From Academy Award-winning creator/executive producer Dustin Lance Black, the ABC eight-hour miniseries When We Rise chronicles the real-life personal and political struggles of a diverse group of LGBT men and women who helped pioneer the movement, from infancy through today. At a time when our civil rights are again being questioned by a leadership who prefers to rule through fear, it is very important to take inspiration from others who have fought and succeeded, and lived to tell about it. The miniseries stars Guy Pearce, Mary-Louise Parker, Rachel Griffiths, Michael K. Williams, Ivory Aquino, Austin McKenzie, Emily Skeggs, Jonathan Majors, and Fiona Dourif.
During this 1-on-1 interview with Collider, impassioned filmmaker and social activist Dustin Lance Black talked about barely surviving the immense production of When We Rise, wanting to improve on the criticism he received over Milk being too focused on gay white men, how it breaks his heart that this subject matter is as relevant as it is today, why this story can appeal to everyone, what he hopes the younger generation will take from watching this, what he’s most proud of when it comes to the end result, and why it was so important to him to have a diverse group of writers and directors involved, behind the scenes. He also talked about developing two projects for HBO, a TV movie about Bayard Rustin and a mini-series about Charles Lindbergh.
Collider: This must have been so massively enormous to take on. Did it feel that way, or did it come pretty easily, as far as the story you wanted to tell?
DUSTIN LANCE BLACK: Are you even kidding me?! I would come home from work, or I’d Skype with my fiancé at night, and each night, I think the most common sentence was, “I think this job is going to kill me.” What we decided we were going to do, and ABC was brave enough to take on, was to tell four period piece movies, in a row. As you watch, it continues to skip time, almost until today. And this is ABC, which is network television, not a place that can spend the time and the money that some of the subscription based channels can. We had limitations with time and money. It’s only thanks so an incredibly brilliant and generous group of artists and actors that were able to pull it off. We were able to get the best costume designer and production designer there are, and they did it at an ABC price. And the same with all of the actors. To highlight the production difficulty, we wanted to be able to shoot in San Francisco and Vancouver. We had a little over a week to shoot the exteriors for all of the episodes in San Francisco, and in that time, we were shooting four and a half decades with four directors and two completely different casts who were playing the same characters. It was a juggling act, for sure, but we were all very dedicated. The production was about what the show was about, and I think that motivated people to go on. I’m just now starting to recover.
When you wrote Milk, could you ever have imagined that you’d be revisiting some of that same material and delving into all of the history surrounding that time period, so much deeper, for yet another project?
BLACK: There was a criticism of Milk that I found truth in, which was that it was focused on gay white men. My answer to that was always, “Yeah, that’s what the Castro was.” It was gay, but it was also misogynistic and racist. And every time someone said, “Why did you include this kind of person, or that kind of person?,” I said, “Well, it wouldn’t be accurate. But, I’m hungry to do that. I’m starving to do that.” I would encourage them to go tell more stories about the LGBT movement and all of its diversity. But when I heard that ABC was starting to gobble up LGBT history properties, I told my agent that I wanted a meeting. That was difficult for me to believe that ABC was interested in this area. I couldn’t save Milk to save my life. I charged all of the development on my credit card. And here was the network I watched, as a conservative Christian military kid in Texas. I was allowed to watch ABC ‘cause it told family stories. I thought, if ever there was a moment to do this more comprehensive, more diverse, thorough look at the LGBT movement, the place to do it would be ABC because we wouldn’t be preaching to the choir. So, I went and looked those executive at ABC in the eye to see if they meant it, and not only did they mean it, they said I could go research it for a year, to figure out whose stories I would even tell. That, to me, told me, right off, that the ABC network was ready to do this, and to do their best to do it right. How do you turn away from that? I think my agents and business managers all wanted me to ‘cause they knew I would go broke doing it, which is true. But, it was a once in a lifetime opportunity. It breaks my heart how pertinent these stories have become. If you turn on the news today, it’s heartbreaking how necessary these stories have become.
As a filmmaker and storyteller, you want any project that you do to be relevant, but at the same time, does it sadden you to know just how needed a project like this is right now?
BLACK: Lives are at stake. People are dying. People are certainly being hurt, individuals and families. I am not a sociopath. I would give anything in the world – anything – for this to be less relevant. It absolutely breaks my heart. When I see and hear the things that I’m seeing and hearing, and not just for LGBT people, but other minorities and women, I know, firsthand, how it feels when you’re listening to those messages in isolation and in unfriendly areas. And I know there are things that young people will consider doing to spare themselves that pain. Those decisions can be ultimate. So, I’m glad that we have this message out there. It should be noted that the series starts with young people coming from other social justice movements, and not just the LGBT movement, and it ends with grown-up versions who have found strength and know-how in the LGBT movement, taking those tools and resources to help bring their brothers and sisters in other movements up with them. The series doesn’t end with LGBT equality. It goes all the way to healthcare and immigration.