1978, as Rob Epstein was completing work on the landmark
feature documentary WORD IS OUT, which told the
stories of 26 gay men and lesbians from across America,
events in San Francisco began to capture his attention.
men and lesbians were coming out in droves all across
the country in the late 1970ís. In response, a legislative
political attack aimed at gays and lesbians was mounted
by California State Senator John Briggs, who introduced
Proposition 6 onto the State ballot. The measure was intended
to ban all openly gay person from working in the public
school system, for fear they might be perceived as "role
models." For the first time anywhere in America,
gay issues were being played out in the political arena.
Robís original idea was to make a film about this campaign
and the issues and conflicts the situation presented.
Epstein and Harvey Milk
working on this early idea, Rob witnessed Harvey Milk
emerge as the leader in the fight against Proposition
6. Harvey Milk had only recently been elected to the San
Francisco Board of Supervisors, making him the first openly
gay politician in California to be elected to office.
Tirelessly campaigning throughout the state, Milk debated
Briggs on the issue, revealing his wit, humor, anger,
and charisma to a much larger public than ever before.
On the first Tuesday of November 1978, Proposition 6 went
down to a resounding defeat. Just weeks later, on November
27, 1978, Harvey Milk was murdered in his city hall office,
as was Mayor George Moscone, by disgruntled former Supervisor
and police officer Dan White.
on the front steps of San Franciscoís City Hall along
with other San Franciscanís immediately after the assassination,
and marching among 50,000 San Franciscans walking with
candles silently down Market Street that evening, Rob
knew that his film now had a deeper focus. The story didnít
end with the Proposition 6 campaign; that was only one
manifestation of anti-gay beliefs that was being brought
to surface as gay men and women found their rightful place.
Harvey Milkís murder was another.
May 21, 1978 the Dan White trial concluded with White
receiving a minimum seven year sentence for "involuntary
manslaughter." Riots broke out in front of City Hall,
where a dozen police cars were torched.
By the Spring of 1978, Rob received his first production
grant. With this initial funding Epstein conducted dozens
of pre-interviews on video tape, gathered archival footage,
and shot initial material for what was now titled "The
Harvey Milk Film Project." While working as an assistant
editor on other documentaries, he edited a 20-minute trailer
using excerpts from some of the material he had gathered.
winter of 1980 was a turning point in the development
of the project. With the help of Epsteinís friend Richard
Schmiechen, a New York-based filmmaker, he produced a
grass-roots benefit for the project at a gymnasium in
Manhattan, hosted by legendary film historian and gay
activist Vito Russo (The Celluloid Closet, Common Threads:
Stories from the Quilt) . This event represented
a significant juncture for the Harvey Milk Film Project
in several respects: the trailer was a huge hit and several
thousand dollars was raised that evening; the film now
had the support and good will of the gay community beyond
the borders of San Francisco; and, most significantly,
Richard Schmiechen joined Rob as the producer of the film.
and Richard spent the next two years doing research and
fundraising. By summer of 1983 Rob had written a treatment
for the film, and enough funds had been raised to shoot
the principle interviews. Cinematographer Frances Reid
was hired to shoot the interviews, and Deborah Hoffmann
was hired to co-edit with Rob.
In the early of Spring of 1984 a rough-cut of the film
was shown for the first time to an auditorium of friends
and supporters. The response was overwhelming, and the
filmmakers knew they had something special. Rob invited
composer Mark Isham to the rough-cut screening to see
if he would consider doing the music for the film. Epstein
knew Isham from the film NEVER CRY WOLF, which
was Ishamís first film score and on which Epstein worked
as an assistant sound editor. Isham was impressed by the
rough-cut, and agreed to do the music, eventually composing
as well as performing the magnificent score himself.
it came time to choose a narrator, Rob wanted a voice
with character and one that had some connection to the
story being told. Richard Schmiechen suggested Harvey
Fierstein, who had just had a great success with his play
Torch Song Trilogy, Fierstein immediately agreed.
The first narration recording session was conducted in
the apartment where Harvey then lived in Brooklyn.
August 1984, the THE TIMES OF HARVEY MILK had its
premiere at the Telluride Film Festival, followed by the
New York Film Festival in September. From there it went
on to festivals all over the world. In January 1985 the
film was awarded the New York Film Festival Critics Circle
Award for Best Documentary. Several weeks later, Rob was
with the film at the Berlin Film Festival when he learned
that it had been nominated for an Academy Award.
Rob Epstein and Richard Schmiechen
receiving their Academy Award.
TIMES OF HARVEY MILK faced tough competition at the
Oscars that year -- it was thought to be a toss up between
the HARVEY MILK and STREETWISE, a film about
street kids in Seattle. Should HARVEY MILK win,
Schmiechen and Epstein knew they had to take advantage
of the fact that this would be the first gay-themed picture
to be awarded an Oscar, and that they must use their 30
seconds to acknowledge the subject and content of the
film, and the fact they themselves were gay filmmakers.
did win; Schmiechen thanked the gay community and Harvey
Milk, and Epstein thanked his then "partner-in-life,"
John Wright for his love and support during the six years
it took to make the film.
TIMES OF HARVEY MILK was released theatrically, and
aired on PBS in November 1985. After the television premiere,
Epstein and Schmiechen won national Emmy Awards for Outstanding
informational Special and Outstanding Interviewing; and
Deborah Hoffmann and Epstein won Emmys for Outstanding
Editing. The film also went on to win numerous other prestigious
awards, including the George Foster Peabody Award for
Excellence in Broadcasting.
1986, after being released from prison with time off for
good behavior, Dan White committed suicide in his home.
THE TIMES OF HARVEY MILK has gone on to become a perennial
favorite on television, home video, and in classrooms.
It was voted as on of the two best documentaries of the
decade (1980ís) in an American Film Critics poll, and
has been selected by the UCLA Film and Television Archives
as an official film preservation project. The film will
be re-released theatrically for the first time in 35mm
in the summer of 2000.