Milk cast and crew: Interview

By Jeff Walsh

Wrapping up the Milk coverage (the movie opens in a lot more theaters this Friday), here is the transcript of the press conference with the cast. The interview includes quotes from screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, director Gus Van Sant (both pictured here), and actors Sean Penn (Harvey Milk), Josh Brolin (Dan White), James Franco (Scott Smith), Emile Hirsch (Cleve Jones), and Allison Pill (Anne Kronenberg).

This event took place the day after the movie's premiere in San Francisco at the Castro Theater. It's important to note that this all took place before election day, so all references to Prop 8 were before the results were known. Another thing that's interesting is that the audio sounded fine to the press in attendance, but the actors seemed to have difficulty hearing us ask our questions, so sometimes the answers don't quite match the questions.

Once again, this was a roundtable interview, so there were 40-50 press people there for a 60-minute event. I ended up asking two questions (both marked with a *): the first question of the entire event and, later, although I knew I didn't really have any use for this question or answer, I really thought the parallels between Prop 6 in the movie and Prop 8 now were striking, in that you can see that we didn't earn from history and were repeating the same mistakes. So, I got Black and Penn to comment on that in the hope that some of the other press might write that story. I have no idea if anyone did.

It was a pretty low-key event, very relaxed and fun. Also, whenever I write (laughs), it was typically the whole room and most of the panel laughing, and not just the person being quoted laughing at their own joke.

OK, a lot of interview coming at ya, so enough out of me. Here's what we said:

*Writing about this movie for my site, the audience is all younger people who weren't born when all of this went down. Since many of the cast are young and possibly in the same boat, and may not have heard of Harvey before this project, I was just wondering what your takeaway was, and what impact his life will have on your lives now…

Sean Penn: Well that's just going to have to apply to those whose ages you didn't underestimate… (laughs)

James Franco: I was born in 1978, the year that Harvey Milk was killed, and I grew up in the Bay Area. You'd think I would have known more about Harvey Milk, but they don't teach him in schools or anything like that. So, I guess that's one of the great things about the movie is I hope it does raise the awareness of who he was and what he did, and all that. You'd think growing up here at least that I'd know more about who he was before doing this movie, but the fact is I didn't.

For Josh, when you played Dan White, was there in your calculations for playing the character that Mr. White could have been in his own way as much a victim of the society he lived in as much as Harvey Milk was victimized by Mr. Dan White…

Josh Brolin: Harvey wasn't victimized by Dan White until the end. The fact of the matter is Harvey came up against a lot of obstacles, which I think is the case for any gay man now, even though the irony of Prop 8 being what it is now, and Prop 6 being what it was then… you know, obstacles are OK to me. Anita Bryant, all these guys that are represented in the film, are OK. When you resort to the violence that Dan White resorted to, that's when it turns into something else. It was a very sad moment. I see him as being a very frustrated guy , you know a lot of questions were asked whether he was a latent homosexual and all that. Who knows? It's all conjecture. But it's a very sad moment when somebody feels the only resort is to do something that's tangible. That's how I always saw that moment, as being the only tangible thing. You know, cause and effect. If I do this, this will happen. Dan White was not a ready-made politician. He was a guy that was in way over his head. He was a guy who had tremendous pressure through the police force and the fire department to bring back San Francisco to what it used to be, and to stop the whole gay and lesbian movement, which is ridiculous. It was a trajectory that was inevitable. There was no stopping it. So he had pressures that were beyond his control, for sure.

For Allison, how much did you work with Anne Kronenberg before and during filming, and what was the process like?

Allison Pill: I met with her on my first day of rehearsal and I completely changed the way I thought of the character in that moment. She's an amazingly powerful woman, but also incredibly calming to have in a room… one of the strongest women I've ever met. But in a really subtle, womanly way. And it was a really important energy to try to capture. It as also important to do the actual historical research as well, through books and the film, but having the actual people there to get all the hilarious stories that build up a person and a group of people, that was especially helpful.

Dustin, I wanted to ask you… you're really young and this must have been like history to you, as opposed to something you lived through. And I'm wondering two things: one, what drew you to the story? How did you discover it to motivate you to write it? And, secondly, the incredible resonance with the battle between the Briggs Initiative and now with Proposition 8... I mean, when you were writing this, it wasn't happening yet. So, I'm wondering how that all came about…

Dustin Lance Black: My stepfather was stationed in Fort Ord, which is right down in Monterey, and it wasn't a great place for a closet case to hang out, so I would come up here to San Francisco and I started hearing the story. It was first through this director, who I was apprenticing under, and he told the story of Harvey Milk and it was just very surprising. I had never heard of an out gay man, much less one that had been celebrated by his city, so I found it very inspirational. And I just held onto that for a long time and tracked the progress of this story and saw it falling off, and his message falling off, and thought it was time to try and do something to revive that and get that back out there. The resonance to Prop 8… I didn't know specifically there'd be a Prop 8, but I don't think this fight is over. I think there'll be more propositions, and each time there is one of these propositions, it's a great opportunity to continue that kind of education campaign. It kind of gives us an opportunity to get out there and say, 'Hey, this is who we are,' and break down some of those myths that Harvey talked about so much.

Have any of you heard from any of the families of the real-life villains in this story? And have any of them mended their ways that you know of? That could be Dan White's family, Dan Briggs's family, Anita Bryant's family, or even Anita herself…

Sean Penn: I can say yes, but I don't know that I'd extend the villainy to the families. But yes, some of the families reached out. I don't know what's public for them, so without knowing that, I can't share it. But, yes.

Sean, can you talk a little about finding the character, how you play it, and how much responsibility you feel when you take on a character that's based on a historical figure…

Sean Penn: Well, for me, it started with … I mean, I couldn't count on one hand the directors who only make an organic beautiful picture like Gus just every time does. So for me, it started with Gus, then Lance's script came, and then that leads me to Harvey and starting to get looking at the history and the archival footage, and what just got stronger and stronger…. To answer your question about responsibility, you almost try to keep that at bay, in terms of your thinking. That's just an invitation to pressure, but what struck me, really, was that Harvey Milk, in politics or not, would have been a political figure simply because he had been one of these people who came up against the obvious obstacles in life and just greeted it with such courage and warmth and was politically kind. He was a kind spirit, and that was going to be strong whatever he did. So I sort of followed what the writer wrote, what the director was directing, and the flow of my increasing affection for Harvey Milk the more I got to know him.

This is a question for both Sean and Emile. I was very impressed with the way the script develops the kind-of father-son relationship between Harvey Milk and Cleve Jones. Talk a little about that. I think it's obvious in the script. It's in life. But talk about how you, as actors, worked on that relationship, because I think it was a very beautiful moment in the film.

Emile Hirsch: Well, I think initially, for me, I was a little bit nervous because I was used to my relationship with Sean was he was the director, I was the actor. And, suddenly, being a part of this film, it's sort of like being asked to play a basketball game with your coach. Or, in my case, a ping-pong game or something. It seems a little bit wrong at first, a little strange, but I think some of the reasons why we got along really well on Into The Wild just seamlessly sort of crossed over to acting opposite one another, which is basically me trying to learn as much as I can from Sean at every minute.

This is for Gus. The two relationships that Harvey had in the movie, because everybody had passed on, you weren't able to witness or speak to anybody. How did you get your actors to develop the relationship between Harvey and Scott, and then Harvey and Jack?

Gus Van Sant: It's odd, because we all worked on a lot of movies, and so we come into it… there was a rehearsal period where we all read the script slowly and kind of talked about it, and then when everyone's in makeup and has learned the lines, like Sean said, there's a lot of artistic input… the artistic license takes over and you kind of make it up, basically. I think even if we knew Scott Smith and Harvey and Jack, if they were all alive today, they weren't going to be able to act out what they did in the bedroom and, if they did, they would forget and it would be weird. So, the romance and the relationship itself are extended from an artistic pursuit and invention. At least 50 percent of all the things in the movie are just extensions of what you don't even think intellectually. You just sort of act it out, and it if looks good, we keep it. It just sort of happened, really. It wasn't over thought.

Sean Penn: I would just add to that that we also had a constant family of access with the people who were very close to them, and they were there all the time. Gus had many of them in the movie, and they were just so helpful. So they were like a… you know we had our crew, and then we had that crew, and that answered a lot of questions and we could play with how that would inform choices we made.