The Man Behind Milk

by HRC Staff

Below is an excerpt of an interview with film director Gus Van Sant that ran in the Winter 2009 issue of HRC's Equality magazine. Van Sant directed Milk, which has been nominated for eight Academy Awards, including best actor (Sean Penn), best supporting actor (Josh Brolin), best director (Van Sant), and best picture. Equality is the largest LGBT magazine in the country and offers special updates, features, photos, special Q &amp As, calls to action and more. It comes free with an HRC membership. Click here to become an HRC member.

Equality Magazine Talks with Film Director Gus Van Sant

On a recent crisp, sunny Friday afternoon in the West Hills neighborhood of Portland, Ore., director Gus Van Sant dropped by for lunch with the Human Rights Campaign's Terry Bean.

The two talked at length about "Milk," Van Sant's critically acclaimed film about Harvey Milk, a larger-than-life pioneer in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender movement in San Francisco.

More than a year ago, Van Sant interviewed Bean about his perspective on Milk and that groundbreaking era. The film, which has drawn Oscar buzz for Sean Penn's portrayal of Milk, captures vividly the life and times of the ÒMayor of Castro Street. "The New York Times" and "Washington Post" critics raved about the film's nuanced look at how one man became a political activist, eventually sparking a neighborhood, a city and even an entire country to make change.

Milk. Penn. Prop. 8. Barack Obama. Mutual acquaintances. The bars. Hanging out six years ago in Palm Springs. Life in Portland. Van Sant and Bean, HRC founder and longtime boardmember, had lots to talk about. Some excerpts follow.


Terry Bean: In "Milk," you go to amazing lengths to recreate Castro in the '70s, even to the detail of actually renting Harvey's actual camera shop, recreating it. Probably one-tenth of 1 percent of the people would know how perfectly accurate it was. Was that important to you?

Gus Van Sant: Before we started the film, we had other ideas, we looked at other streets. But no street looked quite like Castro. We didn't necessarily want to use the Castro because we assumed that it was going to cause traffic problems and we felt the community might get angry. The [nearby] Haight area wasn't going to look right there wasn't any good place, really. But the reason we were in San Francisco was that Sean Penn said he wouldn't shoot anywhere else....

Bean: Harvey was always bigger than life.

Van Sant: When he came to San Francisco, Harvey was like the new guy on the block... and nobody knew who he was. He just came out of nowhere and said "I'm running for office" and nobody had yet really tried, I guess.... He obviously loved his community. His shop was on the street, he walked out his door and was part of the street.... He got to know people to the point where it seems like he was the guy who was always in the front of the line. If the cops came in and there was a problem or somebody was getting kicked out of a bar, Harvey seemed to be available he's the guy talking to the cops, you know. He was the representative of the community and, ultimately, would become known as the "mayor" of Castro Street because he was the guy who [recognized] people's imaginations and their anger and just had a great sense of understanding what people were feeling. Which is huge.

Bean: Has the film changed you in any way? Have you become more of an activist?

Van Sant: Yes, I have. Obama's winning was a huge surprise. All of a sudden, the government's not so corrupt that this guy can win. ...Everything was so hopeful. Prop. 8 was a disappointment ...but the reaction to Prop. 8 started when we were in L.A. finishing the movie, and then everyone started marching. In San Francisco, in L.A....

To see the full "Equality" interview with Gus Van Sant, get the Winter '09 issue of "Equality" magazine now. Free with membership! Click here to become an HRC member.

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