How Gus Van Sant Finally Got Milk After Decades in Development

Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear, 1992 to be exact. Gus Van Sant, the filmmaker who had just thrilled the world with his young-hustlers-in-love classic My Own Private Idaho, was picked to direct The Mayor of Castro Street. Already six years in development, this proposed adaptation of Randy Shilts' biography of Harvey Milk — the openly gay San Francisco supervisor whose 1978 assassination remains a tragic watershed — was shaping up to be Hollywood's First Big Gay Movie. Producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron had initially brought powerhouse writer-director Oliver Stone on board, but after criticism leveled (by this writer) at Stone's gays-conspired-to-kill-Kennedy epic JFK, he decided to step down as the project's director (while staying attached as a co-producer), allowing Van Sant to step in.

But as all too frequently happens in Hollywood, "creative differences" arose. Van Sant left the project to make an extremely commercial name for himself with Good Will Hunting, the 1997 film that made Matt Damon and Ben Affleck household names and won co-star Robin Williams a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Ironically, it was Williams who was supposed to play Harvey Milk when Van Sant had been attached to Castro Street.

The project then drifted along in "development hell" for many years afterward — years in which Van Sant went from a successful run at commercial filmmaking (climaxing in the Sean Connery vehicle Finding Forrester) all the way to the furthest fringes of the avant-garde (with his shot-by-shot, color remake of Psycho; Elephant, his non-star rendering of the Columbine massacre as a kind of conceptual art piece: and his skateboarder epic Paranoid Park). Now, Van Sant comes full circle with Milk, a straightforward, neo-Sidney Lumet docudrama, based on a script by 29-year-old screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, conceived independently of the now-dormant Castro Street project. As someone who has spent the better part of his life involved in gay activism, to say that I found Milk moving is an understatement. Genuinely political Hollywood films are rare; gay activist Hollywood films are virtually non-existent. Milk is both. It's also a film whose emotions and ideas speak directly to every audience regardless of political commitment or sexual orientation.

Gus Van Sant
Gus Van Sant

L.A. Weekly: It looks like, after all these years, you've finally made the film you always wanted to make about Harvey Milk.

Gus Van Sant: Well, The Mayor of Castro Street wouldn't have been like this. If I'd gotten its screenplay the way I'd have liked back then, it really wouldn't have resembled Lance's much at all.

At the time, you said the thing that most interested you about the story was the idea of this guy who had a camera shop in the Castro and all these friends and became involved in politics. It was also about the birth of the Castro as a gay mecca.

L.A.: You said you'd remembered when the Castro went from hippie to gay overnight.

Van Sant: Did you ever read any of those other scripts?

L.A.: No.

Van Sant: There were a ton of them. They always included the Castro, but to varying degrees. Becky Johnston wrote mine initially. I wrote a really wacky one later on that resembled a Charlie Kaufman movie.

L.A.: Was that was the one I heard about with the giant Twinkie walking down the street?

Van Sant: Yes, that was it. It was all about the "junk food" that the defense claimed drove Dan White to kill. When he committed the murders, we had him go into this hallucination-possessed-blackout mode. He was dressed as the Twinkie Sheriff; he shot Moscone, who was Mayor McCheese, and Harvey was Ronald McDonald.

L.A.: When Craig Zadan and Neil Meron started out, this was going to be the first big gay Hollywood movie. Rob Epstein and Jeff Friedman's The Times of Harvey Milk had won the documentary Oscar, but a narrative drama could go into the story more intimately.

Van Sant: Yes, but the main problem with The Mayor of Castro Street was that delving into Dan White's psyche took away screen time for anything else you'd want to do. Oliver was so monolithic in those days. "Why did Dan do it?" That's what he wanted to know. Not the history of the Castro and the blossoming of Harvey Milk.

L.A.: Wanting to get at the truth about the murders is all well and good, but ultimately no explanation will satisfy anyone. I was glad your film didn't try to do that, and also that you set Dan White at some remove from the homophobia of [anti-gay activists] Anita Bryant and John Briggs. He had his own demons.

Van Sant: One of the details we came across in researching the film was that the redistricting that made Harvey Milk a supervisor after so many failed attempts created a new board completely different from what had been before. The city didn't even have an integrated police force back then. So, when Harvey showed up, it was the first time anyone had broken though the ranks of professional conservative, white, straight, Catholic politicians. Dan was the one straight white Catholic man witness to "anarchy" in the supervisor chambers, and for him it was too much.

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