Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 12 / 22 March 2018

Castro set for movie makeover


The Castro will get its star turn next month, as filming is expected to begin on Milk, a biopic of the late San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk being directed by Gus Van Sant. Photo: Rick Gerharter
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The Castro is set to receive a makeover next month – Hollywood style – as the creative team behind the biopic on the life of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected to office in the U.S., recasts the gay neighborhood back to its 1970s glory days.

Longtime denizens are likely to find some old haunts return to Castro Street, like the fabled Toad Hall bar – now part of Walgreens – and Milk's old camera shop – now the home of gift store Given – as the filmmakers recreate the streetscape from the days when Milk reigned over the area as the "mayor" of Castro Street.

"We want to dress this neighborhood the best we can like the 1970s," said Jonathan Shedd, the film's location manager. "We hope to create a feel that works."

Cars from the era will be parked on the streets. Awnings and street signs of businesses postdating that time will be changed. Even the Castro Theatre will be swept up by the time warp.

The movie-house's marquee, damaged by a Muni bus that ran into it while PG&E crews were doing work out front this fall, will be repaired next month and repainted to match the color palette it sported four decades ago. In addition to the settlement they receive from Muni – expected to be finalized in early January – the theater owners plan to spend upwards of $12,000 on the project.

It is all part of the realism the producing team behind the film is striving for as they bring Milk's life to the big screen. The movie, so far titled Milk, will star Bay Area resident Sean Penn as Milk, who forever changed the city and electrified its nascent gay rights movement when he hit town in 1972.

The film, directed by openly gay, Oscar-nominated Gus Van Sant, will depict Milk's rise from political agitator to successful candidate in the 1977 supervisor race and end with his assassination inside his City Hall office a year later.

Out producers Dan Jinks and Bruce Cohen, who formed their own production house the Jinks/Cohen Company, have taken the rather unheard of step in the film business these days of shooting the movie entirely on location.

"We were asked where we would make the film and told 'You can't shoot it in San Francisco. It would be too expensive.' We said this is not just a story of a man, but it is a story of a city and a neighborhood," said Jinks.

But taking over the heart of a densely packed business and residential district is presenting the filmmakers with various challenges as they prepare to begin shooting. Along with peeling back the street facade to the 1970s, they must maneuver around the needs of those who call the Castro home.

During a meeting with merchants Thursday, December 20 inside the Castro Theatre – where they plan to host a premiere of the film – the production team vowed to create as little negative impact as possible on the neighborhood.

"It is not an easy city to shoot in," said Jinks. "We will do everything we can do to minimize the impact on your businesses."


Director Gus Van Sant. Photo: Rick Gerharter
e film crew plans to spend three weeks shooting in the Castro starting on Wednesday, January 22. Much of the filming will be centered around 19th Street and Castro, where a recreation of the first Castro Street Fair will be staged, and filming will take place inside Milk's old store.

Filming is being restricted to weekdays, and should wrap on most days by 8 p.m. On several Thursday and Friday nights filming is expected to last till midnight as two scenes of marches from the Castro to City Hall are staged. While drivers can expect street closures and commuters will see bus lines rerouted, pedestrian traffic should not be greatly impacted.

"I know when people think of a movie coming into town they imagine it will be a circus atmosphere. I am hoping it isn't as big of a circus," said Van Sant, who has been attached to one version or another of a Milk movie since 1993.

While there will be hassles for business owners and residents during filming, the movie's producers and city film officials argue the long-term benefits will outweigh those disturbances. Local LGBT groups are set to benefit from the movie premiere and the film crew will be working with the LGBT Community Center to recruit interns for the production team.

Jinks said he hopes the film will serve as a calling card for LGBT people around the world to visit the Castro and learn about the area's rich gay history.

"Our great hope is this will revitalize this district and make it a major tourist destination," said Jinks.

Stefanie Coyote, executive director of the city's film commission, echoed Jinks's aspirations for the film.

"I know it is a hassle now, but I actually believe, ultimately, it will be a benefit in the long-term for everyone," she said.

Matthew Riutta, an openly gay man and key assistant location manager for the film, said production of the movie will bring business to local merchants, as food and supplies will be purchased at Castro shops and restaurants.

"We will try to pump money into your local economy. We have asked everyone on the crew to please patronize the businesses here," said Riutta.

Merchants did voice concerns about the filming hindering access to their businesses, but for the most part they thanked the production team for reaching out to the neighborhood and welcomed having the movie made outside their doors.

"I am really excited that the movie will be shot here. It will be really exciting to have some real exposure for the Castro," said Petyr Kane with Citizen and Body clothing stores. "I lived through the whole last 30 years. A few days of inconvenience is worth it. It's an important story to tell."

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