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Van Sant’s ‘Milk’ pours first

Sean Penn to star in Focus feature

“Milk” has beaten “The Mayor of Castro Street” to the greenlight.

Focus is moving forward with Gus Van Sant’s biopic about late gay-rights activist Harvey Milk, with Sean Penn in the title role. The film, co-financed by Groundswell Prods., will begin lensing in January.

Dueling Harvey Milk project “The Mayor of Castro Street,” meanwhile, is caught in strike limbo. According to producer Craig Zadan, Christopher McQuarrie’s script is ready, but it wasn’t turned in before the strike. Bryan Singer, who’s busy with “Valkyrie,” is attached to direct that project for Warner Independent.

“Everything’s all set; the problem is, because of the writers strike, we can’t do anything,” said Zadan, who’s been developing the project with producing partner Neil Meron for 15 years.

Their project, based on Randy Shilts’ tome, has attracted several helmers in the past, including Van Sant at one point. Zadan admitted the situation is vexing but added, “Everything’s frustrating right now. There are a million things” that can’t move forward until the strike is resolved.

“Milk” has been in play for a much shorter period. Shortly after Van Sant became attached to Dustin Lance Black’s script in April, Dan Jinks and Bruce Cohen boarded the project.

Black is “an old friend of mine, and when I read in Variety that he was doing the project with Gus Van Sant, I called him up to congratulate him,” Jinks said.

That’s when he discovered the project didn’t yet have a producer. Soon after reading the script, Jinks and Cohen took it on. Groundswell CEO Michael London subsequently joined the project and agreed to co-finance. He is also producing.

Pic will shoot entirely in San Francisco, where Milk became the first openly gay man elected to office, in 1977. The next year, he and Mayor George Moscone were shot to death by city supervisor Dan White.

Cohen said it was one of those projects they couldn’t say no to, adding that a film devoted to Milk’s story was long overdue.

“It was crying out to be a movie,” he said.

The 1984 docu “The Times of Harvey Milk” won an Oscar, but “Milk” will be the first feature to go before cameras.

The uncertain status of “The Mayor of Castro Street” also leaves a potential opening on Singer’s calendar, since a “Superman” project seems unlikely before the expiration of DGA and SAG contracts in June. The director boarded “Castro Street” two years ago.

Jinks and Zadan have their own strike headaches: The last scripted episode of their frosh ABC skein “Pushing Daisies” is now shooting.

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