Oscar-Winning Director Rob Epstein Remembers Harvey Milk

By Kyle Buchanan

Originally published on Advocate.com November 18 2008 1:00 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! 

Harvey Milk x100 (Daniel Nicoletta/Focus Features) | Advocate.com
 

There are also similarities between the antigay
Briggs Inititiative (Proposition 6), which Milk fought,
and California's recent Proposition 8. However,
there's one big difference: Briggs lost, and Prop.
8 passed. Why could we defeat it then when we can't now?
The defeat of Prop 6 worked on so many different
levels. There was the grassroots organization, and
there was Harvey as the kind of front
person/standard-bearer who could really take it on as an
elected official. There are parallels, but there are
also differences, as I see it. What was going on then
was a reaction to gay people coming out, which was
somewhat new in society. Those initiatives were all being
aimed to try to stop that inevitable tide. This Prop.
8 initiative, the fact that it was targeting marriage
rights -- even though we were defeated, it shows how
far we've come, that it was something so much further along
the continuum of our progression. Yes, it's a
short-term defeat, but I definitely see it as an
inevitable victory.

In Van Sant's film he includes a scene where Milk
criticizes his own side's anti-Prop. 6 campaign as
"closeted" -- an accusation that was also lobbed
against the modern-day anti-Prop. 8 campaign,
which used mostly straight people in its advertising. Is
there an approach being employed that's not working?
Well, Harvey's message was all about coming out,
and I think that is applicable to the Prop. 8
dialectic. What I guess I didn't see, just
anecdotally, was that voting for 8 was voting for
discrimination, and if you're voting no on 8, you're
voting against discrimination. So, in that sense, I
don't think we were as effective as we could have been.

You know, a
friend of mine was visiting her parents in San Diego, in
Escondido, and she went to Sunday Mass with them, as she
does when she visits. At the end of the service, the
priest, from the pulpit, said, "You can get your
Proposition 8 literature at the door." So my friend
went to see what this was about, and of course it's all Yes
on 8 literature and lawn signs. And she asked, "Do you
have any No on 8 signs?" and the person behind the
desk said, well, no. And my friend said, "I'm a
lesbian, I've been in a long-term, committed
relationship for 20 years with my partner, and I'm a member
of this church, and I would like a No on 8 sign." And
the woman's response was, "Well, we love you anyway."
I guess it all has to be looked at as a teaching
opportunity, and that was Harvey's message.

What do you make of the rallies we've seen since
the election?
Well, I think it's cathartic. Hopefully, it
energizes people and keeps the issue and the fight
alive. It's vital.

Why hasn't the gay community found a new Harvey
Milk in the last two decades?
Who do you see as possible candidates for that?

I don't see many. Lorri Jean has been a galvanizing
speaker at some of our rallies here in Los Angeles, but
there isn't anyone with a major national or even
statewide profile out there. There are more openly
gay people than ever before, but the most famous
members of our community are celebrities, not leaders.
Why hasn’t anyone stepped up to fill Harvey
Milk’s footsteps?
You know, I think it's going to emerge from some
unexpected place in some unexpected way. I think
people fill those roles because they understand the
times in which they live, and they become the person for
their time in the way Obama has. Hopefully, he'll live
up to the potential of that, but it certainly feels
like he emerged out of nowhere and he seized the
moment and hopefully he's going to take us somewhere new.
That's why Harvey's story was so significant, because
he was a man of his times. In a sense he emerged from
nowhere because he didn't have any kind of power or
establishment behind him. He seized the power and galvanized
people. So I guess my answer is that we can't predict
where it's going to come from. And that's where it
should come from.

Milk opens in
theaters Wednesday, November 26.
The Times of
Harvey Milk is available on DVD.