My Own Private Idaho
Dustin Lance Black: 6 Movies That Were Formative to Me
Dustin Lance Black
Dustin Lance Black
Writer/Director

Dustin Lance Black's favorite films are constantly changing, depending on when you ask him or based on what he's working on at that moment. But right now, his favorite movie is an easy choice: Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked.

"The film that is going to be my favorite film of every moment is the film my son is presently obsessed with, because that's going to buy me an hour and a half of writing time," he explains. Currently, it's the Chipmunks' 2011 animated comedy. "Which I could recite from memory I've watched it so many times. It's all he wants to watch. So, from the bottom of my heart, I have to thank those filmmakers for Alvin, Simon and Theodore, because it buys me an hour and a half every now and then when I most need it."

Black is the writer of 2008's Milk, which he also produced, and 2011's J. Edgar, as well as the filmmaker behind such series as When We Rise and FX's Under the Banner of Heaven. In 2009, he won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for Milk, a biopic about Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California.

MORE: Dustin Lance Black on the Importance of Visibility and the Fight to Come (Exclusive)

Below, Black shares with A.frame the six movies that have been most formative to him as a filmmaker, and as a person.

1
E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial
1982
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Directed by: Steven Spielberg | Written by: Melissa Mathison

When I was eight years old, my mom saved up and took me to see the movie that was opening that weekend, which was E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. Listen, I had been abandoned by my father, who vanished, never to be heard from, just two years earlier, and was very much the man of the house at eight years old, being raised by a single mom [who was] paralyzed and broke. And I sit and watch this movie about a single mom raising these kids, and this child who finds love — a familial love — in this other creature. And I wanted that healing love so badly. I needed that so badly.

Then, of course, the little motherf***** takes off at the end! And it ripped me apart. I was very shy, so I was sitting in the theater weeping as quietly as I could, and I didn't want to get up and leave, because then everyone would see and I'd be very embarrassed. It was only thanks to an aunt, who was there with us, who ran out to a crafts store across from the theater and found this little wooden heart — knowing her, she probably just shoplifted it — and she came and put it in my hand and said, "There's E.T.'s heart, now he's yours."

The very first movie I ever went to, that I remember, moved me deeply. So, if that's where my relationship with storytelling began, it was a high bar in terms of what I believed a movie needed to do. That's E.T., which I must admit I still go back and watch more than occasionally. And I still find it really beautiful. It's older now, but it's still really fricking good.

2
The 400 Blows
1959
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Directed by: François Truffaut | Written by: François Truffaut and Marcel Moussy

I was probably 12 or 13, and my mom had started letting me use her video rental card. It blows my mind now to think that there was a video rental store in the suburb of San Antonio that had this really well-curated foreign film section, but at 12 or 13, I thought it was the pornography section. I couldn't understand anything on the boxes! They were all fairly risqué compared to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which, that was the kind of movie of the day. It was Jaws sequels and fighting turtles. And here was a film that had a title I couldn't deny as a closeted queer kid: 400 Blows. I thought, 'Well, this is going to be a fabulous afternoon.'

So, I took that home, I smuggled my TV and the VCR into my bedroom and I popped it in, hit play, and of course, instead of watching my first porno, I saw François Truffaut's masterpiece. My mother was trying her very best, but my home was a mess, and so was Antoine Doinel's life in the movie. And again, I found myself deeply moved. By the end, by that famous final shot of him on the beach just staring out, I was in that same place at that time, and I felt so much less alone. In being able to share my heartbreak and confusion and frustration and terror, I was less alone in the world. So, I was less terrified. It was so remarkable because, unlike E.T., this was a film about regular people — granted they spoke a different language and they dressed better than my family. But I was like, 'Cinema can do that too! It can lift up the lives of ordinary people and help us feel less alone in the world and understand ourselves.'

3
A Woman Under the Influence
1974
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Written and Directed by: John Cassavetes

A big turning point for me would probably be when I discovered Cassavetes. I'm into my late teens and I was becoming interested in cinema, and how do you make something cinematic, and how do you shoot something in a way that feels real? So, I remember the first time I saw Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence, and I thought, 'This is alive in a whole different way!' And it's even more complex in a way and it's more modern in a way. It came out in '74, so I was watching it 15 years later. But, in the '80s, we weren't getting those kinds of films. So, I became this young man who was devouring the '70s, and Cassavetes was up there with most of his films. But, because A Woman Under the Influence was the first one I saw, it's formative for me.

4
Juliet of the Spirits
1965
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Directed by: Federico Fellini | Written by: Federico Fellini, Tullio Pinelli, Ennio Flaiano and Brunello Rondi

Juliet Of The Spirits was a seed that was planted that led to the whole canon of Federico Fellini's work, that was so expansive. If you've never taken acid, you can use that film as a fine substitute. I just thought, 'Holy smokes! This is something very different.' And I get it. And I'm moved. But I'm not walking in the day-to-day of human existence; I'm walking in this other world, which in some ways feels more emotionally honest. That felt very expansive, and that was just a tip of the iceberg.

I was in film school at UCLA and I was so lucky, they had a program that came through called Tutto Fellini, where they showed every one of his films. Me and my film school friends sat and watched every one of Fellini's films from beginning to end. There's many more Fellini films that I would probably call my favorites, because he's very inspiring to me. He dared to put his dreams on the screen and understand that they had meaning and worth.

5
All the President's Men
1976
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Directed by: Alan J. Pakula | Written by: William Goldman

After film school, I watched a film that started to speak to my trajectory, because it was political and it was speaking to the moment. And it's similar in terms of a style, of trying to feel very real, which is something I'm often drawn to. It's yearning for an authenticity that I do believe makes it more powerful, because it feels like you're in it. That film not only achieved that in my mind, but it addressed a political problem very near the time it had happened in the relative timeline of American history.

To be able to talk politics — and politics that's not distant history — in a way that's also entertaining and compelling, to be able to take on some of the elements of genre — like, the true crime thriller — in order to keep you hooked in, that, to me, felt a very wise trick. I learned a lot watching that movie. And I also just really enjoyed it because, at that point, I was getting into queer politics. This was in the early to mid '90s, when my friends were dying of AIDS and what are you going to do? And here was a film that said you could be political about something that's going on right now. And, if you do it right, it can be entertaining enough that people will come to the theater. You can probably draw a line from that to Milk and J. Edgar.

6
My Own Private Idaho
1991
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Written and Directed by: Gus Van Sant

The first time I watched My Own Private Idaho and saw someone like me depicted on-screen, it blew my mind. It didn't hurt that it was River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves, who were so cute. But I felt less alone in the world when I watched My Own Private Idaho. So, I kept my eye on this filmmaker named Gus Van Sant, because he was making things I wanted to watch. And, in Oprah Winfrey fashion, I manifested that and worked really hard to get Gus to do Milk — and it was everything I hoped it would be. If I'm being honest, it's one of the few times in Hollywood I could say that working with Gus Van Sant on Milk was everything I hoped it would be.

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