Van Sant closing in on Milk tale

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TORONTO -- Sean Penn as openly gay '70s politician Harvey Milk and Matt Damon as his assassin? Yes, if Gus Van Sant has his way.

Penn is attached to play Milk and Damon is attached to play Milk's killer, Dan White, in the director's long-gestating Milk biopic.

Producer Michael London and his Groundswell Prods. are financing the film, set to be produced by Bruce Cohen and Dan Jinks from a script by Dustin Lance Black ("Big Love"). The filmmakers are now in talks with a leading specialty division to launch the project. Once a deal is finalized, the team behind the as-yet-untitled feature hopes to begin production in San Francisco as early as December. The uncertain start date may affect Damon's participation.

It's the latest chapter in a long-running race to film the biopic of the first openly gay prominent elected official, which has pitted Van Sant's project against another from fellow openly gay director Bryan Singer.

Producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron ("Hairspray") have attempted to produce a big-screen version of Randy Shilts' 1982 bio "The Mayor of Castro Street" for more than 15 years. Warner Bros. Pictures attached Singer to the project two years ago under exec Polly Cohen.

This summer, Warner Independent Pictures signed a deal with Participant Prods. to co-finance that project and brought in Singer's "Usual Suspects" scribe Chris McQuarrie to write a new draft of the script. But McQuarrie is now in Germany with Singer working on "Valkyrie" and also working on the "Castro" script, making an immediate production start less likely to happen before Singer starts his "Superman" sequel commitment.

In an ironic twist, Van Sant once wrote a draft of the "Castro" project and was set to direct his adaptation for Warners.

Penn has never portrayed an openly gay character onscreen, but he did play the sexually ambiguous Olivia Newton-John impersonator "Groovin' Larry" in a section of Trent Harris' 2001 cult hit "Beaver Trilogy." Penn's video short was shot in 1981, then combined with Harris' 1979 documentary short on the amateur performer and his 1985 short narrative version "The Orkly Kid," starring Crispin Glover as Larry, to create "Beaver."

Damon would play White, who shot San Francisco city supervisor Milk and Mayor George Moscone in 1978. After serving five years of a seven-year sentence, White committed suicide in 1985.

London's Groundswell, a financing and production outfit that makes around five films a year in the under-$20 million range, is close to closing a distribution deal for Tom McCarthy's Toronto fest entry "The Visitor." London has produced several acclaimed films, including "Sideways," "Thirteen," "House of Sand and Fog" and "The Illusionist." Upcoming projects include "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh," "Smart People" for Miramax Films, and "The Marc Pease Experience" for Paramount Vantage.

Jinks/Cohen Co. has produced such projects as "American Beauty," "Down With Love," "Big Fish," "The Nines" and "The Visitor."

Penn is garnering rave reviews for his directorial effort "Into the Wild," which debuted this month at the Telluride Film Festival and will play at Toronto. He next will be seen in the immigration drama "Crossing Over."

Penn is repped by CAA and Blue Train Entertainment. Damon is repped by Endeavor and Ziffren, Brittenham, Branca, Fischer, Gilbert-Lurie, Stiffelman & Cook.
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