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Sean Penn, Josh Brolin, James Franco, Emile Hirsch, Alison Pill, Gus Van Sant and Dustin Lance Black – Recruited by Harvey Milk

Sean Penn stars in "Milk."

Sean Penn stars in “Milk.”

Sean Penn, Josh Brolin, James Franco, Emile Hirsch, Alison Pill, Gus Van Sant and Dustin Lance Black – Recruited by Harvey Milk

by Jay S. Jacobs

Originally posted on November 26, 2008.

“I’m Harvey Milk, and I’m here to recruit you!”

This was the battle cry of 1970s San Francisco politician Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man voted into public office – and a man who was assassinated in office with the Mayor of San Francisco in 1978.

Milk has become an icon of the gay community, but despite the fact that at the time the story was media catnip (the killer used the infamous “Twinkie defense”), the murder of Harvey Milk has been pretty much forgotten by the world at large.

However, it became an obsession for relatively unknown screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, an out homosexual who found strength in the story of the politician.  He wrote Milk, a screenplay which has been now brought to the screen.  It is directed by acclaimed screenwriter Gus Van Sant and stars a wonderful ensemble – with Sean Penn doing Oscar-caliber work as the trailblazing politician, James Franco as his lover and campaign manager, Josh Brolin as the colleague who ended up killing him and Emile Hirsch and Alison Pill as the campaign workers who helped bring Milk to power.

Thirty years later, with Proposition Eight failing in California – denying gays the civil right to get married – Harvey Milk’s message is more important than ever.

Most of the major cast members, as well as the screenwriter and director of Milk held a press conference in the Regency Hotel in New   York a little over week before the film’s opening to discuss Milk and his message.

All of you came from a wide variety of vantage points to make this movie.  Can you speak from an artistic or aesthetic standpoint of what was it that made you need to do the movie? Were you at all scared to take on this subject matter?

Sean Penn: I don’t know if there’s such a thing as saying you’re scared to make a movie.  There were challenges in this that were exciting.  It started with Gus Van Sant.  I think that all of us here, any actor with a hunger to create something fantastic wants to work with Gus.  There was that, and he gave me Lance’s sensational script.  It seemed a no-brainer. I knew, of course, then I could lay on top of that all the values that this story and that Harvey Milk’s life have, but that would take a long time.  But, those were the initial attractions.  It was a wonderfully-written script with one of the great directors.

Dustin Lance Black: To me it’s a pretty simple answer.  It was a very personal story.  I heard his story at a time when I needed to hear it as a teenager, and you know, it’s not out there anymore.  I asked my friends: “Do you know who Harvey Milk is?”  They were like, “I don’t know, some dairy salesman or something?”  They have no idea.  It’s important that it be out there – his message be out there.  I think that’s pretty clear.  So, it came from a personal place.  Something that’s still very, very important.

Alison Pill: I was embarrassed to not have known anything beyond a sort of vague notion of the “Twinkie defense.”  The fact that that is his legacy… or has been… and having read the story, I just went, how has this not been out there?  It’s pathetic that I didn’t know it.  That he’s not as important a historical figure as he should be.  It’s sad.  I hope this sort of rectifies that.

Josh Brolin: I had a very visceral reaction to the script.  Somebody else, I think Matt Damon, was supposed to play Dan White at a certain point.  I read the script and cried at the end.  Gus had also sent me the 1984 amazing documentary (The Times of Harvey Milk) that I watched with my daughter.  Both of us were crying at the end of that.  It was one of those things – it was less about the character, more about the story.  The fact that we were so moved by it.  I think the last time I felt like that was, I did a movie a long time ago called Flirting with Disaster.  I remember watching it and I was so happy to be in the film.  Actually watching the film, you are able to objectify.  I’m just happy I’m in this film.  I love that this film exists.  It was the same thing, the same feeling with this.

James Franco: I was in London and my agents called me and told me that Gus was going to make this movie about a guy named Harvey Milk.  I grew up in the Bay area, in Palo Alto, 45 minutes from San Francisco, and I didn’t really know who Harvey Milk was.  I did a little research.  I was surprised and sad to find out that it wasn’t known.  I was amazed by who he was and sad that nobody was really talking about him.  I was born the year that he died, 1978, and it was just an incredible story.

Josh Brolin: Were you born that late?  (laughs)

James Franco: Emile was like in the 80s.

Emile Hirsch: You’re trying to rat me out.

James Franco: And, uh, without even reading the script, I wrote Gus an email from London and I said to him I’ll do anything in this movie, just to be a part of it.  I would have played the pool guy.  Gus is very low key and his emails are very low key and he was, “Yeah, we’ll meet in LA, if you’re there.”  We did and fortunately he gave me a better role than the pool guy.

Emile Hirsch: The pool guy is going to be pissed when he hears that.

Gus Van Sant: I think that one thing for me was for a while… I’ve done a few films that had gay characters, but not super positive gay characters.  I heard about the project through Rob Epstein (director of The Times of Harvey Milk), who had heard that Oliver Stone was no longer going to make a version of the film that was at Warner Brothers.  I was interested in it and got wrapped up in studying it.  Political stories are always really interesting to tell, but they are often avoided because it can get… I guess boring, basically.  Harvey’s personality was a way to kind of have a character who resembled somebody like Abbie Hoffman, almost, who was running for political office and then also at the same time represented his gay community.  It was sort of like an amazing opportunity to have all these things in one story.

Emile Hirsch: I of course wanted to work with Gus, and with Sean and all the other 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 friends of the family – my mother’s – and one of them actually died of AIDS when I was about fifteen.  I’d known him ever since I was walking.  He was a really great guy named Mark.  This for me was a chance, I was able to learn more about the history of some of my family’s really good friends and learn where they were coming from.  I really wanted to be a part of that.

This film was filmed entirely on location in San Francisco.  What kind of experiences did you have with people in the city where this actually occurred?

Josh Brolin: I stayed above Castro [the section of San Francisco that Harvey Milk lived].  I was staying in my ex-wife’s brother’s apartment.  I was on the Hill overlooking the Castro.  I was afraid when I would go down to the grocery store that I was going to be shot.  The whole thing with San Francisco, it embraced this movie so much.  When I would go shopping I was actually afraid of how people would react, because I know all of San Francisco loved that this movie was being done period.  What ended up happening was, people would say, “Hey, you’re playing Dan White.  You’re doing the movie on Harvey Milk.”  And they were so incredible.  The city itself, as a whole, they were so supportive.  We just had the premiere there.  It was incredible.  The feeling.  The ambience.  This was before the election, so Prop Eight, that whole thing, they were fighting it.  As a whole, it was an incredible, incredible, goose-pimply experience to be able to do it there.

Alison Pill: Just the fact that we were able to get – was it 3,000 volunteers? – just to come down to Market Street in the middle of the night and walk up and down for the candlelight march.  It was an amazing night to watch.  Across generations, across sexuality, just a group of San Franciscans getting together and being a part of the movie, because it is important to them and an important story to tell.  It was an amazing night.  It was unforgettable.  Gus has a great strength in using location as a character.  It couldn’t have been done anywhere else.  I think it shows in the movie.

Dustin Lance Black: It was all so great.  I was so excited to find out that we got to do it there.  And that we got to do it right around all these people that I had been spending all these years with, like Danny Nicoletta [who was played by Lucas Grabeel in the movie] or Anne Kronenberg [played by Pill].  Cleve Jones [Hirsch’s character] came up to San Francisco.  To have the real people who this film is based on around for us to use as resources and inspiration – it’s invaluable.  Now, I think it helps that we have an even more extended family that reached out to the truth of where this story came from.  It was really fantastic.

I was wondering if you could speak about what just happened in California with Proposition Eight.  In the movie, Milk was fighting Proposition Six.  What does it say that civil liberties are still being put to the popular vote thirty years after Harvey Milk? 

Dustin Lance Black: I have sort strong feelings on that.  I think it’s sad that Proposition Eight ended up looking a lot more like DadeCounty [another famous vote on gay rights mobilized by Anita Bryant in the 70s] in the film, where the gay movement went down, than Proposition Six, where Harvey Milk, through his strategy, was successful.  I think gay people and the gay movement need history like this so they and we don’t keep repeating the same mistakes.  I think if you were watching the No on Eight fight, you really didn’t see a lot of gay people representing themselves.  There weren’t gay people in the commercials or saying gay and lesbian in a lot of their literature.  That was really one of the lessons of Harvey Milk.  So, in that way, I hope it’s helpful.  I hope it motivates the gay and lesbian community to start that outreach and education and have some pride in a way that gets us to meet our neighbors again and put a face to who is being hurt.  I imagine that will help it.

You caught Harvey Milk’s mannerisms and gestures really well.  How did you prepare for that?

Sean Penn: The documentary and also additional archival footage was, I’m sure, very helpful.  I say that a little vaguely because with that sort of thing, the best way you could use it was that you watch a lot the same way you’d play music all day in the background and not necessarily be thinking about it.  But just I kept it on all the time and over a period of time, the little synapses start to connect.  If you listen carefully, you can hear the music of that and you kind of dance with it.  That and, of course, what Lance wrote – it comes from all directions.  It was clear, at least, in terms of, for a lack of a better term, character choice that the most exciting version of Harvey Milk to me was Harvey Milk.  If you see the documentary, the guy is the movie star of that documentary.  He’s an electric, warm guy.  So you just reach and reach and reach.  You never assume you’re going to get all the way there, but you figure that with the help of a director and a screenwriter and all the other things that a movie is that you can get the spirit of it out there the best you can.

Click here to read the rest of the interview!

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