Milk Man


By Editors

Lance: One of the challenges is that Scott Smith is no longer alive. As a writer, [scenes between Milk and Smith were] difficult for me to write because you really have to create them out of whole cloth. What did you do to research playing a gay man in the '70s?
James: There are two parts of that research: one -- the more general research of the time and place and what it was like to be a gay man in the Castro at that time. And the other side was to research Scott himself. And that was tricky. There's a big thank-you and acknowledgement in the front of [Randy Shilts's book] The Mayor of Castro Street, but there weren't a ton of stories about him. And then in [Rob Epstein's 1984 documentary] The Times of Harvey Milk, he's in it for like five seconds -- he and Harvey kiss, and that's it. So I was having dinner with Rob Epstein and Sean Penn, and I asked Rob if he had any other footage of Scott that hadn't made it into the movie, and Rob is so thorough that he had all these pre-interviews of people who ended up not being interviewed in the film. He had one of Scott from only two or three years after Harvey's death, and so it was perfect material on him. I'm also always a tiny bit skeptical when I hear stories about a real person, because everybody's got their own take on it. When I played James Dean everybody would fight about what the real story was.
Lance: Right, that's tricky.
James: I just tried to talk to [Milk associates] Danny Nicoletta and Cleve Jones and others to get as many perspectives on him as I could. I think Scott was Harvey's longest relationship -- the fact that Scott and Harvey moved out from New York to San Francisco together, the fact that they worked on the early campaigns for Harvey -- it seemed like there was a fairly deep relationship there and they really cared about each other. And so I think that's the Scott we captured in the movie. Harvey was incredibly ambitious and sometimes had these crazy kinds of schemes, and Scott was always there to be the emotional grounding and support.
Lance: Was there anything you did differently in preparing for this movie in terms of looking into gay relationships versus straight ones?
James: At one point during rehearsals, the idea was thrown out that Sean and I would go to the apartment that we eventually shot in and spend a night or two there just to, like -- I don't know what -- feel comfortable with each other? That idea was kind of thrown out but ended up not happening because of scheduling. I approached the relationship part as I would approach any relationship. When I'm working with another actor or actress that I'm supposed to have a relationship with, I'll look for things in the person I like. My other hero on the film was Sean, so it wasn't too hard to look up to him -- or whatever that is.
Lance: You fell in love with Sean? Is that what you're saying?
James: Basically, I've been in love with him since even before Fast Times. He did this little thing called The Beaver Trilogy.
Lance: I have seen that! I can't believe you've seen that -- no one has seen that.
James: So, basically I've been in love with Sean Penn since The Beaver Trilogy. [Squealing girls interrupt in the background, saying, 'I told you it was him! Hi, James Franco! Congrats on getting into the program! You're so great!']
James: Thank you! [Laughs]
Lance: It's got to be hard to be James Franco.
James: I'm sitting on the steps of Brooklyn College. I just had my first writing class. So they were congratulating me for getting into the program. I'm taking an MFA writing program, and also a film directing MFA program at NYU.
Lance: Oh, my God. That's even more than you were taking while we were shooting Milk.
James: Yeah. While I was doing Milk, that was a little crazy. Somehow it worked. There were some days when we were doing night shoots when I would fly from San Francisco to L.A. in the morning, go to class, and then go from UCLA to the airport, fly back, and then work on Milk, but whatever.
Lance: You're a workaholic. You're going to take my writing jobs away from me.
James: If I keep writing things like The Ape, I think you're safe.

Tags: Movies