By Adam B. Vary
November 26, 2008 at 05:00 AM EST
  • Movie

Starring: Sean Penn, James Franco, Josh Brolin, Emile Hirsch
Directed by: Gus Van Sant
Release date: November 26

Gus Van Sant had one overriding goal when directing Sean Penn as the pioneering gay politician Harvey Milk in his latest drama: ”I was just trying to stay out of Sean’s way,” he says. Penn’s performance as Milk — who became San Francisco’s first openly gay city supervisor in 1977, only to be assassinated 11 months after taking office — is already enjoying serious Oscar talk. ”I was just a manager,” says the director, loath to take any credit, ”commenting about whether things were going well or not.” For the rest of the cast — including Josh Brolin as Milk’s fellow supervisor and eventual assassin, and Emile Hirsch as a young Milk protégé — Van Sant’s hands-off approach was a blessing. ”He creates an ambiance of absolute and total possibility,” says Brolin. ”The only real direction we got was if he felt like it was stiff, he would try to loosen it up.” Adds Hirsch: ”He let me go hog wild.”

Van Sant says it was Penn who insisted that Milk shoot in San Francisco, where the film is primarily set — in part so the actor could be closer to his family there. (The biggest handicap to filming in the city: no parking.) The production even moved into a storefront in the Castro, San Francisco’s famously gay neighborhood, where Milk owned a camera shop that also doubled as his campaign headquarters. ”Gus used some of the people who had worked with Harvey back in the day as actors in the film,” says James Franco, who plays one of Milk’s lovers. ”When these guys came in and saw us all in our wardrobes, and the camera shop done over [like] the 1970s — it was a true time warp.” Van Sant, however, remembers those moments with Milk’s compatriots as bittersweet: ”They seemed either enchanted or mystified — or sad that Harvey was gone.”

  • Movie
  • R
  • 128 minutes
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