Forty Under 40: Dustin Lance Black
BY Ari Karpel
May 06 2009 12:00 AM ET
Black has sought new fathers. He's cultivated strong relationships with older gay men who have been mentors in his career. TV director and producer Paris Barclay ( In Treatment ) read a script of Black's in the late 1990s and took the University of California, Los Angeles, grad under his wing. "Paris was one of the first people to encourage me to write," Black says. "He would even throw me some cash to finish a script." Together they sold a screenplay about the life of HIV-positive Real World star Pedro Zamora. The finished product aired this spring on MTV, but neither he nor Barclay had anything further to do with the production.
Marc V. Olsen and Will Scheffer, the professional and romantic partners behind HBO's Mormon drama Big Love, have also been mentors. "They walked me through the ins and outs of the TV world," says Black, who was a writer on the series, for which he drew on his childhood experiences. "They were very much like parents to me."
Then, of course, there's Van Sant. The To Die For director had "done a number of attempts" at a script about Milk himself, so he knew the challenges of writing it. And when Jones brought Van Sant and Black together, the director was impressed with the writer's research. "He was way more up on the issues and the people and politics of San Francisco than I was," says Van Sant, who brought Black with him to meetings to make sure he had his facts straight and to show the writer the ropes.
"I felt a very easy partnership between the three of us," says Penn, whose experience with Black on Milk left a significant impression. "I think he's going to be a force, frankly, and I think he's going to be a really valuable force."
Van Sant thinks so as well. He has Black writing a script based on The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test , Tom Wolfe's 1968 account of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters' acid-fueled road trip. Black has spent much of the last six months interviewing surviving Pranksters like Gretchen Fetchin the Slime Queen. Van Sant picked Black for the project partly because of On the Bus , the 2001 documentary Black directed about the bacchanalian experience of Burning Man. Van Sant calls the annual gathering in the Nevada desert "the closest thing that exists to San Francisco in the early '60s."
Aside from On the Bus and My Life With Count Dracula (a documentary he directed in 2003 about a man who brought vampire movies to TV), Black wishes his past projects would stay in the past. "We all have to learn from our mistakes," he says. "It's just some of our mistakes end up on DVD."
Among those "mistakes" are two movies Black made for money. "I thought, No one will ever see them ." Sure enough, he was in a local video store recently and spied a sign: "If you like Milk, you'll love Blank " -- he won't say the title. "I was like, 'Can I take that down?'È‚f;"
The movie in question, which Black "rewrote in one day while answering phone calls at this day care center through a temp agency," is 2000's The Journey of Jared Price , a gay coming-of-age tale that he promoted proudly at the time. "It was a script that read like soft-core porn," he says. "I took out all the sex and we shot it in four days for like 15 grand." He leans in closer to the recorder: "So listen, kids, don't ever commit anything to film that you don't want seen."