His retelling of the events that led to the historic Christopher Street riots and what many people consider the birth of the modern queer rights movement will open in select theaters September 25.
Queerty sat down with the out director, best-known for his end-of-civilization blockbusters, at the real-life Stonewall Inn in the heart of New York City’s West Village and talked about his partial self-financing of the movie, his “straight-acting” lead character and the intense criticism of the film based off of the aforementioned trailer.
Queerty: Why did you decide to tell the story through the lens of a fictional character?
Roland Emmerich: I think maybe because I needed a character I could somewhat identify with. Secondly, around the time that I decided to do Stonewall I started getting involved with the Gay & Lesbian Center and their homeless youth program, and I started realizing how hard it is for kids in the countryside to come out. They get thrown out. I met a guy who was a young kid from Kansas, and I asked him what it was like growing up in Kansas, and he told me a story of how his father was a football coach in high school and he had a secret affair with the quarterback. I asked him ‘what would’ve happened if he’d found out?’ and the kid said, ‘well it would’ve been really bad.’ That’s what made it click for me and helped me to understand. You know, when I [figured out that] I was gay, I was terrified, absolutely terrified. I also grew up in the countryside and have the nicest parents, it was all great, but I was still a lonely and terrified kid. That’s what made it work for me. It’s fictional. It’s not this kid from Kansas, it’s not me, but it’s a character that I can sympathize with.
Do you think that this is an important movie for LGBT youth to see?
If they have the money. [Laughs] Well, you know we will probably make a screening for them anyway in Los Angeles, but I would love to see…I think for them it’s not as important as it is for some parents to see it. It’s always like important that a lot of straight people see it too, because it is because of them that we still have more problems being accepted.
In one of the press notes you described the character of Danny as “straight-acting,” so I wanted to clarify that that’s true…
Well, Danny is a catalyst character, so you want to have him as sympathetic and in the norm as possible. Because everybody who sees the film can identify with a character like that. Maybe some people less, but the majority can identify. You send the character on a rollercoaster with people and other characters who are exactly the opposite of him. It’s also about acceptance and what you accept. In the beginning there’s this crazy character Queen Tooey who at the beginning he doesn’t accept, and then at the end he has a beer with this person. And, it’s acceptance. [Danny] had to overcome his own prejudices.
This movie has been a target of a lot of criticism sight-unseen. What would you say to those critics?
That they should go see the movie. I mean, they have like three transgender characters in the film. One of them [Ray/Ramona, played by Jonny Beauchamp] is pretty much, together with Danny, the lead. I was pretty shocked by the whole thing. I was saying, “You know this was a trailer that they reacted to.” I mean, do you want to see everything that a movie has to offer in the trailer? No, you want to get the people interested, but not give everything away.
Why did the reaction shock you?
Just because I know what movie I made. I think everybody that was involved in making the film was shocked. There was just a screening in Toronto and a lot of the people who worked on the film came down from Montreal, and the first thing they said was, “Well what’s going on?’ I mean, I don’t know. There is the perception that because of my other films that this is a “Hollywood” movie, but it’s a totally independent movie. It’s as little “Hollywood” as you can get.
Speaking of the independent nature of the movie, $17 million is a hefty price tag for such an explicitly LGBT-themed movie.
Well, don’t forget that we shot this movie in Canada where you get a tax rebate of $3-4 million, so in cash it was probably $12-13 million.
And you invested some of your own money into this, correct?
One of the first rules of producing is never to use your own money.
Oh, yes, absolutely! [Laughs] They tell you “Don’t do it, don’t do it!” Talk to my business manager, he thinks I’m an idiot!
So why did you do it?
Why not? I always say well even if I lose it, why not? I mean, I make a lot of money with my other films, and I’m just thinking this is a way to give back.
The trailer was intensely criticized, and there have been some pretty harsh reviews so far. In retrospect, is there anything that you would do differently?
No, not really. I think it’s my personal way of how I choose to tell the story. I know because of testing that the movie is liked by the audience. We tested it thoroughly. It’s also a little bit because I do all these other movies [that] I get more harshly criticized than other directors. If there was another name on this or another director, this would not happen. So, I see it as like…whenever I screen it for a big audience, they like it. And that’s my job.
As an openly gay director do you feel the responsibility to tell more LGBT stories in the future?
Are there any you have in mind?
Not right now, but they will come to me. Right now, I’m finishing the other film I just shot.
Since you’re primarily known as a big action movie director, will we be seeing any LGBT characters in your future films?
There is a gay couple in the next Independence Day.
There is a gay couple in the next Independence Day?
What can you tell us about them?
Nothing! [Laughs] It’s actually one of the big surprises of the film.
Rob Smith is a multimedia journalist and author of Closets, Combat and Coming Out: Coming of Age as a Gay Man in the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ Army. He lives in New York City.
Watch the film’s trailer below.