Dustin Lance Black on Writing "Milk"

by Scott Stiffler

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday November 24, 2008

With Gus Van Sant's upcoming cinematic take on the life and death of Harvey Milk (1930-1978), the gay community finally gets a long-overdue, dutifully rendered biopic of the slain activist.

Clocking in at just under two hours, the film is smaller in scope than over baked epics like Gandhi and free of the showy star turns that weigh down cradle-to-grave tales like Ray.

EDGE is also happy to report that Milk manages to rise above the narrative trappings of melodrama and martyrdom in its exploration of the political convictions that propelled Harvey Milk from a closeted 40 year-old NYC underachiever to the first openly gay man to win elected office in California (by holding a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors).

Putting the words (sometimes real, sometimes imagined) in the mouths of Milk, his friends, lovers, colleagues and eventual assassin is screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, ("Big Love").

Black's stint on "Big Love" made him the only Mormon hired to write on the HBO series. Previous to that he graduated from the University of California Los Angeles School of Theater, Film, and Television, worked in the theater in that city and made a number of gay independent films: "The Journey of Jared Price," the short "Something Close to Heaven" and "On the Bus," which follows six gay men on a road trip to Nevada.

It was, though, as an undergraduate where he first became interested in Harvey Milk after seeing the Oscar-winning documentary "The Times of Harvey Milk."

"In college," he recently told the Bay Area Reporter, "when I first saw a copy of the documentary, I remember just breaking down into tears. I thought, 'I just want to do something with this, why hasn't someone done something with this?'"

Black tells Milk's story through the use of a simple and elegant framing device. Sitting in the kitchen of his modest Castro apartment, Milk relates key points in his life as a political activist by speaking into a tape recorder whose contents are only to be opened in the event of his death by assassination. That event happened on November 27, 1978 - when disgruntled former co-worker Dan White gunned down Milk and San Francisco mayor George Moscone.

Edge recently spoke with the 29-year old writer (born a year after Milk's death) to discuss the slain activist's legacy and what it means within the context of a post-Proposition 8 world.

The Personal Touch

EDGE: You've cited the 1984 Academy Award-winning documentary "The Times of Harvey Milk" as an inspiration and influence on your screenplay. What did you want this narrative film to accomplish that the documentary did not?

DLB: Well, there are things that a documentary can't do. It can't go into some of the personal stories that I really wanted to go into.

In the documentary, he's definitely the father figure to the entire movement; but in this story, he was specifically a father figure to one person. When distill it down to one relationship that you know is emblematic of an entire people, you can start to kind of feel your way through the story and not just learn your way through the story.

When I first decided this is what I was going to do, it was because I had met Cleve Jones. His story with Harvey was like a father/son story. Harvey was very much a mentor to Cleve, so that was attractive to me. I often drift towards stories that are about finding a father figure, which is probably not unique to the gay experience - this feeling of missing family.

EDGE: Politics and romantic relationships are intertwined in the film. What do you mean when you describe Milk's activist work as politics for the sake of love?

DLB: Harvey was personally connected to why he was doing what he did. It wasn't just about rights or electoral politics, it was about the fact that he was in love with Scott Smith or Jack Lira - and he wanted that to be OK. He wanted to have the right to be himself, because even when he first came to San Francisco, it was against the law to be in a gay relationship to dance with a man, or to be in a gay bar. So his is an intensely personal story, even when it's a political one. As a screenwriter, this was one of those rare chances to tell a story where the two are absolutely connected.

Whenever you talk about politics with gay people, you're talking about something intensely personal; it's always tied to relationships. So if he's having a political conversation with Scott Smith, I didn't' need him to talking about the bedroom. They can be talking about politics and you know it's connected to their heart. With Cleve and Harvey, they're talking about politics, but you also know there's a father/son, prot?g?/mentor relationship going on there. So it's always deeply, deeply personal when you get into gay politics.

A Little Help from Harvey’s Friends

EDGE: What did you learn from meeting Cleve Jones and the reading the diary of Milk's key advisor Michael Wong?

DLB: I learned that Harvey's just a really normal guy. In fact, maybe even on the flawed side of normal in terms of his feeling of success in the world. Before he moved to San Francisco, he really was a screw up. He went from job to job and career to career. He couldn't feel like he was fulfilling some sort of purpose with it. He also went from relationship to relationship. Many of them failed, some of them attempting suicide while they're dating. I mean, these are not signs of healthy relationships.

EDGE: But Harvey also seemed to possess an incredible amount of self-awareness as well as a sense of his own impending death. He even begins the tape recording by assuming he'll be assassinated. How much of the actual tape transcripts did you use?

DLB: There is a dramatic framing device with the assassination because I wanted to indicate right away that this was someone very important who something very bad happened to. That starts the clock ticking, which was in Harvey's head as well. In his recorded will, he voices his strong suspicion that he would be killed. Separately, to his friends, he had said, "I don't think I'll make it to 50."

I would say fifty percent of the recording in the film is directly out of the will. The beginning, all the famous lines, and the ending, which is so beautiful, is all taken from the actual will. Some of it is created, but based on speeches and recordings. I tried as much as possible to stay true to his voice because it was the first thing I heard, him talking by himself.

The original recording is so intimate and lovely. You fall in love with him, and I thought this is what we need to do right at the beginning of the film; introduce this man that I met through this recording.

A New Harvey Milk?

EDGE: In the film, Harvey angrily hurls a proposed political flyer into the fireplace because it doesn't feature any gays. Recently, the No on Proposition 8 campaign was criticized for downplaying the gay face of the issue. How is it we can't effectively employ the same out and proud strategies Milk was using over thirty years ago?

DLB: That's a huge bone of contention with me and Proposition 8. When I brought this concern to the leaders of the Noon 8 Campaign, I was told that articles and commercials and literature with gay and lesbian people in it didn't test well in a focus group, which really infuriated me. I thought, you know what, I want the gay and lesbian people who are leading this movement to either step aside or read their history books.

In 1978, Harvey Milk and people like him were winning these campaigns - and there's a reason why. And there's a reason. When we do an education campaign, your first, second and maybe even your third ads are not going to test well in focus groups because that's where you're introducing yourself. You're saying I'm a gay or lesbian person; you might see them holding hands, maybe even kissing as they're saying their vows and that's going to turn a lot of people off initially.

But gradually, they're going to learn you're part of the fabric of their country; that you're not going away, that you're not evil and sick and wrong, that you're not after their children. Eventually, they're going to learn about who you are - and when they learn about who you are, they're not going to vote against you in the ballot booth.

EDGE: Milk was a genuine coalition builder, getting elected not only from the gay vote but from seniors and the working class. Is there another lesson there for post-Proposition 8 activism?

DLB: This speaks to this bigger question as to where is the Harvey Milk of today; and I think the answer is, I haven't met him. We don't have the equivalent. Hopefully we'll meet our new leaders in the next few weeks and months.

We have to go back to being proud of ourselves, introducing ourselves and doing outreach into communities that vote against us. I think we have to work on reconciliation with churches that speak out against us instead of purely attacking them.

Harvey Milk, when he had this idea of coming out for political power, it was very divisive in the gay community. He didn't get all of the gay community's support, at first very little. He won office because by reaching out. He won straight people's support by going on to those steel girders and meeting those union guys and going right up to them and shaking their hand. He didn't say I'm Harvey milk and I have a different lifestyle perhaps; he didn't use that language. He said, 'Hi I'm a fruit. I like guys. I got a boyfriend. I just looked you in the eye and told you I'm a gay guy in 1976, 77, 78. I'm asking you to vote for me because I shoot straight and you know that now.' And you know what? They did. The man won elections.

Milk opens in limited national release on Wednesday, November 25.

Below is a YouTube video of Gus Van Sant and Dustin Lance Black setting up a scene while filming "Milk."

Scott Stiffler is a New York City based writer and comedian who has performed stand-up, improv, and sketch comedy. His show, "Sammy's at The Palace. . .at Don't Tell Mama"---a spoof of Liza Minnelli's 2008 NYC performance at The Palace Theatre, recently had a NYC run. He must eat twice his weight in fish every day, or he becomes radioactive.