Just Add Milk

Director Gus Van Sant delivers the story of the gay-rights movement's patron saint in his most political film to date.

Gus Van Sant is getting married?

It's hard to picture this outsider, the lone wolf of American cinema, walking down the aisle like talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres. But he said it himself.

"I proposed to someone last week," said Van Sant, revealing a smile that turned into a full-blown laugh.

Apparently it's good to be Gus Van Sant.

The 56-year-old indie-film director with the enigmatic gaze is currently working on his dream project about Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters and theirElectric Kool-Aid Acid Test. France adores Van Sant so much it's naming him a commander in the Order of Arts and Letters, the highest recognition awarded to an artist (that is, when he finds time to accept it). He has acquired several homes, including ones in the Pearl District, Los Angeles, Gearhart, and Sauvie Island.

More important, on Nov. 26, he brings to the screen the story of Harvey Milk, the San Francisco city supervisor whose assassination in 1978 made him a patron saint in the queer canon. The life and death of Milk, nicknamed the "Mayor of Castro Street," helped fan the flames of the modern gay-rights movement.

And the film, starring Sean Penn, seems to have transformed Van Sant from an aloof, apolitical outsider into a defender of gay rights.

Gov. Ted Kulongoski, who attended Milk's Oct. 28 premiere in San Francisco, gushes about the film. "I've gone to a lot of events in my 40 years of public office, but I've never attended an event like Milk, " says the governor, who, in perhaps the most unscripted statement of Election Night, compared the struggles Milk faced to those of Barack Obama.

As for the movie's maker? "Gus is not just a great talent, he's also the most unassuming person to have accomplished so much," Kulongoski says. "I don't know if this will appeal to general audiences, but every American should see it."

If Portlanders take pride in Van Sant, it's understandable. He's lived in Portland since 1970 and is perhaps the most famous celebrity to call it home, though he would cringe at that characterization. Fact is, Van Sant, after 30-plus years of filmmaking, has become one of Hollywood's most endlessly fascinating, if hard to define, directors, someone who has made films that succeed both with industry bean-counters (Good Will Hunting and To Die For) and critics (Elephant and Paranoid Park).

As Village Voice screen critic J. Hoberman said in his review of Van Sant's "wonderfully lucid" Paranoid Park, he "comes close to inventing his own film language."

Hoberman told WW via email: "Van Sant is one of the leading U.S. filmmakers of his generation—independent or otherwise. I would bracket him with Steven Soderbergh, Richard Linklater and [fellow Portlander] Todd Haynes." He adds: "While Van Sant certainly has a recognizable set of interests, his work over the past 20 years is distinguished both by his range and capacity for reinvention. He's genuinely experimental."

While Van Sant is openly gay, his movies aren't. Well, not all of them. His earliest ones do deal with the subject, including his first feature, Mala Noche, about queer street poet Walt Curtis, and My Own Private Idaho, a sexually fractured fairy tale of Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part I. Mostly, Van Sant tends to share unsentimental glimpses into the lives of outsiders who have crisscrossed in front of his charmed lens: junkies, poets, hustlers, skate punks and hot boys. At one time, it got him pegged as a "gay film director." But the too-easy tag didn't really stick.

Van Sant has never been one to talk, about his sexuality or otherwise. It's not that he doesn't talk about being gay, he just doesn't talk. When his films end, for the most part, that's where the audience's relationship with Van Sant ends, too. Although he's considered an A-list director, he's not a "Hollywood" hotshot or one to show up on the late-night talk-show circuit or in the pages of tabloid magazines. He lives in Portland, he says, to escape what he sees as the "Vegas mentality" of Los Angeles.

For the most part, Portlanders respect that. Van Sant's interaction with the public could best be described as openly private. He's not so much shy as he is an invisible witness to the world around him. Whether it's on film or in person, he has a way of disappearing into the background. Perhaps it's the real reason this renaissance man, who is also a musician, painter and photographer, is first and foremost a filmmaker.

It's how he works.

"In nothingness, there are other things," said Van Sant to his Milk screenwriter, Lance Dustin Black, during filming on the streets of San Francisco, while trying to get Black to lighten up the issue-heavy script. "But in politics there are other things," Black replied in defense.

"The one thing about Harvey," says Van Sant about Milk, "is he's pretty much forgotten among a lot of people today." That's unlikely to be the case after this film hits the screen. Of all his films, none has marched so eloquently and relentlessly to a political drumbeat.

Harvey Milk got his first taste of power as the owner of a camera store in San Francisco's Castro District, a traditionally Irish neighborhood. That's where he made his first stab at public office. Van Sant's film follows the self-described "three-time faggot loser" through his failed election attempts and failed relationships. Never one to give up, Milk eventually won a spot in City Hall. Along the way he energized not just a neighborhood but an entire city.

And then, on Nov. 27, 1978, he was gone.

Fellow Supervisor Dan White, who had just resigned his position only to ask for it back and be denied, shot and killed Mayor George Moscone and Milk inside City Hall. White's story plays a large part in Rob Epstein's 1984 Oscar-winning documentary, The Times of Harvey Milk. But not so much in Milk. Rather, it's Milk's life that forms the basis for this politically charged film. And rarely has Van Sant taken sides as he has in Milk—a drama about human rights and the human side of politics.

The movie has its eye on the same prize as Milk did: queer civil rights. In chronological order, the film goes from Milk's fumblings with coming out at the age of 40 to his emergence at 47 as a political insider—smart, strategic and able to straddle gay and non-gay issues with equal aplomb. But ultimately Milk was a single-issue candidate; as he says early in the film, everything he did was "done with an eye on the gay movement."

Milk's strategy was to "start with our street," as Penn, who portrays Milk so forcefully in the film, says when rallying his Castro constituents to fight against the anti-gay initiatives that were spreading across the country at the time, including a measure that would have forced gay teachers out of California schools. "It's not just about winning," he says. "It's about our lives."

"What I liked about making this movie was more the Castro itself than actually Harvey," said Van Sant. "The existence of the Castro and the movement itself is way more amazing. Harvey was a street person, and Castro was his street. When I think of things going down in '70s San Francisco, they were mostly things happening on the street. If the cops were assembling at the corner, and there were a group of Castro street denizens yelling at the cops, it's not like, 'Where's Harvey?' He was right there. He was the guy talking to the cops. Harvey was always around."

The buzz about Milk is deafening. The Hollywood Reporter, in a glowing review, calls it a "very human document that touches…foremost on the need to give people hope." Variety agrees: "In a project whose greatest danger lay in its potential to come across as agenda-driven agitprop, the filmmakers have crucially infused the story with qualities in very short supply today—gentleness and a humane embrace of all its characters, even of the entirely vilifiable gunman, Dan White."

Even though it seems like everybody's talking about Milk, with Van Sant, not so much. Over brunch at Bluehour, dressed in a Bluehour tee and the same jacket local actor Mike Parker wore in Idaho, Van Sant brushed off the notion Milk might be thought of as his own coming out, political or personal.

"All my films do take sides," he insists. "They just don't do it in a way that audiences are used to. People end up taking sides as they are watching them." He did concede, in his own deadpan way, that after working in experimental film for the past half decade, "maybe [Milk can be seen as] coming out to the mainstream, or something like that."

He has flirted with the mainstream before, specifically with Good Will Hunting, which won two Academy Awards in 1998, and criticism from New York magazine's David Denby, who, at the time, accused Van Sant of abandoning his status as a "hipster-artist."

Van Sant will have attended four Milk premieres—in San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles and Portland—in the three weeks before the film's nationwide Nov. 26 opening, one day shy of 30 years after Milk's death. It's a huge undertaking for a man who typically does as little press as he can. "Doing this [many premieres] is something we normally wouldn't do," he says. "It's a little like getting married." And he's doing other things for Milk he ordinarily wouldn't do.

"I've never made a film that was supposed to be this real," he says. "I don't like biographical films. To me, there's always something weird about them. But I was obviously interested [in the impact and influence of Milk's story] enough to do it. [We also] explain the biographical elements of his life pretty succinctly and strictly, with the intention of being somewhat accurate. None of my other films did that."

There was drama on location. During filming, Charles White, the son of Milk's murderer, was invited by Penn to the San Francisco set. He showed up the same day Van Sant was filming the scene in which Charles is being christened. "Sean brought Charlie [White] over to meet me," Van Sant says. "He just held out his hand like this," Van Sant says as he shoves out his hand, closes his eyes and looks away.

Although Van Sant may have just made his most straightforward and mainstream drama to date, it's hard to say whether America is ready for a story of a dead, gay politician. It was a deliberate choice by the film's producers, Focus Features, not to release the film before Election Day. Van Sant said it was the decision of Focus' chief executive, James Schamus, who was concerned that if Milk, made for $20 million, came out before the election, it might be seen as only an "election movie" (like Oliver Stone's W). Appropriately enough, it was thought the timing of the film's release could've had an effect on Proposition 8, which California voters narrowly passed Nov. 4 banning same-sex marriage in the state. The measure eerily echoes the anti-gay Proposition 6 that Milk worked so hard to defeat in the '70s.

Despite the success of a couple of closeted gay cowboys a few years back, films with same-sex themes aren't playing at a cineplex now, or perhaps ever.

"Brokeback Mountain made over $80 million [the worldwide gross exceeded $178 million] and showed a gay story could make money," says Van Sant about Focus' top-grossing release. "It seemed like it would garner more projects. I assumed they were out there, but there still weren't any other projects that sprang up after that. Milk was the only one."

Van Sant says it's only going to get tougher to make the type of film Milk represents. "Let alone gay films, dramas themselves are special-interest things that monolithic companies are not interested in making. There's a corporate hold on Hollywood. And it's finally caught up to the actual product. They look at our products as if they were automobiles or burgers. Therefore, a specific drama aimed at a particular group is irresponsible because you're not making the most money you can out of that dollar."

Milk nearly didn't get made for other reasons—at least, not through Van Sant's viewfinder. Other big-name directors had tried to make this film, but for whatever reasons couldn't get it off the ground. Oliver Stone wanted to do it with Robin Williams. In fact, Van Sant was hired 18 years ago to direct Oliver Stone's version of the story. That is, he says, until "I got fired."

Van Sant was concerned that Stone's version would avoid the personal and stick to the political. "It was about city politics without any flavor of the actual place. It was too boring," he says about a script he didn't write, and that didn't show the lead character kissing his boyfriend until page 45. "I wasn't a good stand-in for Oliver." He added, "I don't feel like I own Harvey Milk's story."

Milk's loyal friends, like Cleve Jones, a confidant and supporter who is played in the film by Emile Hirsch, did feel like they "owned" it.

"For 18 years I have badgered him to make this film," says Jones, who first met Van Sant when he was attached to Stone's script. "And every time we got together we'd talk about it. He kept saying, 'Bring the script.'"

Eventually, he did. Jones hooked Van Sant up with Black, a 34-year-old gay Mormon screenwriter who ignored former Portlander Randy Shilts' biography The Mayor of Castro Street and wrote his own original script.

"The thing about Gus is, he's always experimenting," Jones says. "He's always changing and growing. I think as time has passed…not only has his confidence increased but also his power. Having Gus agree opened all the doors that we might not have been able to open 20 years ago. I am grateful that Gus ended up making this film. I hope people see it as being true to the spirit of the times."

Van Sant may deny it, but this film coincides with his increased willingness to be associated with gay causes. Eighteen years ago, while he was working on Stone's version of the film, he was quoted as saying, "I am less a gay activist than a gay pacifist."

Over a second Grey Goose martini at a brewpub near his office recently, he confessed: "A well-adapted gay person I am not. You know…a steady lover, two dogs, maybe some adopted kids, Republican. Harvey wasn't—and at the same time was—a completely well-adapted gay person, either, although he was a very committed, lifelong gay person who had all the earmarks of a normal gay man's life."

On Oct. 11, Van Sant joined 900 gay or gay-friendly people at the Oregon Convention Center for a fancy fundraiser for Basic Rights Oregon. It'd been awhile since anyone recalled Van Sant, never one for parties, attending an event like BRO's, where he dropped $2,500 in support of the cause.

It also seems to have influenced his personal life.

While he refused to elaborate on the identity of the lucky guy he's marrying—"I haven't gotten an answer yet"—just being around him you get the sense something has changed. That spending time with the story of Milk has had some profound effect on Van Sant.

But don't tell him that. "Yeah, I'm usually affected by the films I make," he says, "but what's profound that hasn't happened to me already?"

Local gay activist and Human Rights Campaign co-founder Terry Bean worked with Milk to oppose an anti-gay measure in Eugene in 1977.

Debra Winger was to play then-City Supervisor Dianne Feinstein in Milk, but Van Sant ended up mostly using archival footage.

In the early '80s, the late Tiger Warren, owner of Macheesmo Mouse, paid Van Sant in burritos smothered in tangy boss sauce for Van Sant's murals of crashing houses and flying hats, paintings he still does.

Milk was a gregarious Jewish New York stock analyst who moved to San Francisco in 1972.

An opera queen, Milk went to his first show at age 12. Van Sant went to his first opera this year.

Dan White was convicted of voluntary manslaughter in the shootings in part because of White's diet of Twinkies and Coke. It would come to be known as "the Twinkie defense."

Van Sant has yet to make a film for more than $40 million. Milk cost only $20 million, and his more recent ones have come in way under $10 million.

Walking out of the Portland Art Museum's Whitsell Auditorium after an Oct. 4 Milk screening attended by Van Sant and his friends, poet Walt Curtis shouted: "Gus has never been this political! It's about fucking time!"

"I credit Harvey with saving my life," says Black. Born in San Antonio and raised in Salinas, Calif., Black became obsessed with Milk's story after hearing one of his speeches, specifically the one that talked about "a gay kid" in San Antonio who "could move to San Francisco or stay at home and fight."

SEE IT: "Gus Van Sant Presents Milk" —a benefit for Outside In at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, 1037 SW Broadway. 8:30 pm, Friday, Nov. 14. Tickets are available online at Ticketmaster.com and at the Portland Center for the Performing Arts box office, 1111 SW Broadway. $37.75-$71.75. Due to strong interest, advance ticket purchases are recommended. A patrons' dinner and director's reception will precede the screening.