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Van Sant Gives Castro a ‘Milk’ Bath
by Roger Rose
Unless you’ve been hiding in a cave for months, you’ve heard that San Francisco’s film industry got a strong boost when director Gus Van Sant began production on his bio-drama, Milk, about the life and assassination of the nation’s first openly gay elected official. Oscar winner Sean Penn stars as gay icon Harvey Milk, joined by Emile Hirsch, Josh Brolin, and James Franco. Produced by Dan Jinks and Bruce Cohen, the team that picked up an Academy Award for American Beauty, Milk is a co-production between Groundswell Productions and Focus Features (also the film’s co-financer and worldwide distributor)..
Milk Productions has now come and gone. In that magic moment, San Francisco’s Castro Street experienced a virtual make-over. Production crews changed storefronts, raised a period neon sign, and retro-built Castro Theatre’s marquee to display the Bette Davis double-feature; All About Eve and Jezebel. Even painfully-low 70s real estate prices papered the window of today’s Quickly chain-store.
Period garbage containers and au courant graffiti were just part of the eagle-eye street detailing. While director Van Sant’s film crew was recreating a pivotal point in our cultural history, the neighborhood was packed with the curious who came out to watch the historical re-enactment. Others were drawn to catch a glimpse of how things looked in the 70s. Some who lived through those times were drawn to pay homage to Harvey Milk and the many others who worked to create the social changes we now enjoy.
According to the San Francisco Film Commission, the wide net of city services alternately employed union personnel from the San Francisco Police Department, MUNI, Parking & Traffic, Recreation & Parks, San Francisco Unified School District, and Treasure Island Development Authority. Our local industry was looking forward to the movie, because it brought jobs back to San Francisco after the latest in a string of very dry periods. “Milk is a nice drink of water for the union actors – for whom there has not been a lot of film work up here lately. I think people were really excited that the film was finally here,” said Karen Lipney, Associate Executive Director of San Francisco’s joint AFTRA/SAG union office.
San Francisco residents and merchants were also pleased that Gus Van Sant would film the story of a local hero. One local was optimistic: “It’s great that Harvey Milk’s story is being told by the mainstream media – it’s going to be one helluva commercial for San Francisco tourism. They’re probably already arranging Castro tours in other cities, to coincide with the release date.” Still, the waters are never smooth, especially in San Francisco. A few local vendors complained, showing clearly that they don’t understand the direct connection between film trucks taking up parking spots and the huge influx of tourists we’ll see as the offset of this film. Mike Holland, of Worn Out West on Castro Street, seemed more resigned: “They constantly closed our part of the street. Most of the shooting took place right outside our front window. Some days I couldn’t even get in to unlock the front door without waiting. Really, it wasn’t a totally negative experience, but it did affect our business.”
And like Mike, most of the other business owners understand, or are at least tolerant. Gary Smith, of the Human Rights Campaign on Castro Street, said, “The production definitely affected our business. We had to keep our door shut while they were filming. The film crew put blinds in our windows because everything had to be period authentic.”
But Steven Adams, President of the Merchants of Upper Market and Castro, clearly had a broader view. He was quick to point out that “a lot of the problems with parking and traffic actually lie, not with the amount of filming, but with Pacific Gas and Electric, which has been working since November. During filming, I saw our neighborhood packed with people, and not all were San Franciscans. Some owners tell me that they had their best sales days in three or four years just from people coming to the neighborhood to watch. It really brought the community together.” And, for a neighborhood that is feeling some growing pains, that point is important. It’s no secret that the Castro is experiencing some demographic changes, as the once-rowdy gay couples are getting older and less tolerant of all-night parties and with many homes being sold to mixed-gender couples. Erkan Gokturk, of Phantom on Castro, said, “When this film is released in theaters, people are going to learn about the history of the Castro and about Harvey Milk. Then, they’ll come to visit and spend money as tourists. And yes, we’ll all discover the benefits. I don’t think Milk affected business, I think Bush that affects our business.”
Others agree, pointing out that the historic background of the film is a more important element than some lost parking for a few days. “I don’t think the filming affected us much, because they did it at the right time of the year,” said Al Bitar, owner of Smoke Plus, and Chaps. “People came to watch how they were shooting this movie. It’s the opportunity of a lifetime to see the history of my neighborhood. I think this movie will bring new customers to buy, and to experience the Castro for the first time.”
And in a town where residents are quick to complain about film crews, Milk drew surprisingly little direct fire from residents. “I feel the production folk thoroughly prepared us,” said Twin Peaks Tavern owner George Roegm, . “Our patrons were excited about the filming taking place. We were happy for this worthwhile film to be shot in the home neighborhood where Harvey Milk lived.” While the Milk Production was in town, ace location manager Jonathan Shedd did his normally-efficient job – getting it right, day after day. “We found a surprising amount of good will in San Francisco, considering we fit a lot of people, and trucks, and equipment, into a tight area,” he said. “It’s been a difficult shoot, entirely in the street with no sets. We kept a schedule that usually would run twice as long. Early on, I thought working in such a small, busy area as the Castro would be difficult to do. But, it turned out to be more successful in the long haul.” Fred Kirkbride, co-owner of Brand X, agreed. “They came over early one morning about 7 am, and asked if I have a vacuum cleaner. I said laughed and said, ‘Of course I have a vacuum cleaner; I also have a cup of sugar.’ You know, like all good neighbors do.”
Shedd was relieved by the neighborhood’s reception – and grateful. “I couldn’t be happier about the Castro filming, and how it all worked out. We’re both visitors and guests there, and we wanted to be gracious about it. You’ve just got to keep talking to people, and we did. I think people appreciate being acknowledged, and spoken to directly and with clarity. I consider the worst case scenario, then aim to avoid that. And, hopefully, it always comes out better.”
Having worked in some tough neighborhoods – often meaning places where the Neighborhood Association is gunning for film crews – Shedd acknowledges that the Castro was a different scene. “When all was said and done, they were almost sad to see us go. Well, I can’t say that about everybody,” he laughed. “But really, on the whole the neighborhood supported our being there. I really appreciate that people hung in there with us.”
The SF Film Office and its Executive Director also got high marks from Shedd. “Stephanie Coyote made it happen for us here. We got unbelievable support from the Film Office. They’ve just been great. The advice I would give to other filmmakers is first go down to the film office, and explain exactly what you want to do. Don’t pull any punches, and it’ll always work easier. When people slip in at night to shoot without explaining themselves – that’s the worst for this industry. It’s important to be candid up front.”
Roger Rose is a longtime SF writer with an interest in the fine art as well as film. He serves as a trustee on several non-profit boards and can be reached at
Posted on Apr 01, 2008 - 12:29 PM