Exclusive: Gus Van Sant Sheds Light on Milk

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Gus Van Sant is certainly one of the more fascinating filmmakers of the last few decades, especially having directed the popular Oscar-winning film Good Will Hunting. He made a couple more high-profile films and then ultimately turned his back on Hollywood to focus more on experimental indie fare like 2003’s Elephant, a haunting reenactment of the Columbine High School shootings.

After more than ten years, Van Sant’s name is once again being bandied about amongst awards prognosticators for his new movie Milk, a stirring biopic starring Sean Penn as Harvey Milk, a 40-year-old gay man who moves to San Francisco and starts a grassroots movement among the gay residents of Castro Street. Harvey, a strong supporter of equal rights regardless of sexuality, is soon running for political office, trying to become the supervisor for District 5, and eventually becoming the first openly gay man to be voted into a public office.

Obviously, Sean Penn’s performance, one that’s likely to get him another Oscar nomination, is a big selling point for the movie, but Van Sant’s ability to create a riveting film out of Dustin Lance Black’s script will certainly get him renewed attention as a director. The ensemble cast includes James Franco and Diego Luna as two of Harvey’s lovers during the eight years of his political career covered in the movie, while Josh Brolin plays Harvey’s main political rival Dan White, whose professional jealousy contributed to Milk’s untimely death in 1978.

ComingSoon.net got on the phone with Van Sant while he was doing the L.A. junket for the movie a few weeks back. As we learned, Van Sant is not exactly the most talkative filmmaker we’ve spoken to, generally getting less responsive as the interview progressed, so who knows what was going on at the other end of the phone line?

ComingSoon.net: Recently, you seem to have been going more towards the indie and experimental route. Was it just the material that got you back doing more a studio movie?
Gus Van Sant: Well, there wasn’t anything in particular. I always wanted to make a film about Harvey, and this script just sort of appeared, and the script itself presented somewhat of a style, just by the way it was written, that didn’t suggest… a lot of the films like “Gerry,” “Elephant,” “Last Days” and “Paranoid Park” were written in a certain way to be filmed in the way they were filmed. This was a pretty traditional 100-page script, like 120 scenes, and just by the virtue of the number of scenes, you start to have a pacing that’s more convention.

CS: You did have your actors doing quite a lot of improv on some of your other films so was there room to do any of that here?
Van Sant: Yeah, we could have improv-ed and we did, a teeny bit, but I think the period and the political nature of the dialogue was confining in a way that the type of improv that would be occurring was hard to keep it within the period, unless you had a pretty good knowledge of the period politics. We did have daily papers that pertained to the day, but in the end, we were just lucky to get the stuff filmed that we needed to present the screenplay. We didn’t really go off into areas like that so much on this film.

CS: I assume Dustin did a lot of the legwork and research on the script beforehand, so did you do any research on Harvey Milk yourself or go back to the ’84 documentary? What was your process when you came on board?
Van Sant: Well, I’d been involved in a project in 1993 that was Oliver Stone directing and he decided not to direct it. That’s really where I heard about the project, through Rob Epstein, who had made “The Times of Harvey Milk.” At that time, then yeah, there was a lot of study and I lived with Cleve Jones, and I met some of the people that were the real characters and lived close enough to the Castro to sort of soak up its energy. It was ’93, so it was a lot different than it is now. It’s actually changed in those ten years quite a bit, the Castro itself, in the last fifteen years. There are condos, there’s families, a lot of straight people. It’s not the same. Even in ’93, it had a little bit more of a connection to ’78. I mean, it was devastated by the AIDS epidemic, but the research I did was all the way through the last ten or so years.

CS: I don’t know how old you are, but I know you’ve moved around a lot in your life. Back in the ‘70s when Harvey Milk was making waves in San Francisco, was it felt wherever you were and were you aware of what was going on there? What was your connection to him before getting interested in making a movie in ’93?
Van Sant: I had seen the documentary, “The Times of Harvey Milk,” I think that was my sole information. I haven’t read Randy Schultz’s book, although that predated the documentary. I knew some things about Harvey. I first heard about him when he was shot. I didn’t know about him when he was running for supervisor. I didn’t live in San Francisco, I lived in L.A., and I wasn’t an out gay kid. I was not really connected to the gay community, and was just unaware.

CS: At what point did Sean Penn get involved? Was he circling around the project over the last 15 years wanting to do it?
Van Sant: I had talked to him in the ’90s about playing Harvey, in ’98 I think I talked to him about it, but then it wasn’t until now that I was actually making the film, so we brought up the idea again. Now he’s more the right age.

CS: It feels like a lighter role for him, mainly since he’s playing a character who loved life, so what made you think of him originally?
Van Sant: Yeah, I’ve always just thought he was a really amazing actor. I didn’t really have those ideas of whether or not he could play a happy-go-lucky character or not. I guess… (long pause) Yeah, it was something people do comment on it, like some of the things they haven’t seen Sean do before.

CS: He’s done comedy, maybe not so much recently, but we do know he has good timing.
Van Sant: Yeah, I mean like Jeff Spicolli was a very comedic character in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” and yeah, he was very happy character.

CS: I guess we haven’t really seen Sean play a real person, which is definitely a challenge for an actor, to take on the mannerisms and speech patterns, and I was curious whether that process was something he did on his own or something that came out of rehearsals?
Van Sant: I think it was sort of him studying footage that he had of Harvey, and he worked in New York at his grandfather’s bakery, so he sort of knew a New York accent. He sort of synthesized all these things together into his character. I wasn’t like sitting there as part of it.

CS: You’ve worked with cinematographer Harris Savides in the past few years, and here you also work with Danny Elfman, who you hadn’t worked with in a while. Can you talk about shooting this film different from your other movies? What was the decision to go with those two guys who come from different periods of your career?
Van Sant: Well, Harris I’ve been working with in this decade a lot. I hadn’t worked with Danny since “Good Will Hunting” I guess, but he’s a friend of mine, and I’ve been in touch with him.

CS: But working with Harris on this, did you want to want him shoot it differently than the way you’d been working with him on previous movies or did you want to bring some of the stuff you’d done into this environment?
Van Sant: I think each project, you have basically so many options when you start. You can continue what you’ve been doing or you can start over and create something new. Depending on what the initial concept is, I usually try to do something that somehow relates to what that concept is. In this case, we had a script. The concept was actually a screenplay, it wasn’t just a one-sentence concept. It was more of a whole hundred pages, so we did talk about lots of different things and we tried out a lot of different things, and we ended up with what you see. It wasn’t meant to be super-conventional, but I think we ended up there because of having a less-conventional idea not work out and we fell back into what we thought of as like “The Godfather” or something.

CS: If I hadn’t seen Danny Elfman’s name on the credits, I might not have known he composed the score, so what sort of direction did you give him for this compared to what you’ve done with him before?
Van Sant: Well, I wanted him to be kind of crazy, but it’s a relatively conventional score I think. He sort of feels it out and he plays stuff for me and I’m a little bit part of that process, but I usually defer to him, because it’s a huge artistic effort. It’s sort of like Sean building his character, they’re both very intense artists. They can only interpret it their own way. They can’t straddle what you want and what they want.

CS: I’m sure you’ve been talking about this all day but the timing of the movie and the relevance to what’s going on in California with Prop 8 is amazing. You started making the movie well before that came about, so do you think it’s just a coincidence? Is California very different today or is it going back to the times of Milk?
Van Sant: I think it’s different. I think that the issue of Prop. 8 is a setback, sort of like the repeal of Dade County law in our movie, but the setback is one of the more final laws I think in equality, which doesn’t make it any less of a law or less important, but it’s not as devastating as firing all gay teachers. It’s more like in the game, like the final yardage.

CS: But these being different times, do you think society is more open to a movie like this compared to five years ago or ten years ago? Harvey Milk was an amazing man, but do you think his story is more relevant now than back when you first wanted to make the movie?
Van Sant: Yeah, I think it’s a great portrait of a grassroots political campaign that has in effect changed his community and that people can do it, too, like regular shopowners.

CS: We haven’t really seen anyone like Harvey recently, in terms of openly gay politicians running for office, so do you think Harvey Milk really made a difference?
Van Sant: I don’t know about that either. I don’t know why. Sam Addams is our new gay mayor in Portland, there’s one.

CS: What would you like people to get out of this movie, besides learning about Harvey Milk’s life?
Van Sant: I guess just that the birth of a politician story. That’s the hope they will find that interesting.

CS: How do you feel about being back in the Oscar race with this movie for the first time since “Good Will Hunting”?
Van Sant: It’s kind of cool, it’s nice.

CS: Is “The Electric Kool-Aid Test” something you’re doing next, something that Dustin’s also writing, and are you going to take a similar approach to that?
Van Sant: I don’t know. I mean, he’s just starting to write it. I haven’t seen it yet.

CS: Have you been in touch with Alex Gibney, who’s doing a documentary on that same premise?
Van Sant: I have. I’ve had dinner with him.

CS: Are you guys going to try and work together to maintain consistency between the movies?
Van Sant: It’s not about consistency. We’re not working together but we’re communicating with each other. Yeah, I’m curious as to what he’ll do. He has all the bus movie footage.

CS: Have you seen that at least?
Van Sant: I’ve seen different versions of that, yeah.

Milk opens in select cities on November 26 then expands wider in early December. Look for video interviews with the cast of the movie next week.

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