Gay director Roland Emmerich addresses ‘Stonewall’ film controversy

Roland Emmerich, known for action-packed blockbusters such as “Independence Day,” might not be the first name that comes to mind to direct a movie about the Stonewall riots, which marked the launch of the modern-day LGBT rights movement as we know it. However, that didn’t prevent the openly gay filmmaker from trying his hand at making such a film. Featuring a screenplay by gay playwright Jon Robin Baitz, Stonewall (Roadside Attractions), tells the story of corn-fed Midwestern boy Danny (Jeremy Irvine), arriving in New York in June of 1969. Befriended by trans hustler Ray (JonnyBeauchamp), aka Ramona, Danny undergoes a personal transformation to become not only an openly gay man, but one who takes part in the famous Stonewall uprising. I spoke with Roland Emmerich about “Stonewall” shortly before it opened in theaters.

Georgia Voice: Do you remember when you first became aware of the Stonewall riots?

Roland Emmerich: It was (when I was) in Germany. Everybody talked about the Stonewall Riots. I knew quite a lot about it because I was interested in history.

Is there is a target audience for “Stonewall”?

I made this movie, like all of my movies, for the biggest possible audience. I don’t think there’s a target audience. It’s just for people who are interested. When we tested the film, it was relatively balanced (in regards to) who liked the film and who didn’t like it.

Parts of “Stonewall” are set in small-town Indiana, where the lead character Danny is from. With the recent anti-gay kerfuffle in Indiana, was it intentional or coincidental that Danny was from that state?

That’s coincidental. The lead character is actually based on a friend of a friend.

Has that friend of a friend seen the movie?

Yes, he has seen the movie. And he likes it. Basically, what we did first was show it to one or two advisors that we had from the Stonewall veterans. When they liked it, approved of it, I was very happy. They said that what we show and how we showed it is very accurate.

Would you like to see “Stonewall” do for the advancement of LGBT rights awareness what “Selma” did to renew awareness of the advancements of civil rights?

Sure, absolutely. That’s why we did the movie. Because there are a lot of young people who have no idea that the Stonewall uprising/riots spawned all these gay marches.

I’m glad you mentioned young people, because a number of the cast members were born long after the Stonewall riots occurred. Did any of them have an awareness of the events of June 28, 1969, and their significance to contemporary LGBT culture?

Some of them had and some didn’t. Most of the time it’s shocking for me that LGBT kids don’t know about it. In general, we had a smart cast, although one or the other had no clue that this event took place.

Were there books or other resources that you recommended to them so that they could become more familiar with the subject?

Yes, we gave everybody a reading list. It’s one thing to read a book. We also found one or two or three Stonewall veterans and we asked them to help us. Some talked (to cast members) by phone, some in person, to tell them about the times, what music they listened to, how they felt. Just to get a little bit of a feel that you can’t get out of books.

Who were some of the veterans?

One was Martin Boyce. There were several.

The characters in the film are a blend of real (such as Marsha P. Johnson, Bob Kohler and Frank Kameny) and fictional people. Please say something about the choice to blend those stories.

That’s the peculiar thing about the Stonewall riots. A lot of people take credit, but it’s very murky. One thing is very clear—it was a lot of the homeless kids that did it. And they’re nameless. It’s all very vague. I didn’t want to make it a star-driven movie. I was set on telling the stories of these unsung heroes. Naturally, we realized that we had to have some historical characters. When you talk about Stonewall, you can’t not talk about Marsha P. Johnson or Bob Kohler or Frank Kameny or Ed Murphy. We even based some of our fictional characters on famous people such as Sylvia Rivera. It was cool, in a way, for us to mix historical facts with fictional ones.

Gay films have a history of controversy not just among straight people but also within the gay community itself. I’m thinking specifically of “The Boys In the Band” and “Cruising.” Were you prepared for the controversy that arose around “Stonewall”?

Not really [laughs]. I’ve always said that it will be interesting to see what happens. The amount of controversy, based on a trailer, when nobody had seen the film, was strange and funny to me. But what can you do? It would have been different if they reacted that way after having seen the movie [laughs], not based on the trailer.

Finally, Roland, have you started working on or thinking about your next film?

I’ve already shot my next film. It’s called “Independence Day: Resurgence.” It’s a sequel to “Independence Day.” It comes out next summer.