One of the most dynamic gay political figures comes to life in Focus Features’ new film Milk. With an amazing cast of today’s top talent Milk is not only destined to become one of the top gay-themed movies of all time, but is a shoe-in for an Oscar Nomination. MGW’s Swanner & Judd were ecstatic to be part of the select press in attendance at a cast interview for the film.
Swanner: Brian and I had the opportunity to interview the cast of the new film Milk. It was the day after the big premier at the Castro Theatre. The premier went off really well, except for a few protesters, and the film was very well received by the audience. Brian and I drove down to the city in the morning and of course got there too early…it’s my fault, I can’t stand to be late. We thought we might get something to eat but after attempting a few hills we came back to the hotel to wait.
Judd: Attempting a few hills! Oh, please! If by “attempting” you mean you looked down/ up the hill and said, “There’s no way my fat ass can make that” then yes, we “attempted” to find something in all four directions from The Ritz Carlton.
Swanner: The hills are very steep there. So we decided to get some coffee at the restaurant in the hotel and wait for the interview. When they brought the coffee it was in a French press and smelled amazing…Brian commented to the waiter that he expected Folgers…yes, I was humiliated. The coffee was wonderful and since we were sitting outside in the courtyard it helped keep us warm. It was about that time we noticed Sean Penn was pacing around the courtyard feverously smoking. Was he on the phone or was he just nervous?
Judd: I wanted to know what Sean was doing out there. He wasn’t supposed to be on the panel, and his hair obviously wasn’t combed—but then, neither was mine.
Swanner: That’s true. We were told originally that Sean Penn wasn’t going to be there. So we still had time to sit and enjoy another cup of coffee while Sean paced and we saw some of the other journalist show up. This was going to be panel interview with writers from around northern California. The studio had set up early screenings so Brian and I were both able to see the movie before the interview. We saw the gentleman that was hosting the interview and he informed us that the tent behind me was actually where we were doing the interview. So Brian and I packed up and moved over to get good seats. There were quite a few young people from the universities and colleges so that meant Brian wasn’t the youngest person there. Fortunately we had time to make fun of the writers that were there.
Judd: I hate press conference-style interviews. I know that since we’re not The Advocate, it’s what we have to settle with (so does the Sac Bee. Ha! Ha!) but college journalism majors are so pretentious and horrible. They’re all looking to get the big scoop and they all ask such inane questions. I actually felt sorry for the Transsexual that was there, because she didn’t ask any questions at all. Tell them about the fat sweaty guy that runs a gay youth website!
Swanner: The guy that Brian is referring to was this guy that was wandering around the tent before he got a seat in the front row. He had some horrible sweat marks down his back, under arms and the dreaded under man boobs sweat stains. He kept Brian entertained because he seemed oblivious to the fact he was that sweaty. When the actual interview started, sweaty guy had the first question.
Journalist: I run a gay youth website. (There was an uncomfortable murmuring as he spoke and one of the celebrities said “gay…youth” and everyone was creeped out on the panel. Even Gus Van Sant made a face as did the crowd as a whole. Brian leaned over and said “oh, this is going to be fun!” Once everyone had recovered the man continued.)
Journalist: My point is when I’m writing about this movie on my site it’s for people who weren’t born when all this went down, so I figured since the cast is in the same boat and hadn’t heard of Milk before this what was your take away from this and how is it going to effect the rest of your lives?
Sean Penn: Well, that’s going to have to apply to those whose ages you didn’t under estimate.
(Laughter from the group.)
James Franco: I was born in 78, the year Harvey Milk was killed and I grew up in the Bay area. You think I would have known more about Harvey Milk but they don’t teach it in schools or anything like that. That’s what’s so great about this movie is that I hope it’s raising the awareness of who he was and what he did. You think that growing up here I’d know who he was or what he did before I did this movie but the fact is I didn’t.
Journalist: I wanted to ask Josh specifically, when you played Dan White, was there in your calculations for you playing the character, considerations that White could himself had been a victim of the society he lived in as Harvey Milk was a victim of White…?
Josh Brolin: Harvey wasn’t victimized by Dan White ‘til the end, the fact of the matter was that Harvey came up against a lot of obstacles like any gay man would now, even though the irony is of Prop. 8 being what it is now mirrors Prop. 6 being what it was then. Obstacles are OK to me. Anita Bryant and the rest of these guys represented in the film are OK but when you resort to the violence that Dan White resorted to is when it turns into something else. It was a very sad moment. I see him as a incredibly frustrated guy. I hear questions of if he was a latent homosexual…I mean who knows, it’s all conjecture. When you feel that the only resort is to do something that’s tangible. That’s how I always saw that moment as being the only tangible thing…cause and affect. If I do this, this will happen. Dan White was not a ready made politician. He was a guy that was way over his head. He was a guy who had tremendous pressure through the Police Force and the Fire Department to bring back San Francisco to what it use to be and to stop the whole gay movement. He had pressures that were beyond his control… that’s for sure.
Journalist: Allison, how much did you work with Anne Kronenberg before or during filming and what was that process like?
Alison Pill: I met Anne the first day of rehearsal and I completely changed the way I thought of the character in that moment. She’s an amazing, powerful woman but also incredibly calming to have in the room and one of the strongest women I’ve ever met but in a very subtle, womanly way. It was an important energy to try to capture it was important to do the historical research as well through books and film. Having the actual people there to get all the hilarious stories that build up a person…that’s especially helpful.
Journalist: Dustin, I wanted to ask you… you’re very young and this must have been history to you opposed to something that you had lived through. Two things, what drew you to the story, how did you discover it and motivated you to write it? Not to mention the incredible resonance battle between the Briggs initiative and now with Proposition 8…when you were writing it, this wasn’t happening yet .
Dustin Lucas Black: It came about because my step father was stationed in Ft. Ord, down in Monterrey. It wasn’t a great place for a closet case to hang out. So I’d come up here to San Francisco and I started hearing this story, first by this director I was apprenticing under, they told the story of Harvey Milk. This was very surprising since I never heard of an out gay man that was celebrated by his city. I found that very inspirational. I held on to that for a very long time and I tracked the progress of his story. I saw it falling off and his message falling off and thought it was time to do something to revive that and get it back out there. The resonance to prop 8, I didn’t know there’d be a prop 8 but I don’t think this fight is over. I think there will be more propositions. Each time there is it’s a great opportunity to get out that education campaign and it gives us the opportunity to say “hey, this is who we are” and break down some of these myths that Harvey talked about so much.
Journalist: This is directed to Sean. What do you do to prepare for a role… and how much responsibility do you take on a character that’s a historical figure?
Sean Penn: For me it started with Gus and Lance’s script. That leads me to Harvey and looking at the history and archival footage. What just got stronger and stronger is to your question of responsibility…you almost try to keep that at bay. What struck have been in politics even if he hadn’t been a political figure simply because he had been one of these people that had come up against the obvious obstacles of life and greeted if with such courage and warmth. He was a kind spirit and that was going to be strong no matter what he did. So I followed what the writer wrote and what the director was directing and the flow of my increasing affection for Harvey Milk the more I got to know him.
Brian Judd: Gus, the two relationships that Harvey had in the movie have both passed on. How did you get the actors to develop relationship between Harvey and Scott and Harvey and the other character – I can’t remember the name of…sorry, I’m fat.
(Edit by Brian Judd – I did not call myself fat!)
Gus Van Sant: There was a rehearsal period where we read the script slowly, talked about it. When everyone is in make-up and has learned their lines and the artistic input which is almost the artist license where you just make it up. Even if they were alive they wouldn’t have remembered bedroom conversations. It’s the script, and the actors and you act it out, and if it works…you keep it.
Journalist: Gus, were you ever tempted to shade the homosexuality to represent then opposed to now. Were you ever conflicted?
Gus Van Sant: A lot of that was handled in Lance’s script. Even thought the film takes place 75 to 78 you still are tainted by our modern gay world. You try to remember what it was like and you go by historical document and stories and the script. We are always trying to get to that day but you always have discrepancies.
Journalist: Why do you think this film is important to student and what kind of impact do you think it will have with young people?
James Franco: I think it will be important
to students because most students don’t know who Harvey milk is and it’s an introduction to him and that period of history. For me what the film was about was human rights, equality and democracy. Some of the core principals I think American is about and what they stand for…I think those are important things for college students to know.
Allison Pill: I think it was also and important time for activism. Both for youth and across the generations. Harvey was also good about bring in seniors and he brought in Anne at 23 to run his campaign. Students should know there is power in that kind of activism. Once you put trust in them you can do great work.
Journalist: Gus and Dustin, the film uses stills, archival footage and recreated telecasts…what role did the media play in the Harvey Milk story?
Dustin Lucas Black: It was always important, the stuff that’s included in the script — cause some of it was invented after the fact in post between Elliot, the editor, and Gus — but the stuff that is in the script, it’s important to create that environment. It’s kind of an unbelievable environment when you look back now and you hear some of the quotes Anita gave, if played by an actress it could be seen as caricature. It hear for some folks, even today, to think that she really said the things she said and meant the things she said. Having it be actual footage gives it that authenticity. The quotes in the script are
direct quotes from Anita and direct quotes from the press, so Gus took it from there.
Gus Van Sant: The communications media was a major part of their political campaigning. A lot of that existed still. Anita’s side of the story was in the script and always present as we thought the footage could tell the story better and we never considered hiring an actress. From there we thought we’d use the Feinstein footage of her announcing that Moscone and Milk had been shot. Also using stock footage for crowd scenes if we need to use it.
Journalist: I was wondering what you (James) did to get into character. Was there a lot of archival footage of Scott that you studied?
James Franco: There wasn’t a lot. Two main research things I did was read about the time a lot and specifically about my character. The difference with Scott compared to other historical figures I’ve played is not a lot of people know who Scott Smith was and so it isn’t the same pressure to capture that character as when you play James Dean. Where you can go watch East of Eden and see how he moved and you’ll be judged by matching that behavior or not. Now with Scott Smith, no ones going to know the difference.I did meet with Ron Epstein who directed The Life and Times of Harvey Milk and asked him if he had any footage of Scott and he had some footage that he transferred for me. So I did get to see how he talked like and sounded like and his mannerisms.
Journalist: Working in politics has become very heroic and movies about heroes usually come from Marvel comics. Why was it important to convey that message now that this kind of work is heroic.
Sean Penn: One thing I’d like to say about that is using Harvey Milk as an example, the part of Harvey we didn’t get to have…the great tragedy of his death is that later that very year was the beginning of the fucking plague and there is no question in my mine that Ronald Reagan would have talked about AIDS if Harvey Milk had made him. Then a lot of lives would have been saved. I think that speaks to any activism. When people stand up…things change. The spirit of that I think Gus and Lance did a great job of getting that feeling in there and not only for gay right but becoming an inspiriting tool for participation.
Tom Swanner: Was there ever any hesitation to take on these roles because you were playing gay?
Sean Penn: I think this is just Josh again.
Josh Brolin: having sex with Harvey was one of the most (trails of, chuckles)… No.
James Franco: I had no hesitation, I had read about it and wrote Gus and e-mail and said I’d do anything to be part of the movie. So there was no question for me.
Sean Penn: I always work on the “it only hurts the first time” philosophy
Josh Brolin: Breathe…Breathe
Journalist: I loved how beautiful the relationship was between Harvey and Scott in the film. So my question for James and Sean is how did you approach the intimate scenes?
James Franco: One thing I liked about our relationship in the movie was that it was never a drama about two men being together cause that wasn’t the issue. It unusually to see in a movie where the relationship is presented that way. I’m sure that actresses get sick of being offered the supportive housewife role but it’s the first one that I was ever offered and it was great to play.
Journalist: This is for Josh. This year you played in W. and you played Dan White. Last year in no country for old men and you’ve been playing the anti hero so will you ever play a good guy?
Josh Brolin: What was that last part? I didn’t hear.
Journalist: No country for old men it’s like Dan White even though he did something horrific I think you did a good job
Josh Brolin: Thank you.
Journalist: Like you’re the anti hero
Josh Brolin: I’m the asshole for hire
Journalist: When will you do something different?
(Josh looks confused by the question and pauses)
Sean Penn: he’s asking you when you’re going to play a good guy?
Josh Brolin: When am I going to do a romantic comedy?
Emile Hirsch: When are you going to get the girl?
Josh Brolin: Probably in the sequel…no. Look, I really appreciate what your saying…I don’t think there is really a question there but if you want to come up and sit on my lap I’m fine with it. It is kind of strange but I like these characters. They’re mixed. They seem very simplistic but they’re not.
Journalist: what impact do you think the film will make from a media stand point considering that by the time people see this movie they would have already voted on prop 8.
Sean Penn: There is something in the movie when Harvey Milk says what an impact it makes if people know just one of us. I think that will happen when people watch this film. People will see a lot of good hearted human beings and that who they decide to fuck is irrelevant…that alone can be strong. They get in there and it feels more familiar and because of that they are less afraid of it. I was at symphony hall the other night and there were protesters holding signs that said Matthew Shepard burn in hell. I think the more these pure hearted people are in their faces the less breathing room there is for that kind of thinking.