I love it when fictional feature filmmakers are heavily inspired by documentaries — especially such prominent ones as Gus Van Sant. His film Milk, starring Sean Penn as Harvey Milk, the gay activist-turned politician who was killed in 1978, is a fantastic bit of fictional filmmaking with a heavy dose of nonfiction influences. First, there was Rob Epstein‘s The Times of Harvey Milk, the 1984 documentary that many of the people who worked on the film watched as an initial sounding board. (In an interview, Epstein told The Advocate that Van Sant’s film is “beautiful,” but he also admitted that he had been in discussions with Milk screenwriter Dustin Lance Black and that it is “a bit of a sore point” for him. Hmmm…)
But there’s much more to it than that. Reading the Milk production notes, I noticed that Van Sant gives props to the work of Fredrick Wiseman and none other than the granddaddy of docs, Robert Flaherty. “The reason that we like [Wiseman] is that he is usually shooting something completely compelling and somewhat rough,” Van Sant says. “Because the situations he is filming in don’t allow elaborate equipment or lights. Yet he is completely relaxed in the face of very intense places and people.”
When you see the film, you’ll understand why. Van Sant goes for the same real-life, documentary vibe he did with his previous Elephant, and this time he uses archival footage seamlessly, jumping from both the real to the fictional world with ease. It is truly deft filmmaking and I can’t think of a fiction film that has more adeptly utilitzed nonfiction imagery to complement and carry a fictional tale. So while the film is fiction, it is both based on reality and uses reality to effectively tell the narrative.