Screenwriting Alumnus Black wins Oscar for Milk

Script researched and written from scratch jumpstarts long-stalled Gus Van Sant-directed biopic project.


By David Chute

Published Feb 23, 2009 2:41 PM

"I'm not at my best," admitted screenwriter Dustin Lance Black '96, sounding a bit muffled when we called to talk about the years of research and writing that went into the screenplay for "Milk," the Gus Van Sant-directed biographical drama about martyred gay activist politician Harvey Milk that won him an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay on February 22.

Dustin Lance Black, '96, backstage moments after receiving an Oscar for writing the screenplay of Milk. Photo courtesy of Oscars.org.

Actor Sean Penn, who portrayed Milk in the film, was also honored on Oscar night.

We spoke with Black on November 5, 2008, the day after the national election, and the openly gay screenwriter explained that he had been up all night at a rally protesting the passage of Proposition 8, an amendment to the California State constitution that would effectively ban same sex marriage.

And then the very next morning he had to rush to the dentist for an emergency root canal. Half of his face, he said, was still inoperative. "But I would gladly have lost every tooth in my head if I could have kept Prop 8 from passing."

The irony is that in the wake of Barack Obama's victory, the push to repeal Proposition 8 became liberal Hollywood's new favorite cause, and this was widely seen improving the Oscar chances of a movie about a gay rights icon that was been greeted rapturously by critics.

The screenplay is being singled out in those reviews for its obvious depth of research and, in Variety, as "lean and disciplined." Black also gets a highly unusual single-card shout-out in the film's theatrical trailers, a gesture the writer attributes to director Van Sant's generosity as a collaborator. "Gus just wants everyone to be appreciated for what they do," Black says.

The spotlight on Black is well-deserved, as the film literally would not exist if he had not embraced it early on as a labor of love.

Learn about Black's interviews with Harvey Milk's "sassy" friends and family or listen to the Q&A in the full article from UCLA's School of Theater, Film and Television. You can also watch a YouTube video of Black accepting the Oscar, choking up as he describes how the story of Harvey Milk gave him hope.



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