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.
Do 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?
Yes, 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?
It 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.