So it was never like, 'Oh, we can make a story about City Hall with $20,000.' I guess I was always coming at filmmaking from not really being in the business, but knowing that I could get a hold of or save up my own money to the point where I'd have $20,000 and I could actually make a feature."
In the process of making Milk, the filmmaker admitted that he had to leave out many details that "I really like and things that sort of explain the situation. We suggest things. We explain this new law that enabled people to elect their supervisors from their districts, but we didn't explain that the people up to that point that had to run city-wide resembled a different and maybe more antiquated type of politician. They were more, I guess, conservative. They were more business-oriented."
If San Francisco is palpable as a character in Milk, then City Hall is that elegantly shambolic figure's brain, and Van Sant effectively used the Beaux Arts space, which harks back to classical forms, to his own dramatic ends. A down-the-rabbit-hole corridor leading to supervisors' chambers becomes a pulsing nerve center visually rhyming with the characters' stratagems. The sweeping staircase and balconies become the backdrop for Milk's and White's clashing trajectories, and the building itself becomes the spotless stage for Milk's political birth and death.
"What I usually try and do, in general, is to connect the characters to a timeless quality, so it's not necessarily situated in the specific time they're in," said Van Sant. "So if they're in City Hall and there's a beaux-arts classical relief on the ceiling, if you frame it correctly, they can kind of look like Roman senators. You can get this timeless quality of people trading votes and betraying each other for as long as there's been a forum and a senate.
"There were certain things in the script and in Harvey's life the famous line is 'How do you like my new theater,' which is what he says to Cleve [Jones, played by Emile Hirsch]: 'Always take the stairs, never dress up, never blend in, make a show of it, use the whole space.' I thought of that as a centerpiece of the whole film. That scene is one of my favorites because it was kind of like Harvey, who was a stage manager and was in theater. This was his new forum, his new theater, his new proscenium, with which to create new stuff in this case, gay rights and other things that he thought were important, like education and help for minorities and seniors."
The question that arises so often among those who care about gay rights is: Why wasn't Milk released before the Nov. 4 election, when it might have energized voters to shut down Proposition 8, a battle so similar to Milk's charge against Proposition 6? As Milk screenwriter Dustin Lance Black said, "I didn't know this [movie] would be about Prop. 8, but I don't think this fight is over."
"I don't really decide when movies should come out," said Van Sant. "The distributors came up with that." He spelled out some of the thoughts behind the Nov. 26 theatrical release: worries included "whether or not the elements of the story were so like the political moment that the film wouldn't have a life after the election," and "whether people are too busy with the election to go see the movie. Are people overtaxed with politics to go see a political movie?" As a compromise, the late-October Castro Theatre premiere was arranged to get Milk and its overall message into the media eye, while still opening it into November through January, the Academy campaign season.
"Yeah, I didn't make the call," repeats Van Sant, somewhat regretfully and shedding perhaps a smidge of that cherished detachment.