Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 7 / 15 February 2018

Harvey County, USA


Producers Dan Jinks & Bruce Cohen on 'Milk'

From The Times of Harvey Milk. Photo: Courtesy Telling Pictures
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You may have noticed the old Castro District undergoing a subtle facelift these past few weeks as our queer global village prepares to play itself in the long-awaited theatrical treatment of the life, times, politics and martyrdom of our own favorite Saint, Harvey Milk.

Milk, the movie, directed by Gus Van Sant, stars Sean Penn as Harvey, with a screenplay by a passionate young man, Dustin Lance Black, who's done his own homework with assistance from local LGBT history buffs and the former pied piper of the hood, Names Project founder Cleve Jones.

Milk tracks the brief transforming moment (1972-78) from the birth-pangs of a neighborhood and a movement to the heartbreaking climax of the City Hall assassinations. In my phone conversation with Milk producers Dan Jinks and Bruce Cohen, we covered the brilliant young supporting cast, a dazzling Who's Who of Indie-Wood, from Emile Hirsch (Cleve Jones), Diego Luna (as Harvey's last lover, Jack Lira), James Franco (as Harvey's first flame, Scott Smith) and Josh Brolin (as Supervisor Dan White) to Joseph Cross (as Milk political guru Dick Pabich). Co-producer Jinks (in Harvey's day, his dad was editor of the San Jose Mercury-News ) explained the evolution of the screenplay.

Dan Jinks: Dustin Lance Black, the screenwriter, has a way of telling the story that is so powerful, moving and effective that between the combination of that great script and [director] Gus Van Sant, we immediately said that we just had to be a part of this.

Lance, who's a writer on [HBO's] Big Love, spent a couple of years traveling up to San Francisco almost every weekend, doing an enormous amount of research, talking to almost everybody who was alive in Harvey's life, and spending a great deal of time in the Lesbian/Gay Historical Society. He researched it extremely well, and one of the benchmarks of our movie is authenticity.

Bruce Cohen: A benefit of Lance's research is where he met the real Cleve Jones, and Cleve has become a very trusted part of the project. When wardrobe or the art department have a question about what it was really like and what happened, Cleve was really there.

Jinks: The movie starts when Harvey and Scott Smith first arrive in the Castro in the very early 70s, when it was gay, but it wasn't really that gay yet. It was a time when hippies were rather prevalent in the Castro, and Sean Penn and James Franco are going to look a little hippie-ish at the beginning of the movie.

Cohen: The entire Harvey Milk story is huge: the story of his life, the story of the movement, so there's other films to be told in Harvey's life before our story starts, and there's the whole story after the assassination. We realized that we couldn't tell the whole thing well.

David Lamble: Is Dianne Feinstein, who became mayor after the death of George Moscone, going to be depicted?

Jinks: Yeah, but it's a very small role.

There's her famous announcement at City Hall that day, which many of us will remember on our own deathbeds.

Jinks: Gus has worked on a marvelous technique: there are a few cases where we're going to use actual footage. It's such an iconic moment that anybody who tried to do it would not be as effective.

How are you making the facades of buildings resemble what they were then — old bars like Bear Hollow and Toad Hall?

Cohen: The Castro Street [merchants] have been so unbelievably wonderful and excited about this movie. I think they see this as an opportunity to tell the story of the Castro District, but there's also hope that this movie will help to bring back some of the tourism that there hasn't been as much of in recent years. We're shooting [Milk's] camera store in the real building that the camera store was in, and luckily for us, on that end of the block very little has changed structurally.

How does the script deal with the pre-assassination relationship between Harvey Milk and Dan White? It's a complex relationship.

Jinks: There was a real arc to their relationship: they started off as allies for a bit, they thought they could work together, and then there were moments when they were really pissed off at each other, and that got worse leading up to the assassination.

Does the movie allude to groups like BAGL [Bay Area Gay Liberation] that created the culture Harvey sprung out of?

Jinks: We don't mention those specific groups, but the movie does a good job of showing what the climate was. We're telling a story in under two hours.

Cohen: That struggle within the gay political movement at the time — what are our next steps, how do we get power, do we run for office, do we support the old-line Democratic machine, do we rebel on our own — that's the struggle we�re portraying in the film. We're shooting in a presidential election year whose theme is this desperate hunger for change and authenticity, and no one embodies those attributes more than Harvey Milk.

It's hard for us all to imagine what would the experience of this movie be like if we had never heard of Harvey Milk. But a tremendous number of people 30 and under, gay and straight, will be coming into the movie not knowing Harvey. The experience they're going to have when they see this guy: "Oh my god, look at who he was, look at what he accomplished, and look what happened to him!"

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