One of the most memorable scenes in the powerful 2008 movie Milk, written by Dustin Lance Black.
Plot Summary: The story of Harvey Milk, and his struggles as an American gay activist who fought for gay rights and became California’s first openly gay elected official.
Setting: Dan White has asked to meet in private with Harvey Milk.
INT. CITY HALL / DAN WHITE'S OFFICE - CONTINUOUS Harvey walks in first. Dan stays between Harvey and the door. Dan closes it. Harvey smiles, sensing something is off. Dan draws his revolver. Harvey raises his hand. Dan fires. The bullet rips through Harvey's hand and down his arm. HARVEY MILK Oh no... N-- Dan fires again, silencing Harvey's cry for help. Harvey turns away. Another bullet rips into his chest, and he falls to his knees, now facing the window. He staggers toward it. The moment is extended as we see Harvey’s POV of the Opera House outside the window, and the Castro beyond it. Close on Dan, Harvey still alive. The moment almost peaceful. Dan puts his revolver to the back of Harvey's head. He fires. And just like that, Harvey falls. A startled Dan fires once more, and walks out of the office.
Here is the scene from the movie:
A few tiny changes:
* Harvey says “No” before the first bullet is fired.
* He doesn’t say, “Oh, no,” but rather “No,” which compresses the time in which he realizes what’s happening.
* There are four gun shots, but the first three happen with Harvey facing White.
* Harvey doesn’t “stagger” toward the window, rather ends up there by his body’s reaction to being shot.
Some interesting directing and editorial choices:
* Once White closes the door, camera stays on Harvey. It’s an interesting choice. In the script, we’ve already seen White preparing his gun. Plus we know – historically – what happened, so it’s as if Van Sant (director) decided it was more important to play to Harvey’s take on what was transpiring, rather than cut to White producing his gun.
* There is only one CU of White after he closes the door: After he fires the first shot, almost as if he has a moment’s hesitation: Can I go through with this?
The moment that really hits home for me is :26-53 where Harvey kneels at the window, his gaze eventually focusing on the Opera House. It mirrors an image evoked on the very first page of the script in which in the chaos of the shooting, this happens:
Cleve shuts it out. He looks out the second story window to see what Harvey must have last laid eyes upon: the SF Opera House, and beyond it, the neighborhood that has become their home, The Castro.
It also recalls a scene from Harvey’s youth at the New York Opera House [P. 3] and a scene from just before the assassination in which Harvey enjoys an opera in San Francisco [P. 107].
So in his dying moments, Harvey gets to see a place of significance to him — the Opera House — and the neighborhood behind it — the Castro — both symbolic of this place he has come to call home.
And those last shots, the very conceit of that, is all in Black’s script.
What else do you see in comparing the scripted version of the scene to the movie version?
To download a free, legal PDF of the script for Milk, go here.
One of the single best things you can do to learn the craft of screenwriting is to read the script while watching the movie. After all a screenplay is a blueprint to make a movie and it’s that magic of what happens between printed page and final print that can inform how you approach writing scenes. That is the purpose of Script to Screen, a weekly series on GITS where we analyze a memorable movie scene and the script pages that inspired it.