DAVE DAVIES, host:
The movie "Milk" has been nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Actor for Sean Penn and Best Original Screenplay for our guest, Dustin Lance Black. Black is the writer and executive producer of "Milk," which tells the story of Harvey Milk, who became the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in the U.S. when he won a seat on San Francisco's Board of Supervisors in 1977.
Dustin Lance Black is gay and grew up in a Mormon family. Black drew on his experiences growing up Mormon when he wrote for the HBO series "Big Love." Terry spoke to Black in November. Harvey Milk was assassinated, along with San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, in 1978. The killer was Milk's fellow supervisor, Dan White, who opposed Milk's campaign for gay rights.
Here's a scene from the film. Milk is working to enact an ordinance making it illegal to fire anyone because of their sexual orientation. At the same time, anti-gay rights activist Anita Bryant has been crusading across the country for the repeal of local gay rights ordinances. Milk is talking with his staff, and their conversation is interrupted when supervisor Dan White walks in. White is played by Josh Brolin. Milk is played by Sean Penn.
(Soundbite of movie "Milk")
Mr. SEAN PENN: (As Harvey Milk) OK. First order of business to come out of this office is the citywide gay rights ordinance, just like the one that Anita shot down in Dade County. What do you think, Lotus Blossom?
Mr. KELVIN YU: (As Michael Wong) I think it's good. It's not great.
Mr. PENN: (As Harvey Milk) OK, so make it brilliant. We want Anita's attention here in San Francisco. I want her to bring her fight to us. We need a unanimous vote. We need headlines.
Mr. BRANDON BOYCE: (As Jim Rivaldo) Dan White is not going to vote for this.
Mr. PENN: (As Harvey Milk) Dan White'll be fine. Dan White is just uneducated. We'll teach him.
Mr. JOSH BROLIN: (As Dan White) Hey, Harv, committee meets at 9:30. Hey, you guys. Say, did you get the invitation to my son's christening? I invited a few of the other supes, too.
Mr. PENN: (As Harvey Milk) Oh, well, I'll be there.
Mr. BROLIN: (As Dan White) Great. Thanks.
Mr. JOSEPH CROSS: (As Dick Pabich) Did he hear you?
Mr. BOYCE: (As Jim Rivaldo) What the (bleep)?
Ms. ALISON PILL: (As Anne Kronenberg) Are you going?
Mr. PENN: (As Harvey Milk) I would let him christen me if it means he's going to vote for the gay rights ordinance. We need allies.
Ms. PILL: (As Anne Kronenberg) I think he can hear you.
Mr. PENN: (As Harvey Milk) We need everyone.
Mr. CROSS: (As Dick Pabich) Jesus, I don't think he heard you.
Mr. EMILE HIRSCH: (As Cleve Jones) Is it just me or is he cute?
(Soundbite of WHYY's Fresh Air, November 20, 2008)
GROSS: Dustin Lance Black, welcome to Fresh Air. Would you start by just explaining the place of Harvey Milk in the gay rights movement?
Mr. DUSTIN LANCE BLACK (Writer, Executive Producer, "Milk"): Well, Harvey was sort of a closeted gay man when the gay rights movement started. He was living in New York, and all around him, people were starting to come out and become active in trying to, you know, attain gay rights. And he was still preaching to his longtime boyfriends to stay in the closet. He was sort of uncomfortable of the idea of gay activism for a long, long time. And it was only after he came to San Francisco on a trip that he started to engage in the gay movement. And it took him quite a long time. And he was, you know, in his early 40s when he finally decided he would move permanently to San Francisco and start to get engaged in politics. And it wasn't necessarily gay politics. It was just politics, kind of a populist platform.
GROSS: Well, among the things he did, too, was help start the Castro as a gay neighborhood.
Mr. BLACK: Right, I think most people know Harvey as the first openly gay man elected to public office. There had been two women who had been elected to public office, but he was the first openly gay man. And he did that in the Castro, in San Francisco, and through district elections, which was a new idea then, which was you could be elected in your district as - instead of running citywide.
And a lot of people looked at him as the leader, and he really did, once he took public office, became the leader of the gay movement, this movement which he was very late to join in on, and became a hero through a number of things that he did early on. One of them was passing gay rights legislation for San Francisco. But the other more famous accomplishment was defeating Proposition 6, which would have fired all gay and lesbian teachers in schools, but also all, you know, gay and lesbian people working in schools. So if there was a gay or lesbian janitor, he or she would also be fired.
And it went further. It was also going to fire anyone who supported those gay, lesbian people in the schools. And it looked like it was going to pass in 1978. And Harvey Milk was able to defeat it, and it was a very unexpected win for the gay movement.
GROSS: The framing device of your movie is Harvey Milk speaking into a little microphone at home in his kitchen and recording his voice on his cassette player. And what he's doing is making a tape, reminiscing about his life and his motivations and the movement he helped lead in case he's assassinated. So, this is to be played only if he's assassinated. That's the framing device of your movie. It keeps cutting back to Harvey Milk recording this tape. Was there such a tape in real life?
Mr. BLACK: There was. There was a tape. It was one of the first recordings I ever heard of Harvey. I had someone who had a copy and played it for me, and I put it on a CD and played it in my car over and over because it's so intensely intimate. He does use those exact words at the beginning. You know, the entire opening of the film is directly from the transcripts of that recorded will and - as is the ending.
I thought it was important in this movie to really get inside of, you know, Harvey's head. And Harvey understood that what he was doing was very dangerous and that it could cost him his life, but he did it anyway. That tape was recorded one week after he was elected to public office. I think he was very aware that what he was doing could cost him his life.
He had just moved himself from being a hero - a gay hero for the city of San Francisco to being this national figure by defeating Proposition 6, by defeating Anita Bryant. Anita Bryant, you know, was marching across this country defeating gay and lesbian protections, starting in Florida moving to Wichita, Eugene. And he made the stand in California and surprised, I think, the entire country. So, he had become a national figure, and the bull's eye was on him, and I think he really felt that.
GROSS: He was killed by one of his fellow supervisors, Dan White. And this was somebody who opposed Harvey Milk, he opposed gay rights. And there's the implication in the movie, I think, that Harvey Milk thought that Dan White, who was married and had a baby - that Dan White might be a closeted - deeply closeted gay man who was so in denial about his own identity that it came off as antagonism toward other gay people. Did you mean to imply that? And is there any belief that that was true?
Mr. BLACK: Well, that came from several accounts where Harvey said that to friends and co-workers in City Hall. He mentioned it to a newspaper at one point. But it was all in the last couple of weeks. You know, there's no proof of what Dan White's sexuality was. I don't really have a strong opinion of that. I can never know; I will never know.
You know, Dan White was in over his head in City Hall. He's a very sad man, I think. Whether it came from being closeted, I'm not sure. I'm really not sure. I really tried not to draw any conclusions in that way. I just wanted to observe the man for who he was and what he did, and for the most part, he was just extremely frustrated.
You know, Dan White had spent his life trying to live up to the expectations of a father and a family who had been heroes in San Francisco. His father was very much a hero in the San Francisco Fire Department. And Dan White never attained that. He had been a policeman. He'd been in the Fire Department. He'd been in the Army and gone to Vietnam. You know, he'd tried time and again to be that hero that I think he was expected to be, and he was never able to get there, you know. So in that way, it's like - in that way, I feel for him, but what he did was monstrous and inexcusable.
GROSS: And in addition to assassinating Harvey Milk, he assassinated the mayor of San Francisco, George Moscone.
Mr. BLACK: Right. George Moscone, who was also an ally to the gay movement in a time when it wasn't easy to be an ally to the gay movement - Moscone really stood up for gay and lesbian people in San Francisco. So, he was an ally, too. It was a devastating day - devastating day almost 30 years ago to the day here.
GROSS: Josh Brolin gives a terrific performance as Supervisor Dan White. Sean Penn in the movie gives a great performance as Harvey Milk. Did you watch Sean Penn prepare for the role?
Mr. BLACK: I watched Sean Penn, you know, bring Harvey Milk to life. I was on set every day. What was really exciting about watching Sean prepare for this role was finally having the opportunity to share all of this research I'd been doing for, at that point about four years - almost four years. And I, you know, I had stacks and stacks of research articles, transcripts of all the people that I'd met, and he seemed to be really hungry to see all of it, get through all of it, and to hear Harvey's voice. And it was great to have someone who was that excited to see the things that I'd been so excited to find.
And what he does, you know, behind closed doors, in private, I have no clue, but it really is magical. I mean, he really inhabits the soul of Harvey Milk. I know that on those first days of shooting when he's completely transformed and he's got his hair done and he's in the old secondhand suit, Cleve Jones and Anne Kronenberg were on set - you know, the real life people who were sort of Harvey Milk's protegees - and they had to leave set. Cleve had to go out and get a cigarette because it was just uncanny. It was really uncanny.
GROSS: You're gay, and so is Gus Van Sant who directed the film. And I'm wondering in the casting if you preferred, when possible, to give the parts to gay actors because they'd be playing gay actors or whether that was irrelevant.
Mr. BLACK: No, we talked a lot about that. I think it's very important that, you know, gay actors get to play gay characters, but I think it's also important that gay actors get to play straight characters. And so, we have a lot of that in the film. We have, you know, openly gay people playing fervently straight characters, and we have the opposite. We have straight people playing gay people, which, you know, as we go through that that you know - I think like Dennis O'Hare, who is openly gay, playing homophobe John Briggs is really exciting. And then on the other hand, Sean Penn playing such a wonderful sort of hilarious, beautiful character like Harvey Milk is really fantastic. You get to see these transformations. What I didn't want to see - what was important to me is not to have any closeted gay actors playing, you know, these out gay heroes. I thought that would have been, you know, a travesty.
GROSS: Why? I mean, say they were a great actor. Why would that have bothered you anyways?
Mr. BLACK: Well, I think because it's - it was Harvey's message. I think for other films, I guess it would be fine; that's their right, their right to privacy. But Harvey's message was that gay people will only attain power and equality in this country if they come out. We have to come out and make our voices heard and share our stories and let people know who's being affected. And so, because that was Harvey's message, it just would have been difficult for me to see a closeted actor play Harvey Milk.
GROSS: And in the movie, Harvey Milk also wants people to come out so that straight people will know that they know somebody gay and they'll be more invested in making sure that there isn't discrimination against gays, because they'll understand it's discrimination against their family and friends and colleagues.
Mr. BLACK: Right, I think that's - that was one of the things that - it wasn't just Harvey that came up with that idea, but he really utilized it and utilized it to gain political power and you know, political power for equality, really - just to have equal rights and stop being arrested when you go to a bar or when you're walking down the street with someone that you care about. You know, there are so many gay and lesbian people, and you might not know that you know, you know, as many as you do, but once you do, it's more and more difficult to vote against them, because you do realize that they are your family members.
GROSS: Thank you so much for talking with us, and congratulations on the film.
Mr. BLACK: Oh, thank you so much, Terry.
DAVIES: Dustin Lance Black speaking with Terry Gross. Black is up for an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for the movie "Milk." Coming up - David Edelstein on the new film "Two Lovers." This is Fresh Air.