Gus Van Sant on 'Milk'

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Gus Van Sant’s ‘Milk’ is about the political life of gay San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk, who was assassinated in 1978. The film stars Sean Penn in the title role and marks a stylistic U-turn for the director, whose recent films include the experimental likes of ‘Elephant’, ‘Last Days’ and ‘Paranoid Park’

What did you know about Harvey Milk when you were growing up?
‘Nothing really, until he got shot. I saw his story on the news and then saw Rob Epstein’s documentary “The Times of Harvey Milk”.’

This is the second attempt to make a biopic of Milk.
‘Yes. I only initially became involved because the original director, Oliver Stone, dropped out and Rob Epstein told me that they were looking for someone. I co-wrote a draft, then fell out with the studio as they had the money and star ready and wanted to go, but I felt we needed to develop things further. In the end, their project didn’t get done, so 14 years later, Dustin Lance Black showed up with a script that was independent of their production.’

Was the studio nervous about making a film about a minority character?
‘I think we could’ve gotten it made. It was a pretty big-budget movie. Robin Williams was set to play Milk. The film I wanted to make gave more of a sense of character and identity and less information about city hall and the political workings of the time. I wanted to tell the story of the birth of The Castro (San Francisco’s gay village) and the gay movement. I was never the first choice to be director of that project.’

With ‘Milk’ you don’t shy away from the political details of the time.
‘The story of Harvey’s politics is told through his personal actions. This was one of the rules that Lance gave himself when he wrote the script. In that way, he limited the story. For instance, there is not much of a back-story, and there’s no longer a story after Harvey is dead. I thought that was a good time frame. I didn’t understand what he meant when he first told me that. At the time, we were wondering if people would be overloaded with too much political stuff, but I think it works pretty well.’

Could you have made this film in the style of your previous, more experimental films?
‘Yeah, I think so. We originally wanted to make it look like a Frederick Wiseman film, or something like “Primary”(1960) which was made by a team including the Maysles brothers, DA Pennebaker and Richard Leacock – three of the originators of cinéma vérité. We wanted to shoot on 16mm, but we were diverted away from that by the studio. It started to look like an Oliver Stone film, so we switched to something a little more studied.’

Sean Penn usually plays intense, down-beat roles. Did you have faith in him bringing the cheeriness and self-depreciation required here?
‘I wasn’t afraid of that. If you have a actor that doesn’t talk very much and you give him lots of dialogue, it’s really interesting because the character that you know so well is revealing a different side. It’s a good thing to get an actor like him playing against type.’

Was there ever a plan to film the White Night Riot (the reaction among San Francisco’s gay community to the lenient prison sentence given to Milk’s assassin)?
‘Well, yes, though Lance’s concept did not allow it as it went against the idea of telling a story through Harvey’s political actions. There was a suggestion of putting it at the end. We thought we could maybe have some stock footage and show it as the credits rolled. But in the end we chose not to.’

Milk’ is out now.

Author: Interview: David Jenkins



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