By Jeff Walsh
I recently got the chance to attend the press junket for Milk in San Francisco, where I got to talk with people who knew Harvey personally and the people involved with the movie. But I have to admit, the person I was most interested in talking to was Diego Luna, mainly because I'm a big fan of 'Y Tu Mama Tambien,' so when I got the chance to join his press round table, I was totally there.
So, this is a bit different than normal. It wasn't a 1:1 interview (there were like 9-10 press interviewing him at the same time, my questions start with a *). Luna isn't gay. But I think 'Milk' is such an amazing, important film, I'm bending my usual rules on that stuff. Who might show up next answering my questions in Oasis? Sean Penn? James Franco? You'll have to tune in to find out...
It was interesting watching Luna answer the questions, which often turned their own corners, and were never on the brief side. The press were told not to dominate the interview and let everyone get their turn to ask a question, but it was clear early on, there was no chance in hell everyone would get a question in at the pace he was answering.
But since his answers were so heartfelt, eloquent, and explored his passion for art, community, and this movie, here it all is...
I read a quote that said your favorite kinds of movie to make are the ones that are important and have an important message. So, I was just wondering your take on the message of this film.
I think there's film that matters and there's film they have to do because it's an industry and they have to keep shooting things, you know? Give people a job and things like that. But film that matters is that film that has something to say, obviously, and I believe the story of Harvey Milk is a story that needs to be told and to a bigger audience than the documentary. I think the documentary is amazing, but I do believe that my generation and the generation that is behind me, they need to know there was someone that cared about respect and about celebrating differences.
Let me put it in another way, I think Harvey Milk saw politics as I see love. You know? That's the only way I think we can live in the same world together. I think politics should be about sharing and about curiosity first than anything else. Curiosity... instead of trying to say what's good for the people, trying to find out what people need. It's just... have love as the first motor and energy for things, you know?
Anyway, I'm... I just had lunch, you know? (laughs) It's just that I think Harvey was very important and we should remind people that there's a few stories like Harvey's, and that these stories have happened and that they're part of us and we can't forget. This happened 30 years ago, so it's not that long, you know? I believe this country needs another thousand Harvey Milks. There are just little bubbles in this country where you can live like in San Francisco, but it's not the reality of the world.
I just hope people don't see this as 'OK, a film about the gay community,' it's a film about differences and respect, and sometimes it's Jews, sometimes it's Latins, sometimes it's African cultures. It's a story that says a lot about the global problems we're living, you know? Which is that we don't know how to share... we want everyone to behave as we do, or how we think is the right way to behave, and no one has that answer. No one is that important.
When I looked at this really beautiful film, I felt that a lot hasn't changed. People voted to override Prop 6 in 1977-78, and here we are in 2008 with another proposition that we have to fight against. So, in your opinion, do you think a lot has really changed as far as the politics that go on in the gay community and other communities?
I do believe we haven't changed. I do believe we haven't got the message. I do believe we still have doubt about the strength we have , and the power we have, you know? I believe life is about creating the reality you think you deserve, that you want to live in, that you want to see your kids and your family live in, and if you don't do something to make that happen, if you don't work every day for that to happen, then you don't deserve anything. You don't deserve things to get better.
The responsibility, we all have. Until the moment we really believe we can make things happen, that we can make change happen, we're going to live the life that others want us to live. I think Harvey's an example of that. He was 10 months in the office, but he worked years and years to let people know that they shouldn't be afraid of being who they were. In fact, they could celebrate that. And I think we're still afraid of finding that strength and that power in ourselves. We're still afraid of what people are going to say, and we're still afraid of change.
But I have to say something, and I can just speak from where I come from, I do see young people in Mexico taking control of their lives sooner and I'm happy that's happening. Where I live and what I do, today there's many 30-year-old directors making films and telling stories to people. When I was 15, directors had their first film done at 40. It was tougher to find out that people that was talking to the audience was 50 when I was a part of the audience, and today it's us who are talking to an audience. That gives me hope. That tells me that we're not going to wait too long. But I'm just talking about my reality. I don't know how this affects the world.
I still don't understand why there's so much happening in the world that we're not in control of. It makes no sense. War makes no sense. When I sit down with you guys, when I see films, I don't see that as the first thing that matters to all of us, so I don't get why we allow that to happen. I think it's all about control. We have to make things happen. I think we got used to blaming others, and that's really easy. That's really easy. But the others are living the reality they want to live, because they're creating what╒s happening, so we're just being used and it's pathetic. Harvey didn't allow the world to use him... and who matters how long you're in this world if you don't do anything? It's not about the time. It's about what you do with that time, and this guy did a lot with the few years he had.
Growing up in Mexico, when was the first time you heard of Harvey Milk?
I heard about him the first time I come to the Castro Street, but I didn't pay attention, and I felt so guilty when I watched the documentary and I realized the story and what the story meant. I felt like I wasn't ready the first time I heard about him. When I came to Castro Street, I was walking with a friend of mine, a director that lives here, and he told me a little bit about who Harvey was, and the whole change, and what Castro Street meant, and I was really happy this was happening, but in a very naòve way, I thought it was normal.
You know, I just went to Amsterdam, where you breathe the same freedom and it was so not true. It was something so unique. And I didn't realize until I grew up that this was so special and that this is an example that we should all try to emulate in our countries, and in our cities, and in our communities. And when I watched the documentary, I just felt so happy to be asked to be in a project that was going to talk about someone like him. Film can change the world again. It's one of those films that's going to... and by change the world I mean not in a heroic way, but in the way film should change the world always. It's a film that tells you there's people ... I'm not going to tell you what the film should tell you, it can tell you whatever it tells you.
How old were you when you came to the Castro?
I think I was like 16, maybe?
Was it for a film?
No, that was just to visit this friend of mine. And then I came when I was around 22, and then I came for the Latino film festival, which was the most interesting screening of.. I did a documentary about boxing, and we showed it at the Castro. And at the beginning, I saw the audience, and I was like, 'Wow! What's going to happen?' Because it was like 20 percent young girls that wanted an autograph, 16-year-old girls who just know me from (Dirty Dancing 2: )Havana Nights (laughs), and the other 80 percent was the gay community. 'And I'm going to show these guys a boxing film?! This is not going to work.' And it was the most exciting screening ever, the best audience, because they were expecting something else, but they allowed themselves to be touched by this.
And I had the feeling that it was such a special... you know how there are two kinds of people? There are people who would use this table and believe they deserve this table, so this table should stay here for long, and there's others that see this table and say 'Fuck, I'm just so... so... how you say.. maybe someone speaks Spanish here...
Grateful to have this table, and I'm going to take care of this table and I'm going to use this table with respect and protect this table so maybe the one behind me can still use it, you know? And I had the feeling the audience in the Castro was exactly like that . They appreciated so much that the festival was happening, that they were showing a film, that the director was there, that the film didn't suck (laughs), so they celebrated it. It was special.
Do you think the mission of this film is to create a new vision of respect for the gay community?
The first thing the film achieves is that, artistically, it is a very beautiful and powerful film that touches you. And that's because Gus is one of the most interesting directors that are shooting films today, and he had the tools to make the film he wanted to make, and he achieved fantastic things.
So the first thing is the film is an artistic piece that people is just going to be touched by. And the second thing is, as I was telling you, I don't think we should think so thin. It's not about the gay community. It's about respect for differences. It tells you being different makes this world richer. Being around different people makes your reality richer. So you can just decide to be next to people who think like you, and gets excited by what you get excited, and that to me makes a very boring life.
Or you can choose to be around people that you can be surprised by every second, no matter what they like or what they do, and it's a constant challenge to try and understand. That means you'll have to use your brain, which I like, and I think we need to force this to happen more often. I think this film is going to help do that.
*I write for a gay youth site, and in the production notes you mention 'Every Mexican goes through a struggle, imagine being gay and Mexican at the same time.' And I wondered if you meant that in today's age or back in the 70s?
That still applies today. I think it's one of those terrible jokes, like what is worse: being gay and telling your father a 17 or something like that, that I like men, and then your father hates you and sends you away, gets you out of your house, and you get to a place and you're like, 'OK, I'm not going to say I'm gay.' But then they ask where you're from, and you say 'Oh, I'm Mexican,' and they treat you exactly the same way.
So then, imagine (Jack) wandering around and, obviously, he found in alcohol a great way to forget who he was. I think today it's kind of different. There's little bubbles like San Francisco, where you can go and hide, but the problem with bubbles is they break easily, so you can't expect to live all your life in a bubble.
I think it's different. Jack had a bigger struggle than what a gay Mexican today would have in this country. That doesn't mean it's a perfect country yet.
How can we get this message out to people? This message of tolerance and diversity, because a lot of people just don't want to hear it.
The first thing we have to accept is there are going to be people out there who don't care about what we have to say. And if we believe in tolerance, we're going to have to tolerate that. And the second thing is... these things are very powerful (picks up a reporter's audio recorder) and are tools that need to be used with clarity and respect and also ... fuck, not with an agenda, but with a clear objective?
Yeah, with a purpose of opening options, instead of closing doors. Whoever has the chance to communicate has the chance to change things. And it's us, it's the point of view of things... we all work for media, and we all work for... well, not all, there are a few freelance people who can be happy, but all the others have to work for someone that is expecting something from us, they set the rules.
But always, in what we write and what we say, there's always the moment where we say 'I think...' and whenever we start a conversation like that, we have to be conscious that we're communicating. There's going to be someone hearing that, so either we do that with the right information and put the emphasis where it needs to be, because you can obviously talk about Paris Hilton or whatever, you know? But there's always the moment where you can shift the attention where it needs to be. And that's the responsibility we have. The attention today is in very empty places, and we can bring that back a little bit.
But we have to play the game, or otherwise we lose the chance to communicate. I believe film can change the world. It has changed the world for me. It's a great tool, but each of us can find our tool.
What was your experience watching the film?
It was weird. I was sitting with my wife, and was eight months and a half pregnant, so I just wanted the film not to be a shock for her, and we'd have to run to the hospital.
You mean about the kissing scenes?
*Isn't she used to that by now?
Yeah. For the first ten minutes, I was myself watching a film I made. But then I just became part of an audience that was just touched by this story I was hearing, and by Sean's performance, and by all the cast and I have to say I thought I had the chance to watch, feel, hear... a little bit of Gus Van Sant's heart. I had the feeling I was watching a film that was very honest to me, and that meant a lot to the guy telling me the story.
And I felt lucky I was watching a film that celebrated a point of view, and I was finding out who this guy was, and a story that mattered to the director, but to all the people that were shooting the film. And I thought the way he approached the story, because he starts telling you Harvey Milk was killed, it makes this film very important, because many other directors would show you that Harvey was killed at the end of the film and try to break your heart with that. And that's the easy way to approach a story like Harvey's.
But the way Gus did it, is he told you 'This guy is going to die like all of us, and that doesn't make him important or not. What makes him important and why I want you to care about this character is because of what he did through his life and let me show you what he did.' And I thought that was something risky that makes this film different and unique from everything else.
And then, when I saw myself there, I closed my eyes. I'm there for just a tiny bit of the story, so I had a chance to enjoy it and I don't think it's that terrible, because I'm there just for a few minutes. I always suffer a lot the first time I see a film I'm in, and with this one, I didn't suffer. It's a special film and it means a lot that it's opening here and we're showing it at the Castro. And with your help, we'll get this film out of the bubble so it really means something for the world.