Interview: Rob Epstein on “The Times of Harvey Milk”

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11242008_timesofharveymilk4.jpgBy Alison Willmore

When “The Times of Harvey Milk,” director Rob Epstein’s electric, Oscar-winning documentary about the life and tragic death of politician and gay rights activist Harvey Milk, premiered in 1984, Dan White, the man who assassinated the film’s subject, had already been released from prison. Milk, the self-proclaimed “Mayor of Castro Street,” became the first openly gay man to be elected to a public office when he was named San Francisco city supervisor in 1977. Less than a year later, he and Mayor George Moscone were shot to death in City Hall by White, a former colleague, a shocking act that would later be topped when White got off with a conviction of manslaughter and a seven-year sentence, an outrage that sparked riots.

This week sees both the 30th anniversary of Milk’s passing and the release of a highly anticipated and long-in-the-making biopic of the man, Gus Van Sant’s “Milk,” with Sean Penn playing the late politician. Epstein’s documentary, which clearly served as a guide for Van Sant’s feature, has just been made available on VOD at Amazon.com. It remains strikingly relevant to our Prop. 8 era, an urgent document of a battle that’s still being fought, a testament to an amazingly inspirational figure and a reminder of the terrible price some have paid in the ongoing struggle for change. Epstein spoke with me about about looking back on his film and Milk’s legacy.

Watching “The Times of Harvey Milk” now, it feels a lot like we’re still warring over the same issues and rhetoric.

In some ways, it’s clear that we’ve made such incredible strides, and in some ways it seems like we’re exactly where we were 30 years ago. The dialectic seems to still be the forces of change versus those who fear that change, and see that as, somehow, a threat to the very institutions of American society. Be it teachers in 1978, or the institution of marriage in 2008, it’s still up against the same fears. But then you look and say, well, the issue that’s being played out now [is] over marriage rights, so in that sense it could certainly be seen as an advance. Also, as an inevitability, and a historical inevitability, because younger generations are not going to want to have wage this fight again and again. I think eventually the tides of history will be with us.

11242008_timesofharveymilk2.jpgDo you remember where you were when you heard about Milk’s assassination?

I was at a coffee store with a good friend of mine, Dolores Neuman — a still photographer — who I was working with on [the film]. She was taking still photos and I was doing audio recording, because at that point we were just doing research. We went right to City Hall. I was on the steps, and that’s when I first met Tom Ammiano, who is in the film — we were both standing on the steps of City Hall.

When did you decide to make a film about Milk’s life?

I had already started the project before Harvey was killed. I started to do a film about the Briggs Initiative — Proposition 6 — for the very reasons we were just talking about. That’s what I was interested in, that fight, which was new then, and then it all became embodied in Harvey’s story. That was all part of it, which is why I ended up doing a film that was more about the times, and showing Harvey as a man of history – that particular history – than a biopic documentary.

How has audience reaction changed to the film over the years, or has it? When it first reached theaters, it really wasn’t long after all of these events had happened.

People are still shocked by the whole trial, the results and the Twinkie defense — that’s still stunning people who are unfamiliar with it. People react to the film on different levels, but certainly I think the primary response to the film is that, up until now, it’s where Harvey Milk has lived. For the past 20 years he’s lived in the documentary, and that’s continued for generations who weren’t familiar with the story. Now, with “Milk,” there’s a whole other level of Harvey’s story that will get out there, because “Milk” is a much more personal film, in a way.

Milk has become a kind of martyr figure — how he died has become what many people first learn about him. Do you think that’s ever in danger of overshadowing what he accomplished in life?

11242008_timesofharveymilk1.jpgYes, and I think it would be a mistake if he gets too sanctified. His story is significant because he was such an everyman. He was a man of history, in that he understood what kind of leadership was necessary. He was able to bring people in and effect change, not unlike our President-elect on a much grander scale.

With this elevation of Harvey’s legacy, all of which is earned and deserved, an unfortunate byproduct is the overlooking of George Moscone, who was such an important figure as well. In a way, Moscone opened the door for Harvey and for all sorts of progressive changes that happened in San Francisco that we’re still benefiting from. Moscone’s legacy is also important, and that’s something that gets overshadowed, which is unfortunate.

How did “The Times of Harvey Milk” inform “Milk”? Quite a few scenes in the latter were direct reenactments of footage used in your documentary.

That’s true. “The Times of Harvey Milk” was foundational, I would say. I was certainly a friend of the film and a good friend of Gus. We did oral histories with dozens of people, which helped us figure out what the essence of the story was and who we wanted to tell it. From our archive, we had a lot of oral histories with the characters that are in “Milk”: Scott Smith and Cleve Jones and Danny Nicoletta and Anne Kronenberg. It was great to be able to offer those to the actors.

You actually have a scripted feature of your own in the works now?

[Filmmaking partner Jeffrey Friedman and I] do. We’re doing “Howl,” a feature based on the Allen Ginsberg poem and the obscenity trial that resulted from its publication in 1957.

What made you decide to take the leap from documentary into narrative film?

11242008_timesofharveymilk3.jpgIt doesn’t feel like a leap, although that may be a very naïve thing to say — ask me in six months. In terms of how we thought about approaching the project, it’s not unlike how we’ve approached our documentaries in the past; we approach them as narratives. In figuring out how to make a film about Ginsberg and the poem, we initially took a documentary approach. As we got further into the material, we thought it would be interesting to work with it as documentary text but to structure it as a narrative, so that’s where we ended up. It’s a narrative and the poem is animated, so it’s a hybrid.

And you’ve cast James Franco, who plays Scott Smith in “Milk,” as Ginsberg.

That’s how we met James, when he was in San Francisco shooting “Milk.” Gus introduced us. We gave him the screenplay, and he said he was in. We’d been doing some work with James already, and he’s great. We couldn’t be more thrilled with the cast we have.

[Photos: Harvey Milk, courtesy of Margaret Herrick Library; Rob Epstein and Milk in 1978, photo by Ron Peck; “The Times of Harvey Milk,” Telling Pictures, 1984]

“The Times of Harvey Milk” is now available on Amazon VOD.


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.