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But if so, one lapsed Mormon may get the last laugh. His name is Dustin Lance Black, and after working as a writer for the last three years on the HBO series “Big Love” (about a polygamist Mormon family), he’s written “Milk,” the much-buzzed-about biopic about Harvey Milk, the San Francisco city official and gay rights activist who was gunned down in his office in 1978.
A day after Natalie Portman, Parker Posey, Barry Diller, Diane von Furstenberg and Marc Jacobs stormed the Sunshine Cinema for the film’s New York premiere, the 29-year-old screenwriter sat down with WWD to discuss his upbringing, the man he just wrote a movie about and why James Gandolfini’s praise means more than anything.
WWD: Tell me about growing up Mormon in Texas.
Dustin Lance Black: It was this hidden community, a lot of military families and really patriotic. I knew from a very early age that I was gay. Some kids growing up in other places might not understand the feelings they’re having and think, “Oh, wow, I’m a little different but I’m not sure how.” But in San Antonio, you hear all the words people use, and that’s really tough.
WWD: How did you get from there to writing about Harvey Milk, which you conceived, wrote and then sold?
D.L.B.: I got really lucky. My mom got remarried to a Catholic guy who was really cool. I was a teenager, and he moved us to the Bay Area. We were stationed at Fort Ord, but I would escape to San Francisco, where I got into the theater scene. One day a teacher told me and a small group the story of this out gay man who was honored by his city. I don’t know if someone had said something homophobic or that he sensed that I needed to hear this story. But it was shocking to me, because I always thought if you came out of the closet you must be suicidal.
WWD: You mean, because unless there was nothing to lose, there’d be no reason to come out?
D.L.B.: Yes. I don’t think I was immediately identifiable in junior high. But I watched what happened to kids that were and I didn’t see why you would ever volunteer to be treated like that. It was shocking that there was a place in the world where you could do that — come out — and they would throw you a parade.
WWD: Let’s talk about the term “immediately identifiable.” Did you worry that a movie about a self-described “queer as a three dollar bill” activist might be a harder sell than one about a couple of cowboys who are as American as apple pie?
D.L.B.: I approached the story as a spec script. There was no studio, there was no one to answer to whose money I had at risk. So I was able to approach it fearlessly and show the Castro for what it was in 1978. Then I got this stroke of luck when Cleve Jones [an AIDS activist and protégé of Milk] showed the script to Gus Van Sant. But even later on we never got a note to quote-unquote sanitize or Hollywood-ize these characters. And some of them are pretty out there.
WWD: Could you ever have imagined that the movie would be coming out at a time when gays and lesbians are newly galvanized by the passage of Proposition 8 in California?
D.L.B.: No, of course not. But I started writing this during the 2004 election, when the President fought for reelection by pitting homophobes against gay people. So the vote for Proposition 8 is not so surprising.
WWD: Still, have you considered that it might not hurt the movie’s prospects at the box office?
D.L.B.: I don’t really understand how a movie succeeds or fails. And I think it’s a really good movie. And I’ve watched really straight people cry. James Gandolfini said last night that he loved it. That’s really exciting to me.