Director Roland Emmerich on telling the story of Stonewall
For decades, director Roland Emmerich established his name for the amount of big-scale destruction he was able to perpetrate on screen with movies like Independence Day, The Day after Tomorrow and 2012.
A few years ago, Emmerich took a brief break from all that destruction to direct a smaller period film about Shakespeare called Anonymous, and he’s once again getting away from his effects-driven comfort zone with Stonewall, a drama named after the famous bar on Christopher Street in which a famous 1969 protest took place that helped lead the first efforts towards gay rights. Before that point, homosexual men weren’t allowed to be employed or even served drinks which made life even more difficult for those who were already treated like outcasts by the public at large.
Set in 1969, Stonewall stars Jeremy Irvine (War Horse) as Danny Winters, a young man from a small farming town, ostracized by his family and the community after being outed as gay. He leaves town to go New York City and ends up living among the denizens of the West Village, many of whom are street hustlers turning tricks to survive. One of them is Ray (Johnny Beauchamp), a flamboyant transvestite who takes Danny under his wing and starts to develop feelings for the good-looking smalltown boy. Meanwhile, the police are constantly raiding the Stonewall Inn and harassing the gay and trans community which leads to a powder keg that’s set to explode.
ComingSoon.net sat down with Emmerich at the Toronto International Film Festival where Stonewall was having its world premiere. During the interview, we also talked with him briefly about the decision to return to Independence Day with next year’s sequel Independence Day Resurgence, which he says was an answer to all the Marvel movies that were influenced by it.
ComingSoon.net: How’s Toronto treating you?
Roland Emmerich: Very good. Very good.
CS: Did you shoot the movie here?
Emmerich: No, I shot it in Montreal. We wanted to and we explored Toronto and Montreal and decided for Montreal. Do you know why? Because they have an old town there with cobblestones and everything. We could not build everything, so we needed some real locations and that worked well.
CS: You jumped ahead to one of my later questions, because it definitely seemed like you built that section of Christopher Street in the West Village.
Emmerich: Yeah, we built that.
CS: That’s amazing. One of my favorite bars is actually right next to the Stonewall, and it was fun trying to figure out when you used the real thing, but you actually built it quite faithfully.
Emmerich: Well, yeah, very faithfully and we had some Stonewall patrons helping us a lot. What was where? How did The Music Box look? But we also took some dramatic license.
CS: Also you weren’t living in New York City during the ‘60s or ‘70s, I presume.
Emmerich: I lived in Sindelfingen, Germany.
CS: A movie like this might not ever get made if not for someone like you getting involved, someone who has a name and gets money together and stuff. So why now? Why did this interest you now?
Emmerich: Well, that will be a longer answer, but it’s also a little bit complex. It’s not like all of a sudden one morning, waking up and saying, “Oh, I want to do ‘Stonewall.’” Whenever somebody asks me, “When you do a personal film?” I said, “Look, I don’t think the world needs a personal film from me.” Also, it has to then be gay, and I don’t think the world needs a gay film from me. But then, two friends of mine, one of them was also involved in “Anonymous,” producer friends, one gay, one straight, they said, “So have you ever thought about doing a movie about Stonewall?” I said, “I know about Stonewall and it would be interesting to do and somebody should make this film.” Then, I kind of got involved with the Gay and Lesbian Center in Los Angeles and I decided to do a fundraiser for the homeless youth program, because I was so appalled that kids live on the street and realized through research that the problem is still the same. Kids in the countryside come to the big city and then in one week, they sell their bodies for money, they take drugs and get robbed. I mean, it’s just pretty much in the first week, statistically. I said, “Oh my God, there is like a correlation from historical events to today. Gosh, these street kids, everybody said they fought the hardest because they had nothing to lose,” and especially the more feminine femme, they called them then flame queens or scare queens, whatever they called them. Then, we found one of these people, like in Martin Boyce, who we met, so there was always slowly becoming an idea to make a film. Then it was the question of how do we tell the story? Then I said to Robbie (writer Jon Robin Baitz), which I hired as a writer in a very early stage, I said, “Look, Robbie, it has to be somebody like me coming from the countryside, having been deep in the closet and this kid. Then I think he has to be found out and thrown out, and then he has to find a family at the most unlikely place in these other kids.” That was the birth of “Stonewall” as it is now.
CS: So there hadn’t been a screenplay in development before you got involved?
Emmerich: No, no, I hired him. I saw his play, I first read and then saw his play, “Other Desert Cities,” which is fantastic. I said, “This is my writer.” Then I learned that he is gay, too, and that sealed it. Then, when we met the first time, he asked me–because he always wants to know everything about you–he says, “Who’s your favorite American writer?” I said, “Salinger. Is this bad?” “Mine too!”
CS: You have a lot of characters in this, and I was curious about the casting. There are a couple better-known actors like Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Ron Perlman, and Jeremy has done a few movies, but there are other faces that aren’t as well known.
Emmerich: I think this was just like a normal casting process, because we said to ourselves, “We have to find real, authentic people.” So for example, for Ray, I insisted he has to be Puerto Rican. At the beginning, I also insisted that Marsha Johnson should be a transgender, but they couldn’t find a transgendered… We read a lot of them, but they felt not really real because of Marsha P. Johnson, there is this documentary, where she speaks directly to the camera. They did only one interview with her, and it was before her death. Then, she was kind of murdered. Then when you look at that person, there was something rough about it, so every actor who was reading for the part had to watch this because I wanted to kind of really be very close to how she really was, and Otoja, who is straight but a theater actor, hit it the best.
CS: It’s an interesting mix of truth in the real places and real people and fictional characters and a story within that.
Emmerich: It was born out of the fact that I didn’t find any one character, which I really thought I could portray in a movie, you know? I had, for a moment, the idea of taking Sylvia Rivera, but then I learned that she was not frequenting the Stonewall at all, and was only there that one night it happened. Also, on top of it, she said she was not really involved in the fighting, so I said, “Oh, that’s not good.” So you don’t want to blatantly put lies out there, but on the other hand, you’re not doing a documentary, either, so it’s like this fine line. I want to capture just the spirit of this time.
CS: This is one of those cases where there are people who were there who are still alive, so did you end up doing a lot of research?
Emmerich: Yeah, well, I met them. There’s the Stonewall Veteran’s Association, run by a guy called Willamson, and we talked to him a lot. He put us together with Martin Boyce, who was probably like Ray, one of the most prominent… he was a scare queen and a flame queen. He even tells you that. It was very important that Johnny (Beauchamp) could talk to him, because he knew a little bit how it felt to be on the streets. It was just kind of important, especially for actors to kind of hear the real first person account. Then, for me, naturally, with all the straight actors playing gay characters, I could give them exactly the answer they needed, how would you feel? I said, “I can tell you exactly what you feel. You’re scared sh*tless because you kind of don’t want to be found out. You’re thinking if you get found out, you will die. That’s how it feels.”
CS: The diversity of the characters in the movie is interesting, not just ethnically, also the different ranges of gay characters. We see scare queens as you called them to the guys who are obviously closeted.
Emmerich: To a 300-pound big white man in a red dress.
CS: That’s the scariest thing I’ve ever seen in my life. I was watching it with a gay colleague and I whispered to him, “That must be the worst nightmare for any gay man to face, someone like that.”
Emmerich: But this was a collection of stories, like also life experience. I mean, I’m turning 60 this year, and I have seen a lot of things in this world, and you kind of try to put this all somewhat in the film. I actually said this to Robbie in the very beginning. He said, “How do you envision the film?” I said, “We have to show all forms of homosexuality.” That was very important. He said, “How specific?” I said, “Not like, force it, but try to show all kinds of forms.” That’s the really good thing about Robbie, because as a playwright, he’s not afraid to do certain things.
CS: Even as a straight person, it really makes you think as you’re watching Danny’s story unfold, because it makes you see how different people discover they’re gay, whether it’s an emotional feeling or a physical one. It’s not so much that Danny is attracted to his childhood friend Joe as much as he has an emotional connection to him.
Emmerich: It’s also kind of interesting. That’s something which I absolutely wanted to have in the story. I had talked to one of my best friends–who’s also the boyfriend of one of my best friends – and he grew up in Kansas in a very, very small town. I actually turned to him and said, “Tell me exactly how it felt to grow up a small town.” He told me a couple of things which are in the movie. It’s so interesting, because I said, “Oh my god. I grew up in Germany in a totally different time, and it felt exactly the same. Nothing has changed.” Because when you realize all of a sudden you’re homosexual, it’s like you feel like the loneliest person on earth, because most of the time, you don’t know, “Oh, there’s another homosexual right there.” Now it’s different, but in a small town in America, it’s not different at all. It’s still like in the ‘60s, you know what I mean? You don’t want to be called “fag” by your buddies, who you’re playing football together. It’s also like kind of this moment where you’re a gay person, the first time coming to a gay club and you see men dancing with each other. That’s like, “Whoa.” That blows your mind.
CS: It’s interesting that you followed this up by returning to “Independence Day,” going from this smaller personal movie to a sequel to one of your biggest movies, which I feel you could have done years ago if you wanted to.
Emmerich: Yeah, but I also needed the time and I still say this today that I don’t like sequels. I only did the “Independence Day” sequel because I felt there was a major advancement in technology, and I saw that elements of “Independence Day” surfaced a lot in Marvel movies. There’s always an alien invasion and a lot of stuff goes broke. So we were talking just with friends of mine. One of my best friends is also my visual effects supervisor. I talked to Volker and I said, “Volker, wouldn’t this be amazing if we could do another ‘Independence Day?’ I mean, the stuff you can do these days.” That started actually when I did “2012” with him and then also, I saw all of a sudden what you can do with the blue screen and how high-quality blue screen has become and in creature effects and to blow up a building. You don’t have to build a model anymore – you build a digital model. All this kind of stuff just kind of got me thinking about, “Sh*t, I should do maybe an ‘Independence Day,’” and I went to Fox and they were like super excited because I constantly said “no” to them for like 20 years. (laughs)
CS: Are you still thinking about doing it as two movies?
Emmerich: No, that was a little bit our original idea when we had Will Smith, but then, Will Smith opted out. Maybe it was bad timing, because we gave him the script when he was just starting doing in Puerto Rico “After Earth.” He wanted to create his own science fiction franchise, also with a father-son story. Then he called us up and said, “Sorry, guys. I think I cannot do this. Also, I don’t want to do too many sequels and stuff like that,” then that was it. He had also just made a very bad experience with the third “Men in Black.”
CS: Do you feel you want to do more personal movies after you finish “Independence Day?” Are you still interested in that?
Emmerich: No, it’s not that at all. It’s just like yes, I want to do more movies like that and more personal movies. I want to make another movie, which costs only $5 million or so, because I just want to challenge myself, but I want to keep making big movies because I have fun doing them.
CS: If it’s not fun, then why do it?
Emmerich: It’s kind of the most fun you can actually have, when you make those big movies. The other thing I have to say, “Stonewall,” because I didn’t have to come up with so much visual effects, which always stresses me out. It was a little bit like going on vacation. It was stressful, but it was like a vacation for me.
CS: Also you know that when you see a great scene between the actors, you know it’s done.
Emmerich: You got it. It’s done.
Stonewall opens in select cities on Friday, September 25.
(Photo Credit: API/FameFlynet Pictures)