Mighty Real: Gus Van Sant on Milk

Gus Van Sant has made his own reality, but in Milk he has taken on bringing history to life.

[The following article originally appeared in Filmmaker Magazine to commemorate Gus Van Sant being honored at this year’s IFP Gotham Awards.]

In the early ’70s as a student at the Rhode Island School of Design, Gus Van Sant made a momentous decision. He changed his major from painting to film. But Van Sant didn’t leave painting behind. Rather he brought to film a painter’s concern for the materiality of the image. In his latest feature, Milk, a historical portrait of the slain gay San Francisco politician, Van Sant does not simply reconstruct a chronology of events but breathes life into a series of tableaux from another time. Milk lives in this strangely real world from the past as well as in our imaginations. He is a figure who still speaks to us.

As an artist, Van Sant makes moving pictures––moving both in the sense that he animates the frozen composition of photography and in the way he invests those images with emotion. In Milk, this becomes an almost literal practice as archival footage frequently dissolves into the film’s “real life” universe, and Harvey Milk (Sean Penn), his lovers––Scott Smith (James Franco) and Jack Lira (Diego Luna)––and his band of political pranksters, from Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsch) to Anne Kronenberg (Alison Pill), take over San Francisco. But Milk’s San Francisco belongs neither to the past or the present, and neither to history or fiction, but rather, as with so much of Van Sant’s work, it partakes of all these worlds. In shooting Milk, Harris Savides elegantly elides the difference between documentary and the dramatic. The sight comes from actual footage, gay photography, personal memory and dramatic transformation and the sounds from Puccini’s opera, disco diva Sylvester and the actual noise of modern – and past -- San Francisco.

From the start, Van Sant has unfolded his stories about sad-sack lovers and good-humored hustlers in the real world, like the wet, scraggily streets and suburbs of Portland in Mala Noche and Drugstore Cowboy, the immense sublimity of nature in Last Days and Gerry or the real back streets of Boston in Good Will Hunting. Even the Hollywood imagination can become a real world as, for example, in his faithful reconstruction of Psycho, he pays the fictional realm the same reverence he maintains for the archival footage in Milk. In Van Sant’s filmic world, the “real” and the fictional are not opposing forces, but collaborators and partners. In Milk and his other work, the photographic images present a tactile materiality that far exceeds the controlling needs of fiction, and his fictions bring to the natural realm an unexpected poetry and perspective.

FilmInFocus: When I started thinking about your career, I originally thought this was your first reality-based, historical film, but then I realized most of your films are based on some sort of real event, a piece of history refracted through your aesthetic lens.

Gus Van Sant:  Yes, I guess the real difference between this film and my other ones is that we use the real characters’ names here. Although in Mala Noche, the characters of Walt and Pepper have the same names as the people they are based on.

What about your other films?

Drugstore Cowboy was based on a novel written by James Fogle who had lived that life. There was a real Bob (whose name wasn’t actually Bob) and a real Dianne. James LeGros played Rick who was the based on the real James Fogle. These were real people that we could meet and talk to. My Own Private Idaho was based on guy I used to know. Even Cowgirls Get the Blues was not based on real people. However, there was someone that Tom Robbins said inspired him, but I think she was a waitress he met at a bar in Vegas. And To Die For was based on the Pamela Smart case, which was one of the first real television media events. Good Will Hunting was loosely based on people that Ben and Matt knew. It was fashioned into a fictional film, but Tim Affleck, Ben’s father, was actually a janitor at Harvard who was very intellectual and could have probably answered those questions in the film.

In most of these films, the real elements are somewhat buried, but Milk appears to be a transparent look at an actual historical event. How was that different for you?

It is mostly the same process of trying to learn from reality that we go through in the other films, of trying to understand the logic behind the things that happened. But using real people and their names in Milk was difficult because you can never really get it completely true. You are doing a play about real characters, but it doesn’t have fictional base. So in a way it’s more like pantomime, the replication of something that happened in real life with the characters called by their real names. It’s like an opera about those people. You can never really get to the real place.

In talking about your “Death Trilogy,” you once said that each story was sparked by a news item that was also a mystery. Do you think that there is a mystery at the heart of Milk?

There was a sort of mystery in those three films––Gerry, Elephant and Last Days. Gerry [based on an actual incident in New Mexico in 1999 where two men went into the desert and one killed the other] had a mystery because it only had one witness; only one person came out alive.  And in Elephant [inspired by Columbine assacre] the boys were dead and their diaries hadn’t been released.  And in Last Days, Kurt Cobain was missing during his last days -- no one knew where he had been and what he had done. In Milk, there are lots of little mysteries about what might have happened at different points, events that different people are always trying to clear up with different stories. 

How did your story veer from the historical record?

Mostly we tried to keep it very accurate. In some cases, where we had actual filmic record we just recreated the scene. But there is a scene when Harvey is meeting with Representative Phil Burton over Proposition 6. Cleve Jones, who was our advisor, had actually been at that meeting and explained that Harvey had put on a real show, running around the room and flailing the paper in the air. He was livid because they had left the word “gay” off the flyer fighting back against Prop 6 [the proposed bill to ban all gay teachers in California]. We were shooting in the exact room that the meeting took place, with the real costumes, even with the same furniture, which hadn’t even been reupholstered since then. We had Sean do an intense version, even wiping his ass with flyer before throwing it in the fire. But it wasn’t keeping with the rest of the film. So we have a much more calm version in which Milk never gets out of his seat.

I remember being in San Francisco when Milk and Moscone were assassinated. It was a very strange time, because only a week before was the Jonestown massacre. And most of those people came from San Francisco. The entire city went into shock. Do you remember where you were when you learned of the event?

Van Sant: I was in L.A. working in the film business, but I wasn’t really an out gay person at the time. I was driving a car to Portland when I heard it on the news. I assumed that he was shot because he was gay, but I didn’t know much about him. I wasn’t really that aware of his contribution in defeating the Brigg initiative. At the time, I had this image in my head of all these supervisors in suits in City Hall. I’d heard that Dan White killed the Mayor first and then walked down the hall to kill Harvey. It seemed like it was one supervisor killing another supervisor, a sort of in-house murder––a bunch of executives killing each other. 

For many, especially in the gay community, Milk’s death is a powerful and significant historical date. What was your visual strategy in trying capturing the life and times of Harvey Milk?

We started off with this one plan, but than quickly aborted it. We’d been working a lot with the styles of the Hungarian Bela Tarr and documentary maker Frederick Wiseman. And also Chantal Akerman’s  Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, was a big influence, especially in Last Days -- before we shot Gerry, we constantly watched Jeanne Dielman. For Milk, we were going into a Frederick Wiseman world, so we were going to hire documentary FilmInFocuss, or people who has shot alongside some of the more famous documentary makers. But we weren’t shooting in black and white (like Wiseman), and that really changed how it was going to look. And then we screened what we’d shot, and it looked a lot like what other people were doing on TV.  Shot on 35mm and in color, it didn’t really look like Wiseman. When we realized this, we quickly bailed out. We were like, “Holy shit, this doesn’t look any different than The Office.”

You start the film with all this great archival footage of gay life in the early ’60s––an invasive camera trying to record all these people who don’t want to be seen––which then morphs into the real film. The look and feel of archival footage seems to really inform your visual sense here.

That is one of the reason we wanted to shoot in 16mm originally, so that the archival footage would be indistinguishable from our film.

It works great the way it is. I understand you used other photographical material, like Crawford Barton’s work, in the film.

Yes, but the subjects of Crawford Barton were more interesting than his photographic style. Our style was more connected to someone like William Eggleston than to Barton.

I am often struck by how much your films are as much about the photographic image (as an image) as they are about the story those images tell. There often seems to a palatable materiality in the image itself.

I am not sure that isn’t Harris Savides and not me. Often when we are shooting, all that stuff––the depth of field, the grain, etc––is controlled by Harris.

Yes, but in many of your films, the image takes on a lot of the work of telling the story, and sometimes even seems to tell a story all their own.

I like to let the image take over from the story. You can have something down about what you are going to film, but the minute you start shooting, all this new stuff starts happening. There is a new reality to it all. Usually it is a character, and sometimes it is an environment, or, really, a character in an environment. It’s like you are photographing some sort of dance between the real world and the story, and I often let the real moment of the real environment and the real character sort of take over. The whole strength of the shot is that moment when you are beholding this character in this real environment.

Yes, I think that tension of a fictional story unfolding in a real world create this very powerful sense of drama.

That is something that I have learned watching lots of different films. The French New Wave use that a lot. And for the neo-realists, that is what they were showing in The Bicycle Thief. It is a real boy and a real worker and you are watching them at the same time that you are watching the story.

In many of your films––I am thinking a lot of the desert in Gerry and the wind and the woods in Last Days––nature and natural landscapes seem to belong both to the real world and to the fictional world of the story. What was the natural landscape in Milk?

Every since Elephant we’ve been shooting with a stereo mic, which we used in Milk as well. So you even if we built the sets, we are using the sound of the real space, which we did all the time in Milk. When you use a mono mic, you have to stop traffic and outside sounds so you can later add them back in at a level that is agreeable to you. With the stereo mic, we encourage stuff to go on as usual. We don’t turn off the refrigerator and we don’t stop the traffic.  Unfortunately in Milk much of the traffic is modern day traffic, not period traffic, so we had to throw in period traffic. But still we are using what is really there rather than trying to limit it.

Many writers have picked up on how many of your films revolve around self-created or improvisational families. In Milk, family takes on a whole new meaning. Milk’s big fight is against the Briggs’ initiative, which would have fired out gay people from the school system, because, according to Briggs and Anita Bryant, the “gay lifestyle” was destroying the American family. The film seems to take on the very definition of family, as well as what’s American. Why is family so important to you?

It’s true––the films that I have made are about newly created families. And that is what the Castro was in San Francisco, groups of people that created their own family. I guess it’s just a preoccupation of mine. 

For the family of gay people, Harvey Milk is their saint. What sort of responsibility to do you feel about getting this right? Or do you feel that your responsibility is to simply tell the story as a FilmInFocus?

This is the fist time that I have really made something that is a historical document. But it really is something else. When Henry Fonda plays young Lincoln, you are not supposed to be thinking that he is actually Lincoln.  It is a pantomime or a political passion play. As a creator you want to be able to play with it and not be overburdened by the historical accuracy. But at the same time, you want to stay true to Milk.  In some cases, it was easier since we had actual footage, so what we shot was what was exactly what happened.

Isn’t that also the problem with biopics ––since we all know what’s going to happen, it takes away the power of suspense.

For Hitchcock, suspense was all about the audience knowing what would happen. We see a bomb under the seat, but the people on the train don’t know it’s there. That’s why we say upfront that Harvey and Moscone have been murdered. But we don’t say who did it, nor why. 

The film is coming out in a very turbulent political time. What effect would you like it to have?

By the time the film comes out, the election will be over, although we will be having screenings, including the big opening at the Castro, before the election. I hope that some of this will have some effect on California’s Proposition 8, which is the vote to take away the already confirmed right of gay people to get married in California. We thought about whether to release the film before the election, especially if it could effect Prop 8.  The end decision was not to have the film speaking directly to the election, because if it was seen to be just about the election that might take away its chance of having a life after the election. We decided to straddle the election, to have the opening affect the election and the release be after the election.

That sort of fits Harvey Milk himself, who claimed that his election was about him but also about the larger movement of gay rights.

You could look at it that way. But I think that if Harvey was the decision maker, he would want the film to affect the election.