Dustin Lance Black in Los Angeles.

The real life of screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, the man behind December’s Milk—directed by Gus Van Sant and starring Sean Penn as gay San Francisco city supervisor Harvey Milk—sounds like a Van Sant film. Raised Mormon by his mother and a succession of military stepfathers in Texas and California, Black figured out early on that he wasn’t quite like other boys. As a shy teen he found refuge in student theater, where a director he worked with told him about Milk. “Hearing about Harvey helped me survive,” says Black, who is 34 and openly gay. “You’re not exactly doing well when you’re the Mormon military brat with the big secret.”

When the UCLA film school grad, who goes by Lance, learned that a biopic of Milk had been stuck in development since the early Nineties, he decided he’d tell Milk’s story himself. With help from Cleve Jones, a member of Milk’s entourage, Black ran up his credit cards traveling to conduct interviews. “I had to convince people I was going to do this,” Black recalls. “They’d be like, ‘Who’s financing it?’ And I’m like, ‘I don’t know—Capital One?’”

Jones sent the script to Van Sant, who loved it, and Oscar-winning producers Dan Jinks and Bruce Cohen signed on. “Lance created this from scratch; he wasn’t just a writer for hire,” Van Sant says. Adds Jinks, “He knew the story so well—he was the bible. We all relied on him.”

Black is now developing another script for Van Sant based on Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and is preparing to direct his screenplay What’s Wrong With Virginia? As for that other screen version of the Harvey Milk story? Black professes not to know what became of it. But he doesn’t mind the competition. “Cleve was giddy, saying, ‘Oh, my God. People are fighting over making a movie about Harvey,’” Black says with a flash of sweet postadolescent awe. “That’s just fantastic. We’ve come a long way.”