A Tale of Two Movies

After decades in development hell, how Gus Van Sant finally got Milk.

In the film, Harvey states that he thinks Dan may be a closet case: “I think he’s one of us.”

That’s his theory, and he says “Just a theory.” His friends say “No, no, no.” And it is just a theory.

Harvey liked to joke with people, get into a lot of back and forth, and charm them that way. Dan White seemed incapable of dealing with that. If he can’t get what he wants, he doesn’t know what to do. That scene where he’s drunk and crying in front of Harvey makes him sympathetic to a degree. But the way things were going, even if Harvey hadn’t come along, he would have had a hard time.

That’s true. Politics was something Dan White wasn’t good at. Politicians are strange, don’t you think?

I get the impression this production came together fairly quickly.

The first time I saw the script was May, 2007. We finally started shooting on January 15, 2008. So it took awhile. We were happy, but we wanted it to be instantaneous. There was some idea of shooting it in August of 2007. We weren’t sure if The Mayor of Castro Street was going to start at the same time.

After you left that project, Stone moved on too, and it went back into development. When last heard from, it was going to be directed by Bryan Singer. But Singer got hung up on Valkyrie and when Milk went into production, Zadan and Meron finally pulled the plug.

It was funny, because Sean wanted us to promise him that we weren’t going to be shooting in City Hall or even San Francisco, while another film was being made about Harvey Milk—only for his own psyche.

Did he have any directorial input?

Sean didn’t want to, because he knew it would be disastrous. We’d lose two or three hours in the morning because he had makeup to put on, and it didn’t make us fall behind, but it made our shots kind of austere. Harris [Savides, Van Sant’s frequent cinematographer] is happy shooting from one angle, but the studio was like, “How about some coverage?” And we said, “No we’re not into coverage.” But Sean said, “You can shoot with two cameras,” because he has. I never have. Harris shoots with five cameras when he’s working with Ridley Scott. But Universal offered it, and I liked it cause we were getting all this extra stuff. We had the same A.D. Sean had on Into the Wild, David Rudd, and he said, “Hey, what happened to the Sean who’d show up two hours before the shoot?” And Sean just said, “Different guy.” There’s the actor guy and then there’s the director.

It’s a very interesting project coming off of your whole “film as objet d’art” period, culminating in Paranoid Park. To me, the film of yoursMilk most resembles is your first,Mala Noche.

Really?

Because you’re playing around with different kinds of film stocks, focal lengths.

Oh yes. The cinema!

So next is the life of Ken Kesey?

There’s a script being worked on by Dustin, but I don’t know if it’s next. Something else may come up first. I’ve learned that when it comes to movies, you never know.

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