Milk | 2008
There were well-deserved Oscars for Dustin Lance Black’s even-handed script and Sean Penn’s performance in Gus Van Sant’s recreation of the rise to prominence in the Seventies of Harvey Milk, to become the first openly gay person to be elected to public office in California, and his subsequent murder.
The film location could only have been the real San Francisco, where the film was based at the production facility on Treasure Island, facing the city across the Oakland Bay Bridge.
Where possible, for a period film, Van Sant uses real locations, particularly around the area known as the Castro, the famous heart of the city’s LGBTQ community – and arguably one of the most well-known gay neighbourhoods in the world.
The one understandable geographical cheat is the first chance encounter between Milk and Scott Smith (James Franco), who went on to become his long-term partner, on the steps of the Christopher Street subway in New York, 1970.
Christopher Street was the heart of Manhattan’s gay scene in Greenwich Village but the film uses a more convenient location. These are the steps of San Francisco’s Forest Hill MUNI Station.
Coincidentally, this isn’t Forest Hill’s first big screen appearance. This was also the station to which psycho-killer Scorpio sent Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood) during the complicated money drop sequence in Dirty Harry.
Milk and Smith relocate to the then-more-welcoming West Coast where Harvey rents a store on Castro Street itself.
The film uses what was Milk’s actual store, Castro Camera, at 575 Castro Street. It had become a gift shop called Given but was painstakingly taken back to its Seventies appearance, so far as covering the walls inside so the property could be used for interior shots showing the busy street outside.
It was equally carefully restored to its more recent incarnation. The property now houses the Human Rights Campaign, selling a range of branded t-shirts, baseball caps and souvenirs.
Using the reference of contemporary photos supplied by San Francisco’s Gay and Lesbian Archives, around 50 storefronts on the two blocks of Castro from 17th Street to 19th Street were dressed for the period.
Swirl On Castro wine shop, opposite the camera store at 527 Castro Street, was reverse-aged to become ‘McConnelly Wine & Liquors’, where the initially hostile store-owner finds business booming as the self-styled ‘Mayor of Castro Street’ unifies the neighbourhood.
To streamline the narrative, the film takes a slight liberty by putting Milk’s apartment above the camera shop. In fact, he lived on Lower Haight Street and this is the actual interior seen in the film.
Initially apolitical, Milk is galvanised by the police raid on a local gay bar wonderfully named Toad Hall. This was a real hangout which stood at 482 Castro Street, since swallowed up by the expansion of the Walgreens store.
The stone-clad entrance to 440 Castro, 440 Castro Street becomes ‘Toad Hall’ for the film.
The first rally sees indignant Milk setting up his soap box and drawing a crowd on Castro at 17th Street, alongside the entrance to the Castro MUNI Station. In commemoration, the below-ground courtyard of Castro Station is now named Harvey Milk Plaza and displays a photographic memorial of Milk’s life.
The focus of the district is famous nearby movie house, the Castro Theatre, 429 Castro Street. The 1,400-seat cinema was built in 1922 but its landmark marquee and neon sign were added in the late Thirties. The Castro showed mainstream releases until 1976 when it became a repertory cinema presenting foreign and arthouse films. For the film, its frontage was given a well-deserved makeover to its glory days.
Milk announces his candidacy for the position of Supervisor and turns for help to the publisher major gay magazine The Advocate. The mansion of wealthy David Goodstein, the magazine’s uncooperative owner, where Scott Smith pees in the pool, is one of the expensive mansions in Atherton, about 25 miles minutes south of San Francisco.
Harvey begins taking his political role more seriously, getting a haircut and a smart suit. His debate with rival candidate Art Agnos (played by artist Jeff Koons), as he runs for the Assembly, was filmed in the Federal Reserve Bank Of San Francisco Building, 400 Sansome Street, in the Financial District.
Initially uninterested, cocky runaway Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsch) becomes an enthusiastic and energetic ‘recruit’ to Milk’s campaign. The bar into which he barges to get people out onto the street is the Twin Peaks Tavern, 401 Castro Street at 17th Street.
Still one of the busiest bars on the Castro (it’s likely to be a visitor's first stop, standing right outside the MUNI Station), Twin Peaks stakes its place in history as the first gay bar in the US with full-length, plate glass windows that not only allowed patrons to look out, but more importantly, let the public look in. This seemingly minor feature was a big deal in 1972 when many gays still feared losing their jobs or being socially ostracised if their sexual orientation were revealed.
The neon-lit exterior of the bar is seen later in the film.
Demonstrators take to the streets and march to San Francisco City Hall, the classical domed landmark dominating the Civic Center area, which is destined to play a crucial role in Harvey Milk’s story.
It’s here that Milk eventually serves alongside the staunchly Catholic Dan White (Josh Brolin) who, though he disagrees politically with Milk, develops an edgily respectful friendship with the activist.
City Hall is no stranger to the screen, having featured prominently in Dirty Harry, the 1978 Invasion of The Body Snatchers, Bond movie A View To A Kill and Raiders Of The Lost Ark. It's open to visitors.
Although the real San Francisco City Hall is used for exteriors, and for its grand entrance lobby, the corridors, offices and meeting rooms are those of the Federal Building, 55 United Nations Plaza, a couple of blocks east.
Harvey Milk is even invited to the christening of Dan White’s son. Although this took place in Saint Mary’s Cathedral, a 1970s building in the Fillmore District, it's staged in Grace Cathedral Episcopal Church, 1100 California Street. It’s a measure of the film’s balanced approach that the son of the real Dan White appears as a guest at his ‘own’ christening.
Harvey Milk was never shy of attention-grabbing PR and is quick to use the public’s concern over dog poo to promote his populist clean parks ordinance in Duboce Park, a small oasis between the Duboce Triangle and Lower Haight neighbourhoods. This park, also featured in The Pursuit Of Happyness, with Will Smith, now site of the Harvey Milk Recreational Arts Centre at 50 Scott Street.
It was in City Hall that the aggrieved Dan White shot and killed both Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone on November 27, 1978.
It’s perhaps dramatic invention that the last thing Harvey Milk sees as he succumbs to the bullets were the banners for his beloved Tosca, but it’s true that the rear of City Hall does indeed look out onto San Francisco's War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue.
No fewer than 3,000 extras appear in the final candlelit march which was filmed on Market Street, where the real event took place in 1978.