Inside Sean Penn's film ''Milk'' -- The details on the biopic about gay-rights activist Harvey Milk

By Adam B. Vary
Updated February 29, 2008 at 05:00 AM EST

Few movies are as closeted in secrecy right now as Milk, director Gus Van Sant’s long-gestating biopic of slain gay-rights leader Harvey Milk. Sean Penn, who plays the title role, recently barred the press from visiting the San Francisco set. But ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY obtained an early copy of the screenplay, penned by Dustin Lance Black (Big Love). Like Milk himself — an uncompromising rabble-rouser who became the first openly gay man to win prominent elected office in the U.S., as a San Francisco city supervisor — the script doesn’t attempt to put audiences at ease. Filled with fiery political speeches and steeped in 1970s gay culture, it’s a far cry from Brokeback Mountain‘s soft-spoken gay cowboys. (There’s even a ”makeup sex” shower scene between Milk and his boyfriend, played by James Franco.) But producers Dan Jinks and Bruce Cohen (American Beauty) insist that later versions of the script emphasize Milk’s human side as well as his activism. ”People are going to love this movie who don’t give a damn about politics,” says Jinks. ”It’s about a guy who made a difference in the world.”

What actually emerges on screen will be a mystery until the film’s release in late 2008, of course, in part because we don’t know yet what sort of Van Sant movie this is. Last September, the director joked with EW that he was still trying to ”figure out whether [Milk] is Finding Forrester or Gerry, the two extremes” — referring to both his 2000 Sean Connery drama (domestic gross: $52 million) and his experimental 2003 indie (gross: $236,000). Jinks, Cohen, and Focus Features maintain, however, that Van Sant is staying clear of the avant-garde hinterlands.

The stakes are high for Milk, which has Kylie Minogue-level awareness in the gay and lesbian community. The film’s hero has been dubbed the gay Martin Luther King Jr., and the struggle to produce a biopic has dragged on for 16 years. (At one point in the mid-’90s, Van Sant was even attached to direct a different Milk project, The Mayor of Castro Street, with Robin Williams lined up to star.)

There are some clues Milk is scoring in the authenticity department. San Francisco city supervisor Tom Ammiano, who worked with Milk in the ’70s and was prominently featured in the Oscar-winning 1984 documentary The Times of Harvey Milk, is playing himself in the film. ”Brad Pitt had a contract dispute,” he jokes, ”so I had to do it.” Moreover, Ammiano reports that Penn’s physical and vocal resemblance to Milk ”is a little scary sometimes. Harvey had a New York accent that I’m very familiar with, and every time I see Sean, he [sounds] more and more like Milk.”