Will Sean Penn’s ‘Milk’ Be The Next ‘Brokeback Mountain’?

They’re not using “Got Milk?” as their official campaign, but the filmmakers behind the story of Harvey Milk are hoping that’s a slogan the rest of us abide by.

“If every single person who bought a ticket to ’Brokeback Mountain’ bought a ticket to ’Milk,’ we’d be very happy producers,” laughed producer Bruce Cohen when we caught up with him at the Out 100 New York gala, where the director, writer, producers, and cast of the film were being honored for filming the tale of the man who was California’s first openly gay elected official (only to be later assassinated).

“Gus Van Sant goes back and forth between things like ’To Die For’ and ’Good Will Hunting’ to his more experimental fare, and this is a combination,” Cohen said. “It’s not mainstream subject matter, it’s way out there on the edge, but we’re hoping it appeals to a larger audience.”

Cohen thinks that since “Brokeback Mountain” broke down the wall between gay and straight audiences, “Milk” has a stronger chance, especially given its Oscar buzz for Sean Penn’s performance. “Sean really became Harvey Milk,” he said. “He got so into the history and the research. A lot of people who knew Harvey got wide-eyed looks in their eyes when they saw Sean’s performance. They thought Harvey was back among us.”

Plus the political timing couldn’t be better, Cohen said. “We’re hoping that with the presidential election and all the gay initiatives around the country, especially Prop. 8 in California, that people will be interested in a political movie right now,” Cohen said. “It’s not a documentary, but a lot of real-life people were advisors on the film, and we tried to be as accurate as possible.”

Gay politics aren’t usually subjects that studios lightly green-light, Cohen said, but “Milk” was relatively easy to push through the Hollywood system (unlike, say, his other project, a Jennifer Garner resurrection drama called “Be With You” that he said probably won’t ever get made). But with “Milk,” he said, “it was a sigh of relief. Gus loved the script, and Sean Penn was our first choice, so as soon as Sean was on board, we started filming. ’Milk’ didn’t have to get sour on the development shelf. It was just the right time for this story to get told.”

Do you think more films with gay subject matter can grab a straight audience? Let us know your thoughts below.