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 The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, December 03, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 109 words Type of Material: Correction
Harvey Milk: Recent articles in the Calendar and California sections based on the release of the movie "Milk" have referred to San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk as being the first openly gay man elected to major public office in this country. While he was among the first openly gay politicians to hold office in the United States -- Milk was elected city supervisor in 1977 -- at least one other official preceded Milk as an openly gay candidate to be elected. Allan Spear, who served in the Minnesota Senate from 1972 to 2000, announced that he was gay in 1974. Two articles earlier this year also included the error.
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."