Penn Station

ANATOMY OF A CONTENDER: A writer's passion for the story of assassinated politico Harvey Milk helped lure Sean Penn and make 'Milk' a reality

In early 2007, Dustin Lance Black was making yet another trip up the Golden State Freeway to San Francisco.

For the past two and a half years, he'd been driving there from Los Angeles on breaks from his job as a staff writer on HBO's "Big Love," interviewing friends and foes of Harvey Milk -- the gay San Francisco city supervisor who was assassinated in 1978 -- in an effort to put together a big-screen biopic about him. Others had tried and failed, and they had studio backing. Black had no development deal, no stars or producers attached -- nothing other than a personal credit card to pay for expenses and an obsessive passion for his subject.

"Harvey made me feel like we have a history, like (gay people) have forefathers, and I had this strange fatherly connection to the man," Black says. "But I'd ask fellow gay friends if they'd ever heard of Harvey Milk and they'd think I was talking about some dairy company."

Through the whole process Cleve Jones, a Milk associate, had been Black's right-hand man, putting him in contact with others who had known Milk. Now, while Black was driving, Jones told him he had a "friend" who would be perfect to direct the film. It was Gus Van Sant.

Van Sant ("Good Willing Hunting," "My Own Private Idaho") was well-acquainted with Milk. Back in the early '90s, he had replaced director Oliver Stone on a Milk biopic in development at Warner Bros. In the course of researching it, he had gotten to know Jones.

But Van Sant was skeptical. "(Jones) had originally been talking about a musical about his life, and all of a sudden it wasn't a musical, it was a film about Harvey," he recalls.

Despite this, he met with Black and Jones. A week and a half later, when Black finished a satisfactory draft, he sent it to Van Sant in Portland, Ore., and in spring 2007, Van Sant committed to make the movie.

An article in the trades prompted Dan Jinks and Bruce Cohen, the Oscar-winning producing team behind 1999's "American Beauty" and 2003's "Big Fish," to come on board. But two big pieces of the puzzle were still not in place: an actor to play the self-proclaimed "Mayor of Castro Street" and the money to make the movie.

The filmmakers' first choice to star was Sean Penn, whom Van Sant had offered the part years ago when he was working on the abortive Milk biopic. Penn invited Black and Van Sant to visit him at his home across the bay from San Francisco in Marin County.

"We chatted a little bit about the history of Harvey, and Sean made it clear that he wanted to pull no punches in the movie," Black says. "We didn't want a sanitized Castro of the '70s. We wanted to really show it for what it was, with all the sexuality and political fervor of the movement."

The producers were able to line up a pair of independent production/financing entities to bankroll the film, Sidney Kimmel Entertainment and Groundswell Prods. But with potential strikes looming on the part of the WGA and SAG, the producers feared if cameras didn't start rolling by September or October, the film would never get made. As the budget climbed north toward $20 million, Kimmel got cold feet and backed out.

"We had to begin to cash-flow the movie and make a pay-or-play commitment to Sean," Groundswell chief Michael London recalls. "Then we turned to Focus Features to come in as our co-financier and distributor, and they said yes. The project was structured as a negative pickup, so Groundswell oversaw the production and the business affairs."

Principal photography on "Milk" commenced in San Francisco in the third week of January. For a time, the filmmakers thought they might save money by shooting just a few days of exteriors there and the rest in Vancouver, but in the end authenticity was worth the additional expense. The city gave the production modest discounts on police and parking costs, and allowed the filmmakers to shoot extensively in City Hall, as well as in the Castro Street neighborhood that was home to Harvey and his shop that launched his political career, Castro Camera.

"The feel of the place seems remarkably similar to what it was 30 years ago, so it really felt like a bit of a time machine walking onto that street," London says. "And that gave the actors a tremendous amount of inspiration."

Another source of inspiration was the presence of many of the real-life figures from Milk's life, in addition to Jones (played by Emile Hirsch in the film), who was on set every day as a consultant on the film. All were moved by Penn's performance as Milk.

"Sean would come on to the set in the morning after going through hair and makeup and wardrobe and deliver dialogue as Harvey Milk, and it would just take their breath away," Cohen says. "They felt like the essence of Harvey was back with them."

To prepare for his role, Penn slimmed down to better resemble the lanky Milk and studied all available film and video clips of the man, absorbing every physical and verbal mannerism. Extensive makeup work also helped.

"One night we were re-creating a TV broadcast that was done live from Castro Camera on the night that Harvey won an election," Jinks says. "On the real night, Harvey probably had a cocktail or two and made a grammatical error in the way he was speaking on TV. Well, that had been corrected in the script. But when Sean went to do it, he did it exactly the way Harvey did it. The script supervisor said, 'Sean, you messed up.' And he said, 'No, I didn't. Check the tape.' And if you look back at the actual tape of Harvey, and then Sean doing this little snippet, it's just identical. Everything he does -- every head move, every glance, every smile is pure Harvey."

While Penn gave them pure Milk, Van Sant and the producers had to rely on the people of San Francisco to lend authenticity and scale to the film's four major crowd scenes, shot over the course of three nights. Residents were invited to come decked out in '70s clothes. They were supplemented by a handful of paid extras, dressed from head to toe by costume designer Danny Glicker.

The filmmakers had some real-life Capra-esque drama the night they re-created a candlelight march held in the wake of the assassination of Milk and Mayor George Moscone (Victor Garber) by city supervisor Dan White (Josh Brolin). A call went out for people to show up at 11 p.m. for the scene, which wouldn't start shooting until midnight. No one knew how long people would stay, or how many would show up.

In the end, "thousands and thousands of people came," many of whom had been there for the real march 30 years earlier, "really just to pay a final homage to Harvey Milk," London says. "That was an incredible thing to witness."