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Sean Penn • James Franco • Emile Hirsch • Josh Brolin
DIRECTOR: Gus Van Sant

Sean Penn as Harvey Milk THE CONCEPT:
Following the last eight years of Harvey Milk’s (Penn) life, and how in 1977 he came to be elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, becoming the first openly gay man to be voted into major public office in America. But his triumph was short lived, when he and the mayor of San Francisco, George Moscone, were assassinated in 1978 by ex-councilman Dan White (Brolin)

U.S. RELEASE: November 26 2008, Limited • Rated: R


Director Gus Van Sant and Sean Penn“When we all agreed that Sean would be the best choice for Harvey Milk, I called him and he said, ‘Sounds interesting.’ For him to say that, I felt was a really good sign. And we started to get together the rest of the cast. We had to find Harvey’s boyfriend, and Sean told our casting director to think if he was serving 25 years in federal penitentiary, who would be his cellmate, and I think James Franco naturally came up!”

James Franco and Sean Penn“There wasn’t a ton of footage on Scott in Rob Epstein’s documentary The Life and Times of Harvey Milk, there’s just like five seconds, but the best book on Harvey Milk that I’ve found is The Mayor of Castro Street, and Scott comes in and out, but he doesn’t play a huge role. It seems just based on talking to people that knew him, that was very important in Harvey’s life. He was I think the longest relationship in Harvey’s life. They were together for four years. Basically I just talked to Cleve Jones, and took those stories and boiled it down to some essence that I could play. Then Rob Epstein came though and gave me a goldmine. He had old footage of an interview he’d done with Scott that didn’t make it into his documentary and he transferred it to DVD for me, and I got to see what Scott really sounded like and moved like, so that was the last brick in the building.”

EMILE HIRSCH (Cleve Jones):
Emile Hirsch“I would drive around San Francisco with Cleve and he would tell me these stories, I felt like an investigative journalist writing a profile on Cleve for a little while. One of the things that struck me is he’s just very funny, and he had this kind of bubbling, boiling passion that is with him all the time, and I wanted to get that through in the film, because he’s such a distinct guy, he’s Cleve.”

JOSH BROLIN on the freedom he felt playing Dan White after playing George W Bush in W:
Josh Brolin“Oh for sure. There’s hindsight so you have a little liberty in being able to interpret, because it was a very particular time. It’s only 10 months. With W it’s 37 years. It’s just daunting. It was much easier to play Dan White, but much tougher emotionally than Bush.”

“Matt Damon was originally going to play Dan White, and when he dropped out it was kind of a big letdown for everybody including Sean and the money people because it was like Sean Penn and Matt Damon. So to find a replacement for Matt was a little bit of a wild goose chase, there were the usual suspects. Then Sean came up with the idea of Josh. No Country for Old Men had not come out yet, but we had seen it at Cannes. We got Josh in and that’s how it happened.”

FRANCO on doing the love scenes with Penn:
“It was unfamiliar to me, I’d never done a scene like that with a guy, but as far as the process was, it’s pretty much the same. He’s an okay kisser. It was fine. Top 30!”

“It’s funny, because I kind of forgot about Sean being an actor, because I had only known him as the director of Into the Wild. He never acted around me, so to suddenly see him with the camera rolling, I was like, ‘But you’re the director, why are you in front of the camera?’ It was like playing a basketball game with your coach. But as soon as we started doing our first scene, it became obvious to both of us that it was really working well with us, so we were very pleased. He’s got an intelligence and an intuitiveness that is very extraordinary.”

“I knew that San Francisco had really embraced the fact that this movie was being done by Gus and Sean, but when I went down to Castro [the district where Harvey Milk lived, worked and represented] I was a little scared, but everybody who I talked to said, ‘You’re playing Dan White.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah.’ And they were like, ‘That’s so great. We’re so happy you’re involved and doing this movie.’ My initial reaction in doing the movie wasn’t like, ‘God, I’ve got to play this character.’ With this movie, it was more, ‘I have to be involved in this move. It’s an important film.’ And San Francisco felt the same way, I got no negativity whatsoever. He was a monster; you already go into that with that baggage. It’s a compelling story.”

Emile Hirsch as gay rights activist Cleve Jones

Written by Judy Sloane. Back to top

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Feature © 2008 Visual Imagination.
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Film Review, #701, December 2008 cover

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