June 28 will mark the 45th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, in which New York City police raided a Greenwich Village gay dive bar called the Stonewall Inn. It wasn’t unusual for cops to harass and even arrest customers at gay clubs in 1969 — but this time, the Stonewall’s regulars fought back. The confrontation that ensued helped spark the gay civil rights movement.
It’s currently Day 5 on the Montreal set of Stonewall, a $20 million indie about the historic riot that stars Jeremy Irvine (War Horse), Jonathan Rhys Meyers (Match Point), and Ron Perlman (Drive). But what’s most fascinating about the project may be its director: Roland Emmerich, the gay, German-born filmmaker best known for blockbuster science-fiction and disaster epics like Independence Day, 1998’s Godzilla, and The Day After Tomorrow.
The director, who’s destroyed the White House on multiple occasionss (in his films, anyway), checked in from the set to explain his personal passion for Stonewall, and why audiences shouldn’t be too surprised by what seems like a change of pace.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: In the past, you’ve expressed a preference to tell “fantastic stories,” and most people know you from your sci-fi and disaster films. But Stonewall is real and grounded in history. Why Stonewall, and why now?
ROLAND EMMERICH: I was always naturally interested in the subject matter. Then, maybe two or three years ago, a couple of friends and I were kind of talking about marriage equality, and one of them said to me, “You know, Roland, you should make a gay movie.” And I’m saying, “Well, nobody wants to see a gay movie from me.” And then I kind of said, “Well, if it’s an important subject matter, then maybe they will.” At the same time, I was involved with the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center, and they told me that 40 percent of all homeless youth are gay, which is a disproportionate amount. That was like the bridge to today. It’s still going on. [Gay] kids get thrown out of their homes and become homeless, and [my movie] is like a story of one of these kids who gets involved in the whole Stonewall riots, because the riots were actually kind of done by the kids. A lot of them were homeless. They were hustlers, kids who had nothing to lose.
Did you sense surprise from your peers when you announced this as your follow-up to White House Down?
It wasn’t like, “Oooh, why are you doing this kind of thing?” I also did a Shakespeare movie [in 2011], which also everybody was surprised [about]. I think movies are movies, and every film, in a way, is the same for a director, because you’re dealing with all the same problems and challenges: find the right people, shooting in a period, which is stuff that I’ve done before in The Patriot. So it’s not so different for me. The only thing that’s different is the subject matter. It’s very close to me. I can really tell the actors exactly how you feel in this situation, because I went through it. That’s actually quite helpful sometimes, because some of the actors are not gay. So I can tell them a little bit about what they feel and how they feel, and it helps.
You obviously have a proven track record with studios. Stonewall is an independent production, but did you initially try and get it made with a studio?
I didn’t want to take it to a studio. It’s not a studio film. It’s a mainstream film, but it’s not a studio film. Studios these days, they don’t do movies like that any more. In a different time they did, like Philadelphia and stuff like that.
You have Jeremy Irvine playing a younger gay man at the Stonewall and Jonathan Rhys Meyers as an older, slightly savvier regular. Are their characters based on real people or fictionalized?
Both characters are fictionalized. We do have some historic characters [in the movie], but the interesting thing about Stonewall is that actually the people we know about that lived during that riot, most of them are dead because they died in the AIDS crisis. Most of these kids, nobody knows about them much. We only know from witnesses, guys who fought in, in some respect, what is the day of revolution.
Was it an easy film to cast?
Even when I’m doing my big movies, I always actually try to work with the best actors. I think I have a real knack for actors and casting. There are so many factors for a director. Jeremy still looks very young. He still is believable as a 17 year old or 18 year old. And I always liked Jonathan Rhys Meyers. He’s not used enough in movies, though he’s done a lot of TV. For me, they were the best for these two parts. But in the main story, we also have two or three actors in it who have never, ever acted in a film. I’m totally excited because we did this enormous, long casting period, and you would not believe how hard that is. [We found] one in New York. One in Montreal. Another in Vancouver. A kid from Los Angeles. It’s hard to find these kids, but it’s been quite fun to discover new actors. You’ll be amazed by the quality of these actors.
Can we expect at least some CG effects?
Nothing in New York looks like the ’60s anymore, so we actually ended up with quite a big undertaking. We actually built part of Christopher Street and of the side of the Stonewall, just to be correct and how it really looked. Secondly, we do a lot of blue-screen. The movie ends with the first gay march, the gay liberation march in 1970, and that’s not possible anymore. So we do the whole scene with special effects, like blue-screen. We shot [that] in modern New York and turn it into 1969.
Is Stonewall strictly an art-house movie, or are you hoping it plays in malls, too?
Well, it has a kind of quiet main-street approach, you know. I think it’s a very good story, a very good script. It’s more into the indie world, but I’m hoping it can break out like Brokeback Mountain. We’ll see. That’s the cool thing about it. I don’t have to worry as much about how many people see it or not. There’s not so much pressure when you make a movie like this. I think the movie will make its money back through presales.
Stonewall might be a little different for you, but it’s not like you’ve turned your back on your bread and butter. You recently announced a Stargate reboot, and the Independence Day sequels could be next. How does it all fit into your brain?
For a director, it’s great when you have many, many projects. Because sometimes it’s dangerous with one movie; you get tunnel vision. It’s really cool to go from small project to big project. I’m going to do this in the future a lot. There’s nothing worse than sitting around for two or three years, and sometimes that naturally happens between these big movies, because they’re very expensive and very hard. You’ve got to get a green light. And then you just fill up [your time] with stuff that you want to make, and that’s cool.