Milk cast and crew: Interview

I'm always struck by who we are as a culture when we look at certain slices of life and periods of time. Gus, this question is for you: Were you in any way tempted to shade what the overtone was, based on how we feel about homosexuality then versus now? Did you ever feel conflicted at all?

Gus Van Sant: The storylines? The idea of how we presented gay life? Yeah, a lot of that was sort of taken care of in Lance's script and, also, it's seen through today. Like, when you make a film about 1975-78, from the vantage point of today, even though I was around during that period, you're still tainted by the modern day world. So you try and remember what it was like, and you go by historical document, and stories, and the script. We're always trying to get absolutely to that day, if we can. But since it's today, there's always discrepancies.

One of the most striking things about what Harvey did back then was build alliances with the lesbian community and the feminist movement. I lived through that and remember how odd it was at the time, and I love in the film when you come in and say, 'Are you scared of girls?' and it was really strong . Obviously, it was historically reflective, there were not a lot of women in this film. There was not a lot of lesbian politics mentioned. It was very subtle in the background. I'm just wondering how you worked with that and, Gus, how you found that balance?

Allison Pill: I think what Harvey did was absolutely incredible in forming a coalition of people who had never worked together before. I have my new favorite verb, which is to venn, like a Venn diagram, where you find the overlaps between. The women's movement was so sort of separate from the Castro. The lesbian community was so separate from the gay community, and to put these two powerful activist cultures together did an amazing thing. And Anne was so much a part of that, and gaining access to a whole other political machine through that… I think it's incredible that he was able to do it. And as for the film, I'm just very proud to be able to portray such an amazing woman who continues to do great work in San Francisco.

Gus Van Sant: Anne was the representative of the lesbian community, and it's part of the story that his alliance with the lesbian community getting votes, partly through Anne but partly through other advances in the community and connections, it's a piece that's not in the film, but Anne represents that piece. There are a myriad of things about even the subjects we cover that are missing, like the campaign incidences and pranks on Rick Stokes's campaign. We did actually panic halfway through and think, through Cleve Jones, that maybe we needed a whole scene, and we shot a scene, where Harvey gets the lesbian pals of Anne to break up a Rick Stokes speaking moment. We shot it, and it was one of those things that wasn't quite fitting in. But there are a lot of things in the film that are absent, and that's one whole story.

Why do you think this film is important to students? And what kind of impact do you think this movie will have on the youth of America?

Emile Hirsch: I think it's important to students because I don't think most students know who Harvey Milk is, and it's an introduction to him and that period of history. And, for me, what the film was really about is human rights and equality and democracy, you know? Just some of the core principles that America is about and America stands for. And it's important for college students to learn those things.

Allison Pill: I also think it's an important chapter of activism, both for youth and across generations. Harvey was really good about bringing in seniors, and young people, and he… I mean, he hired Anne at 22 to organize that campaign. I think it's inspiring to students to both know there is power in that sort of activism, once you put trust in them.

Sean, you're so active civically and politically, what was is about Harvey Milk that resonated with you, in terms of his community work? Did you find yourself changed after portraying him?

Sean Penn: I think I answered that earlier… for me, any movie starts with the music of it, as it were, the kind of: who's the director, the script -- and then you try to convince yourself that you're in a reality with it, so it's not a different approach for me than if I were doing a work of fiction. It's all one thing to me. It's all getting up and expressing, either directly through your own voice or the voice of characters in a story, what matters to you. I don't know that I can answer it more analytically than that. But did you notice that when you brought up the name of the lesbian street earlier, that Josh Brolin scribbled it down? (laughs)

Josh Brolin: I hate Sean Penn. (laughs)

Sean, I want to ask you about your experience of working with Diego Luna in the movie. He comes from another country, from a different culture, so how difficult or challenging was it to work with Diego?

Sean Penn: I'd known Diego a little bit through the last several years. He's a lovely guy and a beautiful actor, inventive and great, so it was the south of the border version of north of the border. It was like working with the rest of these great guys. He's great.

Gus Van Sant: Same here. I had met Diego a few times at festivals, usually at films that he was presenting, and I knew him personally, and also he had done quite a bit of work in the U.S., as well as a lot of work in Mexico, and I was really happy that he was able to have time to do this role. He was great.

For Gus and Dustin, the film used stills, archival footage, and recreated telecasts… what role did the media play in the Harvey Milk story?

Dustin Lance Black: You know, I think it was always important, the stuff that was included in the script. Because some of it wasn't, some of it was invented after the fact in post, between Elliott the editor and Gus. But the stuff that is in the script, with the press and with Anita, it's important to create that environment. And it's kind of an unbelievable environment, I think, to some people now looking back, when you hear some of the quotes that Anita gave… if played by an actress, I felt it could be seen as caricature. It's hard for some folks today to think that she said and meant some of the things she really said and meant, so having the actual footage helped give it that authenticity. So, the quotes in the script had always been direct quotes from Anita. And direct quotes from the actual press, and Gus took it from there.

Gus Van Sant: Yeah, and the communication with the media was a major part of their political campaign, the Senate piece, and a lot of that existed. Anita's side of the story, in the script, was always presented as stock footage, that we wouldn't have an actress play Anita Bryant. We would use the stock footage. And then from there, we started to think about using the Dianne Feinstein announcement that Moscone and Milk had been shot . I also thought of using stock footage that would be a cover for crowd scenes, like in case we didn't have enough people to be in the crowds, and we researched stock footage at San Francisco State University, the Hormel Library, and found a lot more stuff. We found private individuals who had Super 8 footage of the Castro, to get the atmosphere of the Castro in the beginning of the film, and it became a lot more than we thought of, maybe, in the beginning. But it was also one of the main medias that Harvey and the other characters used to promote of get across their political ideas.