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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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