Craig ZADAN and Neil Meron have fielded all sorts of congratulatory calls in recent months from people excited to hear that after years of struggle, the veteran producers had finally found a way to get a movie made about Harvey Milk.
Gus Van Sant finished filming the movie this March in San Francisco with Sean Penn starring as Milk, the revered gay activist who made headlines in 1977 after his election to the city’s Board of Supervisors made him one of the first openly gay city officials in America.
There’s just one big problem: “Milk” is someone else’s movie. After spending 16 years trying to get their film made, Zadan and Meron’s project is dead in the water, beaten into production by the Van Sant film, which is due for release this fall from Focus Features. To add salt to the wound, several key people involved with “Milk,” including Van Sant, were once involved with Zadan and Meron’s film, “The Mayor of Castro Street,” which was based on Randy Shilts’ groundbreaking 1982 biography.
Milk’s career famously ended in tragedy. In 1978, a year after he was elected, he and his political ally, San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, were gunned down in City Hall by Dan White, a conservative ex-city supervisor. Milk’s status as a martyr was assured when White, benefiting from what became known as the “Twinkie defense,” was convicted on a paltry charge of voluntary manslaughter, sparking an uproar in gay communities across the country.
For Zadan and Meron, best known as the producers of “Chicago” and “Hairspray,” the demise of their film has been a heartbreak. Gay themselves, they saw the project in a very personal way. “When it became clear that the other movie was going first, we felt as if Harvey Milk had died again,” says Zadan. “After spending 16 years living with this story, it was like being in mourning. It’s been really tough having people say, ‘Oh, it must be so great, finally getting your movie made,’ and having to say, ‘Um, no. It’s not our movie.’ ”
The movie may be dead, but it leaves a colorful corpse behind. During the project’s odyssey, Zadan and Meron worked with an impressive set of filmmakers, including Bryan Singer, Van Sant and Oliver Stone, the last having spent a memorable evening with the producers visiting a string of gay bars in the Castro district. Over the years, a host of actors had shown interest in the project, including Robin Williams, Kevin Spacey, Daniel Day-Lewis, Kevin Kline, James Woods, Richard Gere and Steve Carell.
The project’s ups and downs are a vintage illustration of the bumpy, often unpredictable path movies take on their way to marketplace. The movie’s history also offers an intriguing look at Hollywood’s pre-"Brokeback Mountain” attitude toward gay films.
“The history of this movie really mirrors the consciousness-raising that Hollywood went through over the last 15 or 20 years,” says director Rob Cohen, another filmmaker once attached to the project. “In the early 1990s, you couldn’t get a major Hollywood star to play a gay man, even an almost Jesus-style hero. But that’s what made the story so compelling. Harvey Milk was an unlikely political leader, but he symbolized an era where social movements were changing our country.”
In 1991, after a string of provocative hits including “Platoon,” “Wall Street” and “Born on the Fourth of July,” Oliver Stone was the reigning king of the Hollywood jungle. At Warner Bros. Films, he was treated like a pasha -- he was a magnet for both A-list movie stars and the most sought-after scripts. So when Zadan and Meron wanted to make a movie out of Shilts’ book, they contacted Stone, whose production company was then run by Janet Yang, one of their old friends.
One day she phoned and said in an excited voice: “Get in your car and come to Venice -- now!” As Meron recalls: “When we got there, Oliver was waiting. He said, ‘What an amazing story.’ We spent the whole day there, talking about the film and hearing his ideas.”
Once Stone blessed the project, Warners bought the movie rights to the book for the producers. By today’s standards, it seems hard to imagine a major studio in that era being daring enough to embrace a drama with a gay hero. But the Warners of 1991 had a different sensibility than the studio of today.
“In those days, studios were still looking for daring, edgy material,” recalls producer Bill Gerber, who spent more than a decade as a Warners production executive, ending up as the studio’s co-president of production. “Remember, we didn’t just make ‘JFK.’ We also did ‘The Mosquito Coast,’ ' ‘Round Midnight’ and ‘Stand and Deliver.’ Those were the days when you high-fived each other when you got Peter Weir to do a movie.”
Always interested in the collision between social causes and popular culture, Stone thought the story was filled with great dramatic potential. But having spent time speaking with Shilts as well as many of Milk’s friends, the producers were also convinced that a key ingredient in Milk’s personality was his sense of humor. That led them to the first actor to sign on to play Milk: Robin Williams.
Having spent most of his life in San Francisco, Williams was familiar with Milk’s story and eager to work with Stone. As Williams told The Times in 1992, he identified with Milk’s personal odyssey. “One of the things that intrigued me [was Harvey’s journey]. He came from New York. He was a handsome guy whose mother kept saying, ‘When you gonna get married?’ Finally he moved to San Francisco and said, ‘I don’t have to lie anymore.’ He had a love of that city. It allowed him to come out, to be himself. I came out there too, as a comic.”
To tackle the script, the producers recruited David Franzoni (“Gladiator”), who’d just finished work on “Citizen Cohn,” an HBO movie about Roy Cohn, the high-powered lawyer who’d served as a henchman for Sen. Joseph McCarthy. What Franzoni remembers best is working with Stone, who was then at the height of his powers.
“Having a meeting with him was like being in an episode in his life,” recalls Franzoni. “The tequila would come out and Oliver would always cut straight through to the issue of the moment. He was great at problem-solving. He was also great at [messing] with you, but in a weirdly productive way.”
A community speaks up
In the early 1990s, the gay community, under siege from AIDS, was perhaps at the height of its unhappiness with Hollywood, which had generally treated homosexuals as non-persons. A number of activists were worried that any Hollywood film would treat Milk as a cardboard hero.
“A lot of people believed we were going to popularize Harvey or turn him into a harmless Zorro-style hero,” says Franzoni. Stone, Williams and Franzoni were all straight, which led to criticism that the film wouldn’t be authentic enough.
It was around this time that Stone decided to fly to San Francisco to take a firsthand look at the Castro district.
“We started out by going to Harvey’s old hangouts,” recalls Zadan. “Then Oliver said, ‘OK, now we have to check out the night life.’ He pulled us into every bar. He’d go up and start talking to guys, because, well, Oliver Stone is not shy. He told me, ‘If I get into trouble here, I’m going to say you’re my boyfriend.’ And I said, ‘Oliver, anything but that!’ ”
Stone sensed the grave distance between the joy and abandon of Harvey’s era and the anxious, post-AIDS mood in the gay culture. “Oliver understood there was this very sobering subtext, because in the early 1990s, a lot of people were already dying,” says Meron. “He kept saying how great it must’ve been to have been a young man in San Francisco in Harvey’s era, when there was no black cloud hanging over everyone’s head.”
Just as everyone was ready to move ahead, “JFK” arrived in theaters. Stone’s incendiary look at the Kennedy assassination was a bombshell, especially in the gay community, which was infuriated by the film’s portrayal of several key assassination conspirators as debauched homosexuals. Never one to back away from a fight, Stone gave an incendiary interview to the gay and lesbian newsmagazine the Advocate, in which he compared Queer Nation to a Nazi group, saying “they work through intimidation and fear.” Under siege, Stone called Zadan and Meron, saying he wanted to stay involved, but as a producer, not as the director, which he felt would make him too much of a lightning rod for criticism.
It was Stone who suggested bringing in Van Sant as director. Van Sant was considered a hot commodity after making “Drugstore Cowboy” and was openly gay. The filmmakers were working with a new writer, Becky Johnston, who’d penned scripts for Prince and Barbra Streisand. She turned in a new draft of the script in 1993, but Van Sant wasn’t impressed.
“She was a writer of note, but I felt her script was too much by the book -- it didn’t capture the chutzpah of the real characters,” he explains. When he told the producers he wouldn’t move ahead with the Johnston draft, he says he was “dismissed.” “I remember telling Oliver I didn’t think the script was perfect, but Oliver said perfection was for Greek scholars,” Van Sant recalls. “I said, ‘Well, it has to be close.’ ”
Van Sant eventually wrote his own draft of the script. But he felt spurned. “I handed in the script and it was forgotten.”
The producers say they were eager to work with Van Sant, but neither they nor Stone felt happy with the script he delivered. Still, the project kept attracting filmmakers. One was Cohen, who signed on after making “Dragon,” a Bruce Lee biopic. Cohen quickly found himself fielding skeptical calls from the gay press. “They’d ask if I was straight or gay or bi, and I’d say, ‘Hey, I’m straight, but I’m not Chinese and I just managed to make a movie about a Chinese hero,’ ” Cohen recalls. He says his biggest problem was finding a new star to play the part. “We sent the script to all sorts of top actors, like Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino, but everyone said no.”
When the project stalled, Stone also dropped out as producer.
Not long after, the producers approached Tony Kushner, who’d had a great success with the play “Angels in America,” but he was too busy. Craig Lucas, a respected playwright who’d written the movie “Longtime Companion,” agreed to work on a script.
While Lucas was writing, the producers began talking with Bryan Singer, who was in the midst of making a string of Hollywood blockbusters, notably the “X-Men” series, but he was excited enough to talk with Kevin Spacey about playing Milk.
“I thought Kevin could play Harvey and I’d try to get Brad Pitt to play Dan White,” Singer recalls. “Kevin had done ‘Seven’ with Brad, and I remember asking him, ‘Do you think Brad would do it?’ And Kevin said, ‘I’ll call Brad up and say, “Hey, I’m doing this great film. How’d you like to come and kill me?” ’ “
‘Have you heard?’
For a time, the project moved to Warner Independent Pictures, with yet another screenwriter, Brandon Boyce (“Apt Pupil”), doing a new draft. The newly launched company was eager to make the film, but after Singer became involved, the film moved back to Warner Bros. Films.
Singer eventually turned to Christopher McQuarrie, who had written “The Usual Suspects.” Not long after, the producers got a call from Steve Carell’s agent, saying the actor was interested in pursuing the project.
“It was an inspired idea,” recalls Zadan. “Steve’s agent at Endeavor snuck me into an early screening of ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ to show what a good actor he was. He was charming, funny and smart -- he would’ve been a great choice. After the breakthrough of ‘Brokeback Mountain,’ it felt like it was time for the movie to happen.”
But again, in spring 2007, fate intervened. With the project stalled while McQuarrie worked on Tom Cruise’s “Valkyrie,” a rival film emerged. “Out of the blue, someone called and said, ‘Have you heard? [Dustin] Lance Black wrote a spec script, Gus got it and liked it, and he gave it to Sean Penn, who’s ready to do it,” recalls Meron. With a finished script, “Milk” moved ahead rapidly, with producer Michael London joining forces with the producer team of Dan Jinks and Bruce Cohen.
The blow was especially hard for Zadan, who is an old friend of Jinks’. It was a strange, perhaps inevitable twist of fate: two sets of gay producers pitted against each other, pushing different versions of the same movie, knowing only one would get made.
Jinks says doing a project about Milk was a labor of love. “The story just matters too much for us not to want to be involved,” he says. “It was going to happen anyway, so we didn’t see why we shouldn’t be a part of it. No one is making a lot of money -- it’s just a story that should be told.”
Some of the original “Castro Street” participants have given their blessing to the rival project, with both Stone and Williams making visits to the set. London recently took Zadan and Meron to lunch to try to soothe their feelings. “I wanted them to know we took the privilege of telling Harvey’s story very seriously,” he says.
The Van Sant film is due out in time for awards season. It will be a bittersweet time for Zadan and Meron. “We recognize that, at the end of the day, it’s business -- people make movies for a living,” says Zadan. “And when you work on a passion project, there’s always the chance that you’ll get your heart broken. I told Michael London, ‘The only way I’ll hate you is if you [mess] the movie up. It’s Harvey’s story and all we want is for someone to tell it well.”