|Making Milk: prop flyers on backdrop
photo: Steve Rhodes
[previous: laughing while acting]
Actors and extras took breaks while waiting for cameras and equipment to be repositioned. Production assistants wandered through the crowd, instructing us to put away our cell phones and digital cameras before upcoming scenes. Steve Rhodes remarked that this was a thankless and never-ending task. The extras couldn’t resist capturing the once-in-a-lifetime experience of making a movie in the Castro with Hollywood celebrities — but even just one single digital device spotted in the crowd would have betrayed the period on film. (The citizens of the ’70s might have felt ripped off if they had known that thirty years into the future would only bring handheld gadgets instead of, say, ubiquitous flying cars.)
The community of LGBTs and allies is a small world: during the many breaks, I caught up with old friends and acquaintances who were participating as extras in the crowd scenes. I ran into Joey Cain, former president of the board of San Francisco Pride, as well as a member of the Glide Memorial Church choir carrying a giant Gay Teachers stand up! sign. John Lewis of Marriage Equality USA carried a big white sign with Committee for Homosexual Law Reform in blue letters. His partner Stuart Gaffney recounted the romantic story of their first drinks over two decades ago at the bar formerly known as The Elephant Walk, a block away at 18th and Castro Streets, now appropriately named Harvey’s.
One extra, a former member of the National Religious Broadcasters during the ’70s, told me the deliciously juicy story of trying to fulfill a request to play Anita Bryant’s "Thou Art." When he went to retrieve the LP, the entire Anita Bryant section was missing from the shelf. Bryant’s songs were thus quietly removed from playlists across the country after she’d become such a vocal opponent of gay rights. The NRB (and broadcasting in general) comprised many gay men, and most of the religious community wasn’t focused on homosexuality before 1980 or so. Hate just wasn’t a "moral value" among mainstream churchgoers back then.
The next shot was a continuation of Penn’s first crowd scene, this time taken from a different angle, involving a closeup of Penn, other principle actors, and paid extras (i.e., extras in professional wardrobe). The shot required us to chant Gay Rights Now! three times to "get the energy," and then continue to march while quietly mouthing the words. I could hear men behind me whispering the chant while, at the front of the crowd, Penn and the other actors yelled the slogan aloud.
After that, the directors would jump ahead in time to continue Hirsch’s crowd scene, which was the near-riot associated with the Wichita protest. Demonstration signs were collected from extras, and production assistants changed the posters on the plywood backdrop — (which was designed to hide the current Diesel storefront) — behind the speaker’s platform. (My guess is that there wasn’t a platform at the original events in the ’70s — Harvey Milk and Cleve Jones just showed up with a bullhorn and started speaking in the middle of the crowd — but principle actors look much more dramatic on film when elevated above a crowd.) Apparently small prop and set changes like these, viewed through the frame of film, are enough to create the movie-magic time shift.
Before Van Sant shot this scene, producer Bruce Cohen introduced actress Carrie Fisher from the platform, who was in town for her one-woman show Wishful Drinking, which had debuted in Los Angeles to mixed reviews:
Fisher recited some of her famous lines from Star Wars, humorously adjusted for the LGBT-friendly crowd. After her appearance, one extra remarked, "This really is 1977!"
As the night wore on, hundreds of extras — most of whom were ordinary working people with non-acting-related day jobs — peeled off due to tiredness and the increasingly biting night chill. Walter, an extra who’d entertained us with his silly witticisms, told me that he was so tired he was getting "loopy." But the crew dealt effectively with the crowd attrition.