'Milk' is in Focus for Jan. start


"Milk," one of two long-gestating biopics about slain gay rights leader Harvey Milk, will begin principal photography in January on location in San Francisco.

Sean Penn will star as the title character in Gus Van Sant's feature for Ground-swell Prods. and producers Dan Jinks and Bruce Cohen of the Jinks/Cohen Co. (HR 9/10). Bruna Papandrea of Groundswell, William Horberg and "Milk" screenwriter Dustin Lance Black have come aboard as executive producers. Groundswell CEO Michael London also will serve in a producing capacity on the film.

Focus Features will co-finance the project with Groundswell and handle worldwide distribution of the film. Newly promoted Focus vp production and development David Gerson is supervising "Milk" for president of production John Lyons. The green light gives "Milk" the advantage over the big-screen version of Randy Shilts' 1982 Milk biography "The Mayor of Castro Street" — from producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron with director Bryan Singer attached — which has been in development for more than 15 years.

The Universal division had been in negotiations to come aboard "Milk" as early as the summer. At the time, Matt Damon was attached to co-star as Milk's assassin Dan White, but he pulled out in mid-September because of scheduling conflicts.

Bill Groom, whose credits include "The Pledge," which Penn directed, will be the production designer on "Milk." Harris Savides, in his fifth feature collaboration with Van Sant, will serve as cinematographer.