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Never blend in
Gus Van Sant, James Franco and Dustin Lance Black talk Milk
GUS VAN SANT
24.Jul.52, Louisville, Kentucky
|B Y R I C H C L I N E
After four films that played with imagery and plotting, Gus Van Sant returns to more narrative storytelling for a biopic about the political career of Harvey Milk, who was killed in 1978 by a disgruntled former fellow politician. The film features a beautifully transparent performance by Sean Penn as Milk. But Penn didn't accompany Van Sant on the global press jaunt with writer Dustin Lance Black and costar James Franco.
In London, they've just heard the news that Milk has been nominated for four Baftas - although Gus didn't get a director's nod (a week later, the film got 8 Oscar nominations, including Best Director). As we got started, Lance and Gus talked about their very different routes into the project...
Lance: It was in 1990 and my stepdad had just moved us out to San Francisco from San Antonio, Texas, as part of the military. We were a devout Mormon family, so it was very conservative. I knew that I was a gay kid very early on, but you don't come out. There's not such a thing in San Antonio - definitely not in the Mormon church or the military. When I got to San Francisco I got into the theatre and I was really lucky that there was this theatre director who told me the story of an out gay man. And I thought, "That's insane. Why would someone willingly do that?" I thought the guy must be nuts. And he said, "No, this guy was actually beloved by this city and was elected to public office." And you could just tell by the way he told the story that he had a lot of pride in it - and this was well over a decade after the assassination. The story itself was very hopeful, and the way this guy talked about it - clearly he was sort of coming out to me in that moment too. And I think it was the first time I knew that I didn't have to be completely ashamed of who I was, and that there was a future, that you could potentially live truthfully. Those were new ideas for me, so it was a really transformative moment. You know, closeting for adolescent kids is really dangerous - it shuts you down emotionally and stops you from developing in a normal way. And I think that was the moment that freed me and allowed me to start growing again.
Gus: And I was involved in the earlier film project. I heard about Oliver Stone doing it in 1991 - he was about to shoot a story about Harvey Milk starring Robin Williams, and he decided right after JFK not to for some reason. He said it was because he didn't want to do another assassination movie. I took over for about a year as a replacement - and I got to know some of the characters who were in the story, mostly Cleve Jones, who later introduced me to Lance. So I was part of it in 1992 for about a year and then it was handed over and had another life with about six or seven other directors attached through the years. And then I met Lance in 2007. Reading his script I thought that he had really narrowed in on a part of his life that enabled it to be a feature film. In the other tries it was just trying to take on too many subjects and too many episodes of his life.
How about you, James?
How did you research the character?
James: Scott Smith passed away in the mid-90s. I guess Gus, you met him.
Gus: Very briefly.
How did you get Sean Penn on board?
Like the film's tagline - "Never blend in".
Gus: Harvey was talking about being out: never try to blend in and be straight, just be yourself. As a filmmaker I think never blending in is about having something that sticks out, so that you go see it, like a circus attraction. I'm still learning about that myself. As the years go by it's not something I'm trying to put into the films, but I think without realising it the through-line is always about family. Almost every film has something to do with a group of people that are put together that aren't necessarily related, but they're are creating a family for whatever reason. Sometimes it's survival, sometimes it's to get something done. In this case I think it's political action. That's kind of a through-line, but it's not intentional.
Harvey's message of tolerance has interesting echoes in the US election last November.
Harvey's message was always about the kids.
SOHO HOTEL, LONDON, 14.Jan.09
© 2008 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall
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