It's a wrap - 'Milk' filming ends in S.F.
Ruthe Stein, Chronicle Senior Movie Writer
Tuesday, March 18, 2008
"Harvey will be coming out soon," an extra assured the crowd in front of City Hall on a recent Sunday. They had gathered to be in a scene in "Milk"- the movie about the life and death of Harvey Milk - in which the San Francisco supervisor delivers an impassioned speech. It was really Sean Penn, of course, who plays the martyred supervisor, who would be appearing. But, this extra explained, because he's a "method actor," he wants to be called Harvey.
From the bright sun, it could have been June, when the Gay Freedom Day parade was led 30 years ago by Milk, seated on top of a convertible with flowers in one hand and the other hand a clenched fist. He was as pumped up as his bulging muscles.
A couple thousand people waited for a re-enactment of Milk's fiery speech, which capped the parade. This was the last day calling for such a large cast.
"Milk" had been filming all over San Francisco for eight weeks and wrapped Monday with a scene shot on a set on Treasure Island of Milk watching "Tosca." The movie is due in the fall, positioning it for Oscar consideration.
Appearing on the City Hall steps to deafening applause, Penn looked shockingly like Milk. He had his almost Grecian nose and dark wavy hair parted to one side and wore a tight T-shirt that showed off his muscles.
"Brothers and sisters, you must come out to your parents," Penn/Harvey shouted, pronouncing his vowels distinctly to sound like a New Yorker. "It may hurt them. But think how they could hurt you in the voting booth."
Penn would do eight takes of this speech all to loud applause from an indefatigable crowd, including people who had stood in the same spot 30 years ago listening to Milk urge gays to protect their rights from those trying to get gay-friendly legislation repealed.
A dozen rows back from Penn, John Hershey, 63, started crying. Milk had influenced him to come out to his family, Hershey recalled.
"This is an important thing for me because I want all the kids to know what Harvey did," he said.
All age groups were represented. Peter Weitl came with his wife, Jenni. They're both 28. "We came to be part of history, even if it's re-created history. We couldn't have been there the first time," he said.
The production company had posted instructions on the Internet of what to wear to look of the period. Shorts and blue jeans were fine; bell bottoms and garish colors were not. A lot of people blithely ignored this, dressing in copies of Pucci's brightly colored wrap dress and in drag. Men showed off large tattoos by wearing leather vests with nothing under them. The few cars on Polk Street were all period, including a Thunderbird and Ford Pinto station wagon.
Bottled water was available for free, but extras were warned to pitch the bottles when the cameras were on. People drank H2O out of the tap in the '70s.
A production assistant followed Penn around the front of City Hall with a large navy blue umbrella. She held it over his head to shield him from the sun. Seeing he had a captive audience, Penn broke loose of the umbrella to deliver an impromptu speech that Milk would have loved.
"I almost wish Jerry Falwell were alive to see this. Almost," Penn shouted to the crowd. After dropping some names of conservatives who are still with us - "Bill O'Reilly, who is too stupid to talk about," and "Sean Hannity, the butt boy of Rupert Murdoch," Penn said, "We know something more. We know their end is near."
What was fun about having "Milk" shot here is how "in" it made locals feel. They could go home that Sunday and tell friends that Penn gave a speech just for them. Keen observers might have caught a glimpse of Robin Williams, who at one point was to play Milk, and Oliver Stone, who was to direct one version of the biopic. Both stopped by to watch Penn and director Gus Van Sant, whom Williams worked with on "Good Will Hunting."
Thousands of San Franciscans marched in a simulation of the Gay Freedom Parade that was held on June 25, 1978, and of the vigil in November that year to commemorate the deaths of Milk and Mayor George Moscone, both murdered by Supervisor Dan White.
The cast and crew have been all over town spending money in restaurants and hotels and generally adding to the San Francisco economy. There were other ways in which the local population benefited from the "Milk" people being here.
Those who weren't around to see the Castro district in the 1970s got a sense of it after scenic designers went to work changing storefronts. Overnight a store called Aquarius Records popped up with a purple, yellow, orange and periwinkle front. The shop used to be in the Castro but moved to Noe Valley. Designers also brought back China Court, a popular restaurant in the '70s. Milk's election headquarters was decorated with posters of him under a colorful canopy.
The interior of Milk's camera shop also was re-created and became a place where his pals from the old days like author Armistead Maupin, one-time Milk aide Anne Kronenberg and Cleve Jones, founder of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt who is an adviser on the film, would stop in. "They were moved to tears to see everything exactly the way it had been," said Dan Jinks, co-producer with Bruce Cohen. The two previously produced "American Beauty" and "Big Fish."
"I have never gotten to work on a project before that not only is based on a true event but where we are shooting it in the places where it actually happened," Cohen said.
Jones came on the set to watch himself be played by Emile Hirsch, telling the actor, "This is where I was standing."
"I feel like 'Milk' is really a once-in-a-lifetime chance," Cohen said. "It is so much about the city. But it isn't just a storybook place. We are re-creating a part of the history of San Francisco."
This is the first time since the cast and crew of "Zodiac" disembarked here in 2005 that a major motion picture has been shot in San Francisco. Like "Milk," "Zodiac" takes place in San Francisco. But not all of it was filmed here because of how expensive this city is. In part because Penn lives in the Bay Area but mainly because, as Jinks put it, "Harvey Milk is such a San Francisco story," he and Cohen resisted pressure from the money people to shoot most of it in Vancouver. It was always their idea that the city be a character in the movie.
"The picture is scripted for the city, and you know it would be a creative embarrassment if they had to shoot it somewhere else," said Stefanie Coyote, executive director of the San Francisco Film Commission, who helped negotiate good access to City Hall.
The area surrounding City Hall, as well as the building, plays a big role in "Milk." In one scene inside City Hall, Supervisor White, played by Josh Brolin fresh off his career-making role in "No Country for Old Men," was being grilled by the press on his decision to remain supervisor. He had resigned his seat, then changed his mind but could not get Moscone to give the position back to him. Milk wanted White gone, which was why he also was shot dead.
Mayor Newsom offered to lend the "Milk" crew his office to film Moscone's shooting. "We did not take him up on his offer. We thought it was more important that he be using his office," Jinks said. Instead, the anteroom to his office, where the killing took place, was re-created on a set. The room has been redecorated numerous times, so the film's version probably is more accurate. Cubicles in the Federal Office Building at 50 United Nations Plaza substituted for the supervisors' work space because they have far more luxurious offices now than in 1978.
A brisk woman with bouffant hair and wearing a blouse with a large bow was seen coming out of the building. She's Ashlee Temple, and she plays then Board of Supervisors President Dianne Feinstein. She auditioned by re-enacting Feinstein's stunning announcement to the press that Moscone and Milk were dead. "She didn't cry but you can see she is very shocked and very fragile," said Temple, who studied a news clip. "It takes every bit of energy in her to get those words out 'and the suspect is Dan White.' "
While the last scene shot here was of Penn listening to "Tosca," the part from the opera he is watching was filmed weeks ago. The modest budget was strained bringing in costumes from "Tosca" and renting an existing set from the opera. The crew put up some lights, and for a couple of hours a soundstage on Treasure Island became an opera house.
"Harvey was a huge opera fan," Jinks said. "Nothing made him happier." Except maybe a whole movie all about him.
E-mail Ruthe Stein at firstname.lastname@example.org
This article appeared on page E - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle