Roland Emmerich on Using a Creative License With 'Stonewall': 'There Is No Common Narrative'
By Valentina I. Valentini
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
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.
"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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.