I found myself nervous and reaching for my water bottle so much before and during this interview, why exactly I’m not sure because I can tell you that Dan Jinks is so damn chill and a lot of fun to talk to. What I find even more comical for myself is I truly had no reason to be nervous as we’ve spoken before and have mutual friends so to find myself nervous was silly, but in the end worth it. I sat down with the Oscar winning producer (American Beauty, Best Picture, 1999) to discuss Milk on its 15th Anniversary and to look back and discuss everything about his involvement to the awards race of 2008.
Joey Gentile: Dan, thank you so much for joining me today, welcome to InSessionFilm.
Dan Jinks: Thank you so much for having me, it’s been awhile since I had the chance to talk about Milk so thank you for this opportunity.
JG: Of course. So, one of the things I like to do is break the ice with the people I interview with a really fun question, with that said- Dan, if you had the opportunity to go back and revisit any piece of material in film, television, or theater that you’ve produced and create a sequel to see where those characters are at now, what would it be?
DJ: (Laughing) Ya know, that’s a great question. I did a TV series called Pushing Daisies and I always felt that it had more life in it and I never thought we got our full due. There’s been talk of a reboot throughout the years. Ironically, this interview today is being done during the current WGA strike and PD was a show that was affected during the last writers strike. We were off the air for many, many months and when we came back our show just never picked up the momentum or the same audience we had pre-strike. I’m sure Bryan Fuller (creator/writer of Pushing Daisies) would want to take us back into stories unfinished there.
JG: Uh, about Bryan Fuller- cannot wait for Crystal Lake the Friday the 13th series he’s working on, as a huge horror fan here I am so pumped.
DJ: Oh my God, me too. It’ll be great.
JG: So, it’s been 15 years since Milk and as someone who is now 31, I was a sophomore in high school when the movie released and it came out around the time where I came out publicly as bisexual before I fully embraced and accepted myself as a gay man, so this movie has special meaning to me and my acceptance looking back. For you as a producer taking on such an important figure in American gay history who means so much to so many and for certain reasons, how did this project come across your desk?
DJ: It came to me in such an odd route and I’ll tell you that story. So I had known Dustin Lance Black, the writer, since 2000 at an OutFest party that my producing partner Bruce Cohen and I hosted. So Lance and I remained friends and I had heard somewhere that Lance was working somewhere on a script about Harvey Milk and he had attached Gus van Sant to direct. So I call him up to congratulate him and say “hey, I’m so happy for you, amazing news” just assuming there is a producer, because when a director on par of Gus van Sant is attached there’s a producer and Lance said “there’s no producer yet, do you want to read it?” I said “ what are you kidding me?” So I read it that night, called Lance the next morning and then found myself sitting in a room with Lance and Gus. Ironically, I had been such a fan of Gus and had been for years trying to set a meeting for years with him but his agents kept saying “I don’t know” and building a wall between anybody and then I sat down with him and he’s the nicest guy in the world and we got along great and it was a wonderful experience making the movie. It truly was just as simple as hearing a friend had a script and director, calling to congratulate and then I became attached.
JG: You know, something you just said caught my attention just now, and that is you saying his agents were essentially blocking a meeting with him and you. My guy, you’re an Oscar winning producer and you are being denied a meeting? How does that make sense in “Hollywood”?
DJ: It’s a good question and ya know I asked at the time, especially in the wake of American Beauty, this is a town where people get excited when there’s heat on you and there was certainly heat on us as producers and we are also openly gay producers at a time where there weren’t as many openly gay producers and Gus is openly gay so it just made all the sense in the world to meet. I just think it was odd for his agents to truly not be pushing that. I don’t think it was specifically against us, but I think in a general way they were very protective of Gus. In the end, you’d have to ask them because I was indeed surprised (Dan says this with a big grin on his face) we could not get a meeting with him but in the end we became good friends and made the movie.
JG: That is actually the perfect segueway, there was you, Bruce Cohen, Gus, Lance Black, and Elliot Graham (Editor) working on this film, and I’m sure more openly and not openly gay people working on it. It gets going and you have all these gay creatives on this project about a gay icon and you cast Sean Penn in the role of Harvey Milk. Now, I would like to note I myself, Joey Gentile am not one who believes you have to be gay to play gay. I think it actually does more harm because then you’re boxing gay actors into a gay only box. I think you need to cast the right person in the role but see everyone for the role, whether it be gay, straight, trans, any color, unknowns, knowns, get them all in the room and cast from the melting pot. However, we are now in a climate where the idea of gay in gay roles only is pushed heavily so looking back do you regret the casting and how did it happen?
DJ: Here’s the thing, even though it was only 15 years ago it was a VERY different time. The truth is though, we needed a star to get the financing to get that movie made. If we were trying to get that movie made today, (I don’t think we could get a gay actor attached to the lead) the sad thing is I don’t think it could actually be made, I don’t know who that gay actor is who could get us the financing. I want to be very clear that it’s not that I don’t think there aren’t gay actors who could play it but that the movie cost at the time somewhere around $23 million. Even Sean Penn was not enough to get the movie green lit, we had to get that ensemble of Emile Hirsch, Josh Brolin, Diego Luna, James Franco. We needed all of them to get it green lit, it was a hard movie to get financed. It was a movie about a gay politician that even at the time we did it a lot of people living in San Francisco didn’t even know who Harvey Milk was, he was not a well known figure.
There were people who would walk through Harvey Milk Plaza in San Francisco and not even know who he was at that time. Ya know, I have been asked that question a lot and I can be a little defensive about it because we felt we were so lucky to have gotten Sean Penn. I’ll be honest I spent hours and hours after reading that script, going through lists of actors and I came up with 3 actors who I felt was right for the role and could get the movie financed and the fact that one of them actually said yes was a miracle. None of them were gay men, but I’ll tell you something that was really important to me, Gus, Bruce, and Lance is that we cast a number of gay people in the film. We cast them in gay roles and in straight roles, Victor Garber and Denis O’Hare are two examples. We cast the right person for the role but we did cast a lot of gay people for the movie.
JG: I completely get it, and my opinion on the matter doesn’t line up with Twitter these days on gays needed for gay roles, so I was definitely curious to see how that process went for a film like this. A lot of what is said on Twitter needs to be taken with a shot of penicillin because in the end it’s still a business and business decisions are made that the public isn’t aware of, critics, etc. So as someone like myself who knows the ins and outs like you do, it’s always an interesting conversation to be had.
DJ: I’ll add something to it too. There are movies that I think are important movies that aren’t even getting made right now as a result of “how dare you cast a straight actor in a gay role” that as a result, a lot of straight actors don’t want to play gay roles anymore but also because we don’t have enough stars there are stories not being told, movies not being made that would probably like Milk have a lot of gay actors in them outside of a lead and giving them the opportunity to be seen but we don’t have the stars where you need a star in order to get made, and the truth is at times you need a star.
If you’re doing a TV series like Love, Victor where you don’t need a star then absolutely try harder to cast a gay actor in that part, that’s not asking much. But if you’re doing a movie that needs a star there are certain realities that are taken into it. I know of many scripts right now that aren’t being made because we don’t have gay stars, and those few gay stars we do have, you send something to such and such actor and they go “I played this already, I don’t want to do this again”. Then you have people going “well why didn’t you get such and such actor” well the truth is they don’t want to do it or they aren’t a star and there we are back at the beginning of sometimes in this business in order to get made you are required to have a star.
JG: No I get it, trust me I understand. So taking yourself back to the making of the film, is there anything you took from making Milk that maybe you didn’t know at the time?
DJ: The thing about politicians (especially local politicians) is that they use a staff of young people a lot. The kids in their 20’s working for Harvey were now in their 50’s when we were making the film and they are characters in the movie, so we’re telling their story too. They would come by the set every single day, the best known was probably Cleve Jones (played byEmile Hirsch) he was someone who Lance Black relied on a lot while he was writing the script for research and access. In the end it was such an important thing to all of them as well because it was such a big part of their life and that was amazing to learn.
JG: 15 years later, what do you hope people get from the film now?
DJ: One of the things that was so important with Harvey Milk was visibility, “if they know us they are less likely to hate us.” I feel like what is happening now with Trans issues, I have a trans niece that I love very much. I care about her health and safety and happiness and it just kills me that the Republican party, they’re looking for issues that can be headlines and rile up the base as if trans people are in any way hurting or affecting their lives and I think ya know again, it goes back to the more people you know, the more visibility in trans characters in film and television it will make it more normal to the viewer and I think that was something, the visibility of it all was hugely important to Harvey Milk and really important today.
JG: Well said. So moving onto- the movie comes out, the response is very good, critics love it, audiences respond, come Oscar time you get a whopping 8 nominations and end up winning two big ones. As someone who came off of American Beauty where you guys swept that season and won everything under the sun, is it more chill the second time around? Or are you just as nervous going into Oscar night?
DJ: Great question, listen, to go through the AB journey with awards was just an out of body experience. It was something that wasn’t expected and as a lot of people growing up I was the nerdy kid who just wasn’t going to win an Oscar. I mean that just seemed completely out of the realm of possibility and when it happened it was a thrilling, overwhelming, and exciting experience. If it ends up being the only time in my life where I win an Oscar then what a lucky person I am. So to be nominated again, as a producer nominated for the film you are the representative because it’s really the movie that’s nominated, it’s just a thrill.
There was a movie that year called Slumdog Millionaire that did very well, it was having that race to the Oscars that AB had, I called a friend of mine, one of the great Oscar prognosticators Dave Karger and asked him, I said “ does Milk have a chance to win Best Picture?” He very kindly said “ I wouldn’t say it doesn’t have a chance but it would be considered the biggest upset in the history of the Oscars” and I laughed and said “okay, that’s all I needed to know, we don’t really have a chance”. So I went into the evening having fun and feeling so lucky to even be there. I had a great time and didn’t feel the pressure of having to give a speech because I knew that I didn’t have a shot to win. I was thrilled that Lance Black won, and that Sean Penn won and listen, we got 8 nominations for ya know a movie that had a very independent movie feel to it. It happened at a time where that was less likely to happen too because there were only 5 Best Picture nominees too.
JG: Yup, I was gonna say 5, absolutely. Well that was the year that changed everything too. It was the year that caused the rift too because of The Dark Knight and even Wall-E being snubbed for a movie like The Reader. So due to that year is the reason the Academy expanded from 5 to 10 nominees. So after that you saw things like The Kids Are Alright, Winter’s Bone, Her, Philomena getting into Best Picture that wouldn’t have “happened” had it still been only 5.
DJ: Absolutely correct.
JG: I gotta know, where do you keep your Oscar?
DJ: (Smiling and pointing off camera) It’s a little cubby hole in the entry area of my house.
JG: Amazing, love that. All in all, looking back with what you did 15 years ago, are you proud of the film and how it’s aged?
DJ: Oh, I’m very happy with that movie. It was hard in a lot of ways but thrilling in a lot of ways too. I was really happy with many things that could have gone wrong. I remember seeing some miniseries that took place in the 70s beforehand and everything looked so fake from the mustaches on the guys to the tight jeans, it just looked like such a cliche. From our costume designer, a guy named Danny Glicker, to our production designer, a guy named Bill Groom, these people didn’t just research, they researched and researched and researched so to have the accuracy of the most minor details was so damn thrilling.
JG: It’s truly great to see you so cheerful and smiling and talking about your work like you’re a kid in a candy shop. That attitude is so weirdly hard to find now as most people I have talked to look back at their work with ways to change what the final product was, so to see you light up and glee about it, tip my hat to you sir.
DJ: (Laughing) Thank you. I love making movies, I feel so lucky to do what I do and I am happy that I’ve made a few things that I’m hoping have stood the test of time.
JG: You have, truly. Okay, a fun one for you- anyone who I talk to who is an Academy member I love asking this question. As an Academy member, what does it take for a film to get your number one spot on your ballot? And let’s say in the last decade, how often are you getting it “right”?
DJ: See I don’t EVER vote to get it “right,” my vote isn’t ever for what I think is going to win, my vote goes to what I consider the Best Picture, always! In terms of getting it “right” my ballot is always the right one. Ya know, sometimes I’m voting for the winner but often I’m voting for the one that moved me somehow more than the eventual winner did.
JG: That’s amazing to hear and honestly I get it, ya know I look back at this last year for an example and Triangle of Sadness was my favorite movie of the year and I ranked it at 1, until I saw All Quiet on the Western Front and was like wait a minute, nope, that’s it, that’s the best one in the lineup. So even though I rank ToS as my favorite it’s clear for me that AQOTWF was easily the Best Picture but I would vote the same way, it’s not about what is projected to win, it’s about what you think is the best in the lineups.
DJ: Oh, without a doubt. Remember if you’re a voter it’s what you have to do. It’s a different thing if you’re going to someone’s Oscar party and you’re filling out a ballot, then you’re voting on what you actually think is going to win, but for your own ballot you have to vote for what you think is the best.
JG: Nailed it. So Dan, what’s next up for you? What’s on the horizon?
DJ: Well we’re in strike mode in Hollywood, but outside of that it’s all unclear right now. I’ve got a few things set up at studios, a few things I’m trying to package, and a couple of TV things I’m working on. It’s just an odd time due to the strike so there is a lot that cannot be done and as someone who is very much in support of the writers and the WGA I want them to get a fair deal and be resolved as quickly as possible to their benefit. Right now there’s just a huge amount of uncertainty in the business and um, sort of everything I’ve been working on is on pause for the moment.
JG: Oh for sure, pay the writers! Ya know I will be kicking myself in the ass here if I don’t close with this. Fiddler on the Roof, for your consideration- Carol Kane as Yente the Matchmaker, PLEASE make this happen, it has to be done.
DJ: (Laughing) Fiddler on the Roof was a movie I was hoping was going to be made this past year but we got caught in the change of ownership from MGM to Amazon and all that, it’s right now on a slower track. We have a TERRIFIC script from Steve Levinson, Tommy Kail is literally one of the great living directors. It’s just not gonna happen as quickly as I would like it to happen, I am sad to say. But I appreciate your casting thought and will keep her in mind when we get there.
JG: Amazing, amazing, amazing. Dan, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me today.
DJ: No, thank you!