Kicking A Lion

…hear us roar

How director Gus Van Sant finally got to make his biopic of the first openly gay politician elected to U. S. office

by Kevin Williamson

LOS ANGELES–Relevancy is luck. Just ask Good Will Hunting director Gus Van Sant, who has wanted to make a biopic about slain gay rights activist Harvey Milk for more than a decade.

He’s not alone. Some of Hollywood’s most powerful actors and filmmakers have also circled the material through the years. At one point, Robin Williams was set to portray Milk, the first openly gay politician elected to U. S. public office in San Francisco in the 1970s; he was later shot to death by disgruntled city supervisor Dan White. And yet only now –at a point in which Milk’s politically charged era uncannily mirrors America’s present day –has the film been made.

Simply entitled Milk, it stars Sean Penn alongside a cast that includes James Franco, Emile Hirsch and Josh Brolin. It opens Wednesday in limited release then goes wide across Canada next month.

Book-ended by a tape recording Milk made in the event of his murder, the film charts his rise from unfocused businessman living in the Castro–a haven to the city’s gay population –to a political titan.

He ultimately clashed on the national stage with right-wing firebrand Anita Bryant, defeating an initiative that would have banned gays from teaching in never imagined his film would parallel current events. Chief among them? Proposition 8, the ban on gay marriage California voted in earlier this month.

“A year ago, there was no (Barack) Obama, no Sarah Palin, no Proposition 8. All these things sort of came together. Prop8 is an amazing coincidence. And Obama is so Harvey-like, to me. Not only his themes, but also now that he will be in office soon, when he talks about alternative energy and with a real interest and a keen interest that sort of surpasses even Clinton. You think, ‘Wow, maybe the hip president is now in office.'”

As for what similarities exist between Palin and Bryant, “Milk” screenwriter Dustin Lance Black offers this view: “Two beauty queens who have a lot of interest in their hair-dos and what goes on in people’s bedrooms.”

Van Sant first got involved with “Milk” in the early 1990s. At that time, Oliver Stone was expected to make the film -entitled “The Mayor of Castro Street” -his follow- up to his controversial 1991 epic, “JFK.” Williams was even signed for the lead.

“Oliver decided not to do it all of a sudden,” remembers Van Sant, who took over the project and spent more than a year working on it before it again collapsed. “I couldn’t pull off an Oliver Stone script with the way I thought of the story and the Castro and the way I thought of Harvey.”

“A year ago, there was no (Barack) Obama, no Sarah Palin, no Proposition 8. All these things sort of came together. Prop 8 is an amazing coincidence. And Obama is so Harvey-like to me. Not only his themes, but also now that he’s in office, or will be in office, when he talks about alternative energy and with a real interest and a keen interest that sort of surpasses even Clinton. You think, ‘Wow, maybe the hip president is now in office.’ ”

As for what similarities exist between Palin and Bryant, Milk screenwriter Dustin Lance Black offers this view: “Two beauty queens who have a lot of interest in their hair-dos and what goes on in people’s bedrooms.”

Van Sant first got involved with Milk in the early 1990s. At that time, Oliver Stone was expected to make the film–entitled The Mayor of Castro Street–his follow-up to his controversial 1991 epic JFK. Williams was even signed for the lead.

“Oliver decided not to do it all of a sudden,” remembers Van Sant, who took over the project and spent more than a year working on it before it again collapsed.

“I couldn’t pull off an Oliver Stone script with the way I thought of the story and the Castro and the way I thought of Harvey.”

Years later, he attempted to revive the film, this time with Penn in mind to star.

“I tried to get the movie going again sometime after ‘Good Will- Hunting.’ Sean was going to play Harvey and Tom Cruise was going to play Dan White. But it was a very brief relationship because I was a horrible producer. I didn’t bug the agents enough.”

Then, last year, Black’s screenplay -which wasn’t based on previous material -was brought to Van Sant’s attention. Almost immediately, both the director and Penn were back on board. Cruise again flirted with playing White, as did Matt Damon. Finally, Penn suggested Brolin.

Again, the timing was uncanny. “‘No Country for Old Men’ hadn’t come out then, so he wasn’t the Josh we know today,” Van Sant says. “We cast him and then they won the Academy Award.”

Expectedly, Oscar buzz is already building for the film and for Penn, who was reported to have texted his former spouse after performing his first same-sex kiss with Franco.

“Yeah, he called Madonna,” Van Sant confirms. “They had to kiss for four takes and each take was one minute, so they were really, really long kisses.”

Madonna’sreaction? “‘Good for you.'”

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Written by kickingalion

November 24, 2008 at 3:54 pm

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