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'Milk' Screenwriter: Harvey Helped Me Come Out

Sean Penn stars in Gus Van Sant's biopic about an out gay politician who inspired a community; screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, who grew up Mormon, says he was among those for whom Harvey Milk made a real difference.

09:27

Other segments from the episode on January 9, 2009

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, January 9, 2009: Mark Olsen & Will Scheffer; Interview with Dustin Lance Black; Review of Erin McCarley's "Love, save the empty;" Review of the season opener of "24."

Transcript

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The Polygamous Stylings of 'Big Love'

DAVE DAVIES, host:

This is Fresh Air. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily News, filling in for Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of TV show "Big Love")

Mr. BILL PAXTON: (As Bill Henrickson) Ronnie, there's one more thing. My house is three houses.

Unidentified Actor: (As Ronnie) What, rentals?

Mr. PAXTON: (As Bill Henrickson) No, I live in all three houses.

Unidentified Actor: (As Ronnie) All three?

Mr. PAXTON: (As Bill Henrickson) My family, they're connected.

Unidentified Actor: (As Ronnie) All three houses?

Mr. PAXTON: (As Bill Henrickson) That's right. Big family.

Unidentified Actor: (As Ronnie) I see.

DAVIES: That's Bill Paxton in a scene from the HBO series "Big Love," trying to subtly convey that he's a polygamist, with a different wife in each of his three suburban Salt Lake City homes. The third season of "Big Love" premieres January 18th. Our guests are its creators, Will Scheffer and Mark Olsen, who have also written many of the episodes. They're writing partners and life partners.

In "Big Love," Paxton plays Bill Henrickson. He grew up on a religious compound in Utah that practices polygamy. The members of the compound consider themselves true followers of Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon faith, although the Mormon Church doesn't recognize them and disavows polygamy and compounds like this. Bill left the compound at age 14, and his ongoing conflicts with its leaders have been threatening his family, his chain of Wal-Mart-like stores and maybe even his life. Here's a clip from the first episode of season three. Bill's first wife, Barb, is confronting her husband because she's discovered he's pursuing a fourth wife without consulting her first.

(Soundbite of TV show "Big Love")

(Soundbite of phone ringing)

Mr. PAXTON: (As Bill Henrickson) Hello?

Ms. JEANNE TRIPPLEHORN: (As Barb Henrickson) Just what are you doing, Bill?

Mr. PAXTON: (As Bill Henrickson) What are you talking about?

Ms. TRIPPLEHORN: (As Barb Henrickson) Ana.

Mr. PAXTON: (As Bill Henrickson) Ana? What about her?

Ms. TRIPPLEHORN: (As Barb Henrickson) I just went to see her.

Mr. PAXTON: (As Bill Henrickson) What? You had no right to do that.

Ms. TRIPPLEHORN: (As Barb Henrickson) I went to see her and just get it out in the open and tell her that if you're dating her, we are all dating her.

Mr. PAXTON: (As Bill Henrickson) Barb, I'm not dating. I'm just trying to figure out if she's receptive to our beliefs, you know, part of our journey.

Ms. TRIPPLEHORN: (As Barb Henrickson) Whatever.

Mr. PAXTON: (As Bill Henrickson) No, not whatever. I need to see if there's anything there before involving my wives in the complications that a potential new wife brings.

Ms. TRIPPLEHORN: (As Barb Henrickson) Well and good. However, she tells me that she's not interested in marriage and that you know it.

Mr. PAXTON: (As Bill Henrickson) She'll come around. And when did you sign off on a fourth?

Ms. TRIPPLEHORN: (As Barb Henrickson) Bill, the first time, it snuck up on me on my deathbed. The second time, the babysitter bit me. Now this time, I want to say that if it's going to happen, it is going to happen on my watch.

Mr. PAXTON: (As Bill Henrickson) What on earth is going on? Have you been fighting with Nicki or Margie?

Ms. TRIPPLEHORN: (As Barb Henrickson) Things aren't just going to happen to me without my having a saying it.

Mr. PAXTON: (As Bill Henrickson) You've always had a say, but this has got to happen at my pace.

Ms. TRIPPLEHORN: (As Barb Henrickson) Fine, fine. We'll do it at your pace. You've got three days to figure it out. Either this is holy and we're all dating her, or it's illicit and you're going to dump her.

DAVIES: Terry spoke to Will Scheffer and Mark Olsen in 2007.

(Soundbite of WHYY's Fresh Air, August 1, 2007)

TERRY GROSS: Mark Olsen, Will Scheffer, welcome to Fresh Air. Let's start with the beginning. How did you come up with the idea to use polygamy as a way to explore the American family?

Mr. MARK OLSEN (Creator, "Big Love"): We're just batting around ideas of possible new shows for the upcoming season that we might like to develop, and the word out of my mouth was, I know, polygamy. And Will's response was...

Mr. WILL SCHEFFER (Creator, "Big Love"): My response was: yuck. No one's going to want to watch a show about polygamists. And you know, I realized that Mark was really talking about, you know, a family drama that had the concept of marriage deeply embedded in it. It was a perfect show for HBO, I realized, and he showed me, with the research, that there are so many stories there and that it was such a subversive way to look at telling stories about marriage and family. And Mark always says, he said, it was time at which the Republican majority was, sort of, you know, really owning the idea of family values.

Mr. OLSEN: Now, I can date the concept.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OLSEN: It was shortly after the Bush's inauguration, and I became somewhat offended at some of the excesses of that dialogue, particularly notions of what is a family, what isn't a family, what is a marriage, what isn't a marriage, what society chooses to value in both those arenas, and this was sort of our response to it.

GROSS: It's a strange response because...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Well, for a lot of obvious reasons. But let me play a clip from the show in which the head of the compound, and the polygamous family that's the main characters and that's broken way from the compound - but the head of the compound that's polygamous is speaking with a journalist who's interviewing him, and he's explaining polygamy and explaining their values and explaining the principle. This is Harry Dean Stanton as the head of the compound.

(Soundbite of TV show "Big Love")

Mr. HARRY DEAN STANTON: (As Roman Grant) You see, the principle of plural marriage was God's sacred gift to us, but in 1890, the so-called leaders in Salt Lake buckled through outside pressure and repudiated polygamy and the teachings of our beloved prophet, Joseph Smith. We alone have kept the principle alive. We are the one true church.

Unidentified Woman: (As Los Angeles Times Journalist) And the violence, the coercion of young girls, the abuses committed against children?

Mr. STANTON: (As Roman Grant) We root it out. We crush it. I have 31 children and 187 grandchildren, and I love every one of them. A lot of times, their mothers will say, leave Grandpa alone, and I'll say, let them come to me. Precious darlings, all of them.

Mr. MATT ROSS: (As Alby Grant) And the gays, Papa? The homosexuals?

Mr. STANTON: (As Roman Grant) Ah, the gays. If the Supreme Court says yes to the privacy rights of homosexual persons, surely, it's time to recognize our rights to live in peace, too.

GROSS: That's a scene from "Big Love" with Harry Dean Stanton. I should mention, he's the bad guy. He's the heavy; he's the villain in this. And that's such an interesting line that he says at the end there, because the argument is usually made the other way around, that, you know, if homosexuals are given the right to marry, then what's to prevent polygamy, and what's to prevent a man from marrying an animal, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So, what - tell me about writing - and you wrote this episode - tell me about writing this monologue for Harry Dean Stanton and ending it with his remark about homosexuality, that if they get their rights, then certainly polygamists should, too.

Mr. SCHEFFER: Well, the idea was never meant to only be a metaphor for gay marriage or anything like that. And I think that the interesting thing about polygamy right now in Utah and Arizona is that the polygamists themselves who live on the compounds are using this argument in order to drive the agenda to decriminalize polygamy. We never made, you know, an attempt to connect the two on the show. We don't take a stand on being for polygamy or against polygamy. Certainly, the kind of crimes that are committed on the compounds in Utah, we don't defend them in any way, and there's a lot of heinous stuff going on in the dark recesses of the compounds of Utah and Arizona.

GROSS: Let's get back to the main family that the story follows. They've broken away from this compound, and it's, you know, a husband and three wives. What do you think their understanding is of why they're polygamists?

Mr. OLSEN: I think it depends on which member of the family we're talking about. I don't think there is a collective response to that. I think Bill, who is the one who made a strong journey away from polygamy when he was thrown out of the compound, you know, as a teenager and certainly repudiated its abuses, he would claim to have seen the light. He would claim to have been given instruction on how to return to, you know, the underlying principles of polygamy redacted of the abuses. I think that's his mission; he thinks it's God-given. That's what he's about. I think Barb, his first wife, is - at least initially, was largely along for the ride. It was her deep love for her husband, Bill, who she had been married to prior to polygamy for a good 12 years, that she believed in him, she had faith in him, and although she did not have personal testimony for the principle, she believed that he did. And through that vicariously, she was willing to go along with it.

Mr. SCHEFFER: And she's the only character who has a strong LDS upbringing and background. So, this would have been, you know, kind of very iconoclastic of her to make this move to follow Bill. It basically risks excommunication from the Mormon Church, which she had a strong connection with growing up and through her family.

Mr. OLSEN: Nicki, Bill's second wife, she's altogether a different can of worms. She grew up on the compound. This is, you know, status quo normal for her, this life, this belief, this passion. And then, the youngest wife, Margene, is sort of, you know, a waif that had been casting about on the seas of domestic discord as she grew up, and she saw a family that worked. She saw a family that, to her nonjudgmental eyes, appeared to love each other, and she gravitated toward becoming a member of that family. So, it's a complex stew.

GROSS: I just have to ask you about casting Chloe Sevigny. She is - she's one of the three wives married to the Bill Paxton character in "Big Love." And she's the most traditional, the most repressed, the least overtly sexual, and what's so interesting about casting Chloe Sevigny in this role is that in many of her roles, she's been, you know, very extroverted and very sexualized. So, it's, in some ways, really casting against type, but she's so effective in this very repressed role.

Mr. OLSEN: You know, it's funny; we actually wrote the part for Chloe. We'd never met her. We only knew her from her film work, from her characterization of Lana Tisdel in "Boys Don't Cry." But she was who we crafted the role in mind for. And it was oddly satisfying that we heard the tapes of a Sunstone conference in Salt Lake City, a group of progressive Mormons who sit around and talk about issues, current issues, and whatnot. And they have a group of polygamous women in to review the show, and they were talking about the character of Nicki, and all of them - all of them - applauded that character saying, oh, my God, she is our worst nightmare; we all worry about our husbands bringing home a Nicki into the fold and having to deal with a Nicki. So, you know, Chloe's doing a great job with it.

Mr. SCHEFFER: And sometimes, you just know if you cast someone, like, you know, against type that you're going to get this tremendous kind of subtext, you know, I guess, for lack of a better word, and Nicki is so manipulative and unconscious in what she does. And I think that Chloe manages to bring so much, you know, repressed energy, maybe because of the against-type casting that we did with her.

GROSS: You had to learn some new language to write for these characters, words like plural marriage. What are some of the words that are used to describe polygamy that you had to learn to write in the language?

Mr. OLSEN: It's not only learning to write in the language; it's learning to say without cringing. (Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OLSEN: You know, the first time my eyes stumbled on the word "a sister wife," that in itself was - some - you know, my first response is it made my skin crawl.

GROSS: That's the word that wives use to describe their fellow wives within the marriage, sister wives.

Mr. OLSEN: Correct, correct. And at a minimum describes a relationship that was a little too close to comfort for me.

Mr. SCHEFFER: And again, like, kind of going towards the things that make you go yuck with this kind of material is the word "patriarchy," which has a different kind of meaning in this structure. It's got a larger religious context in the Mormon religion and what they call themselves, the fundamentalist Mormons, who are the, you know, are the practicing polygamists in compound life. Our characters are independent polygamists. They live apart from both the Mormon Church and the Fundamentalist Mormon Church.

DAVIES: Will Scheffer and Mark Olsen are creators of the HBO series "Big Love." More after a break. This is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: Let's get back to Terry's interview with Will Scheffer and Mark Olsen, creators of the HBO series "Big Love," which begins season three January 18th. It's about a polygamous family in suburban Salt Lake City that split from a polygamous compound. The family is made of a husband and three wives. The wives alternate nights with their husband. At one point, he's become so overwhelmed by pressures at work and deadly conflicts with the compound that he asks his wives for one night off each week. In this scene, Bill, played by Bill Paxton, is in bed with his senior wife, Barb, played by Jeanne Tripplehorn. She's angry at his proposal, and he's defending the idea.

(Soundbite of TV show "Big Love")

Mr. PAXTON: (As Bill Henrickson) Honey, you get four or five nights a week to catch up. I just need one right now, just for awhile.

Ms. TRIPPLEHORN: (As Barb Henrickson) By one night off, well, one night off is one thing, but the fact that you need it scheduled on a consistent basis...

Mr. PAXTON: (As Bill Henrickson) Please don't be this way.

(Soundbite of sigh)

Mr. PAXTON: (As Bill Henrickson) I don't get to hunt or fish anymore.

Ms. TRIPPLEHORN: (As Barb Henrickson) But if you can't juggle everything, then you should let something else go, not your wives.

Mr. PAXTON: (As Bill Henrickson) Well, there's nothing to let go. You know, I spend all day trying to keep ahead of the eight ball.

Ms. TRIPPLEHORN: (As Barb Henrickson) You don't have to take over Utah. You don't have to be Wal-Mart for us. We don't need it.

Mr. PAXTON: (As Bill Henrickson) Well, somebody's got to bring home the bacon and the bacon and the bacon.

Ms. TRIPPLEHORN: (As Barb Henrickson) All right, down time is one thing; a night off is different. This is what you signed up for.

Mr. PAXTON: (As Bill Henrickson) I want it put on the schedule so it's official and no one gets hurt like last night.

Ms. TRIPPLEHORN: (As Barb Henrickson) So, it is about one of us.

Mr. PAXTON: (As Bill Henrickson) No. I'm not asking for the Moon. Please, just schedule it. You tell them I'll pick the night myself.

Ms. TRIPPLEHORN: (As Barb Henrickson) Fine. You don't want to share a bed with us.

(Soundbite of stripping sheets from bed)

Mr. PAXTON: (As Bill Henrickson) What? Why are you being like this?

Ms. TRIPPLEHORN: (As Barb Henrickson) I'm sleeping on the couch until you're ready to shoulder the responsibilities you signed up for.

(Soundbite of door opening)

Ms. TRIPPLEHORN: (As Barb Henrickson) If you want some alone time, you can have it.

(Soundbite of door closing)

(Soundbite of WHYY's Fresh Air, August 1, 2007)

GROSS: I asked the creators of "Big Love" about this part of the storyline. Did you see this as a kind of polygamist metaphor for...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: The strain on couples who want to have sex with each other and just can't find the time and don't have the energy?

Mr. OLSEN: Sure.

GROSS: But it's, like, magnified by three times because it's a polygamous family?

Mr. OLSEN: Well, exactly. In that sense, it's uber-family and it's uber-modern American family, where, you know, there's two or three breadwinners in the family and two - and each breadwinner holds down two or three jobs, and you know, everyone's multitasking with this and with that, and you know, society has become so competitive and so ramped up and amped up that success does depend on spreading oneself very thin and so, too, in the polygamous world.

Mr. SCHEFFER: Yeah, moving faster than the speed of light to have it all, and you know, that's a lot of what we deal with in the show. You know, even among the sister wives, you know, what does it mean to have it all, and you know, how can people hold down all these different dreams?

GROSS: Now, it's kind of a paradoxical, I think, that - you know, because the sexual relationships within this polygamous family are a part of what the show is about. There are some sex scenes in it. And I would imagine that polygamous families are probably very, very conservative when it comes to any kind of sexual depiction in literature, movies, television. So, even though multiple partners is so much a part of their lifestyle, the depicting of anything relating to sex, I'd imagine, would be very religiously offensive to them?

Mr. OLSEN: Truthfully, we're still trying to get that one right. We start from the premise that we do know they have sex. Thirty-five to 40 children per family tends to suggest that. So, the issue becomes, how does it become depicted? And we feel like we're getting closer on that one.

Mr. SCHEFFER: Well, they're obviously discreet. You know, this is a religious principle that they're all living. So, there's a discretion, I think, in the way that they would go about their sexual politics or, you know, how they would arrange things. And then clearly, we've got this dark side, you know - which the compound is sort of a window to - of much more kind of, you know, dark portrayals of sexuality that you have. These would be Warren Jeffs and some of the crimes that are being prosecuted.

Mr. OLSEN: Yeah, I have to say, although after our first year aired, many in the polygamous community, who responded very favorably to having the show portray their lifestyle and bringing them forward into the national conversation, still drew the line at the way we represented their sexual lives and how we treated sex in the show. And I think most of them are women, and I think most of them are quite sincere, and I think there was a tremendous amount of validity to what they said.

However, by the same token, there is a theme of sex that runs through the polygamous communities, and sometimes it can be abusive, and sometimes it's, you know, less pernicious, but one of the critics of polygamy, a guy named John Llewelyn on the ground in Utah, says guess what, folks. At the end of the day, this is about sex, you know, whether people want to admit it or not. From the male point of view, this is about having wives and having sex. So, there's a debate there, you know, as to how it gets portrayed and what's really going on there.

GROSS: Well, one of the things that makes that interesting is that, rightly or wrongly, I think we associate fundamentalist faiths with a certain amount of sexual repression.

Mr. SCHEFFER: Yeah, I mean, exactly. And there is definitely a kind of patriarchal repression that goes on, on the compounds in terms of how they use women, how they, you know, repress women, actually, and yet, in our family, we sort of see a sexual politics that's a little bit different, and the women have more of a modern...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. SCHEFFER: A modern outlook, you know, in terms of how they view their sexual politics in the family, you know, how Barb in this current episode uses a kind of withholding of sex to, you know, politically control Bill in this particular episode that's coming out this week. And you know, also, the way that the women and the sister wives use each other in order to support themselves in this family is different. It's more modern; it's more feminist. They, you know, have a different way of caretaking the children that enables other wives to go out and bring home the bacon and pursue careers. It's just a little bit - there is a kind of feminist thread that exist in our family, which, I think, does exist also in the independent polygamists that we've heard from since the show has been out.

DAVIES: Mark Olsen and Will Scheffer are creators of the HBO series "Big Love." They'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies, and this is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: Coming up, more "Big Love." We're talking to the show's co-creators, Mark Olsen and Will Scheffer, about their HBO series. And former "Big Love" writer, Dustin Lance Black, joins us. Also, TV critic David Bianculli tells us about the epic season opener of "24," and rock critic Ken Tucker reviews the debut album from singer Erin McCarley.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: This is Fresh Air. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Let's get back to Terry's interview with Mark Olsen and Will Scheffer, creators of the HBO series "Big Love." Its third season premieres January 18th. It's about a polygamous family that broke away from a polygamous compound in Utah. The members of the compound consider themselves true followers of Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon faith, although the Mormon Church doesn't recognize them and disavows polygamy and compounds like this one.

(Soundbite of WHYY's Fresh Air, August 1, 2007)

GROSS: Now, you are writing partners and producing partners, but you're also life partners. Did you meet first and then start writing together, or start writing together and then become a couple?

Mr. OLSEN: We start writing apart, had a first date, which was a writer-ly version of "I'll show you mine if you show me yours."

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OLSEN: Which was a swapping of scripts, and once they passed master, then we headed into do a deeper relationship.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Hey, wait, if you didn't like each other's scripts, you wouldn't have gone any further, you think?

Mr. OLSEN: Not a prayer.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OLSEN: Not a prayer. A relationship does have to be built on at least a little bit of respect.

Mr. SCHEFFER: It's very true, very true. And but again, that was 16 years ago, and we definitely supported each other in our independent writing careers, and we edited and gave, you know, a lot of feedback. And then it was sort of, well, we're doing so much work on each other's scripts, we might as well just collaborate all the time.

GROSS: Now, are there any stories that you've put into "Big Love" that come from either of your families?

Mr. OLSEN: Oh, my gosh.

Mr. SCHEFFER: So much.

Mr. OLSEN: A lot, a whole lot. My family's also based in a small town in mid-state Nebraska, Hastings, Nebraska. Goes back in generations on all sides of the family, and it's a huge, tumbling, intergenerational family. But you know, people tell bad jokes; people get their feelings hurt; people drink too much; people, you know, have lesser instincts and nobler instincts. And it's just a huge stew of love and hypocrisy and generosity and...

Mr. SCHEFFER: What I really love about Mark's family, and I think it just relates - I think that it just relates somehow to "Big Love," because it's such a specific world that were dramatizing in Sandy, Utah. But Mark's family - there's not like the kind of a lot of therapeutic psycho babble, you know; whereas I'm from New Jersey and New York, and there's a lot of that kind of relationship talk and, you know, therapeutic talk. And Mark's family is kind of...

Mr. OLSEN: Pre-Freudian...

Mr. SCHEFFER: Pre-Freudian, immune from that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCHEFFER: And so, that kind of helps us with our enormously red-state kind of dramatization of this Mormon world, you know? And so, I really like that about Mark's family, and we can use a lot of stuff, and definitely Mark's mother has been - I have to say - a matriarch that we've drawn on and we do draw on continuously for our matriarchs.

GROSS: Example?

Mr. OLSEN: Um, let's see. I think Lois...

Mr. SCHEFFER: Lois.

Mr. OLSEN: Has a pistol in the glove compartment of her car. That was - my mom had her legendary pistol for a good couple of years. And she was actually wrestled to the ground at a Bob Dole rally...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OLSEN: At the Hastings Chautauqua in 19 - what - '76, when he was running for the vice...

GROSS: Wait, what was she's doing with a pistol at a Bob Dole rally?

Mr. OLSEN: Oh, she was just carrying it in her purse. She was a harmless old woman who was going to Bob Dole for vice president rally with her little pistol in her purse.

GROSS: And she was going to support him, not shoot him, right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OLSEN: Well, unfortunately, she didn't like what he had to say about some foreign-policy and some foreign-subsidy issues. And she did pull the gun out of her purse, as we were walking to the parking lot. There was no danger to anybody, saying, when I heard what he had to say, I just should've - you know, and she imitated shooting the gun.

GROSS: Hmm. And that's when she was wrestled to the ground.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OLSEN: Yeah.

GROSS: OK. So, your mother is pretty eccentric, I'm getting a picture here.

Mr. OLSEN: Well, but more just eccentric, and hopefully, you know, the character Lois, who receives a lot of Mom's characteristics, is also hopefully more than just eccentric. She's a very smart woman, an incredibly well-educated woman, with a big spirit for life and a big love of family that wedded into a very patriarchal relationship. And those are the deeper currents of what I see in my mother, is her struggle to remain an individual and to grow as an individual with the subservience, really, that was demanded by my father.

GROSS: You're mentioning the character of Lois; I should explain, for our listeners who don't know who Lois is, she is the mother of the Bill Paxton character. She's the mother of the main polygamist on the show, and she is - she lives in the compound. She lives in the polygamous compound that her son broke away from. And she's very unpredictable, unreliable, kind of crazy and kind of dangerous.

Mr. SCHEFFER: She is. She's a feisty character, played by Grace Zabriskie with great flare, and she's a real eccentric, original kind of character.

GROSS: Mark Olsen, Will Scheffer, thank you both so much for talking with us.

Mr. SCHEFFER: Thank you, Terry.

Mr. OLSEN: It's been a pleasure.

DAVIES: Mark Olsen and Will Scheffer, creators of the HBO series "Big Love," speaking with Terry Gross in 2007. "Big Love's" third season premieres January 18th.
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Dustin Lance Black on 'Milk' and Mormonism

DAVE DAVIES, host:

Writer Dustin Lance Black was brought in the Mormon faith, and he drew on his Mormon background when he wrote for "Big Love," about a polygamous family that broke away from a polygamous compound in Utah. The compound members consider themselves true followers of Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon faith, although the Mormon Church doesn't recognize them and disavows polygamy and compounds like this one. Black is also the screenwriter and executive producer of "Milk," the new movie starring Sean Penn as Harvey Milk. In 1977, Milk became the first openly gay man to be elected to office in the U.S. Before completing his first term on San Francisco's board of supervisors, though, he was assassinated by fellow supervisor Dan White. Terry spoke with Dustin Lance Black in November about Harvey Milk, about growing up gay in the Mormon Church, and about writing for "Big Love."

(Soundbite of WHYY's Fresh Air, November 20, 2008)

TERRY GROSS: Are there any aspects of the stories, any plot points or scenes that came directly out of something that you had observed, even though you grow up in the Mormon faith, not in one of these fundamentalist breakaway sets?

Mr. DUSTIN LANCE BLACK (Screen Writer and Executive Producer, "Milk"): Right. Oh, all the time, constantly, I mean, I don't - I think that in writing the show, I would always drift towards stories between Bill Paxton, who plays, you know, Bill on the show, and Doug Smith, who plays the son on the show, Ben, and I think that's because I was, you know, that age in the Mormon Church, I was little Benny's age, and you know, just being the sort of young man who is learning about the church and sort of confused by it a bit, but really wanting to embraced it.

So, you know, the scenes where Bill is either giving lessons about the church or doing a laying on of hands - I think in season two, there was a scene in one of my episodes, where he has a really sweet talk with his son, and he ends with a blessing, and his son is sort of kneeling before his father, and the father puts his hands on his son's head and bestows the priesthood on him, and that's such a huge moment in Mormon Church. And it's one you really look forward to, like, you having your father bestow the priesthood on you, and you know, I never got to have that. My father left when I was very young. So, you know, in that way, it was sort of some Mormon wish-fulfillment going on in that particular scene.

GROSS: I remember some ambivalence in that scene, because the son has become kind of rebellious and unsure about the Mormon faith.

Mr. BLACK: Yes, he has. I wonder where that came from.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLACK: Yeah, you know, I mean, it's something you go through. The Mormon faith is tough on a young man. It's saying, you know, take all these urges and feelings you're having, all these passions, and put a lid on them, push 'em down, push 'em down, push 'em down, and it's - you do. You question it. You're like, really? Why do I have all these feelings? Why do I have all of this? Why do I have a sexuality if I'm not allowed to express it? You know, it was heterosexual in "Big Love." You know, Ben was struggling with the fact that he had lost his virginity and was having this sexual relationship with a girl that he wasn't married to, which is a big no-no. And you know, for me, that was probably my way of telling the story of, you know, having to put lid on my own sexuality as a kid.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Dustin Lance Black. He wrote the new movie "Milk," which stars Sean Penn as Harvey Milk. What did Harvey Milk mean to you?

Mr. BLACK: Well, you know, I know it sounds super corny, but Harvey Milk really did save my life. I was about 13 years old when my mother remarried; she remarried a handsome, Catholic Army soldier, and moved - he moved us out of San Antonio, Texas, to Salinas, California. We were stationed at Fort Ord. And you know, I was a pretty dark kid. I had known that I was gay since a very early age. It's not hard to know that when you grow up in Texas and Mormon and in the military, because you're hearing a lot of, you know, homophobic slurs constantly. So, you have a name for it. The moment you first have those feeling, you have a name for it. And you also know that it's - that you're going to Hell. You know that you're less than the other kids. You know all these things that you've been taught from a very early age in that atmosphere.

And so, coming to Salinas and discovering the theater in the Bay Area, the central coast, and then soon thereafter, discovering San Francisco. And I had a theater director, and one day he told a little groups of us the story of this out gay man and I was like, what, you know, what the heck's an out gay man? You know, that sounds like someone who's in a lot of trouble...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLACK: Like, he probably should be running, you know, because it seemed like not a really bright move. But then, he said, you know, no, this out gay man run for public office, and he was elected, and his city loved him. And more important than his words were just kind of the glow about him. I could tell that, you know, it had been many, many, many years, you know, a decade or more since the assignation, and you're still glowing about this man. It was a lot of pride there. You know, first, I was horrified. I was like, oh, my God, why is he telling me this story? What does he know about me?

But you know, later that night and for the next several years until I came out, it just was a story of great hope. I thought, wow, you know, people can come out and people can be honest about this. And Harvey spoke a lot about that. You know, he said, this is - his election wasn't just an election for the gay people in San Francisco; it wasn't just a victory for the gay people in San Francisco. You know, I really believe that, you know, many, many years later after his assassination, he did give me that hope to keep going.

GROSS: Do you think your drama teacher knew that you were gay and that's why he told you the story?

Mr. BLACK: Oh, I'm sure of it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLACK: I'm sure. I mean, I was a pretty - you know, I was a pretty quiet kid. It's, like, you can see the damage that closeting does to adolescence. I was very, very shy. I'd sort of, you know, retreated into myself, and even if you didn't, it's a wonderful story. It teaches straight kids, it teaches straight people that, you know, gay people are to be honored and not to be, sort of, made of fun of or picked on. So - but I bet he did, I bet he did.

GROSS: So, growing up in a Mormon Church, what were you taught about homosexuality?

Mr. BLACK: Let me think about that for a second. Boy...

GROSS: Maybe it was ignored. Maybe you weren't taught anything.

Mr. BLACK: No, I'm trying to think of when I first heard about homosexuality. I think it was in the Boy Scouts. And the Boy Scouts in Texas, at least in the Randolph Ward, where I grew up, it's absolutely tied to the Mormon Church. You know, all the functions take place in the Mormon Church. You know, it was immediately clear that it was wrong and that if I did come out, I would, you know, probably suffer physical harm, if not just bring great shame to my family.

So, I would imagine the next time I heard it was in some young men's group, you know, and you start those very early. Everything is very advanced in the Mormon Church. You're an elder a very early on, and you know, you're given those responsibilities very early on. And so, at that point, you find out that this is a big sign in the church. Plus, you know, in order to get into Heaven in the Mormon Church, you need to be married, you need to have a temple marriage, and you're definitely not getting that if you're marrying a boy. So, you know that you're not going to heaven, and you know that you'll likely be harmed. Those are the early lessons.

GROSS: So, were you confident that if you stayed in the closet that you wouldn't be condemned to Hell? Or did you think even if you had the homosexual feelings and didn't express them that you're going to go to Hell anyways?

Mr. BLACK: No, you definitely have the feeling in the Mormon Church that if you can repress those feelings, that you're fine. It was almost like you were honored for that, like, this was the cross that you had to bear, and this is - this was your challenge on this planet. But every time I heard that from, you know, an elder or, you know, a Sunday-school teacher, I always went, wow, are you gay? Like, really? Like, I got this feeling that they were repressing something...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLACK: And like, OK, all right, you must be hiding this, too, and you start to get the sense that everybody is, you know, gay in the Mormon Church. That's a horrible thing to say, but you know, it was, like, is everyone suppressing this? Is this a thing that everyone feels, and we all just have to deal with? And I remember of thinking that many times as a kid.

GROSS: Thank you so much for talking with us, and congratulations on the film.

Mr. BLACK: Oh, thank you so much, Terry.

DAVIES: Dustin Lance Black is the screenwriter and executive producer of "Milk," the new movie starring Sean Penn as Harvey Milk. He also wrote for the HBO series "Big Love." Coming up, rock critic Ken Tucker on the debut album from singer Erin McCarley. This is Fresh Air.
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Erin McCarley and the New Economy of Pop

DAVE DAVIES, host:

Erin McCarley has just released her debut album called "Love, Save the Empty." But there's a good chance you've already heard one or two of her songs, which have been featured on TV shows like "Grey's Anatomy" and "Ghost Whisperer." Rock critic Ken Tucker thinks McCarley is an example of a new business model in the music industry.

(Soundbite of song "Pony (It's OK)")

Ms. ERIN MCCARLEY: (Singing)
You hold your head up to the sky
And say, what kind of blue are you, are you?
Then you ride your pony 'round and 'round.
It's digging a hole right through, right through.

You stumble...

KEN TUCKER: That song by Erin McCarley, called "Pony (It's OK)," has been played in prime time on "Grey's Anatomy," "One Tree Hill," "Ghost Whisperer," "Privileged" and "Kyle XY." The title song if her album, "Love, Save the Empty," will play over the final scene of the Jennifer Aniston-Ben Affleck movie, "He's Just Not That Into You," opening next month. Clearly, for someone releasing her rookie effort, McCarley has captured something in the air and is getting it on the air.

(Soundbite of song "Love, Save the Empty")

Ms. MCCARLEY: (Singing)
Little girls don't know how to be sweet girls.
Mama didn't teach me.
Little boys don't know how to treat little girls.
Daddy didn't show me.

Face down on top of your bed,
Oh, why did I give it up to you?
Is this how I shoot myself up high,
Just high enough to get through?

Again, for false affection.
Again, we break down inside.
Love, save the empty.
Love, save the empty, and save me...

TUCKER: Essentially acoustic singer/songwriter material with elaborate choruses and arrangements, as on the title song I just played, "Love, Save the Empty" is a gathering of songs about the stresses of romance: the exhaustion of infatuation, the excitement of passion and the left-drained-depressed-and-angry aftermath of breaking up.

Beyond her music, McCarley can stand as a representative of the new economics of the music business. In the year just ended, album sales were down 14 percent from 2007. At the same time, online downloads, usually of individual songs, rose 27 percent, with a little more than a billion songs downloaded. With record companies downsizing and radio wavering as a place to break a hit, getting a song placed on a TV show or a commercial or a movie soundtrack is now a major way to kick start a career. Erin McCarley recorded this album in Nashville, that most commercial of music industry cities. And while she's making pop, not country music, it definitely has a polished sheen.

(Soundbite of song "Sticky Sweet")

Ms. MCCARLEY: (Singing)
Here's to who you ought to be.
No wishing well could ever bring you.
Celebrate my smile.

You color my depressed mood
From gray to the most brilliant blue
Shape every tear into a candy sky.

Take me home to your secret.
Take me home
To tour white sanctuary.

I don't want to hold on because you're sticky,
You're sticky sweet on me.
I don't want to hold on cause I'm inspired by your
Off-beat dreams.

They make me never forget how it feels to be that fortunate someone.
I don't want to,
I don't want to,
No, I don't want to hold on.
You're getting to me...

TUCKER: McCarley worked on this album for over two years. There's little here in terms of emotion or imagery that you haven't heard in her acknowledged influences, such as Alanis Morissette or Fiona Apple or Aimee Mann, but it's quality craftwork. At her best, Erin McCarley is making music for the masses in a way that avoids cheap cynicism. The question is whether music that can serve as the soundtrack to a poignant moment in a primetime soap opera can also speak to you on some level. If so, McCarley and you and I have a place in the new economy of pop.

DAVIES: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large for Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed Erin McCarley's debut album, "Love, Save the Empty." Coming up, David Bianculli on the epic season opener of "24." This is Fresh Air.
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New Clocks, New Challenges as '24' Returns

DAVE DAVIES, host:

In November, the Fox Network presented a two-hour telemovie version of "24," serving as a teaser of sorts for the upcoming long-delayed seventh season. That season, once again, starring Kiefer Sutherland as counterterrorism federal agent Jack Bauer, begins this weekend. Our TV critic David Bianculli has this review.

DAVID BIANCULLI: Time and timing always have been central components of the Fox series "24." When it launched eight years ago, "24" was the first weekly series to present an entire season's dramatic narrative in real time: 24 episodes, 24 hours, one nonstop day in the life of Counter Terrorist Unit agent Jack Bauer. It was such a risky scheduling move that before the show began, network executives wouldn't even commit to producing all 24 episodes. If enough viewers didn't show up, the story would end early. But viewers did show up, and they ate up the breathless pace, the narrative complexity and the occasional surprises and shocks. "24" not only survived and succeeded; it paved the way for other ambitious, novelistic TV series, most notably, ABC's "Lost." That's the time element of "24."

The timing element is that this series has never been disconnected from the era in which it's been televised. When TV critics saw the pilot episode of "24" eight years ago, one of its early, shocking scenes was a shot of a female terrorist parachuting from a passenger plane just before a bomb she left behind blew it up in midair. Critics saw that scene in full, but you didn't. That's because weeks before the show premiered on Fox, the tragic events of 9/11 occurred, and Fox rightly trimmed back that scene considerably. Ever since, the backdrop of current events, and the fear of global terrorism, has fed the drama of "24." The uses and abuses of the Patriot Act and the definitions and employment of torture also have been reflected in the series. And it may be a two-way reflection.

Midway through the show's run, representatives from West Point and the military claimed that some cadets and soldiers were being influenced by the show's widespread use of torture to gain information. Eight years have passed, and just as America is about to shift administrations from George Bush to Barack Obama, "24" is in a different place, too. There's no more CTU - that top-secret antiterrorist force has been disbanded - and as this new season begins, Kiefer Sutherland's Jack Bauer is testifying before Congress. A senator, played by Kurtwood Smith, is grilling him on his past methods, and neither man is very impressed by the other.

(Soundbite of TV show "24")

Mr. KURTWOOD SMITH: (As Senator Blaine Meyer) Mr. Bauer, who is Ibrahim Haddad?

Mr. KIEFER SUTHERLAND: (As Jack Bauer) That information is classified.

Mr. SMITH: (As Senator Blaine Meyer) We represent the people of the United States, and we have declassified those files on their behalf. Now, I'm going to ask you one more time. Who is Ibrahim Haddad?

Mr. SUTHERLAND: (As Jack Bauer) He was a member of a terrorist sleeper cell CTU had under surveillance in 2002.

Mr. SMITH: (As Senator Blaine Meyer) And isn't it true that you detained Mr. Haddad without due process and that you used extreme interrogation methods on him until he answered your questions?

Mr. SUTHERLAND: (As Jack Bauer) Yes, sir.

Mr. SMITH: (As Senator Blaine Meyer) Would you say that you broke procedure for this interrogation?

Mr. SUTHERLAND: (As Jack Bauer) Probably.

Mr. SMITH: (As Senator Blaine Meyer) Probably. Well, that's a very cavalier answer. You don't seem to care about the implications here.

(Soundbite of silence)

Mr. SMITH: (As Senator Blaine Meyer) Well? Mr. Bauer?

Mr. SUTHERLAND: (As Jack Bauer) I'm sorry, senator. I didn't hear a question.

BIANCULLI: Early press coverage of the new season has suggested the show's producers, some of whom are political conservatives, are reflecting their own reversal and repentance with this new plot line, but I don't think that's what's going on at all. Yes, Jack's motives and methods are questioned by almost everyone around him, but in the first four hours, I don't get a sense of either Jack or the show being that apologetic. In fact, one of the best new characters introduced early on, an FBI agent played by Annie Wersching, is shown disapproving of Jack's usage of torture, then employing it herself when push comes to shove and information has to be extracted quickly.

The message of this season, I predict, will be very little of mea culpa and a lot more of the defiant you-need-me message of Jack Nicholson's career soldier in "A Few Good Men." He insisted tough guys were needed to defend the wall between us and them, between good and bad. And what "24" seems to be saying is: we want Jack Bauer on that wall; ee need Jack Bauer on that wall.

Yet if "24" stubbornly stays behind the times in some respects, it continues to be ahead of the times in others. Eight years ago, when Bush was starting his first term, "24" presented a black man as president. This year, with Barack Obama weeks away from his inauguration speech, "24" has a woman in the Oval Office, President Allison Taylor, played by Tony-winning Broadway actress Cherry Jones. If "24" proves equally predictive this time, that means we should have a female president in 2016. You heard it here first.

To tell too much more about what happens on "24," even in the opening minutes, would be to spoil too much of the fun. Some old faces are back, and some new ones are added in, and after the first four hours, which will be televised Sunday and Monday, "24" establishes a bigger and better storyline than it did in November's telemovie. Jack Bauer is back. And speaking only as a TV critic who enjoys high-tension TV drama, I want him on that wall.

DAVIES: David Bianculli is TV critic for tvworthwatching.com and teaches television at Rowan University.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: Fresh Air's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our engineer is Bob Perdick. Dorothy Ferebee is our administrative assistant. Sue Spolan directed the show. Our digital-production project supervisor is Julian Herzfeld. Our theme music was composed by Joel Forrester and performed by the Microscopic Septet. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
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Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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