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  • Feature: Milk

    Wed, 26 Nov 2008 11:59:53

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    As the cast of Milk—sans Harvey Milk’s movie counterpart, Sean Penn—sat down to speak to journalists about the long-awaited biopic, a vague sense of dejection filled the room. Dejection, but not hopelessness, it’s important to note. Just days earlier, after a history-altering election, Proposition 8—California’s anti-gay marriage ballot measure—passed by a narrow margin, disheartening proponents of civil rights and equality regardless of sexual orientation.

    The question plaguing the minds of many was whether releasing the film prior to November 4th would have affected election results, just as many speculated (and continue to speculate) about whether W’s early release could/did sway voters to support Barack Obama rather than his Republican opponent. W is an entirely separate entity—the portrait of a man and not a vehicle for either the political left or right—and while Milk isn’t cloyingly polemical (rather, it's inspiring), asking the same question of the movie is ineffectual. What’s done is done, and the only thing for Prop 8 opponents to do is reflect, regroup, and move forward.

    Young screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, who is basking in the glow of director Gus Van Sant’s praise, had this to say: “I, too, wish that it could’ve come out sooner, but I think it would’ve needed to come out much sooner. While the community here was shaping the campaign against Proposition 8 might’ve been most helpful, as sort of a history lesson of how we succeeded 30 years ago. These things aren’t going away. Even Proposition 8 isn’t over.”

    When asked whether he was disheartened that “nothing had changed” since the days that Milk roused an entire community to effect social change, Black was quick to counter the defeatist remark.

    “Certain things have changed. What we’re fighting for—the goal line has changed. We’re asking for more; we’re asking for [equality]. We were playing defense, I think, in the ‘70s. We wanted to keep the things we had, not have more taken away. Now it’s about equal rights.”

    If “Hope” was the theme of a certain politician’s campaign in 2008, then Black retains that forward-looking feeling.

    “I’m hopeful that somewhere out there in San Francisco last night, or tonight in Los Angeles, there are leaders rising to the top that have [Harvey’s] philosophy of self-representation. Hopefully they have a sense of humor, because we need that, too.”

    Penn’s portrayal of Milk, as so often happens to the celebrated actor, is already generating talk of critical accolades come 2009. Van Sant describes the decision to cast Penn concisely: “He’s one of our great actors on the planet,” says the director with no-nonsense assuredness.

    Though Penn, who harbors an aversion toward the media at times, was not present at press day, his co-stars were unrestrained in voicing their praise and admiration for him.

    Josh Brolin, who plays Milk’s sometimes political nemesis and eventual assassin, Dan White, had this to say about Penn: “He doesn’t pander, and he gets slammed for it. He loves the work. He’s an obsessive storyteller—just like Oliver Stone, like the Coens. And it’s great being around people like that if you’re a geek like me, who truly, in the most nerdish way, loves to sit down and create something.”

    A willingness to share and engage was a necessary part of many of the interactions in Milk, whether contentious (like the relationship between Milk and White) or loving (like that of Milk and his long-time partner Scottie, played by James Franco).

    Brolin continues, “He’s the most gracious actor I’ve ever worked with, bar none—just an incredible human being.”

    [Says Diego Luna,] 'If you have a clear objective and you fight for it, you can do big things.'

    If there was one small complaint—or a pronounced one, depending on how much weight you give it—it had to do with Penn’s make-out skills, highlighted in a few tender love scenes between him and Franco and with Diego Luna, who plays Milk’s lover Jack.

    Luna enthused about Penn’s acting abilities, saying, “It was delicious to work with Sean. He’s a guy that understands acting as sharing, so it’s really playful when he’s on set. He’s really willing for the exchange.”

    However, when it came to mouth-to-mouth contact, Luna (jokingly) sang a different tune.

    “He’s an amazing actor. He’s not a great kisser. Quite overrated, I think. It’s too dry. Or he didn’t care that much about me. He was thinking [about] Franco at the time, I guess.”

    These lustful musings aside, Luna, Franco, and the rest of the cast unanimously concurred that being involved in the film was both a gift and a privilege, especially as it pertains to the history and continuing evolution of the Castro district in San Francisco.

    “You can tell that the story means a lot to the people that are living there,” says Luna, “I remember walking around the Castro after we shot the film, once [the crew was] all gone, and I felt so proud—so, so proud to be part of this project. It was like, ‘Yeah, this means something.’ Suddenly, [I realized,] there are films that matter and films that don’t matter at all. This is one of the films that I think mattered.”

    Regardless of the election results, or the sadness reverberating from November 4th’s aftermath, Luna believes that Milk’s legacy should teach the greater populous about the power of change, about the power we hold as individuals.

    “It seems, to me, to be such an important story these days: [a story about] a guy that changed his life and the lives of many in eight years. It’s amazing, the power that we have and don’t use. If you have a clear objective and you fight for it, you can do big things. So when I read it, it was like, “Fuck, this is the story of a real hero. The kind of heroes I would like to see more of in cinema. The ones that don’t need superpowers or pistols or stupid weapons to change the world. This guy did it.”

    —Heidi Atwal

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    Tags: Gus Van Sant, Josh Brolin, Sean Penn, James Franco, Diego Luna

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