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An evening with Dustin Lance Black

By John Fitzgerald

Dustin Lance Black is a writer for the HBO series “Big Love” and the soon-to-be-released biopic “Milk.” He and I spoke for about half an hour regarding his childhood as a gay Mormon in Texas, the process of writing “Milk” and what he thinks Harvey Milk might have to say about gay rights in America if he were alive in these volatile times. Black also specifically discusses his current views on The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints regarding Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage in California.

Below are excerpts from the interview.

John Fitzgerald: What was your process from idea to finished product? How did you go about writing the screenplay?

Dustin Lance Black: The story of Harvey Milk was a very hopeful story because I’d never heard of an out gay person before. You’re not really taught that in Sunday school. I’d had the story in my head for a very long time. It was four and a half years ago where I found myself in a position where I had a job on a big TV show called “Big Love.” It afforded me a little bit of money and weekends to do something I cared about. Then I got really lucky. I had a friend who knew I was interested in Harvey. He wanted me to meet the real Cleve Jones. My friend wanted me to do a book on the Cleve Jones rock opera. I remember driving home from that visit and I was sitting next to my friend and feeling very guilty because I was like, “I’m not going to write the book for your rock opera. I’m going to finally write the movie “Milk.'”

JF: What creative liberties did you take, if any, during the writing process? I’m thinking specifically of the story of the boy in the wheelchair from Minnesota. Where did that story come from?

DLB: I wish I could say that story was complete fabrication and that I could say I was some sort of imaginary or brilliant sort of (laughs) but no, actually that story is one I’ve heard several times throughout the research. For the most part I was like, “I can’t include this. It’s just too dramatic, it’s unbelievable.” I generally cut those things. But in this case, I was hearing so many stories that were just like that, and it did seem big. But what they were doing at the time was really big. I thought it might suffer a feeling of (in)authenticity to include big things, but it’s a complete lie not to include them. The biggest liberties were what I didn’t tell. The biggest fictionalization is what’s not in there.

JF: Were there any gay actors in the film besides you that played a gay character or were they all heterosexuals?

DLB: I had a cameo in it. Did you see that? (laughs) It was a fine performance! All I did was walk by the camera shop with my big black boyfriend. (laughs)

JF: You gotta start somewhere!

DLB: Gus (Van Sant, the director) and I thought from the beginning we gotta go after gay actors. And we did. When you watch the movie there are straight people playing gay people and out gay people playing straight people. It’s how it should be I think, that gay people get to play straight people and that straight people get to play gay people. The one thing that I never wanted was to have a closeted gay actor play Harvey Milk. I thought that would have been a slap in the face.

JF: While growing up in Texas, do you feel you were more persecuted for being LDS or for being gay?

DLB: It’s tough to say because in my school, I was very closeted about being LDS. I was kind of one of the only ones. A lot of the other people in our church went to a different elementary school and a different middle school than I did. I hid both. I think subconsciously I felt like an outsider for both. I was equally sure of both at the time and I was protective of both. At the time I was a real, true, fervent believer in the LDS church. And I also at the time really understood that I was gay. When you grow up in a really homophobic environment, you understand you’re gay from an early age because you have a word for it. It’s defined early on.

JF: Could you give us a feeling of how you think Harvey might approach this very sensitive subject regarding Proposition 8 and gays in America?

DLB: Harvey taught me more about what it means to be political in the gay movement. I think one of his big lessons was coming out so you can do outreach and education on who gay and lesbian people are. I’ve really had to do some soul searching because everyone was attacking the Mormon Church because they were a big donor. They were taking a very strong anti-gay stance. I’m not an active Mormon anymore but I still have a lot of family who is, so I was torn. I know exactly what Harvey would do. He would take his message to Salt Lake City. He wouldn’t do it aggressively. He would do it as an invitation. He would do it with a hand outreached. We need to stop running these closeted campaigns. If you can’t respect yourself enough to stand up and introduce yourself, how do you expect the LDS church and its members to respect you? If you’re acting shameful you must have something to hide. I think it’s time to start outreach and education with the LDS church. I think that coming out is the big issue. It’s the thing that’s been lost over the last two decades. It’s the thing that’s been missing.

JF: I read online that Tony Soprano loved the film.

DLB: Oh my God! That was a really cool story. Wow, that’s already gotten out there, huh?

JF: Do you anticipate that many straight people will react the same way that James Gandolfini did?

DLB: I do. He (Gandolfini) was always the big challenge. I said, “If we can nail Harvey Milk, if we can capture the soul of that man, we got every audience.” I feel like we got so lucky that Sean Penn was interested. It’s a really beautiful portrayal and I think he did nail it. We will win the straight audience. We did a test screening with all straight people. The audience for the most part was very conservative. On a comment card, one of ’em says “I don’t like man ass, but I love Harvey Milk,” and I was like, “That’s it. We did it! Gus and Sean and I did it.”

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