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 Oscar-Winning Director Rob Epstein Remembers Harvey
Milk

 Oscar-Winning Director Rob Epstein Remembers Harvey
Milk

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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.

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!

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.

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