Gus Van Sant (Left) directs Sean Penn in Milk
Gus Van Sant, the openly gay director of Milk, talks about making one of the most powerful films of the decade, Proposition 8 and working with straight actors.
Born in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1952, Van Sant made his feature film directorial debut in 1985 with Mala Noche, which won the Los Angeles Film Critics Association award for Best Independent / Experimental Film. His rich body of work incorporates Drugstore Cowboy, starring Matt Dillon and Kelly Lynch; My Own Private Idaho, starring River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves; Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, starring Uma Thurman; and To Die For, with Nicole Kidman.
Van Sant’s next feature, Good Will Hunting, brought him a Best Director Academy Award nomination and he followed that up with his controversial remake of Psycho, which was the first feature shot-for-shot recreation of a film, and Finding Forrester. Elephant, shot on location in his hometown of Portland with a cast of novice actors won both the top prize (the Palme d’Or) and the Best Director award at the 2003 Cannes International Film Festival. A longtime musician himself, the 56-year-old filmmaker has also directed music videos for the likes of David Bowie, Elton John and The Red Hot Chili Peppers. Oh, and Hanson!
He first heard about Milk in the early 1990s, after talking with Rob Epstein, the director of the documentary The Times of Harvey Milk, who told him about a screenplay that Oliver Stone was developing. “Harvey Milk is one of the more illustrious gay activists, and since he died in the line of duty, he has achieved sainthood in the gay world. One reason to make this film was for younger people who weren’t around during his time; to remember him, and to learn about him…” says Van Sant.
The result has been a widely acclaimed film – said to be one of the seminal works dealing with gay characters and subjects – which has won multiple awards; including Oscars for its star Sean Penn and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black.
Apparently, you picked up this project from Oliver Stone…
Oliver Stone had developed a script from a Randy Shilts’ book and then decided not to do it. So, they were looking for a director for the dramatic version of Harvey Milk. And I just so happen to have, that same week, a meeting with one of Oliver’s ex-producers. I said, ‘I heard that Oliver is looking for a replacement?’ And I told him about a desire I had to get involved. And so, I did.
Does Milk mark a return to making bigger films, shot perhaps in a slightly less idiosyncratic style?
It does, yeah. I think that it’s the biggest film for me since Finding Forrester [with Sean Connery, in 2000]. The screenplay for Milk, and the way that the scenes were written, how they were constructed, the intentions of the scenes, the rhythm of the way that the story fitted together, very much suggested a more traditional style of some kind.
What were your thoughts on getting Milk into theaters before the Proposition 8 election (which banned same-sex marriage in California in November last year)?
We considered trying to accelerate our schedule time to affect the vote. But we had to consider whether we should affect the quality of the movie in order to play into one vote in California and ignore possible future votes in other states. And also, you have to think about how it would actually play during an election period, and whether or not people will be too busy with the election to actually see the movie. Also, being forced into finishing it in a rush, and having it affect the quality of the film, we still have no guarantee will people go and see the film.
Do you think Milk could have affected the vote on Proposition 8?
It depends on what reaction people would have had. It could, I mean, it could definitely, if they had been successful it would. But then again, it might even hurt the vote. There are a lot of things at play. I think that if the movie could help the vote, and we could foresee all these different things that were in play, then we blew it.
Why was making this film important to you? And did you have any reservations about directing it?
No, I never had reservations about directing it. It was important because people have forgotten the story of Harvey Milk. It’s the birth of an international gay neighborhood, the Castro. It’s the first decade of bringing homosexuality out of a criminality. Before 1969, you would be put in prison if you danced with another man on a dance floor. Really, it could be even 10 years in prison, just because you danced with somebody. So, yeah, it was very important.
A lot of people thought they’d see an African-American president in their lifetime. Do you think you’ll ever see an openly homosexual president?
Yeah I think you could. I think so. Harvey would have been a good president.
There are very few openly gay ace actors and yet there must be some. Why do they stay in the closet?
I think it’s because of the majority of the films are playing to large audiences. If the audience is 80 percent heterosexual, then they like to make films about heterosexual love stories, because that’s what the audience is looking for. To me, it’s about commerce. And if your actors are not playing into that commercial aspect, then their career might be stunted or. At least in America. I don’t think it would necessarily be the same in other countries.
There were voices wondering if Rupert Everett didn’t get the James Bond franchise because he came out…
Does he say that?
Then he’s a good example, because he is one of our main gay actors who are out. And because James Bond is such a womaniser, it could be difficult for the concept. But I think that this thing needs to be tried. And if it were, if it were common for us to have out gay actors and cast them in roles, then that would be fine. It’s just that the change happens slowly. It’s become so much like Las Vegas here, the gambling of the industry, that they make their bets based on things like ‘We can’t cast Rupert because he’s gay and it won’t work’.
But you did the opposite in asking Sean Penn to play an openly gay character…
Yeah, but I think the question is that we don’t have out gay actors that are available. We have Rupert Everett and we have Alan Cumming. I mean, certainly Alan Cumming could have played Harvey Milk. It’s just that a main lead character must get the money people and the gambling instinct excited. Those people don’t want to put their $20 million on Alan, mostly because he hasn’t yet had the film that he will have one day, where he carries the really big project. So you’re not left with a lot of other choices among the A-list actors, unless they are either not out or not gay.
Do you straight actors are more willing to try gay roles following the success of Brokeback Mountain?
Yeah, I’m sure Brokeback had lots of effects on our film, and maybe even to the point of getting it off the ground. It wasn’t that easy going getting it started. It was a year ago, and the people making movies do not see them as an educational exercise. They’re making them as a bus