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Brad Balfour

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Q & A: Sean Penn and Gus Van Sant Pour Out Their Hearts about Milk

Posted: 02/20/09 05:55 PM ET

Feature Story by Brad Balfour

A diffident, and at times, defiant, hour-long press conference took place with cast members of Milk--Sean Penn, Josh Brolin, James Franco, Allison Pill and Emile Hirsch plus director Gus Van Sant and writer Dustin Lance Black--but it didn't yield much of a sustained discussion on the film's talking points. Yet that was okay, since Milk is a movie that's not only driven by that defiance but also a lot of hope.

Recalling the life and murder of activist Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man in the U.S. to be elected to a significant political office (as a San Francisco supervisor), the film undulates between archival footage, audio recordings and a fictional retelling of Milk's life from his 40th birthday until his death. It was important that, even if all the answers weren't found in either this discussion or the film, that many of these crucial questions were being raised.

Since this press conference was the only time Van Sant and Penn spoke to NYC media together during their visit, it seemed worthwhile to present the gist of Penn's and Van Sant's answers--who were the PC's primary focus. It was an opening salvo of their comments on the film before it had yet garnered all the response and accolades it has since gotten after it opened. Though neither the 49-year-old Penn or the 56-year-old Van Sant are strangers to such hosannas--Penn has already won one Best Actor Oscar (Mystic River) and Van Sant was nominated for Best Director (Good Will Hunting)--the support of this film has resonated more deeply in light of ongoing controversies about homosexuals being allowed to legally marry.

So as it has gathered awards and nominations for Penn and the film's creators, from Van Sant to Black, spiraling down to 2009's Oscar night, Milk stands out--if nothing else--as the bio-pic of the year and a beacon for gay rights.

Q: At what point did you become committed to making or being part of this story?

SP: There were challenges in this that were exciting. It started with Gus Van Sant. I think all of us here--and any actor with a hunger to be in something fantastic--wants to work with Gus. And then [Gus] gave me Lance's sensational script, so it was a no-brainer. It was a wonderfully written script with one of the great directors. Of course, I could lay on top of all that, the values that this story and Harvey Milk's life have, but that would take a long time.

GVS: I've done a few films [with] gay characters, but not super-positive gay characters. I heard about this project through Rob Epstein, [the director of the electric, Oscar-winning documentary, The Times of Harvey Milk,] who had heard that [director] Oliver Stone was no longer going to make a version of the film that was at Warner Brothers.

So I was interested in it, and got wrapped up in studying it. But I think that political stories are always really interesting to tell, so they're often avoided because they can get--I guess--boring, basically.

Harvey's personality was a way to have a character that resembled someone--like Abbie Hoffman, almost--who was running for political office and at the same time represented his gay community. So it seemed like an amazing opportunity to have all these things in one story.

Q: You really caught Harvey Milk's mannerisms and gestures, other than watching Epstein's documentary or talking to Cleve Jones (an actual participant in Milk's life and historical consultant who is played by Emile Hirsch), how did you prepare for this role?

SP: Well, the documentary and some additional archival footage were very helpful. I say that a little vaguely because with [this] sort of thing, the best way you can use it is watch it a lot, the same way you play music all day in the background and not necessarily be thinking about it. I kept it on all the time.

When you go for a period of time, little synapses start to connect and if you listen carefully, you can hear the music of that and kind of dance with it. Then, of course, with what [Dustin] Lance [Black] wrote, and it comes from all directions. But it was clear, at least in terms of--for lack of a better term--a "character choice," that the most exciting version of Harvey Milk, to me, was Harvey Milk.

If you see the documentary, the guy is a movie star in [it]--he is electric, a warm guy. You just reach and reach and reach, [but] never assume you're going to get it all the way there. You figure that with the help of the director and screenwriter and all the other things that a movie is, that you can get the spirit of [him] out there the best you can.

Q: Since you gave such a seamless performance, did Harvey stay with you while you were playing him and seep into your daily life? Has he changed you as a person?

SP: The answer is that he did stay with me. How, I'm not entirely sure--I haven't given it a lot of thought. When something comes in that you become aware that it's there, you think, "Oh, don't go away."

In terms of humanity, one likes to think that with each day and each person that comes into your life directly or indirectly, there's some growth of some kind, hopefully, in a positive direction.

Certainly with [Harvey], there would have been but I can't identify it. In a very immediate way, there's a lot of--let's say--timeliness to this story that we've all been hearing about, in reference to the recent experience that we've had. But I can't be more specific than that.

Q: Did you recognize him as affecting you in your daily life as you are playing him?

SP: No. My daily life consists of getting up at six in the morning, making sure I've got my words together, that my kids got off to school or [that they] are going to wake up in time if I leave for work before them, and then I'm at work all day. Then I'm exhausted going home and learning a bunch of lines for the next day. So I don't know if I had a daily life other than what's on the screen.

Q: With the Prop 8 decision that rescinded gay marriage in California in November 2008, the gay movement has become a new issue for civil rights advocates. Can this movie charge reaction and stimulate a response that it might get people to be more conscious of the issues that are well defined in the film?

GVS: Yeah, especially now with Prop 8 and the reactions to Prop 8. It's mobilized and brought together the gay community--particularly, the younger gay community. It's their time now and they have taken to the streets. I think there was an interview by a gay writer in Los Angeles, and who had been to the first rally that was a response to Prop 8 decision in Los Angeles.

He went to the West Hollywood gathering, and there was a speaker, and, to his surprise, everyone walked away and walked up the street to Sunset. He had been to many rallies in West Hollywood, this had never happened before. I think there's a new energy that's inspiring.

Our film is about a new energy of a different time--a sexual liberation from the '60s that developed in people who had found their gay sexuality and banded together in the Castro, which had a lot of young energy of that time. [It's also about] the nuts and bolts of the political strategies that are hugely informative in the movie--and mostly inspiring. When it plays in theaters, it definitely plays into that gay civil rights energy of today.

Q: What are your thoughts about this?

SP: I go with what Gus said. It's only an issue because of ignorance in the first place. We don't have an excuse of being ignorant of the law. In fact any support of Proposition 8, would be minimally manslaughter.

Because no human should [judge] teenage boys who are going to hang themselves [because] they reach out for an identity that they can't have, in part because of things like "issues" like this--the whole history of any civil rights movement has had a problem [with words like "marriage"]. So as long as it's an issue, it's an obscenity. If this movie is part of an engine to can help reveal that, [then] that's going to make all of us really happy and proud.

Q: Was the use of archival footage in the film originally part of the script, or was that something that you brought in? How was it obtained, and how difficult was it to find? With the mix that's in this film--a narrative feature with documentary elements that cross back and forth--how was that intended to influence a response to the film?

GVS: For me, it was probably indicated in the script. There [were] a couple of other things. There was a question of whether we would be able to assemble marchers, and so I thought, maybe we could just use footage that was shot by the news showing a large number of marchers. I knew that Rob Epstein had some images of the candlelight march, so it was possible to ask him to let us use that in the film.

But when we started looking for these marches, we often looked under anything that said "Harvey Milk" on it. So we ended up with 12 hours of footage, and even wanted more. We went to the Harmell Library and the Gay and Lesbian Archives in San Francisco, and looked at home movies that were of the Castro, and started to play with [them] when we were editing, and really liked what was going on.

We also started to shoot the film with the idea that we would actually shoot in 16mm. That changed while we were working on it. We really were going to go for the full-on documentary look throughout, which got changed. The documentary footage inspired that.

Q: How does this combination of archival and regular footage impact on it? What's your intention? Why did you decide not to use 16 mm?

GVS: I think for me it was to bring--it was all that verisimilitude and bringing the audience right into the actual period. The documentary footage always succeeded, where it was always harder for us to succeed where you're reality watching the period, and it was always a trick to draw the audience into that period.

The 16mm idea got waylaid because of fears that we were shooting in a format that was unstable, or not as detailed as maybe our studio wanted us to be. But we made it match the way--the filmstocks we used.

Q: Since November 4th there's been an escalation of tensions and discord between the gay and "faith" communities; how did that impact on the performance of the film at the box office, for even an ostensibly sympathetic figure like Harvey Milk, we were seeing such raw hatred against gay people every day on the streets and in the press.

GVS: Well, we're seeing both. There's raw hatred and then there's also the support. Both sides are playing out in press and in the community. It's the nature of the battle, and it's encased in the film as well.

SP: It's also important, though, to remember that the tension is not between the gay and the faith communities. The tension is between the community which in fact really is gay, and a pseudo-faith community which has nothing to do with God, love, or anything of real "faith" and it's really just hypocrisy and hatred. So any faith community that deserves the title "faith community" really won't have a problem with these issues.

Q: You have a lot of wonderful film and theatre talent in this film. Allison Pill has been in eight of the best plays that have been produced recently. Denis O'Hare and Stephen Spinella have won Tonys, and are "out" actors. Was this an in-joke of sorts, to have them play the most uptight people in the film?

GVS: Not as a joke, but yeah, they are really great actors that we wanted to get in the film, and were really great for those parts as well.

Q: How did you come up with them--through an audition process or were they a choice?

GVS: There was an audition process. We did try and enlist the talents of as many gay actors as we could. There weren't that many that were of box office stature when it comes to the bigger studios. So when it came to roles like Rick Stokes and John Briggs, those guys fit in very well and were great.

Q: Was it fun for them to play those characters?

GVS: It was very much fun for both of those guys to play their roles.

Q: Spinella played Stokes, who was in fact an openly gay lawyer running against Milk in the supervisor campaign?

GVS: He was an openly gay lawyer who ran for supervisor against Harvey. The sort of opposite, [who didn't want to] overtax the campaigns by saying the word "gay" too much and offend the straight audience.

Q: Could you two comment on the parallels between Harvey Milk and president-elect Barack Obama, in terms of being galvanizing figures and the parallels between their two campaigns, the platform of hope, etc.

SP: Well, I think that's the first thing that hits any of us, I guess, is "hope"--to use the word. At that moment in time, relative to the gay community of San Francisco that he was running to represent, it was such a necessary part of what he was offering. Similarly, today, for the whole world in every issue, anything that represents hope might be our last shot at it. So, there's those obvious parallels. But I'm not going to tell you anything you're not going to write without me.

Q: Gus could you talk about working with DP Harris Savides. His work [brings in a] greeting card element.

GVS: Our Director of Photography, Harris Savides, has shot a number of things. I first heard about him doing a commercial. The people putting the commercial together were looking for a DP, which is such a crucial thing in a DP. They had shot with Harris in Europe, and they showed me the commercial and it looked pretty good. And the clincher was that they said Madonna wouldn't work with anyone else. She needed Harris. And I thought, well, she must be pretty discerning, and I kind of had the Madonna thing: "I got to use Madonna's DP."

Q: He is her ex-husband [laughter]. But her film is not nearly as good as yours.

SP: Whoa.

GVS: So that was the first thing I did, finding Harris, putting [our relationship] together. And then we did Gerry, Elephant and Last Days together. Harris is very, very experimental. So one of the things I was planning for as we were shooting a scene was the characters coming through a door and we did it through a window. Harris has a unique way of talking; Harris is saying--"This should be the whole shot, just this."

And I'm saying, "This angle only? Just leave it, all the way, and they come all the way through the door and all the way to the window? It'll take five minutes." I was paranoid, so I said, "No, we're going to shoot a lot of other angles, too." But essentially that's what we ended up doing in Gerry and Elephant and Last Days. So we've been through that together.

It's forging certain aesthetics together. But when we came to Milk, we were starting over from the beginning each time. So this time, with the whole 16mm idea, which got derailed. But he's been great. He's an amazing visual partner.

Q: Sean, you made the sexuality shown in the movie really successful; it was so nonchalant and casual that it was really effective. It seemed natural and interwoven into the story so that the audience didn't really think about it.

SP: Well, Cleve Jones said something really great. Early on, we had put together a dinner for a lot of the people that had been involved in Harvey's campaign. He said one of the myths is that we're all just the same, it's just the sex that's different. He said, "In reality, we're very different, it's just the sex that's pretty much the same."

The difference, of course, is living with bigotry and oppression and all of that shit. And that was where the focus went. The rest of it is, for some people, a guy gives them a boner, for somebody else, it's a woman. So it was an approach, the sex is the sex is the sex is the sex, but the other part was really the heart of the picture.

Q: Do you have any thoughts on how the world might have been a different place if Harvey Milk hadn't been assassinated?

SP: I think less people would've died of AIDS. I think Ronald Reagan would've been forced to address it. It was a tragic loss. He wouldn't have stood quietly. He was a leader, and he happened to be focused on the gay movement.

The impression was--there was a popular notion initially that this was a "gay disease." Certainly a huge numbers of homosexuals died related to it and all that. I think he would have advanced that argument a lot sooner. People are dead because he died too soon.

Q: Gus, will this, as the expression goes, "Play in Peoria?" This isn't La Cage Aux Folles. Will straight audiences, straight men in particular, feel queasy seeing Milk?

GVS: I don't really see it that way. Maybe, ultimately, there are some challenges, but I think it's a very intense movie, very positive, and uplifting.

Q: It's a very competitive marketplace right now.

GVS: I do think it's one of a kind within the marketplace.

SP: The one gay guy in Peoria can't wait for this movie [laughs].