Penn to star in Harvey Milk film

  • by Matthew S. Bajko
  • Wednesday September 12, 2007
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Harvey Milk could return to the Castro this winter as a new movie based on the famous gay politician's life starring local actor Sean Penn is expected to begin filming in San Francisco this December.

According to the Hollywood Reporter, Penn is "attached" to play Milk and director Gus Van Sant is pursuing Matt Damon to play Dan White, the former cop, firefighter, and city supervisor who shot and killed Milk and Mayor George Moscone in their City Hall offices on November 27, 1978. White later committed suicide in 1985 after serving five years in prison for the murders.

Milk was the first openly gay man to win elective office in the United States when voters elected him to the Board of Supervisors in 1977. His death galvanized a generation of LGBT people to not only come out of the closet but run for elective office. Milk famously said "You gotta give them hope" and his words are still evoked today by politicians, activists and community members.

Van Sant has long wanted to bring Milk's life to the big screen. He has teamed up with financial backer producer Michael London and his Groundswell Productions, producers Bruce Cohen and Dan Jinks, and writer Dustin Lance Black of the HBO series Big Love.

The trade publication reported the casting news Monday, September 10. According to the article, the filmmakers are in talks with a "leading specialty division" about the project and that once a deal is finalized, production on the as-yet-unnamed movie could begin in San Francisco as early as December. Due to the uncertainty surrounding a start date, Damon may not be able to star in the film, said the report.

Milk's friends, who have had a hand in Van Sant's project, told the Bay Area Reporter that they are pleased with the choice of Penn. In an e-mail, photographer Dan Nicoletta, who is spearheading an effort to place a bust of Milk in City Hall, said he felt both Penn and Damon would be great in their respective roles.

"A while ago I had heard that Sean Penn had been investigating at least one other script about a social maverick ... can't remember, but I was pleased to know that he cared and of course his track record on utilizing his position of visibility for social good is already outstanding...," wrote Nicoletta. "So I think if someone is attracted to a role from a politicized standpoint it can only add to the potential for success in honoring something like the heavily politicized dynamic that Harvey was famous for."

Cleve Jones, who for 17 years has pushed to have Van Sant bring Milk's story to the silver screen, said he is "very, very pleased" with the casting decisions.

"Sean is a brilliant actor. He is the right age, is a San Franciscan, and I happen to like his politics," said Jones, who introduced Van Sant to Black and demurred when asked who would be cast to play himself in the film. "Sally Field is a little old. Someone young and gorgeous."

Jones, who befriended Milk and worked as a student intern in Milk's office, said this week's casting announcement is a sure sign that filming of the long awaited movie will likely begin later this year.

"We have all been on pins and needles for months and months. It looks good but it is never done until it is done," said Jones, reached on his cell phone at San Francisco International Airport Monday morning before boarding a flight home to Palm Springs.

Van Sant's project is one of two slated to bring Milk's life and death to the big screen. Fellow openly gay director Bryan Singer signed on two years ago to Hairspray producers Craig Zadan's and Neil Meron's 15-year-long effort to turn Randy Shilts's 1982 Milk biography The Mayor of Castro Street into a movie.

According to the Hollywood Reporter , Warner Independent Pictures signed a deal this summer with Participant Productions to co-finance the project and brought in Singer's Usual Suspects writer Chris McQuarrie to pen a new draft of the script. But the article noted that McQuarrie is now in Germany with Singer working on Valkyrie and also working on the Castro script, making an immediate production start less likely to happen, especially with Singer committed to first shoot a Superman sequel.