Harris Savides, ASC, and Gus Van Sant re-team to chart the inspiring story of human rights activist Harvey Milk, the one-time “Mayor of Castro Street”
The way “hope” and “change” have been tossed around this political season, one would think the terms had just appeared in common usage, newly minted by Henry Paulson and the U.S. Treasury. Thankfully there are movies like Milk, Gus Van Sant’s masterful 1970s period piece about the first gay man ever elected to public office in America, to remind us that change through the political process didn’t originate with the 2008 elections. Working with cinematographer Harris Savides, ASC for the fifth time, the filmmakers reveal the breadth of San Francisco City Supervisor Harvey Milk’s mission; through muted, naturalistic cityscapes this American hero fights for the rights of gays, Jews, seniors, Asians, hippies, and even truck drivers. The creative team behind Milk knew the stakes were enormous: Harvey Milk has been dubbed the “Martin Luther King of the gay community” and most of Milk’s own contemporaries were script advisors and appear as extras. Which makes Milk‘s continuous juxtaposition of archival and narrative footage, delicately matched via a digital intermediate, all the more impressive. Rarely do “bio-pics” mine history with such commitment and cinematic daring.
“This is a movie that Gus has been wanting to do for at least ten years,” says the New York-based Savides, on a recent visit to Los Angeles. “It’s a departure from the last three films we did (Elephant, Gerry, Last Days), and more overtly accessible to a broader audience. It falls somewhere in-between fiction and non-fiction in a very unique sort of way.” Robert Drew’s documentary masterpiece, Primary, which chronicled JFK’s bid to capture the 1960 Democratic nomination, was Milk‘s biggest influence. The first pure “verite” documentary was shot by a host of future legends, including Richard Leacock, Albert Maysles, and D.A. Pennebaker, who were all liberated by the era’s introduction of lightweight handheld 16mm Éclair-type cameras. Savides says Primary, and other docs from that period, are striking for the delicate fluidity of their camera movement. “It’s not like the visual sound-bite style that predominates news coverage today,” he notes. “If the subject sat down, the camera would squat slowly and smoothly like it was on a pedestal dolly. They [1960s documentarians] hadn’t discovered a shaky handheld camera and were trying to emulate the old studio style.”
Savides and Van Sant wanted to shoot Milk in that bygone motif. They tracked down veterans of that era, now mostly seasoned academicians and/or still director/cameramen, and hired at least one to lend his skills without the benefit of having read the script. “The thinking was that the spontaneity would help to seamlessly match all the archival footage,” notes Savides. “But when you’re working with actors, who require multiple takes, the surprise goes away. Form began to overshadow content, so we knew we needed a more conventional approach.”
That meant working in a single and sometimes multiple camera 35mm format. “A” Camera Operator/Steadicam Operator Will Arnot (Hotel For Dogs, 21, Charlie Wilson’s War) describes the first week as nearly all handheld work, and the second as filled with locked-off shots. “By the third week,” Arnot says, “we established a style that often relied on hard-mounting the Steadicam to a western dolly with three gyros attached for inertial stability. We could remove distracting camera movement within the frame yet still have the freedom to travel with the actors and the story. To me operating is about remaining invisible so as not to distract from the story you are telling. Gus and Harris are an amazing team to work with because they are both directors and cinematographers in their own right, so their ideas for the graphical language and framing were quite specific.”
An example comes during a night exterior halfway through the film, when Milk is convinced his growing identity in city politics may bring him physical harm. Milk (played by Sean Penn) is walking the streets of his neighborhood alone. Savides’ team, which included “A” Camera First Assistant Patrick McArdle (Untraceable, Gone Baby Gone, Bee Season), had the camera on the three-gyro stabilized Steadicam with a longish (75mm) lens to create the sense of a silhouetted figure in the background who (or may not) be stalking Milk. With the t-stop wide open, McArdle had his work cut out, but Arnot says the focus puller “did a fantastic job of staying with Sean’s growing sense of fear, which is what the shot is all about.” In fact, capturing the period look of San Francisco is such a major part of Harvey Milk’s story, Savides muted the film’s color palette to more accurately reflect film stocks from that era. “We asked Bill Groom [production designer] and Danny Glicker [costume designer] to not use primary colors,” the DP recalls,” because the stocks weren’t as vivid back then.”
Harvey Milk’s life was a vivid kaleidoscope of colors and tones; it’s to the credit of screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (inspired by Rob Epstein’s Academy Award winning documentary The Times of Harvey Milk) that a narrative version ever got made. Despite not owning the rights to any of Milk’s biographies, and despite plenty of trepidation from the activist’s former pals, Black persevered. After 15 years, he produced a meticulously researched screenplay that opens with Milk on his 40th birthday. The closeted Wall Street professional moves to San Francisco with his lover to begin a social transformation that is as much personal as political. [The year Harvey Milk and Scott Smith opened their Castro Camera shop – Milk’s political headquarters for his four attempts at public office – gay relationships were against the law.] Thus Milk‘s framing device – a starkly lit Sean Penn, sitting alone in his kitchen and dictating his will – gives the story context and urgency. Milk begins with archival footage of Dianne Feinstein (former president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors) announcing the murders on television. We wind back in time as Harvey assembles his political posse, which includes Cleve Jones, Dick Pabich, and Anne Kronenberg, who helped sweep the self-appointed “Mayor of Castro Street” into power. Media battles with anti-gay activist Anita Bryant and California State Senator John Briggs, whose Proposition 6 attempted to ban homosexuals from teaching in public schools, hopscotch between narrative and news footage. The most poignant bracketing is the candlelight march San Franciscans staged the night the two men were killed.
“The rallies and marches were our biggest challenge,” explains Savides. “We shot with Kodak 5279, which is an older stock and a bit more grainy, to get that feel of lower contrast and flatter colors from the 1970s. It captured the nighttime streets of San Francisco with subtlety and great beauty in our tests.” The candlelight vigil follows the original route on that November night in 1978, down Market Street, and Savides based the look on the original stock footage, also seen in the film, which was shot entirely with illumination from the thousands of candles, along with the boulevard’s sodium vapor streetlights. For the film’s other marches and rallies down Market Street, where high intensity electrical wires prevented easy placement of Condors, gaffer Steve Condiotti says 25 rooftop positions were pre-rigged with a variety of 10Ks, 5Ks and Parcans, as lamp operators and crews leapfrogged each other with each location change. When Anita Bryant’s repeals of gay rights ordinances across the nation galvanizes the Castro community to the point of rioting, Savides (based on a New York Times photo Van Sant had shown of a Chechnyan rioter with a Molitov cocktail) hit upon the idea of an organic flare cast upon the marchers’ faces. As Condiotti explains, “We had worked with Tom Sidnicich and Peter Stolz in Special Effects to find different kinds of flares to match the effect Harris was looking for. It’s most evident in the scene with Emile Hirsch [Cleve Jones] leading the rally, where we had effects technicians riding on dollies with the lit flares in front of the marchers, casting the light.”
It may surprise some that Milk marked Savides’ first use of a digital intermediate. “I feel like I’ve been cooking with a gas stove all my career and suddenly I was using electric,” the DP laughs. He tested both a 2K and 4K DI with EFILM colorist Mike Hatzer, but found no major differences. “If I had shot this film in bright sunlight, with sharp lenses and lots of depth of field, big vistas at t8 for example, 4K would have brought out more detail,” Savides adds. “But we shot with old Cooke Speed Panchro lenses from the 1970s, and a ½ ProMist filter, so the negative for Milk was relatively soft. We all felt a 2K DI looked great.”
The DI also proved invaluable for the recreation of Tosca, Harvey Milk’s favorite opera. “It was the last day of shooting, on this gigantic set, and we didn’t have much time,” Savides begins. “Steve [Condiotti] rigged one 20K Fresnel source up on a lift and pointed it straight at the stage, like operas do. [Condiotti’s wife had been the light board operator for the San Francisco Opera and had worked many productions of Tosca.] Working with Mike in the DI, I was able to model the light after the fact. The ability to alter contrast selectively and overall was impressive. In the City Hall scenes, where Sean is often leaning against doorjambs talking to Josh Brolin, we were able to take down the white walls behind Sean in the DI.”
Speaking of ability, Sean Penn’s uncanny talent for inhabiting roles has earned him four Oscar nominations and one Academy Award (Mystic River), and he hits heights in Milk few other mainstream stars would even dare attempt. Working alongside James Franco (portraying Scott Smith) and Diego Luna (playing Milk’s lover, James Lira, after Smith moves out), Penn captures Milk’s playful and passionate sides. Savides says his approach to shooting the love scenes was straightforward. “I knew they’d get lot of attention anyway,” he chuckles, “so I didn’t want to create any added drama through lighting and camerawork.”
Condiotti confirms this, breaking down in detail the DP’s simple yet elegant approach. “Part of our main lighting package was a 7K Shadowbox, a Xenon light made by Arc Light Efx, Inc. that produces exceptionally sharp shadows. The love scene with Diego Luna, shot inside a small room in Milk’s San Francisco apartment, featured fairly tight angles, and a bay window facing an alley to the side of the house. We positioned the 7K Shadowbox on a condor to focus down the narrow alley and come through the window at a steep angle. Sean and Diego moved in and out of this aperture of light, and often, intentionally, out of the light altogether. There was no fill light; the Shadowbox is a daylight-balanced unit, so the edge light entering the room had a cool tone.”
While the film frequently revels in Harvey Milk’s zest for life, it also builds to a sad and jarring climax. [The activist told his friends he would not live to see 50, and was gunned down at 48-years old.] Milk‘s complex villain, Dan White (superbly played by Josh Brolin), had clashed with Milk over city issues in the past, and when the conflicts came to a head, George Moscone sided with Milk; after White unsuccessfully tries to regain the job he’s just resigned, he executes both men in their City Hall offices. [Using his infamous “Twinkie” defense, White served only five years for manslaughter and returned to San Francisco, where he later committed suicide.] These final scenes reveal just how much the filmmakers stretched traditional documentary tools to match their narrative motif. Savides and Van Sant had clear goals with framing and focus. “A” operator Arnot says the DP was particular about maintaining the focus on the back of Brolin’s head rather than on the surrounding environment, during those final travelling shots, “and it really draws you into the darkness brewing in Dan White’s psyche,” he remarks.
Steve Condiotti adds that the interior balcony scenes in the murder sequence were lit with four 6K and four 12K Pars, bounced into the building’s large rotunda. “There were high windows spanning each of the third and fourth levels that provided added ambience and we used some 18Ks and 6K Pars, focused through diffusion materials from various corners of the upper levels, to add shape and dimension,” the gaffer explains. “As Josh walks in and out of the shadows, we waved a handheld sungun (bounced into the ceiling) to match when he was walking through less or more lit areas. The approach to period was very authentic, but Harris was never predictable in how he achieved those results. I’ve lived in this city for 27 years, and the making of Milk meant a great deal to all San Franciscans. It was an exceptional experience.”
Arnot, who relocated to San Francisco three years ago, echoes his crewmate, calling the candlelight vigil, “astounding,” and “a real celebration of Harvey’s life.” He points to how Van Sant’s approach to framing the tense ending moments inside City Hall were in sync with Savides’ approach to focus, particularly in the Steadicam shots after White shoots Moscone and re-loads in the bathroom to go after Milk. “Gus kept asking me to ‘tilt up, tilt up’ as he followed behind with a handheld monitor,” says Arnot. “I was fighting my urge to maintain conventional headroom, and ended up with an extreme example of ‘center-punching’ with Josh’s head square in the middle of the frame. It was only then that I realized that Gus was replicating what Harris had done with focus, directing compositional lines to converge on the crosshairs of the frame, precisely where Dan White’s head was. It pushed you right into the head of the assassin.”