Pair an effusive and extroverted, larger-than-life politico like Harvey Milk complete with community-forging charisma, panoramic outlook, and labyrinthine City Hall machinations with a reserved, perpetually-outside-looking-in independent, à la director Gus Van Sant? That feature-film odd-coupling might have understandably strained some brains in Hollywood. Making the seldom-seen moments of otherwise-secret or neglected lives visible has seemingly been Van Sant’s calling, and his most memorable films 1985’s Mala Noche, 1989’s Drugstore Cowboy, 1991’s My Own Private Idaho, 2003’s Elephant, and even the Oscar-gathering 1997 Good Will Hunting have relied on his coolly unblinking, surprisingly cerebral yet gently empathetic eye, whether focused on Mexican immigrants, ’70s-era oblivion-seekers, Northwestern hustlers, a hidden savant, or disaffected teenagers.
Still, those leitmotifs entwined with Van Sant’s terrible, tangible sense of romance with his outsiders, artists, and lost souls, as well as the way his camera seems to fall head over heels for his characters made Van Sant a natural to make Milk, after Oliver Stone’s aborted feature-film attempt to tell the slain San Francisco supervisor’s story. "There is always that question: why I haven’t done a film like this earlier," Van Sant confessed, clearing his throat for the umpteenth time while agreeing that he hasn’t ever quite done a film like Milk. "Yeah, I hadn’t done a big movie, so there were people around who were like, ‘Can you handle it? Can it be done?’ They think that way. Since there was no business model, they were like, ‘No, he can’t, because he makes these scruffy, little movies. Too big a gamble, you know.’
"That’s a part of Hollywood, but it’s kind of like safe bets: it can make bad stuff happen as easily as good stuff, and it has its own closed policies like the old conservative City Hall-type policies. ‘New supervisors who haven’t handled the job before are incapable and they’re screwing things up.’"
Thankfully the gamble paid off and the tale of California’s first openly gay politician has been told with elegance, poetry, and not a little heart-stirring, inspirational grace, by the man whom biographer James Robert Parish describes as "the standard bearer of America’s ‘queer cinema’" one who fuses extreme close-ups, handheld shots, and found footage in a collaborative, textural approach that lends a Kodachrome pop-culty feel to his films. The process makes for "beautiful pictures every time," as a windblown Sean Penn put it at a Ritz Carlton press conference after Milk‘s Oct. 28 world premiere at the Castro Theatre.
Seated at the middle of a long table between Penn and Josh Brolin, who portrays Milk’s killer Dan White, as they traded friendly jabs, Van Sant remained mostly silent physically at the center, but an observer apart at the same time. Later in a hotel suite, face to face with a single interviewer, the director seemed equally out of place, folded uncomfortably into a plush chair, arms tightly crossed over a tan jeans jacket sporting a "No on 8" sticker, with a small, nylon, bright-blue dollar-store-style backpack by his side. He more closely resembles a 56-year-old teacher or elder-care worker than a Hollywood insider.
The latter role is evidently still alien to him. His first brush with Milk came in 1978 while he was driving across the country and heard on the radio that the supervisor was shot. Though he later saw the 1984 documentary The Times of Harvey Milk, it never occurred to him to make a film about the politician. "It seemed like a very big story," Van Sant said. Mala Noche and Drugstore Cowboy "were stories that were devised to be made with really low budgets, like $20,000. So it was never like, ‘Oh, we can make a story about City Hall with $20,000.’ I guess I was always coming at filmmaking from not really being in the business, but knowing that I could get a hold of or save up my own money to the point where I’d have $20,000 and I could actually make a feature."
In the process of making Milk, the filmmaker admitted that he had to leave out many details that "I really like and things that sort of explain the situation. We suggest things. We explain this new law that enabled people to elect their supervisors from their districts, but we didn’t explain that the people up to that point that had to run city-wide resembled a different and maybe more antiquated type of politician. They were more, I guess, conservative. They were more business-oriented."
If San Francisco is palpable as a character in Milk, then City Hall is that elegantly shambolic figure’s brain, and Van Sant effectively used the Beaux Arts space, which harks back to classical forms, to his own dramatic ends. A down-the-rabbit-hole corridor leading to supervisors’ chambers becomes a pulsing nerve center visually rhyming with the characters’ stratagems. The sweeping staircase and balconies become the backdrop for Milk’s and White’s clashing trajectories, and the building itself becomes the spotless stage for Milk’s political birth and death.
"What I usually try and do, in general, is to connect the characters to a timeless quality, so it’s not necessarily situated in the specific time they’re in," said Van Sant. "So if they’re in City Hall and there’s a beaux-arts classical relief on the ceiling, if you frame it correctly, they can kind of look like Roman senators. You can get this timeless quality of people trading votes and betraying each other for as long as there’s been a forum and a senate.
"There were certain things in the script and in Harvey’s life the famous line is ‘How do you like my new theater,’ which is what he says to Cleve [Jones, played by Emile Hirsch]: ‘Always take the stairs, never dress up, never blend in, make a show of it, use the whole space.’ I thought of that as a centerpiece of the whole film. That scene is one of my favorites because it was kind of like Harvey, who was a stage manager and was in theater. This was his new forum, his new theater, his new proscenium, with which to create new stuff in this case, gay rights and other things that he thought were important, like education and help for minorities and seniors."
The question that arises so often among those who care about gay rights is: Why wasn’t Milk released before the Nov. 4 election, when it might have energized voters to shut down Proposition 8, a battle so similar to Milk’s charge against Proposition 6? As Milk screenwriter Dustin Lance Black said, "I didn’t know this [movie] would be about Prop. 8, but I don’t think this fight is over."
"I don’t really decide when movies should come out," said Van Sant. "The distributors came up with that." He spelled out some of the thoughts behind the Nov. 26 theatrical release: worries included "whether or not the elements of the story were so like the political moment that the film wouldn’t have a life after the election," and "whether people are too busy with the election to go see the movie. Are people overtaxed with politics to go see a political movie?" As a compromise, the late-October Castro Theatre premiere was arranged to get Milk and its overall message into the media eye, while still opening it into November through January, the Academy campaign season.
"Yeah, I didn’t make the call," repeats Van Sant, somewhat regretfully and shedding perhaps a smidge of that cherished detachment. "Harvey would have opened it in October."
Milk opens Wed/26 at the Castro Theatre, with additional Bay Area openings Fri/28 and Dec. 5.