With Milk, the movie based on the life of the late San Francisco City Supervisor Harvey Milk, scheduled for theatrical release Nov. 26, Windy City Times will run a series of related articles over the next few weeks. First up is Milk's friend and speechwriter, Frank Robinson, with his account of being in the Gus Van Sant-directed film. ( Note: This account originally ran in an 'eFanzine' started by Earl Kemp. )
An amazing experience. They had a guy picked out to play me—met him later on—and then Sean Penn, Gus van Sant ( director ) , and Lance Black ( screenwriter—smart, talented, a workhorse and friendly ) came over to the house and Penn interviewed me for an hour and a half about Harvey ( I used to be Harvey's speechwriter ) . Afterward, took them all to dinner at an upscale Burmese restaurant on Castro. Sean had to leave early and I entertained Gus and Lance with tales about Rogue and Playboy. Naturally, they were fascinated ( translation: bored stiff ) .
After I wound down, Gus asked if I wanted to be in the film. I told him I'd never acted, couldn't act and I'd forgotten every line when I was the lead in a grammar-school play. He said it was only going to be one word: 'Dogshit.' I said I thought I could manage that, and my career as a movie star was born.
The first scene I was in was set in Harvey's old camera shop. They rented the old store on Castro and remodeled it into a reasonable facsimile of Harvey's camera shop. It looked very close to the original. First scene, 'Danny' ( Lucas Gabreel, star of High School Musical on HBO ) is sorting film in the corner, Scott Smith ( Harvey's lover, played by James Franco ) is at the desk, and two of Harvey's political consultants are talking in the background. I'm sitting in a corner as 'wallpaper'—saying nothing at all. ( All of Harvey's old people—those of us still alive—had cameos as a courtesy ) . I'm to be seen, not heard.
Franco—nice guy, very much an agent provocateur when it comes to film—notices that I'm twiddling my thumbs, trying to look fascinated, grins and asks me: 'Hey, Robinson—did you get laid last night?' I was a ) astonished and b ) felt challenged. ( Hey, fellas, I've been writing dialog all my life. ) I say, 'Yeah, Scott, I got laid last night' and told a dirty joke I made up on the spot.
Harvey's camera shop
I cracked up everybody on the set and was promoted immediately to SAG ( the Screen Actors Guild ) . I subsequently ad-libbed dialog with Sean Penn and others ( no lines were ever written for me ) . I was in a total of 17 scenes—most of them 'riot' scenes ( marches on City Hall, etc. ) After my last scene, I asked Gus for my gold watch. Instead he gave me a little eulogy before the entire cast and crew. Loud applause and hugs all around. Next day they shoot Sean giving a speech before a crowd of gays in front of City Hall and I recognize it as one I wrote. Very proud. Day after that they interviewed me for an hour on the 'making of' part for the DVD.
Movie will be released Nov. 26. I don't know how well it will be received but I've read the script ( had read several others years ago ) and it's very good—first and last scenes will nail people in their seats. I imagine very few people remember the details of Harvey's life but, story wise, it was damned dramatic. The last of the storefront politicians who ran for public office with no money and was elected, whose lover ( not Scott ) was a suicide, and who was executed along with the mayor by a disaffected fellow supervisor.
The film does not cover the riots that followed when the supervisor was tried for murder and the jury of old ladies from his district decided it was involuntary manslaughter and Dan White ( the assassin ) was given seven years ( five, with time off for good behavior ) for 'involuntary manslaughter.' The gay part of the city blew up. Five thousand marched on City Hall; tore up the pavement and broke the windows on the ground floor; and fought the [ tactical ] squad when it showed up. Eleven police cars torched, a hundred gays sent to the ER—some 70 cops as well. Later that night, cops took off their badges and invaded the Castro to beat up pedestrians on the street, wreck the Elephant Bar, etc. There were reports of gays with rifles on surrounding rooftops and I believe them. The Castro was our 'turf' and I think we came within an inch of Watts and the National Guard....
The film doesn't cover that, restricting itself to Harvey and his life. Some years later, when the AIDS crisis hit, neither the state ( Reagan was governor ) nor the feds were of any help. What help there was came from the city and those gay organizations that had grown up during Harvey's campaigns and his time as supervisor.
God, it's hard to believe. It all happened 30 years ago and to most people it is ancient history. For me, I will never forget it and will always be proud of the small part I played.
I thought I'd be camera shy—I wasn't. I thought I'd be tongue-tied trading lines—made-up ones at that—with Penn, Franco and the others. I just pretended I was talking to the real Scott and Harvey and everything went just fine.
There's a whole helluva lot more to tell but I can't give away the movie; I have to leave that to the publicity guys. The caterers were the best in town, it was an extremely friendly cast and crew and, frankly, I think I was treated like fine porcelain. Well, that is except for the time when we were told it was a night shoot and would run from 6 to 3 a.m. My doctor assured me I wouldn't have a heart attack on the set but I pissed and moaned once I got there and they locked me in an actors' trailer until it was time for my part in the shoot. I had no lines but I had to appear for fear the audience would wonder what had happened to me. Ah, the villains—but I'm so grateful they did. The most moving scene of all....
I don't know how it will do. I'm told the first edit is great. The cast is terrific: Sean Penn ( Oscar for Mystic River ) , Josh Brolin ( one of the stars in this year's Oscar winner, No Country for Old Men ) , James Franco ( Spider-Man's murderous friend in the Spider-Man movies ) , Diego Luna ( a star in Y Tu Mama Tambien ) , Joseph Cross ( star of Running With Scissors ) , Emile Hirsch ( star of Into the wild ) , Brandon Boyce ( actor and the screenwriter for Apt Pupil ) , Lucas Garbeel ( star of HBO's High School Musical, ) and, of course—moi.
How can it lose? Well, easy, I suppose. ... I suspect the major actors went for it for Screen Actors Guild minimum but a piece of the action. The acting talent is really deep.... There's sex, humor, drama, and above all—hey, this really happened!!!!
In one scene I had, I channeled not thirty years ago but close to sixty. For me, it wasn't acting, it was reality. Oddly, I think it was too emotional for the scene. ( Penn suspected I was coming apart on set and gave me a huge hug. Don't know if he knew how much it meant to me. )
Probably I'll have more to say once the film comes out and I'm in no danger of revealing anything beforehand.
It was a great experience. I suspect my magazine experience helped me. A lot of similarity between the written and the spoken word. But movies are vastly more complex and require vastly more people ( extras alone went as high as 4,000 for some of the crowd scenes in Milk ) and equipment. Utterly fascinating watching the mechanical part of things... The actors are like fingers on a hand—the crew, cameras, sound men, lighting guys and truckloads of equipment make up the rest of the body. The director holds all of this in his hands and how van Sant did it, I'll never understand.
How did it feel once it was all finished—no more getting up at 6 a.m. to be on the set at 9 a.m., no more sitting in wardrobe shooting the shit with the other 200 extras, etc.?
The wrap party was the end of it and, the next morning, it felt like there was a huge void in my life. Everybody had left and there I was, standing alone with the last of the confetti drifting down. I never felt so lonely in all my life.