A passion project gets beaten to the punch

By Patrick Goldstein
Los Angeles Times / June 11, 2008

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HOLLYWOOD - 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 finally had found a way to make a movie about Harvey Milk.

Gus Van Sant finished filming the movie in 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 make their film, 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's groundbreaking 1982 biography.

Milk's career 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 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 personal way.

"When it became clear that the other movie was going first, we felt as if Harvey Milk had died again," Zadan says. "After spending 16 years living with this story, it was like being in mourning."

Their movie might 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. Over the years, a host of actors had shown interest, 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 provocative hits including "Platoon," "Wall Street," and "Born on the Fourth of July," Stone was the reigning king of the Hollywood jungle.

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 Los Angeles Times in 1992, "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."

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 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.

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 had penned scripts for Prince and Barbra Streisand. She turned in a new draft of the script in 1993, but Van Sant wasn't impressed.

Van Sant eventually wrote his own draft of the script. But he felt spurned. When the project stalled, Stone also dropped out as producer.

Later the producers began talking with Singer, who was in the midst of making a string of Hollywood blockbusters, notably the "X-Men" series. Singer was excited enough to talk with Spacey about playing Milk. Christopher McQuarrie, who wrote the script for Singer's "The Usual Suspects," would write the biopic.

In spring 2007, fate intervened. The project stalled while McQuarrie worked on Tom Cruise's "Valkyrie," and 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," Meron recalls.

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 Van Sant film is due out in time for awards season. It will be a bittersweet time for Zadan and Meron.

"We recognize that . . . it's business," Zadan says. "And when you work on a passion project, there's always the chance that you'll get your heart broken."