single day, so I was able to spend a lot of time with him, and the first thing I got from Cleve is that he’s very mischievous and very funny.
Cleve was also instrumental to me in learning about the Castro and about San Francisco and the movement and what it was like psychologically to be a younger gay guy back then. And he also wanted to debunk some of the myths about the Castro. He was like “You’ve probably heard about these bathhouses and there are a lot of myths about that,” but he wanted to tell me was, “Listen, back in the ’70s it was the most fun thing in the whole world. There was no HIV, and you’d have these really repressed young guys who had an opportunity to go into the ultimate candy store. And we had an amazing time!”
The real Cleve Jones and Emile Hirsch on the MILK set.
Josh Brolin: I think the most informative thing for me was, I talked to some cops who knew Dan White and one of those cops had taped his confession, so I heard the confession tape, which was extremely revealing because there was a sense of arrogance in it, but also a sense of being a victim to it.
Then Sean, at one point, called me when we were on the set and said, “Charlie, who is Dan White’s son—I went out to dinner with him. Do you want to meet him?” And it was the day we were doing the baptismal scene with White’s family in the film, so it was him. That’s who we were baptizing in the scene! So Charlie was in Sean’s trailer and I went to go meet him, and it was a severe reaction, as you can imagine, when I walked in with the mutton chop sideburns and the clothes. But he was very happy once we spoke for a while, that his dad was not portrayed as being… as just the result of what he did. It was more of a question of how did this decent guy get to the point, the incredibly frustrated point, where he felt like the only power he could muster was doing something tangible like loading a gun and shooting somebody.
Josh Brolin as Dan White.
"Given with what’s happenign with Prop 8, and how the gay movement seems to be the new central issue for civil rights, can this movie can stimulate action?"
Gus Van Sant: Prop 8 and the reaction to Prop 8, has mobilized and brought together the gay community, and particularly the younger gay community. It’s their time, and they’re taking to the streets. There’s a new energy that’s kind of inspiring. Our film is about a new energy from a different time, when the sexual liberation of the ’60s developed into people who found their gay sexuality and who banded together in the Castro, which had its own young energy at that time. And also the nuts and bolts of the political strategies of that time are hugely informative and inspiring. When the movie gets to play theaters I think it will definitely play into that energy about gay civil rights that we’re seeing today.
Sean Penn: I can’t help but… Even the word “issue” about this… It’s only an “issue” because of ignorance in the first place. We don’t have an excuse for being ignorant about the law; and there should be no excuse for being ignorant to human history. In fact any support of Proposition 8 would be minimally manslaughter, because human history tells us there are going to be teenaged boys who hang themselves out of a reach for an identity that they can’t get, in part because of “issues” like this. So, as long as it’s an “issue” it’s an obscenity. And if this movie is part of an engine to help reveal that, that’s going to make all of us really happy and proud.
Gus Van Sant with Sean Penn on the set.
Tensions have been heightened between the gay community and faith communities since the elections. Will that affect box office or response to the film, when we’re seeing such raw hatred toward gay people every day on the streets and in the press?
Gus Van Sant: Well I think that we’re seeing both: There’s the hatred and there’s also the support, with both sides playing out in the press and in the community. That’s the nature of the battle, and it’s encased in the film as well.
Dustin Lance Black: Harvey Milk was great at grabbing headlines and getting attention and getting it out there, so whether positive or negative, it’s in the public dialogue again and that’s so important.
Sean Penn: I also think that it’s important to remind people that the tension is not between the gay and faith communities. The tension is between the gay community that really is gay, and the pseudo-faith community that has nothing to do with God-love or anything to do with faith; it’s really just hypocrisy and hatred. Any faith community that deserves the title “faith community” won’t have a problem with these issues.
One reporter asked about how Gus came to work with his Director of Photography, Harris Savides, which lead to an amusing Madonna moment…
Gus Van Sant: Harris and I have shot a few things together. I first heard about him doing a commercial, and his work looked really good, but the clincher came when somebody said that Madonna wouldn’t work with anyone else. She needed Harris. And I thought, “Well, she must be pretty discerning,” and so it was kind of a thing. I got to use Madonna’s DP!
Sean Penn: You got her DP, and her ex-husband!
Laughs all around…
James Franco as Harvey Milk’s lover, Scott Smith.
Then a reporter asked about the great, naturalistic depiction of sexuality in the film, and how they achieved that…
Gus Van Sant: There were lots of scenes of intimacy that were either suggested or not suggested in the script, especially between Scott and Harvey. The original “tryst” that they have in Harvey’s New York apartment was actually our last day of shooting. So, by then it was an interesting choice, it was quite quick, it was almost one shot. It was easy.
Sean Penn: Cleve Jones said something really great early on, when we’d put together a dinner with all the real people who had worked on Harvey’s campaign. He said that one of myths is that we’re all just the same, it’s just the sex that’s different, but the reality is that we’re all very different, it’s just the sex that’s just the same. And the difference of course is living with bigotry and oppression and all of that shit. So that was where our focus went. The rest of it is, you know—for some people a guy gives him a boner; for somebody else it’s a woman. So we just approached it as, “the sex is the sex is the sex is the sex.” The other part was the heart of the picture.
Do you have any thoughts on how the world might be a different place if Harvey Milk had not been assassinated?
Sean Penn: I think less people would have died of AIDS; I think Ronald Reagan would have been forced to address it sooner. It was a tragic loss. He wouldn’t have stood by quietly, he was a leader, and he happened to be focused on the gay movement. And because the oppression… because initially AIDS was known as a “gay disease,” and certainly huge numbers of homosexuals died, I think Harvey would have advanced the cause a lot sooner. I think people are dead because he died too soon.
Can this movie play in Peoria? This isn’t La Cage aux Folles. Will straight guys be a little too queasy to see Milk?
Gus Van Sant: I don’t see it that way; maybe there’s some challenge… But I think it’s a very intense movie, but also a very positive and uplifting one. And I do think the film is one of a kind at the marketplace right now.
Josh Brolin: And that one gay guy in Peoria can’t wait for this movie.
Sean Penn–and his corsage–and the rest of the cast can be seen in MILK in NYC, SF and LA on Nov. 26th; in wide release beginning Dec. 5th.