The quality of Roland Emmerich's week is inversely proportional to the amount of time he's spent Googling his new movie, "Stonewall," which has not seen kind reception among critics. It's been called "seriously misjudged" and "terribly offensive," with many indictments claiming the film whitewashes the history of the 1969 gay-rights riots that are said to have launched the modern LGBT movement.
The framework of "Stonewall" belongs to Danny Winters, a Midwestern kid (the "straight-acting" Jeremy Irvine) who flees to New York to escape his homophobic parents and attend Columbia. Upon arriving in Greenwich Village, he encounters a crew of hustlers who take him under their wing while evading bigoted police and the corrupt manager of the titular watering hole, which seems like one of the few safe havens for gay crowds. Along the way, he finds a boyfriend (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) and carouses with a fleet of gender-fluid denizens escaping horrible home lives. That places a young, white, cisgender hunk at the center of "Stonewall" amid only a few women, people of color and transgender activists, à la Marsha P. Johnson, who drifts through the movie's periphery despite some saying she chunked the first brick into the Stonewall window and launched the uprising.
Earlier this week, The Huffington Post sat down with Emmerich, who is best known for disaster movies like "Independence Day" and "The Day After Tomorrow." The German director seemed to be taking the controversy in stride.
The owners of Stonewall must endorse this movie, since the press junket is taking place here at the bar.
I don’t know. [Laughs]
You made this on a soundstage in Montreal. Why not shoot in New York?
Well, we wanted to do it first in New York because we wanted authenticity for everything. We wanted to actually shoot it here in front of Stonewall, but it was just too difficult. It’s hard to get permits in New York because of the traffic. It’s not like the ’69 Village anymore, so it was pretty clear that we had to do something else. Then we tried somewhere else in the area of New York, finding streets which look similar, but we couldn’t find it. And then I actually had that idea, and it’s a little bit because I’m actually more used to doing stuff like that. I said, “Why don’t we build it, but build it indoors?” We can really light it exactly like we want, and what you can do these days with digital cameras is you can work on the exposure, which is much more friendly for lower-budget films because we don’t need so much light. And then there was a decision made to go to Montreal. I had shot like two movies already in Montreal, and I knew a facility which was perfect for it. I knew there were a couple of streets in Old Montreal that have cobblestone that you can use for New York in the late ‘60s. And on top of it, there’s a huge gay population in Montreal.
Having shot a lot of big-budget movies on soundstages, were you more comfortable with that setup?
I would not say comfortable. All of these decisions are solutions. You have problems and you try to find solutions for them. The good thing was it created safe haven for the extras and the crew and the actors. This was their square. It was indoors and it was relatively comfortable. There was a sort of family feel because it was in an existing bubble. It was a very friendly atmosphere and at one point I decided to only use gay extras because we tried it the other way and it didn’t mix really. You felt it.
So you started shooting and then decided to hire only gay extras?
Yes, and after one or two days, I said, "Let’s make this our rule." And this was at the very beginning because, like in the club, I want to only have gay people there because, first of all, they behave differently -- you feel it.
How do you manage that? Surely you can't post casting notices that ask for gay people only.
No, this was carefully done because you can’t ask people, “Are you gay or not?” What you do is you go to gay places and recruit there. They had casting people go every night to clubs and talk to people because, on top of it, they had to have certain hairstyles for the period. We would work with some wigs, but for the most part people needed to have certain hairstyles.
Was "Stonewall" less pressure than, say, "2012" or another disaster film?
Not necessarily, but it was more fun. The filmmaking process is very similar -- you’ll have a camera and actors and lights and a sound guy. Also, when I make my big films, I’m always relieved when I read my schedule for that day and it only includes dialogue. I’m always super happy. Everything has a certain schedule, and it was a tough schedule. We shot for 42 days, half of what I normally have and the script was very long. But it was fun and what I liked about it the most was how we grew together as a family, in a way. I’m very into that. On the weekends, I would always organize dinners and everybody was invited.
You've said that no studio wanted to finance "Stonewall," so how did the resources come together? Putting together this budget seems like a cinch compared to making movies for upwards of $100 million.
Yeah, well, that’s kind of super easy for me to get that kind of money for those kinds of films. For this one, it was super hard. I had to pre-sale a lot of territories and put my own money in and find friends who put their money in. But it all came together.
That feels like something a first-time filmmaker experiences.
Yeah. But I’m used to it a little bit because my very first four films I also put my own money in.
But those were your first four films. You’re one of the highest-grossing directors of all time. Is there a sense of, "Why can’t I just make the movie that I want to make even if it isn’t associated with my usual brand?"
Yeah, I was totally saying, “I make all these movies for them and they make all this money, and now they kind of don’t support me.” Totally.
I’m curious whether you saw Larry Kramer’s response to the ...
Right. What was it like to hear from him?
First of all, I admire this man. I think “The Normal Heart” is one of the best plays out there, and it was made into an HBO film. I was happy that somebody kind of said, “Guys, what is this here?” But on the other hand, I have a real deep sympathy for black transgender women because they have it the hardest. And I think it’s their year right now, or their two or three years. It was the lesbians for two or three years when Ellen went on the air as an openly lesbian woman. It’s just their time right now, and here we come with this trailer that shows the white kid throwing the brick. I always said, “Well, nobody knows who threw the brick anyways, so it’s kind of totally open.” And I felt it was appropriate to have it be Danny, but that’s just my artistic whatever.
Would the movie’s response have been different three years ago? There’s been a tipping point with gay rights over the past 12 years, and now folks aren't just going to say, "Well, at least there's something depicting LGBT people on the big screen."
Yeah, totally. But it’s also interesting for me because the transgender movement is mainly carried right now by Caitlyn Jenner. She’s white, she’s rich. She is furthest away from a black, transgender girl who’s kind of poor. Also, I have to say, I’m aware of how difficult it is for even a white transgender woman because I’ve been really good friends with Candis Cayne over the years and I’ve heard horror stories. But I also say go into a gay center and see how many homeless LGBT youths there are and how tough their life is. That, for me, was an eye-opener. When I was going to the gay and lesbian center in Los Angeles and just got a normal tour, they said, "Here is our homeless youth program. And you have to know the following: First of all, of all homeless youths, 40 percent are LGBT." I said, “40 percent!” And then they kind of tell you, “Well, it’s really bad because if somebody is homeless and gay, they are selling their body in the first week, they take drugs in the first week and they get robbed in the first week.” And then you kind of say, “Oh, my God,” because you have this comfortable life. Yes, we have gay marriage and all these things, but what about these kids? So as a society we must take more care of them. And then you learn from some sort of studio executive that, “Well, you have to understand, Roland, this is all these kids, but what we need is a central character where we can have a famous star and he can hopefully win an Oscar or something like that.”
Did studios actually tell you that, or were you just expecting them to?
No, I was told that. I also did a fundraiser for the homeless-youths program, and it was so interesting how hard it was to get people to buy tables.
What year was that?
That was last year.
Wow. Yet you seem even-keeled about the movie’s controversy. Do you feel like it’s just the name of the game after so many years in the business?
I’ve been doing this quite awhile. I understand people’s criticisms, but I also understand that when you make movies you always have people critize you and people who like it. I always have to test movies with audiences, so because I have to do it, I did it also with this film. I didn’t have to do it, but I did it, and I learned so much about what I do and who likes it and who embraces the movie. What I learned, actually, was it was very evenly liked by gay and straight people, which does not happen so often in these kinds of films. And that was more something that I care about. You feel really nervous and vulnerable in that moment, and then when it’s done and you know that you have a movie that everybody likes, then if someone criticizes me, it’s like, it’s one person’s opinion -- it’s not the majority.
"Stonewall" is now in theaters. This interview has been edited and condensed.
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