Oscar-Winning Director Rob Epstein Remembers Harvey Milk

When Rob Epstein released his 1984 documentary The Times of Harvey Milk, it didn’t simply serve as a memorial to Milk -- it gave him new life. For more than two decades, filmmakers have tried to turn Milk's life into a major motion picture. Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black and Gus Van Sant finally made it work, and Epstein, who calls the film "beautiful," takes a look back at the man who inspired a movement and what's become of California's gay community without him.

BY Kyle Buchanan

November 18 2008 12:00 AM ET

When Rob Epstein
released his 1984 documentary The Times of Harvey
Milk,
it didn’t simply serve as a memorial
to Milk -- it gave him new life. The film won the
Oscar and became one of the most powerful contributions to
the gay cinematic canon, and in the past two decades,
some of Hollywood’s biggest talents have
attempted to take Milk’s story and create a fiction
film. Now, as Gus Van Sant’s Milk
premieres –- and the recent gay rights rallies
make Milk’s story more relevant than ever
–- we talked with Epstein about the parallels between
then and now.

Advocate.com:You've seen Gus Van Sant's film -- what did you
think of it?
Rob Epstein: I think it's very good. It's a
beautiful, tender portrait of Harvey. Sean Penn... you know,
it's a beautiful rendering of him.

You were immersed in footage of Milk for so long.
To see someone else do an interpretation of him ... were
there things Penn did that surprised you?
You know, I was surprised by the tenderness of
it. The whole film has that quality, and that was a
surprise to me. It's very much an interpretation of
Harvey -- I wouldn't say it's an exact impersonation of
him, and it shouldn't be.

Did you have any conversations with Dustin Lance
Black, the screenwriter?
Yeah, but you know, I'm not going to get into
that. It's a bit of a sore point. But getting back to
the other performances, all those characterizations
were so spot-on. Certainly [Josh] Brolin as Dan White
and Emile [Hirsch] as Cleve [Jones]. When I saw his
introduction of Cleve, knowing Cleve back then, it was
kind of uncanny.

How involved were you in the other attempts to get
this story off the ground over the last 20-odd years?
I haven't had direct involvement -- I mean, I
first met Gus when The Times of Harvey Milk came out
and Mala Noche, his first film, came out at the same
time. We met probably at the gay film festival at the Castro
back then. I guess it was a little later that I got
wind that Oliver Stone was trying to develop [Milk's]
story. Gus claims that I mentioned it to him and said
that he was the one to do it, which I always did feel, that
he was the one to do it. But then over the years, I
haven't had direct involvement. I think that The
Times of Harvey Milk
has had direct
involvement -- the film has more than me, personally.

It's hard not to notice some of the similarities
between Harvey Milk and Barack Obama -- both men were
minority candidates who succeeded against an
entrenched political machine due in part to a
strong message of hope. Would you agree?
Oh, absolutely. I think they are kindred
spirits, in terms of their ability to bring people
together. That's very much what Harvey was about and
what he stood for. He was democratizing the early gay rights
movement and finding a way to make it part of the
government of San Francisco at that time -- certainly,
that's what Obama is about on a much grander, bigger
scale. I definitely see the parallels. Maybe if Harvey was
alive, it would have been Obama-Milk! 

Tags: film

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