Roland Emmerich on Using a Creative License With 'Stonewall': 'There Is No Common Narrative'

by Valentina I. Valentini 7:30 AM PDT, September 25, 2015
Photo: Getty Images

Over the course of his 30 years in Hollywood, director Roland Emmerich has largely built a career on destroying the world, whether it be with aliens (Independence Day), mutant lizards (Godzilla), or extreme weather (2012, The Day After Tomorrow).

The 59-year-old openly gay director is not known for historical dramas, only delving into the genre twice before with The Patriot, a fictionalized account of the American Revolutionary War, and Anonymous, which used creative license to tell the story of British playwright Edward de Vere.

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In a landmark year for LGBT rights, Emmerich has adapted the story of the 1969 Stonewall Riots for the big screen. The retelling of the clash between police and members of the LGBT community, which sparked the gay rights movement, is told through the fictional eyes of Danny (played by Jeremy Irvine), who flees to New York City.

Stonewall, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, has come under fire for reportedly “whitewashing” the riots by focusing primarily on a white male character, despite there being a large number of transgender individuals and people of color prominently involved in the altercation. Emmerich has since responded on Facebook.

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"I understand that following the release of our trailer there have been initial concerns about how this character’s involvement is portrayed,” he wrote, “but when this film -- which is truly a labor of love for me -- finally comes to theaters, audiences will see that it deeply honors the real-life activists who were there -- including Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, and Ray Castro -- and all the brave people who sparked the civil rights movement which continues to this day. We are all the same in our struggle for acceptance."

Following a screening of the film, ETonline sat down with Emmerich to discuss the film’s controversy, what the story means to him, and how he handles the pressure of it all.

ETonline: You're primarily known for your action blockbusters backed by big studios. How hard was it to get this off the ground on your own?

Roland Emmerich: This film was just something which all the studios said was too niche, there was no central character that they felt they could cast someone famous in. But I was very adamant about doing the film. I went the independent route, which was super hard. I even had to put my own money in, I had to pre-sell, I had to do all kinds of things. I did my first four films in Germany independent, so I knew a little bit about what I was getting myself in. I had forgotten a little bit how hard it is. 

Did you have much input on the script?

Yes. I sat together with [Jon Robin Baitz], and while he wrote it, I had a lot of input. I have a lot of input in all my movies.

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You have previously stated that you weren't out to make a documentary -- hence the creative license used with this story -- but then what were you trying to make?

With every film I make I like to get a theme going. With Stonewall, it was the loss of family and then finding a new family in the oddest of places. It was, for me, unrequited love. When you're gay, you confront that problem a lot, that you love people who cannot love you back. They, maybe, like you as a friend, but they don't love you.

I also had this need to tell the story of homeless youth, who has no voice whatsoever. They have no association, no activists who help them. They have only a couple of gay and lesbian centers all over America and in the world who try to help them in a very practical way. When I read about the [Stonewall] riots, I read that there was a lot of homeless youth who did the toughest fighting. We knew this because of Bob Kohler, who [lived in the neighborhood and] befriended them. That was the approach that made this all work for me. Around the same time that I started to be interested in the story, I’d been working at fundraising for the Los Angeles LGBT Center, which has a big homeless youth program. It just made it all work for me. 

This is a very timely story right now, but was there something else about it that you grabbed on to?

We’re talking about gay liberation and all these things now, you know, and there [the homelessness] is -- especially in the countryside -- kids come out earlier and earlier, meaning they get rejected by their families younger and younger. It's pretty much statistically proven that in the first week, these kids get robbed, sell their body for money, and take drugs -- in one week. It's just atrocious, and I just wanted to show that it actually happened then, and it happens now. 

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So you had that story you wanted to tell, but you took it and told it around a historical event. Was there ever any thought to doing it differently?

We were very inspired by historical characters. For example, Sylvia Rivera was the model for Ray [played by Jonny Beauchamp], but Sylvia hadn’t really been frequenting Stonewall. She actually said to herself, in this book, Recorded Gay History, that the night of the riots was the first night she was ever at the Stonewall. Secondly, she didn't take part in the fighting. So I didn't want to blatantly lie about some of the characters. With Marsha P. Johnson, there is a lot of different information. Bob Kohler is a very well-known character, so that's why he's in the film. It was important for us to create a story that captures the spirit. We really talked to a lot of Stonewall veterans, and learned a lot from them, but also learned that there is no common narrative, in a way. It's like even in the two books that were written. It's a little bit like when you have a traffic accident -- you have five people standing all around, so you have five different angles because they stood in different spots. In a riot when you see somebody throwing something, then you say, "This was the first person who threw it,” well maybe somebody else down the street was the first.

Right, there's a lot of controversy around that one particular point in the film, isn't there?

Yes. What I believe, because I talked to Martin Boise about it. He said his friend Danny Gavin -- not our Danny -- lived further down the street around the corner where there were some loose bricks and he took them and threw them at the police, but it was not in front of the Stonewall. Through Bob Kohler, we knew there was this black transgender girl, who always had a brick in her hand, and when she wanted to have something, she just threw a brick in the window. The contrast of that to Danny was just like night and day. He was always the nice person, always the one who wanted to hold onto his dream of studying, and then at the end, he throws the brick.

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So, for the purpose of your story, it worked?


You’re currently working on the sequel to Independence Day. What are you most excited about for that?

Oh, God. I really love my cast. They work really hard. I have some of the old cast back and I have some new, exciting, young actors in the film. I just chose two actors who were on the Variety list of up-and-coming actors.

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This movie was seminal to many childhoods. Do you feel like there’s a lot of pressure to “get it right?”

Yes, there's a lot of pressure, but I think we've got a good script. It's much more complex this time. We’re also trying to do sort of a celebration-slash-reboot. It has a lot of elements that I think people will find entertaining and interesting. We have some really, really cool big images. 

How do you deal with that kind of pressure?

I just deal with it. A lot of people ask that. I have a lot of pressure, but I think I don't let pressure get to me that easily when it comes to films. In my private life, sometimes the pressure gets to me, but when it comes to filmmaking, it doesn't get to me. I don't know why that is. 

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Now that you’ve invested in a real-life drama like Stonewall, do you think you want to do more stories like that?

I think it's good for a director who does big movies to once in a while do a small movie, because it gets you down to what moviemaking is really about. Because these big films, it’s like running a company. It's a lot of talking to other people, and justifying, and all this kind of stuff. It's also very planned. It's a huge amount of people who work on one film. Doing something like Stonewall, the crew is much smaller. If you find the money somewhere, you can do pretty much what you want with it. You're also then responsible for what you want. You edit it; it's all only you and your friends, and the people who work with you. I'm reminded a lot of my first films when I did them, and you learn totally from it. Also, I think the big movies influenced how I did Stonewall. I chose to shoot it on a stage indoors, so I'd have total control over how it looks.

Stonewall hits theaters on Friday, Sept. 25.