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Tell a friend Making ‘Milk,’ the movie about Harvey Milk

Milk: The Harvey Milk Story casting poster
(photo: Steve Rhodes)

Update: Now that the much-awaited film Milk has premiered, many politically astute observers have noted the parallels between the recent marriage equality demonstrations and the Gay Rights movement of the 1970s that Harvey Milk had come to represent. I will be seeing Milk at the Castro Theatre this weekend, but having participated in both the making of the movie and many of the recent anti-Proposition 8 demonstrations, I feel as though I’ve already seen it. What follows is my story of being one of many extras during the riotous crowd scenes.

* * *

The Castro District in San Francisco, just down the hill from where I live, is abuzz. It’s the most exciting time for the neighborhood since the annual Halloween street party (before it was recently banned) or LGBT Pride weekend, when tourists from all over the world make a pilgrimage to the famous "Gay Mecca." It’s as if the 1970s — when the Castro emerged as the world’s epicenter of the gay liberation movement — is coming alive again. And, in a sense, it is.

Filmmaker Gus Van Sant is in the middle of realizing his long-time dream of directing a biopic of Harvey Milk, a political activist instrumental in creating the gay community and culture of the Castro, as well as the first openly gay man to serve in a substantial political office as San Francisco city supervisor.

Van Sant had been wanting to make a movie about Harvey Milk for a long time. He rejected the original Oliver Stone version from the early ’90s (which was to star Robin Williams, who has since aged out of the role). And there was another reason he couldn’t make the film he’d wanted to: Warner Brothers, the studio he was negotiating with, balked at showing realistic depictions of gay relationships during the sexually liberated ’70s. When I met Van Sant in the late ’90s during a book tour for his debut novel Pink, he said that in making a movie about Harvey Milk, it was important to depict sex between men realistically, so he couldn’t abide by the studio’s prudishness. "They wanted to limit Milk’s sex life to something like just two little kisses, and I couldn’t do that," he explained, "so I walked away." Half-jokingly, he likened working with big Hollywood studios to being in a masochistic relationship.

The events of just the single decade that followed, however, made a difference in the potential for accurately telling gay stories. Ellen DeGeneres came out of the closet, Will & Grace became a mainstream hit, and Queer As Folk and The L Word routinely depicted same-sex love scenes and a variety of intimate relationships. In the end, it may have been the success of Brokeback Mountain that convinced nervous studio execs to back a realistic film about Harvey Milk. In fact, all of a sudden — thirty years after Milk’s assassination — the story of the "Mayor of Castro Street" is in demand. Due to the writers’ strike, Van Sant’s version happened to make it into production before a competing version by filmmaker Bryan Singer and writer Randy Shilts.

Over the past couple of months, the production crew transformed the modern trendy neighborhood of the Castro into its 1970s incarnation — which, back then, had more resembled a small town.

The building at Market and 16th Streets (now empty after the liquidation of Tower Records and Video) became Extras Holding, where young actors (and some middle-aged ones) are transformed into their 1970s counterparts. Rack after rack of ’70s plaid shirts, coats and jackets, jeans, suits, polyester dresses, large-knit sweaters are meticulously categorized and numbered, as are dozens of storage bins containing wool caps, wide neckties, scarves, large eyeglasses frames, bandannas, hoop earrings, and other period accessories.

Extras sit in front of high-end lighted mirrors at makeshift makeup tables to get their hair styled into long shags and severe side parts (for men) and, for women, face-framing barrel curls, afros (for black women), and plain long, straight locks. Those extras with hair too short or modern had to endure wearing cheap wigs. Rumor has it that the makeup department ordered thousands of fake mustaches and pairs of sideburns in assorted colors to apply to men who hadn’t been growing their own. Wardrobe and makeup is often open twenty-four hours a day to accommodate the aggressive film schedule.

San Francisco doesn’t host nearly as much filming as does Southern California, so the extras, happy to engage in a rare professional film acting opportunity (especially since it’s not easy to be cast even as a "background artist"), have an unusual sense of camaraderie. As fascinating as the quotidian details of making a film are to passersby, the extras themselves compare notes, even on the craft service food. The entire first floor of Extras Holding was converted into a dining hall with folding tables and a whiteboard displaying menu of selections that change daily. Morning extras and crew are treated to custom-made omelets from professional chefs; the dinner menu rivals that of an upscale restaurant:

  • grilled flatiron steak
  • grilled trout with lemon butter
  • chicken cordon bleu
  • bow-tie pasta
  • bien cali rice [(I've never heard of it either)]
  • gnocchi with tomato cream sauce
  • mixed veggies
  • baked brie
  • prosciutto-wrapped asparagus
  • stuffed artichokes
  • dessert: "Cake Batter" ice cream

Casual observers in the Castro had the good fortune to watch the principle actors at work, including Sean Penn as Harvey Milk. I’ll admit that I was at first skeptical of the casting of Penn in the title role. Snapshots of Penn, however, in full wardrobe, makeup (including colored contact lenses and a nose prosthetic), and the long ponytail and scruffy beard he’d grown to depict Milk’s hippie look during the early ’70s, convinced me — not to mention how seriously he and co-star James Franco took the roles. Steve Carell, slated to star in the Singer/Shilts version of the Milk story, would have been an interesting choice in one of his first comedy-to-drama crossover rolls, especially since he played a sensitive gay character in Little Miss Sunshine so poignantly and delightfully. Adrian Brody might have fit the part, too — certainly physically — but he may have been too young to play the forty-something Milk.

As exciting as it was to observe an active film crew and famous actors using the Castro as a living movie set, I had the privilege of participating even more, as an extra in Gus Van Sant’s Milk.

[next: being an extra in the crowd scenes]

Posted November 25, 2008 by Mariva in city, community, fashion, movies, social

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