'Milk' Screenwriter: Harvey Helped Me Come Out Sean Penn stars in Gus Van Sant's biopic about an out gay politician who inspired a community; Dustin Lance Black, who grew up Mormon, says he's among those for whom Milk made a real difference.
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'Milk' Screenwriter: Harvey Helped Me Come Out

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'Milk' Screenwriter: Harvey Helped Me Come Out

'Milk' Screenwriter: Harvey Helped Me Come Out

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This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross. The new movie "Milk" stars Sean Penn as Harvey Milk. In 1977, Milk 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, which is the equivalent of city council.

My guest, Dustin Lance Black, is the writer and executive producer of "Milk." He's gay, but growing up in a Mormon family made it very difficult for him to come out. Black used his experience as growing up Mormon when he wrote for the HBO series "Big Love."

Harvey Milk was assassinated along with San Francisco Mayor George Moscone in 1978, the year Milk was sworn into office. The killer was Milk's fellow supervisor, Dan White, who opposed Milk's campaign for gay rights.

Here's a scene from the film shortly after Milk has taken office. His goal is to pass a gay rights ordinance that would prevent anyone from being fired because of their sexual orientation. At the same time, anti-gay rights activist Anita Bryant has been successfully lobbying in several cities for the repeal of gay rights ordinances. Milk was talking with his staff, but their conversation is soon interrupted when Supervisor Dan White walks in. White is played by Josh Brolin.

(Soundbite of movie "Milk")

Mr. SEAN PENN: (As Harvey Milk) OK. First order of business to come out of this office is a city-wide gay rights ordinance just like the one that Anita shot down in Dayton(ph) County. What do you think (unintelligible)?

Unidentified Man: I think it's good. It's not great.

Mr. PENN: (As Harvey Milk) OK. So make it brilliant. If 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 Dan White.

Unidentified Man: Dan is not going to vote for us.

Mr. PENN: (As Harvey Milk) Dan White will 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 suits, too.

Mr. PENN: (As Harvey Milk) Oh, I'll be there.

Mr. BROLIN: (As Dan White) Great. Thanks.

Unidentified Woman: 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.

Unidentified Woman: I think he can...

Mr. PENN: (As Harvey Milk) We need everyone.

Unidentified Man: I don't think he heard you.

Unidentified Woman: Is it just me or is it you?

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 (Write and 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 long-time boyfriends to stay in the closet. He was sort of uncomfortable with 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. It took him quite a long time.

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 city wide.

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 and 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 is assassinated. So, this is to be played only if he is 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 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.

GROSS: Well, he said that he knew that a person like him who stands for what he stands for can become a target for somebody who's insecure, terrified, afraid, or very disturbed themselves. How seriously do you think he took the threat of assassination?

Mr. BLACK: Oh, boy. You know, he received so many death-threat letters. It's amazing to go through - Anne Kronenberg has these files. Anne Kronenberg helped Harvey get elected. She ran his campaign, the final- you know, the successful campaign. Harvey ran many times and failed many times to get elected to public office. And she finally helped him get elected and then was taken to City Hall as this young, I think, 22-year-old kid, to be Harvey's, you know, right-hand woman.

And she collected these death threats, and some of them are graphic, very, very graphic. Some of them get very specific of when they're going to kill this man. And I think he took it quite seriously. You know, last night, I was - we had a New York opening of the movie, and a lot of - because Harvey is from Woodmere, New York, and he spent a lot of time here working on Wall Street in New York City. A lot of his family lives here, and they came last night, including his sister-in-law, who's still around. And she said that, one week before he was killed, he called his brother and said, you know, I know it's going to happen. It's going to happen very, very soon.

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 county defeating gay and lesbian protections, starting in Florida, moving to Wichita, Eugene. And he made a 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 and 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 the 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've been doing for - at that point about four years - almost four years, and, you know, I have stacks and stacks of research articles, transcripts of all the people that I had met, and he seemed to be really hungry to see all of that, 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've 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 that old second-hand suit - Cleve Jones and Anne Kronenberg were on set. You know, the real-life people who were sort of Harvey Milk's proteges, 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 Denis O'Hare, who was 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 could just 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 to do that?

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 is 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 a street with someone that you care about.

You know, there's 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: If you're just joining us, my guest is Dustin Lance Black, and he wrote the new movie "Milk," which is about the life of Harvey Milk, who was the first openly gay man to win election to public office. Sean Penn plays Milk in the new movie. Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Dustin Lance Black. He wrote the new movie "Milk," which stars Sean Penn as Harvey Milk who, in the 1970s, became the first openly gay man to get elected to public office. Milk is not only an interesting look-back at recent history. It's also very timely - timely in ways you're probably not very happy about. You've described this past election day as a devastating day for gays and lesbians. Explain what you mean.

Mr. BLACK: Well, you know, especially in California, where gay and lesbian people had the right to marry already. I remember in May being in San Francisco the day that the marriages were allowed to start between gay and lesbian people. And I walked into City Hall, and every two minutes, you would hear, you know, a burst of cheers and camera flashes.

And it was so remarkable to go from level to level of that beautiful city hall and see these faces - many of these couples are in their, you know, late 60s to 80s, who have been waiting for this for a very, very long time, and you just see the tears of joy that they're finally having their unions recognized in the same way they probably watched their parents' unions recognized. And it was a really meaningful day, and it was a meaningful series of months, and I have many, many friends who were married in those months.

And so, to have that right removed was devastating. It's really devastating. And to know that your fellow, you know, citizens of your state have voted to do that is - it's hard. It is hard. I think, you know, there were a lot - there was a lot of anger. There's a lot of anger.

GROSS: Now, in California, the Mormon Church played a big part in defeating gay marriage. You grew up in the Mormon Church, and we'll get to that in a minute. But I'm wondering if, having grown up in the church, if you have any insights into the campaign that the Mormon Church waged against gay marriage.

Mr. BLACK: Well, I did. I did. I grew up Mormon. very devout Mormon. You know, there are things about the Mormon Church that I still treasure. Ironically enough, it's about family. It's about supporting your family. And so, it's sad to see that they wanted so badly to remove that from gay and lesbian people.

Growing up Mormon, you learn how to be very, very organized, and it's a passionate group. I mean, in that way, it's prepared me very well for Hollywood. But it also means that, when the president of the church comes to you and says, you know, here's something we all need to pitch in and take care of, and so I'm sure when he - when the leaders of the Mormon Church said, you know, it's time for us all nationwide to contribute to this piece of legislation in California to eliminate, you know, the rights of homosexual people, I'm sure everyone did the best they could to donate, and that's very hurtful for me.

I have a lot of family that's still very devout Mormon in Utah, and I'm sure that they did their best to donate to Yes on 8. And that's - that is hard for me. But, you know, I've been saying this a lot over the past couple of weeks now, it's not - it's not helpful for, I think, the gay and lesbian community to continue to attack the Mormon Church, to continue to attack, you know, some of these other groups that voted against the gay and lesbian community. I think it's really a time to heed the message of Harvey Milk and to look at these groups as opportunities - opportunities for outreach and education. I think that was really missing in the No on Proposition Eight campaign. It's something I would love to see, which is that campaign of coming out again.

There's a lot of Mormon people who, you know, Mormon people are very smart. They get it. I think, if given the opportunity to get to know gay and lesbian people, it would be far more difficult for them to vote against gay and lesbian people on Election Day. So, you know, returning to that campaign of coming out to those who are in those communities who don't yet have, you know, wide exposure to gay and lesbian people, I think it's so important.

GROSS: Well, let's test that proposition. Do you think the members of your family who are devout Mormons contributed to the campaign to pass Proposition Eight and defeat the legalization of gay marriage in California even though they know you, even though they love you?

Mr. BLACK: Well, here's the distinction for me. Half of my family's still devout Mormon living in Utah. The other half, my mother's half, my mom left the church when I was a teenager, and I went with her, but she maintained the principles of the Mormon Church.

You know, when I came out to her initially, she was - she was upset. She was upset. But in getting to know me and getting to know, you know, my boyfriend at the time and just starting to see it and understand it and understand that it isn't so foreign, you know, it's really based on so many of the same principles of a heterosexual relationship. It's based on love. It's based on companionship. It's based on caring. I think she saw that, and my mom now, I think, for the first time, you know, voted as a Democrat for populist Barack Obama, and she also was a big advocate for No on 8.

GROSS: Dustin Lance Black will be back in the second half of the show. He's the screenwriter and executive producer of the new movie, "Milk," starring Sean Penn as Harvey Milk. I'm Terry Gross, and this is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross back with Dustin Lance Black, the screenwriter and executive producer of "Milk," the new movie starring Sean Penn as Harvey Milk. In 1977, Milk became the first openly gay man to be elected to office in the U.S. Before completing his first term on San Francisco's board of supervisors, he was assassinated by fellow supervisor, Dan White.

Writer Dustin Lance Black was brought up in the Mormon faith which made it difficult for him to come out. He drew on his Mormon background when he wrote for the HBO series "Big Love" about a breakaway Mormon fundamentalist sect. When we left off, we were talking about California's Proposition 8, which was passed on Election Day amending the state constitution to make gay marriage illegal. The Mormon Church was very active in passing the amendment.

You know what surprised me about the Mormon Church's involvement in passing Proposition 8 in California, which made gay marriage illegal, I would have thought that the Mormon Church wouldn't want to involve itself in meddling into other people's marriages. I know that polygamy was outlawed in the Mormon Church in the late 1800s and that Mormons are not polygamous. But I think one of the things that people find discomforting about Mormons is the fact that they once were polygamists, and a lot of people believe that they still are polygamous. And you know, Mormons don't want people meddling into their own idea of marriage, so I was surprised to see them taking such a public and controversial stand on other people's marriages, and I wonder if you have any insights into that.

Mr. BLACK: Well, I know - I mean it is ironic. It's very hard for me because I have this very intimate knowledge, just not only from having grown up Mormon, but also from having studied the church so intimately for "Big Love." You know they don't have a lot of room to talk when it comes to honoring traditional marriage. The Mormon Church has some rather untraditional ideas of marriage and unions in the afterlife still. It's very untraditional, and I'd worked pretty hard for a few years to try not judge those relationships and to try and figure out and understand those relationships in "Big Love."

But I also know that for the Mormon Church, it's been preached - the sanctity of marriage is very important to the Mormon Church. They believe it is the gateway to get into heaven, and I think the Mormon Church has been trying to become more and more mainstream for many decades now, and this perhaps was a signal, I'm only guessing, but a signal to other Christian religions that they're a part of the Christian faith, that they are more traditional now than perhaps people believe they are. And maybe this is a way of them trying to dismiss some of those, you know, preconceptions about the more Mormon Church still practicing polygamy on this earth. I don't know.

GROSS: Are you saying you think the Mormon Church wants to kind of get on board with the Christian right, to be accepted within that, as part of the group?

Mr. BLACK: Yeah. I think that was always something. You know, growing up Mormon, I always got the sense that it was hard for the leaders of the church to feel like they were outside of Christianity. I think, you know Mormon people believe that they are Christian, and a lot of people outside of the Mormon Church, you know, don't see them that way.

And I think they've been struggling for many decades to be included in that group called Christianity. So, maybe this was a move on their part to do that. To me, I think it's a pretty bad PR move. I mean, you're working around these protests in Los Angeles and people are pointing out the polygamy issue, and sort of the underage-marriage issue, and so all of these things that some of the early leaders of the church did that are really, really questionable. So, I'm not sure that it's turned out well for the Mormon Church, but I think maybe that that was the intention going in.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Dustin Lance Black. He wrote the new movie, "Milk," which stars Sean Penn as Harvey Milk. What did Harvey Milk mean to you?

Mr. BLACK: Boy, I know it sounds super corny, but Harvey Milk really did save my life. I was about 13 years old when my mother remarried. She remarried a handsome Catholic Army soldier, and he moved us out of San Antonio, Texas to Salinas, California. We were stationed at Fort Ord.

And you know I was a pretty dark kid. I had known that I was gay since a very early age. It's not hard to know that when you grow up in Texas and Mormon and in the military because you're hearing a lot of homophobic slurs constantly. So you have a name for it. The moment you first have those feelings, you have a name for it. And you also know that you're going to hell. You know that you're less than the other kids. You know all these things that you've been taught from a very early age in that atmosphere.

And so, coming to Salinas and discovering a theater in the Bay Area, the Central Coast, and then soon thereafter, discovering San Francisco. I had a theater director who I was apprenticing under, and one day, he told a little group of us the story of this out gay man, and I was like what the heck is an out gay man? You know that sounds like someone who's in a lot of trouble. He probably should be running, you know, because it seemed like a not really bright move.

But then, he said, no, this out gay man ran for public office, and he was elected, and his city loved him. And more important than his words, were just kind of the glow about him. I could tell that it had been many, many, many years - a decade or more since the assassination, and he's still glowing about this man. There was a lot of pride there.

And you know at first I was horrified. I was like, oh, my God. Why is he telling me this story? What does he know about me? But later that night, and for the next several years until I came out, it just was a story of great hope. I thought, wow! People can come out. People can be honest about this. And Harvey spoke a lot about that. He said this isn't his election, it wasn't just an election for the gay people in San Francisco. It wasn't just a victory for the gay people in San Francisco. It sent that message of hope, and I really believed that many, many years later after his assassination, he did give me that hope to keep going.

GROSS: Do you think your drama teacher knew that you were gay and that's why he told you the story?

Mr. BLACK: Oh, I'm sure of it. I'm sure of it. I mean I was a pretty quiet kid. It's like you can see the damage that closeting does to adolescence. I'm sure he could sense in me that I was sort of damaged in that way. I was very, very shy. I'd sort of retreated into myself. And even if he didn't, it's a wonderful story. It teaches straight kids, teaches straight people that gay people are to be honored and not to be sort of made fun of or picked on so - but I bet he did.

GROSS: So growing up in the Mormon Church, what were you taught about homosexuality?

Mr. BLACK: For a long time, I never - let me think about that for a second. Boy!

GROSS: Maybe it was ignored. Maybe you weren't taught anything? Maybe it was supposed to not exist. I don't know.

Mr. BLACK: No. I'm trying to think of when I first heard about homosexuality. I think it was in the Boy Scouts. And the Boy Scouts in Texas, at least, in the Randolph Ward where I grew up, it's absolutely tied to the Mormon Church. You know all the functions take place in the Mormon Church. My scout master was my first stepfather. So it was very tied to it, and I think that's probably where I first heard about homosexuality. That's where I first heard the word faggot and a lot of other words I probably can't say on public radio.

And it was immediately clear that it was wrong, and that if I did come out, I would probably suffer physical harm, if not just bring great shame to my family. So, I would imagine the next time I heard it was in some young men's group, and you start those fairly early. Everything is very advanced in the Mormon Church. You're an elder very early on, and you know, you're given those responsibilities fairly early on. And so, at that point, you find out that this is a big sin in the church.

Plus, in order to get into heaven in the Mormon Church, you need to be married. You need to have a temple marriage, and you're definitely not getting that if you're marrying a boy. So, you know that you're not going to heaven, and you know that you'll likely be harmed. Those were the early lessons.

GROSS: So were you confident that if you stayed in the closet that you wouldn't be condemned to hell, or did you think even if you had the homosexual feelings and didn't express them that you were going to go to hell anyways?

Mr. BLACK: No. You definitely have the feeling in the Mormon Church that if you can repress those feelings that you're fine. It was almost like you were honored for that like this was the cross that you had to bear, and this is what you had to do to get to heaven. You needed to find a wife, marry your wife, and this was your challenge on this planet. But every time I heard that from an elder or a Sunday schoolteacher, I always went, wow, are you gay? Like really? I got this feeling that they were repressing something. And I'm like, OK, all right. You must be hiding this, too.

And you start to get the sense that everybody is gay in the Mormon Church. That's a horrible thing to say, but it was like, is everyone suppressing this? Is this the thing that everyone feels and we all just have to deal with? And I remember thinking that many times as a kid.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Dustin Lance Black. He wrote the new movie "Milk" which stars Sean Penn as Harvey Milk who in the 1970s became the first openly gay man to get elected to public office.

You have also been a writer on "Big Love" which is the HBO series about a breakaway sect from the Mormon faith that still practices polygamy. This is a kind of Mormon fundamentalist sect that broke away and isn't accepted by mainstream Mormons. Are there any aspects of the stories, any plot points or scenes that came directly out of something that you had observed, even though you grew up in the Mormon faith, not in one of these fundamentalist breakaway sects?

Mr. BLACK: Right. Oh, all the time - constantly. I mean I think that in writing the show I would always drift towards stories between Bill Paxton, who plays Bill on the show, and Doug Smith who plays the son on the show, Ben. And I think that's because I was that age in the Mormon Church. I was little Benny's age when I was in the church.

And so, just being this sort of young man who is learning about the church and sort of confused by it a bit but really wanting to embrace it. So the scenes where Bill is either giving lessons about the church or doing a laying on of hands - I think in season two there was a scene in one of my episodes, at the end of it, where he has a really sweet talk with his son, and he ends it with a blessing. And the son is sort of kneeling before his father, and the father puts his hands on his son's head and bestows the priesthood on him. And that's such a huge moment in the Mormon Church, and it's the one you really look forward to, like, having your father bestow the priesthood on you.

And you know, I never got to have that. My father left when I was very young, and it was something I had always dreamed of. It was very important for me. So in that way, it was sort of some Mormon-wish fulfillment going on in that particular scene.

GROSS: I remember some ambivalence in that scene because the son has become kind of rebellious and unsure about the Mormon faith.

Mr. BLACK: Yes, he has. I wonder where that came from.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLACK: Yeah. I mean it's something you go through. The Mormon faith is tough on a young man. It's saying take all these urges and feelings you're having, all these passions and put a lid on them, push them down, push them down, push them down. And that's - you do, you question it. You're like, really? Why do I have all these feelings? Why do I have all of this? Why do I have a sexuality if I'm not allowed to express it?

And so that came up in "Big Love" for sure. It was heterosexual in "Big Love." You know Ben was struggling with the fact that he had lost his virginity and was having this sexual relationship with a girl that he wasn't married to, which is a big no, no. And for me, that was probably my way of telling the story of having to put a lid on my own sexuality as a kid.

GROSS: Thank you so much for talking with us and congratulations on the film.

Mr. BLACK: Oh, thank you so much, Terry.

GROSS: Dustin Lance Black is the screenwriter and executive producer of the new movie "Milk," starring Sean Penn as Harvey Milk. It opens in select cities November 26 and in more cities starting in December. Coming up, some independent rock that came out of the Detroit area in the late '60s. Milo Miles reviews a new collection of tracks originally released on the A-Square label. This is Fresh Air.

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