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Dustin Lance Black reveals almost ‘every’ studio turned down his Oscar-winning film ‘Milk’

The screenwriter tells the Out with Suzi Ruffell podcast how he fought for his acclaimed Harvey Milk biopic to be made.

By Will Stroude

Dustin Lance Black has revealed almost every studio turned down his acclaimed 2008 film Milk

The screenwriter and author, 45, has recalled how only one studio – Focus Features, the maker of Brokeback Mountain – was willing to take on his screenplay about late politician and LGBTQ activist Harvey Milk, the first openly gay person to be elected to public office in California.

The film starring Sean Penn and James Franco went on to win Black his first Oscar, for Best Original Screenplay, and has since became a modern gay classic – but says the landscape for original LGBTQ movies was far rockier even just a decade ago.

Appearing on comedian Suzi Ruffell’s new weekly podcast, Out with Suzi Ruffell, Black says of Milk’s journey from page to screen: “It was a labour of love, and you go to a studio with that. Plus, I had worked my tail off to get [director] Gus Van Sant, Sean Penn, James Franco and Emile Hirsh.

“So, you go to a studio with that intact, and then it was almost undeniable. There was no money against this massive thing, that somehow I’d built just because I couldn’t stop myself.”

Out with Suzi Ruffell, which debuted earlier this month and sees the Live at the Apollo comedian speak to notable LGBTQ figures about about their paths to success and happiness.

Asked by Ruffell whether whether he knew he had a hit on his hands during the filming of Milk, Black replies: “No. You have to dial yourself back, this was ten years ago now, and that doesn’t seem too long a time, but the world has changed massively.

“No one was buying gay films. Studios weren’t asking for gay characters or gay storylines. There were a few that had been successful – thank God for Ellen, and Will & Grace…

“Now you have executives, places like Netflix, that know they want to serve a diverse adueicne. That just wasn’t a conversation [then].

Black continues: So, it wasn’t a no-brainer. There had been one big, successful box office success, which was Brokeback Mountain. And so I went there first, to Focus Features, because I said ‘They know that this isn’t a dead end’.

“Everyone else said no to it, by the way.”

He adds: “And I was right. They saw something in it, and did an incredible job with it…”

Listen to the full interview with Dustin Lance Black on the Out with Suzi Ruffell podcast here.