In the three years since the release of Milk, the biography of slain political activist Harvey Milk, the public profile of the Academy Award-winning openly gay Dustin Lance Black has exploded.
First, there was Black's heartfelt Oscar acceptance speech that offered impassioned words of encouragement and hope to a nation of young LGBT men and women. Next, in the face of Proposition 8, came Black's tireless pro-gay activism that finds him crisscrossing the country speaking out on behalf of Our People.
Recently, a dazzling array of actors performed 8a play that Black wrote utilizing the transcripts of the Prop 8 trialas a one-night-only benefit in New York with, perhaps, a Broadway run to follow. All along, the soft-spoken, boyish, movie star-handsome Black, 37, has been working on a variety of film-related projects, of which his script for J. Edgar is the most high-profile. Director Clint Eastwood explores Black's biographical adaptation of the life of closeted, longtime FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, and the film stars Leonardo DiCaprio in the title role; The Social Network's Armie Hammer as Clyde Tolson, Hoover's underling/possible companion; and Judi Dench as Hoover's controlling mother. Highlights from our interview:
Windy City Times: How do you go from Harvey Milk to J. Edgar Hoover, a gay hero to a closeted, antihero?
Dustin Lance Black: Well, I think you sort of put your finger on it. In 2008, maybe two months before Milk came out, I started working on this one and, to me, it felt like the mirror to Milka chance to examine the other side of being gay and history and what happens if you have extraordinary political power,which is the opposite of Milk, but you decide to deny yourself love and keep it closeted, which is also the opposite of Milk.
And Milk spread hope; what did Hoover spread? Did he spread fear and intimidation because he needed to fill that hole where love would have gone with admiration? And you know admiration is fleetingespecially political admiration; ask any politician or performer. It comes and goes but he was not willing to let it go and I think that's what twisted him and that's what made him lose his moral compass. That was after a good bit of research and after I felt comfortable making that leap I went ahead and pitched it. I thought it was a fantastic opportunity to be able to explore the other side of Milk.
WCT: Was there a point during your extensive research that you had a moment where you looked at his actions and his often-poisonous point of view and said to yourself, "This negative space is just too hard to be within. I have to get away from this."
DB: It was really difficult. At times I would go, "Boy, I'm figuring this man out and I'm starting to understand why he became what he became and in doing so I'm starting to humanize him." And you start to question that because you want to punish them for the bad things they did but then I try to think of the greater good for the young people now; this generation meeting him and I'd say, "I can continue to punish him which he deserves or we can start to understand him and maybe prevent more Hoovers in the future." It does very little good to portray someone as all evil; as absolute evil because then you don't know how to prevent it the future. I don't think he was a pure sociopathI think he was just
WCT: [laughs]just a quasi-sociopath!
DB:a very, very, very troubled man who did not understand love because I think the times he was born into and the home he was born into denied him that. We're living in a time which is a bit disturbing to me where if you ask young people what their number one ambition is in life it's not to start a family, it's not to cure cancer, it's fame. When I read that poll a few months ago I thought, "That's really, really alarming to me." That's the first time that's ever ranked that way and that was John Edgar Hoover's philosophy as well. And you see what comes of it so I hope this can be a cautionary taleperhaps love should win out over admiration.
WCT: Let's talk about some specific scenes in the filmI want to know if they were based in the truth. First of all, there's the scene where Judi Dench as Hoover's mother says, "I would die if I thought you were a daffodil." I know many of Our People have gone through a similar scenariois that based in fact?
DB: Yes. It's based on so many things. First and foremost, a good bit of the research that I did once I came to the conclusion that J. Edgar Hoover was not straight [involving talking with] other not-straight men who were in their 80s and 90swhich is still younger than Hoover would be nowbut in talking to them about what it was like to be gay pre-Stonewall.
[We talked about] what the rules were, how it was defined and what happened to people who were outed, and it was really interesting. The rules were incredibly different and it seemed you could say almost nothingeven in the privacy of your own home with the person that you "loved" you would generally not mention the love that dare not speak its name, even with the one you were with. So much of the behavior and so much of what you see in these interactions is based on those specifics I learned from folks who were around at the time. In terms of that daffodil story specifically and Hoover's mother, that is a true story that he went to school with someone named Martin Pincus and I can only imagine that that event must have affected him deeply. His motherlike any mother of the timewould have cautioned against it.
WCT: The "Dorothy Lamour" scene where Edgar tells Clyde he's going to get married and Clyde's violent reaction which ends in a wrestling match, a kiss on the lips and a bloody mouthreally affected the screening audience I saw the movie with. When this scene came up where Clyde makes his physical yearning for Edgar overtthere were vocal reactions in the audience. How about that?
DB: No, really?! What was the reaction?
WCT: I think they were repulsed that Hoover and Tolson were gay and were maybe about to get intimate. This says to me that you were very successful in getting across this repressive period. What was it like filming that scene?
DB: I think the actors were really diligent about working on every piece of what that scene is so they came to it from an emotional standpoint and from an actorly standpoint and they had a lot of work to do in that scene beyond just a kiss. It really wasn't discussed too much and there wasn't anything sensational about it. I mean we spent much more time discussing and working the fight and photographing that then the kiss.
WCT: What about when he dressed up in mother's nightgown because, of course, you have to "address" that? [Laughs]
DB: When he dresses in the dress?
WCT: Yesby that point, it's actually tremendously moving and palpable. What's that based on?
DB: There's so much mythology around J. Edgar Hoover and, like any true life story, if you dig and dig and dig the mythology starts to melt away and you find something far more human and, to me, far more moving and relatableand the dress-wearing myth kinda proved to be just that.
It seemed ludicrous the more that I got to know who Hoover was. The one source who said she'd seen him in a dress had a bone to pick with the FBI, didn't know [Hoover] and placed him in a house he would never have been at, and it just didn't make any sense. But it's part of his mythology and I thought to avoid it seemed a bit of a cop-out so I tried to find a place where I could make it a window into his soul and into what he was feeling.
[It's] not just about a gay thing but about this relationship he had with his mother and this loss of this one love that I think he felt comfortable having in his life. And also the freedom he might have been tempted by for just a moment when she was finally gone. I wanted to do it and take the stigma off it and say, "You know what? It's not wrong and you can't attack him anymore for putting it on." In fact, I hope you feel for him for putting [the dress] on because I hope the days are over where you attack people because they put on clothes that don't match the gender you see them in.
WCT: Reeling, Chicago's gay and lesbian international film festival, is celebrating its 30th year as J. Edgar is opening in theatres. Do you have some advice for budding queer filmmakers who look up to you?
DB: Sure! Everyone's going to tell them, "It's not commercial, it's not marketable, you can't have a career if you write personal films." I can't tell you how many times I've heard that and I preach that the opposite is true. That unless you're writing what you love [and] unless you're writing something that's specific to you, then it won't be unique enough to stick out and to garner attention and to feel true. To me, a unique voice is incredibly marketable.
Visit www.dustinlanceblack.com .