Dustin Lance Black Interview - Milk Screenwriter
Dustin Lance Black grew up in a very conservative, ________________ household in Texas.
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Dustin Lance Black: "Yeah, that was the hardest part. I mean, that was the hardest part because I had like a mountain of research and Harvey's life is fantastic. His 20s, his 30s, all of these stories that are so fantastic, and after he was assassinated the story of the trial is fantastic, and I just had to look at it and make tough decisions and say, 'You know, I know I'm going to lose these things that feel like my babies, these stories I love so much, but if I bite off too much I'm not going to be able to go deep enough that people are going to care personally.' So I just took a shot and said I'll do just his time in San Francisco."
So you could actually do a prequel and a sequel to this movie, right?
Dustin Lance Black: "Oh, absolutely. There's a great play called Execution of Justice which is just about the trial. In fact, I think it uses the transcripts. But you could definitely do an entire prequel thing to Harvey."
He was so fascinating.
Dustin Lance Black: "Yeah, he was really fascinating. But there's a lot out there. I hope this gets people to go read Randy Shilts' book The Mayor of Castro Street, which goes through all of it. Go see the documentary The Times of Harvey Milk and yeah, man, somebody should go make a TV miniseries about the Castro in the '70s."
What grabbed you? When did you first discover Harvey Milk and why did you stick with writing a story about him?
Dustin Lance Black: "I heard about him… I was fortunate enough to move – my stepdad was in the Army and he was transferred to the Bay Area from Texas. So I'd grown up in this very conservative Mormon household as a Texan. Not a great place to be gay. And I had a theatre director there who set a few of us down. I don't know if he sort of knew it might be something I'd benefit from hearing, but he told us the story of an out gay person. And I was like, 'Wow. What's that? That's a scary thing to be.' And he said, 'No, no, no. This guy was celebrated by his city and elected to public office and beloved.' And it's just such a hopeful story, you know? And I just thought we're losing that. He's like one of our great heroes and our forefathers, and it's so dangerous if you lose your history. You can see how dangerous it is today because we're trying to fight like these Prop 8s and we're using the failed strategies of 1975 and 1976, instead of this very successful strategy of '78. So I want people to like feel hopefully from Harvey, but also kind of get off their butts and start doing something again."
Have you gone back and told the guy who told you about Harvey everything that's happened to you since then?
Dustin Lance Black: "No. He sadly died."
That would have been a great story for him to know, that this has inspired you so much to do this.
Dustin Lance Black: "Don't get me crying."
Okay, I won't. Then let's talk about Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Have you started working on it?
Dustin Lance Black: "Yeah, that draft is done. Gus [Van Sant] has it. We're getting going."
How collaborative is Gus when you're working with him?
Dustin Lance Black: "He's great. He's as collaborative as you want him to be, you know?"
So he's hands-off when you want him to be?
Dustin Lance Black: "Yeah, when you want him to be – but I don't want him to be. He's a genius. I try and collaborate as much as possible. And whenever he gives me the time to like sit down and chat about it, it only improves."
How tough was it to do Tom Wolfe, to bring that story to life?
Dustin Lance Black: "It's a tough one. I'm still going through drafts of it. It is because his language makes the book so beautiful. It's the thing that you can't really grab and put into a film. It's like you have to find a style of your own to try and capture that same energy without those beautiful words."
Do you feel an additional weight when you're adapting such a well loved book?
Dustin Lance Black: "yeah."
Were you feeling that as you're writing the drafts?
Dustin Lance Black: "Well, no, you have to put it out of your mind while you're writing. But yeah, you know it pops into your head sometimes."
Is it easier to come up with your own story or is better to do an adaptation?
Dustin Lance Black: "They're just sort of different and different challenges. I think you've got, for me at least, approaching biopic and approaching history, you still have to tackle it as fiction. You still have to tackle it as story, and use the same sort of ideas and tools that you would use as if you were doing fiction. So they both have their challenges, you know? Sometimes the rules help. The true life thing helps limit you. But then sometimes you're like, 'Man, I just wish that I could have a car chase right here!' But Harvey Milk did not have a car chase."