Some stories encompass great material, and they tend to be more than the medium of film can handle.
Bruce Cohen knows this all too well. He’s the Academy Award-winning executive producer of American Beauty. In addition, he has Oscar nominations for Milk and Silver Linings Playbook. His most recent work is When We Rise. The miniseries is an eight hour event which covers the LGBT movement in America.
Recently, Cohen sat down with Monkeys Fighting Robots to discuss When We Rise. The project is one that he and writer Dustin Lance Black had been talking about for a long time. Both men did work together on Milk, for which Black won a Best Original Screenplay Oscar. Things really got rolling when ABC expressed interest in the story.
“Lance Black had been working on the script for several years,” Cohen says. “He had wanted to do a comprehensive, dramatic re-telling of the LGBT movement. He heard that ABC was also interested.”
For Black, this would be a great opportunity to do it as a miniseries rather than a movie. As Cohen explains, “To do it on a broadcast network where it comes into everyone’s homes, he could reach a much broader audience with the story.”
Black would make a pitch to ABC, which the network loved. “They all agreed to do the piece,” recalls Cohen. “They brought it to me once it been given a green-light and they knew they were really going to do the show.”
With over three decades in Hollywood, Cohen is no stranger to television. With his former producing partner Dan Jinks, he served as executive producer on Traveler and Pushing Daisies for ABC. In 2011, he would produce the 83rd Academy Awards.
Of course, times have changed since those days. “There aren’t a lot of folks still at ABC, so it’s a different group of people,” he says. “Channing Dungey, who’s the network president, had been at ABC during Pushing Daisies, but I didn’t work with her directly.”
While it shares similar themes, When We Rise is not a sequel to Gus Van Sant’s Milk. Rather, the miniseries acts as a companion piece that stands on its own. This is something that Cohen and Black purposely chose to do on while breaking the story.
“That was something Lance put a lot of thought and time into- how to make it stand out from Milk in the period where it’s covering the same time?” Cohen says. “It is only one of the eight hours of When We Rise that deals with Harvey Milk in that period.”
As readers recall, Milk‘s focus is on Harvey’s entrance to municipal politics and election to office. His victory is a major one, because he’s the openly gay official in California’s history. Milk does fairly well as a city supervisor until his murder by Dan White in 1978. His death would set off the “White Night” riots.
“Lance did make a decision- which I love- to tell that story from a different perspective, he says. “None of the scenes are the same; it’s really much more from Cleve and the other main characters’ point of view.”
Due to this reason, Milk does not interact with Jones or any of the main cast. He is the subject of many conversations, and his death is a major turning point for Cleve. “You see Harvey in the background, you see him in archival footage, but he’s not a character in that hour, Cohen says. “Unlike Milk, of course, where he’s front and center.”
When We Rise depicts the White Night Riots as a major plot point. “The Harvey Milk story is from (Cleve’s) point of view, and in the film, we were with Harvey,” Cohen says. “But there was no way we not going to tell that story.”
“Harvey Milk is such a seminal character and icon within the LGBT movement through the decades,” Cohen says. “It was a great chance to show the actual Harvey in photos and doing some speeches here and there.”
Cohen cites Cleve Jones as an inspiration and a great storyteller. “The real Cleve is amazing,” he says. “He has been a large part of Lance and my shared histories in telling these stories.”
In fact, it was Jones who gave Black the inspiration for Milk years ago. “He asked to meet with Cleve on a related project but not to do a feature film of Milk,” Cohen recalls. “Once he and Cleve started talking, that’s where Lance got the idea to go off and write the script of Milk on his own.
Cohen’s collaboration with Jones did not stop there. “We worked closely with Cleve on the Prop 8 case and the American Foundation for Equal Rights, of which Lance and I are on the board,” Cohen says. “Cleve was one of our supporters, advocates and champions, so we worked very strongly and closely with him to pass marriage equality in California. This was sort of the third big collaboration we had done together.”
One of the important elements of When We Rise is in the casting. Finding the right actors would be a challenge. Cohen and his team found them in Guy Pearce, Mary Louise Parker, Rachel Griffiths and Kenneth Williams. “Truth be told, we were looking for actors who, once they read the script, really got why it was important and wanted to be part of it,” he says. “We certainly had that in our eight leads.”
All the actors were drawn to the story and what the characters stand for. “They were all in their own way incredibly inspired by the story and passionate to do the roles,” Cohen says. “For a producer, that’s gold. You can’t fake that. You want your actors so emotionally invested in the project, which they all were.”
Another big factor is casting LGBT figures and straight allies in supporting roles. “We wanted to get some of the openly gay LGBT icon actors and actresses to be part of this story,” Cohen explains. “Whoopi Goldberg- who’s not lesbian- has been a tremendous ally and supporter and activist. To get to go to people like that and say, “Will you be part of this?” is great.”
Convincing them to come on board would not be a problem. “In the cases of Whoopi, Rosie (O’Donnell) and Denis O’Hare, they didn’t even need to read the script,” Cohen says. “They knew of the real characters they were playing. The minute they hear “Will you come and be a part of this?,” they said, “Absolutely. I’m in.” So, that was the spirit with which so much of this was done.”
Viewers can even spot Cohen in a cameo role. Watch for the man with curly blond hair during a dinner party. “I had a little more to do, but I didn’t get left on the cutting floor entirely,” he jokes. “You wouldn’t know it from the cut, but I’m the husband of one of the city councilmen who plays a role in the story.”
“He brought me to this dinner with our kids. There’s actually an opening monologue not in the scene, which explains the process we went through to adopt our children. It’s a scene about how important families are to the LGBT community that set the stage for gay universal health care in San Francisco.”
Meanwhile, Cleve Jones becomes a foster parent to an infant. “He had actually worked with a couple different kids,” Cohen says. “We really wanted to tell that story, because back in the 90s, not a lot of LGBT people were thinking they could have families.”
This mindset would greatly change in later years. Cohen acknowledges LGBT families are now a common thing. “Once you realize you’re LGBT, you don’t have to give up your dream of being a parent if that’s something that’s very important to you,” he says. “It certainly was very important in my life.”
For Cohen, family remains an important presence. “My husband and I have an adopted daughter, which has been the most important thing I have done in life,” he explains. “That was one of the stories Lance felt was important to tell.”
Filming Prop 8’s defeat would be an emotional experience. “It was really exciting to get to recreate that, because we lived that,” Cohen says. “Of course, any time you’re changing mediums, if you’re going from real life to documentary, it can’t tell the actual story.”
In a miniseries, there is a need to compress the story for time constraints, which Cohen acknowledges. “The story took over three or four years, and your documentary is only 90 minutes long,” he explains. “When you go to a narrative, you have to take more license.”
During the production, the creative team did include a lot of real-life dialogue and events in the climatic finale. “The challenge is to tell the real story, but you have to tell it in a way that works for the time you have. For Lance, to fit it into the two-hour finale, it was wonderful because Ted Olson and David Boies had gotten to be heroes of ours.”
Cohen cites filming the Supreme Court battle as an experience both exciting and challenging. “To recreate the Supreme Court case and cast the justices was really fun to do,” he says. “Challenging, in the case of the Supreme Court, because that was a place where we did not want to take any liberty.”
For this reason, the producers pay close attention to detail during the production. “Every word out of the justices’ mouths are real words that particular justice actually did say in the trial. Every word out of the lawyers’ mouths are right from the transcripts.”
“We cut back and forth between the two cases, which might look like they’re happening at the same time,” Cohen says. “Of course, in real life, our case was one day and their case was the next day. So, it’s still accurate, but it’s taking liberty with how do we tell this very complex story that played out over years in the 2-hour finale.”
The path to the Supreme Court would prove to be a long journey. “There are organizations behind both sides of pretty much every Supreme Court case to get there,” Cohen says. “So we founded the American Foundation for Equal Rights to be the group that was the planning, financial force behind our side’s journey to the Supreme Court.”
Cohen himself serves on the AFER board. “Ultimately, it’s how you chart a course towards a victory getting what you wanting,” he says. Remembering those early days, he says the goal would be “to learn the ins and outs of how a Supreme Court case is put together.
Cohen describes AFER as “both a legal campaign and public opinion campaign.” “We had some amazing leaders- Chad Griffin, who helped plan the whole campaign, and Rob and Michelle Reiner.”
“To work with all of them and the incredible lawyers- David Boies and Ted Olsen- it is an incredibly educational and thrilling experience.”
Readers of legal history will recognize Boies and Olsen’s names, because both were players in the Bush vs Gore debate.
Cohen says he is very proud of When We Rise as a whole. “We had several years of our lives, but it meant a lot to tell a particular story,” he says. “We wanted to tell it as accurately, powerfully, emotionally and significantly as we could.”
And they did.