"Milk" biopic brings '70s vibe to San Francisco

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - If you happen to be doing a little shopping on Castro Street in San Francisco and notice that the stores seem to be a bit more psychedelic than usual, fear not. You’re not having an acid flashback or entering a time warp; you’re on the set of “Milk.”

In mid-January Gus Van Sant began shooting his biopic about America’s first openly gay elected official, Harvey Milk, a San Francisco supervisor who was assassinated in 1978 along with Mayor George Moscone by recently resigned San Francisco Supervisor Dan White. Sean Penn is playing Milk, and Josh Brolin plays White in the Focus Features/Groundswell production.

Milk operated a camera store on Castro Street and was known as the Mayor of Castro Street, a roughly two-block shopping district in the San Francisco neighborhood of the same name. The production has taken over the area, turning back the clock to represent the years of the 1970s, when the Castro shifted from being a hippie hangout to a gay mecca. The production has meticulously re-created signs from the area, and even the garbage cans are from the time period.

“We’ve done an enormous amount of research to ensure that we are only going to have a sign for a business that was open in the year the scene takes place,” said Dan Jinks, one of the film’s producers.


The production hunkered down in San Francisco’s Gay and Lesbian Archives and talked to plenty of people from Milk’s world. They even hired a former employee from Milk’s camera store, Daniel Nicoletta, as a consultant; he not only worked with Milk but also took “tons” of photographs of the activist and the neighborhood.

One of the project’s biggest coups is that it’s shooting in Milk’s actual camera store. The storefront is now a gift shop, so the production had to buy the place out for a couple of months in order to transform it to a ‘70s-era business, under the watchful eye of production designer Bill Groom.

That would have been impossible had the film kept its original start date of November 2007, because the shop would not have wanted to give up holiday sales. But now, in what is the slowest part of the retail season, the store’s owners were more amenable.

While declining comment on the cost of taking over the store, producer Bruce Cohen said the transaction was about “finding that balance of something that (the owners) are happy with and works in our budget. It has some value to them that the movie is shot there, both commercial and historic.”

In fact, adding value to the neighborhood was one reason that the local business association received the production with open arms.

At first, Van Sant wasn’t keen on shooting in the Castro, thinking it was too retail-intensive. But the more he scouted, the more he saw how unique the area was, a little valley of shops with hills around it.

“There’s not a good way to cheat that,” location manager Jonathan Sheer said. “The more Gus scouted, the more he realized that the weight of the historical nature of it was mandating him to do it in the real place.”

The production team met the business association and outlined their plan during a town hall meeting at the historic Castro Theatre. Both sides agreed that the film would remind people of Milk’s importance, give the area a commercial boost and make the district more of a tourist attraction. In the end, almost all of the stores agreed to the shoot.


“People will want to come here and say, ‘Not only is this where Harvey was a figure, but this is where they shot the movie,”’ Jinks said. “We’re hoping that our movie is ultimately going to be a great thing for the neighborhood.”

“Milk” already is having an effect. Some who lived through the ‘70s are having their emotions swirled up at the sight of the old stores and bars. There also is something more permanent, too: a facelift to the Castro Theatre.

The movie palace, the gem of the neighborhood, was looking run-down. The production partnered with the business association and the theater’s owners to cobble together the funds to repaint the facade and redo the neon marquee, among other improvements.

“There’s very few chances in our business where we have a chance to make a positive change,” Sheer said. “But it’s nice to know that when we leave here, we’re going to leave something that’s had a lasting impact.”

In the coming weeks, the shoot will move to City Hall, where current Mayor Gavin Newsom invited the production to shoot in the exact location where Moscone (played by Victor Garber) was shot. White’s office, where Milk was shot, will be re-created in another locale because the original offices have changed over time. The new location still will have a view of the San Francisco Opera House, replicating the view that Milk, an opera fan, enjoyed before he died.

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter