By Out.com Editors
Harvey Milk has finally been given his due. Thirty years after the San Francisco politician's assassination, Gus Van Sant's Milk, starring Sean Penn in the title role and James Franco as his longtime partner, Scott Smith, hits movie theaters November 26. Called 'the first openly gay man elected to any substantial political office in the history of the planet' by Time magazine, Milk was elected to the San Francisco board of supervisors in 1977 and was gunned down inside City Hall along with San Francisco mayor George Moscone a year later. Daniel White, an antigay city supervisor who had resigned earlier that week, confessed to the crime hours later, claiming that junk food had exacerbated his depression, creating what became known as 'the Twinkie defense.' Convicted of manslaughter, White was sentenced to just seven years in prison and was paroled after serving five. Smith was Milk's stabilizing force during his political rise, and the character is ultimately Milk's unifying element, with Franco delicately supporting Penn's sublime performance throughout. For Out, Franco and Milk screenwriter and executive producer Dustin Lance Black, who goes by Lance, talk about the making of the film.
Lance Black: I don't know if it was you or Gus who told me that My Own Private Idaho originally inspired you to act?
James Franco: I probably told you. If Gus told you that, I'd be really touched that he would know.
Lance: I guess the deeper question is, What made you want to do Milk and work with Gus?
James: Well, let me talk about Idaho first, because -- I would watch that movie a lot, even before I was acting. For some reason that struck a chord with me. I know it's an incredibly important film for queer cinema, but I wasn't a young teenager waiting to come out. I don't know what it was. It was just --
Lance: It wasn't just important for gay cinema --
James: No --
Lance: I think that's the whole idea of the movie -- it transcends the gay market with these sort of homoerotic story lines, right?
James: Exactly. I know a lot of straight guys who loved that movie and had the same attachment to it that I did. So very early on I was a huge fan of Gus -- Idaho and Drugstore Cowboy. Matt Dillon and River Phoenix in those movies are in some ways so off-the-wall, but Gus puts them in a certain context where it's completely believable. So it's both moving and hilarious at times. But compared to Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho -- I guess just the emotions it touches on made me want to watch it over and over.
Lance: Yeah, me too. That was the first movie I saw of Gus's. I was totally in love with River Phoenix, and then I was surprised by this movie that totally changed my idea of American cinema. It was beautiful.
James: Actually, I saw it and I was like, 'I worship River Phoenix,' and then I was like, 'I want to play a homeless character. I want to play a gay character!' It's the one role I wish I could have done, if I were to think of any.
Lance: Had you met Gus before?
James: Yeah. We have a mutual friend, Ben, a painter whose loft I would paint at. I don't know how close they were, but they were definitely friends, and he was always talking about Gus -- it was the year Elephant won at Cannes. I was doing a little play, The Ape, that I'd cowritten, and Ben brought Gus. And that's basically all I remember from the whole run of that little play -- Gus Van Sant came and saw the play.
Lance: Gus told me about that. When he first brought up your name as someone to play Scott, he said, 'Oh, you know I saw this play, this great play.' And he said, 'You know who's a really good writer, and we might let him read your script?' And I said 'Who?' and he said your name and talked about The Ape.
James: When I was in San Francisco and Gus brought up The Ape again, it was like, 'Wow!' Just that he remembered it made doing that little play all worth it.
Lance: How did you come across Milk?
James: I heard Gus was going to make it, so I wrote him and I was like, 'Gus, I haven't talked to you in a while, but basically I'll do whatever you want in this movie -- I'd just like to be a part of it.' So he sent me a script and I read it and I loved it.
Lance: Had you heard of Harvey Milk?
James: They didn't really teach you about him in school. After I heard Gus was going to do the movie, I watched the documentary The Times of Harvey Milk. And then I asked my parents about it, because they went to Stanford and then stayed in Palo Alto, so they were around at the time and certainly aware of everything. It was definitely in the air where I grew up, but it wasn't taught like Martin Luther King.
Lance: Yeah, not then. But potentially now.
James:Hopefully now. That's one of the great things about the movie finally coming out -- just raising awareness.
Lance: All right, so you always wanted to work with Gus. Did you know about his style of directing? Were there any surprises there?
James: I'm such a big fan. Whenever I had a chance to talk to him, I basically just grilled him on everything -- about every movie. I think he likes talking about his movies, and I mean I did everything -- I did my research. I read his novel, Pink. He has a commentary [on the DVD] for My Own Private Idaho, but for some reason they didn't sync it to the movie, so it's just an audio recording of him and Todd Haynes. So you just have to sit there and listen to the hour-and-a-half or two-hour discussion between them. For me it was incredible. So I knew a lot of the stories just from grilling him.
Lance: Generally, you only know when he's unhappy. It's the difference between a grin and grimace -- which for him is very subtle.
James: I didn't do a ton of improvising, but I felt like if I wanted to say something I could. There were a few times when I threw something out and Gus would be like, 'Yeah'maybe you try not saying that next time.' [Laughs] But other than that it seemed like he was really into any improv, whether it's behavior or a line here or there.