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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.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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GIFs via Giphy

Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

via GIPHY

IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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G.I. Jeez

Stomach Bugs and Prom Dates

E.Coli High is in your gut and on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Brothers-in-law Kevin Barker and Ben Miller have just made the mother of all Comedy Crib series, in the sense that their Comedy Crib series is a big deal and features a hot mom. Animated, funny, and full of horrible bacteria, the series juxtaposes timeless teen dilemmas and gut-busting GI infections to create a bite-sized narrative that’s both sketchy and captivating. The two sat down, possibly in the same house, to answer some questions for us about the series. Let’s dig in….

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IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

BEN: Hi ummm uhh hi ok well its like umm (gets really nervous and blows it)…

KB: It’s like the Super Bowl meets the Oscars.

IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

BEN: Oh wow, she’s really cute isn’t she? I’d definitely blow that too.

KB: It’s a cartoon that is happening inside your stomach RIGHT NOW, that’s why you feel like you need to throw up.

IFC: What was the genesis of E.Coli High?

KB: I had the idea for years, and when Ben (my brother-in-law, who is a special needs teacher in Philly) began drawing hilarious comics, I recruited him to design characters, animate the series, and do some writing. I’m glad I did, because Ben rules!

BEN: Kevin told me about it in a park and I was like yeah that’s a pretty good idea, but I was just being nice. I thought it was dumb at the time.

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IFC: What makes going to proms and dating moms such timeless and oddly-relatable subject matter?

BEN: Since the dawn of time everyone has had at least one friend with a hot mom. It is physically impossible to not at least make a comment about that hot mom.

KB: Who among us hasn’t dated their friend’s mom and levitated tables at a prom?

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

BEN: There’s a lot of content now. I don’t think anyone will even notice, but it’d be cool if they did.

KB: A show about talking food poisoning bacteria is basically the same as just watching the news these days TBH.

Watch E.Coli High below and discover more NYTVF selections from years past on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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