Interview: Gus Van Sant on “Milk”

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11252008_milk1.jpgBy Aaron Hillis

2008 is officially a banner year for American auteur Gus Van Sant (“Elephant,” “My Own Private Idaho”). His hauntingly gorgeous and affecting arthouse drama “Paranoid Park” wowed the critical establishment last spring, but this week sees a more mainstream release that will easily earn him another Oscar nomination for best director. Based on the later life, political career and tragic murder of affable, gently eccentric San Francisco city supervisor Harvey Milk, the boldly titled “Milk” stars a predictably brilliant Sean Penn in the eponymous role, the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in America. From his move to New York from San Francisco and his rise to popularity as a Castro Street businessman-turned-activist in the late ’70s, the film reaches its climax with Milk’s impassioned fight against Proposition 6 (commonly called “The Briggs Initiative”), which would’ve banned gays and lesbians from working in California’s public schools. It’s a timely if relatively frustrating storyline, given the real-life uphill battle lost against the passage of the notorious Proposition 8, which as you should sadly know by now, restricts same-sex couples from marrying in the same state where Prop. 6 was once defeated. I sat with Van Sant for an all-too-brief chat about Harvey Milk’s philosophy, Proposition 8’s bittersweet effect on “Milk,” and how his film resembles “The Godfather.”

Harvey Milk believed that coming out “would do more to end prejudice overnight than anyone could imagine.” In theory, that’s a beautiful philosophy, but as every gay person’s environment and circumstances are different, do you agree with him 100 percent?

It was Harvey’s one idea that would have worked and probably did help the “No on Proposition 6” campaign, but it’s a little bit ideological. Intellectually, it would be like if everybody who was gay turned blue; that was kind of what he meant — every single person simultaneously coming out of the closet. Would [former U.S. Senator and 2007 gay-sex scandal convict] Larry Craig turn blue? [laughs] 11252008_milk2.jpgAnd if he did, it gets into a weird situation with people who never in a million years would call themselves gay. It would almost have to go beyond their will to some manifestation of identification to make it happen, only judging from Larry Craig’s reaction when he was busted. It was just not in his mental make-up to be able to say the word “gay” as applied to himself. But, ultimately, it’s an interesting concept, and that was the way he thought had a huge effect on Proposition 6. If it’s not an unknown, it’s not scary. If it’s a known, it’s friendly and you understand, “Oh, that person that I know is gay, and this other person I know is gay.” That’s partly how it works.

As I said, I agree with it in theory.

But people did come out. It was his drive to just come out of the closet, lock the closet, and stay out, which was followed by many people. And really, it was his death request. If a bullet should enter his brain, may it knock down every closet door — that was his last request, his will, which probably extended to many people, including me, because I came out after he was killed.

The gay rights movement seems like two steps forward, one step back. In the time between Prop. 6 and this year’s Prop. 8 sham, how far have we come as a nation?

I think it’s come a huge distance. Gay marriage is the last bastion of, to me… as a legal, ceremonial, sentimental and religious side, it’s one of the last steps. Retaining your job being one of the earlier steps, like, not getting kicked out of your job because you’re gay. But at the same time, it’s a discriminatory situation and Proposition, so it’s ultimately as bad not having come far enough.

Are you optimistic that Prop. 8 will be repealed or corrected somehow under an Obama presidency?

Yeah, I think Obama is hopefully going to be really good for gay rights. He hasn’t really addressed it, and his stance on Prop. 8 is one of “my religion doesn’t allow me to say no on 8.” But I hope that it’s something he can change his mind about, and he has said that he could change his mind about it.

11252008_milk3.jpgDo you feel any sense of bittersweetness that because of the Prop. 8 debacle, “Milk” may find greater commercial success and major awards consideration thanks to its political timeliness?

At this point, every day is different. It was different the week before the election. There was “No on 8” activism during our premiere, across the street from where we opened the film in the Castro Theatre. We were all wearing “No on 8” buttons. Somehow, when 8 passed, something else happened that was even more intense than the campaign, which is good. It was an inspiring reaction that showed strength to the people who were against Prop 8. So yeah, it seems to have an effect on something that’s similar to it: Prop. 6, that appears in our movie. It’s so of the moment, but was also seemingly topical and helpful if the film [had been] able to play during the election. Somehow, it has as equal a life now, when we’re actually going to open the film.

Especially after your last four films, “Milk” is structurally and aesthetically your most conventional film in years. What made you decide on this straightforward approach, and could you address the possible influences of documentarians like Robert Flaherty and Frederick Wiseman?

We didn’t really use Flaherty as an example, but we didn’t shoot this film unlike him. He’s very staid and composed and yet what you see are natural images. Although, if you look into it, Flaherty was sort of explaining to the oil rigger how he wants to come in with the truck [in 1948’s “Louisiana Story”], according to things I’ve heard. In some ways, we did do a Flaherty, not really knowing. What we were consciously doing was something that was just in our heads; we called it “The Godfather.” But come to think of it, “The Godfather” is quite a bit like Flaherty — very conservative, composed and majestic. We tried to make ours like that whenever we could. We didn’t have the exotic locations of Flaherty or the exotic set design of “The Godfather,” but we were thinking that way.

11252008_milk4.jpgWiseman is an influence in general, and William Eggleston as well. But the conservative nature and style of the movie doesn’t necessarily come out of the visuals. The feeling and pacing of the movie really comes from the script, and so that starts to make it quite traditional. The dialogue is traditionally written and delivered. No matter how we shot it, it probably would’ve had a conservative feel to it.

In “Milk” and throughout your oeuvre, you’ve shown a preoccupation for stories about newly created families. Have you ever voiced why you’re drawn to this idea?

My family moved a lot as a kid. We started in Colorado, where I lived for five years. We moved to Chicago for two years, to San Francisco for one year, Connecticut for seven, Oregon for a couple years, and then I went to school. So I was always moving, I’m still always moving, and I think it’s because I had to find a new group of friends each time.

[Photos: Gus Van Sant on set; Sean Penn as Harvey Milk and Victor Garber as Mayor George Moscone; James Franco as Scott Smith and Penn; Penn – “Milk,” Focus Features, 2008]

“Milk” opens in limited release on November 26th.


New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…


IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. 

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number! 

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time. 

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by. 


IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo. 

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim. 

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t? 

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?” 

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud. 

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.


The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”


Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).



Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.


And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.


Get Physical

DVDs are the new Vinyl

Portlandia Season 7 Now Available On Disc.

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GIFs via Giffy

In this crazy digital age, sometimes all we really want is to reach out and touch something. Maybe that’s why so many of us are still gung-ho about owning stuff on DVD. It’s tangible. It’s real. It’s tech from a bygone era that still feels relevant, yet also kitschy and retro. It’s basically vinyl for people born after 1990.


Inevitably we all have that friend whose love of the disc is so absolutely repellent that he makes the technology less appealing. “The resolution, man. The colors. You can’t get latitude like that on a download.” Go to hell, Tim.

Yes, Tim sucks, and you don’t want to be like Tim, but maybe he’s onto something and DVD is still the future. Here are some benefits that go beyond touch.

It’s Decor and Decorum

With DVDs and a handsome bookshelf you can show off your great taste in film and television without showing off your search history. Good for first dates, dinner parties, family reunions, etc.


Forget Public Wifi

Warm up that optical drive. No more awkwardly streaming episodes on shady free wifi!



Internet service goes down. It happens all the time. It could happen right now. Then what? Without a DVD on hand you’ll be forced to make eye contact with your friends and family. Or worse – conversation.


Self Defense

You can’t throw a download like a ninja star. Think about it.


If you’d like to experience the benefits DVD ownership yourself, Portlandia Season 7 is now available on DVD and Blue-Ray.