Too few people today remember the Stonewall Riots, which started in a gay bar in Greenwich Village in the early morning hours of June 28, 1969, at the Stonewall Inn. Police harassment of lesbians and gays was routine during the 1960s, even in Manhattan, but on this particular occasion, the patrons of the Stonewall decided to fight back for their rights, serving as a flashpoint for the Gay and Lesbian liberation movement. Roland Emmerich has directed a stack of forgettable disaster and science fiction action movies, most of which made a fortune at the box office – films like Stargate (1994), Independence Day (1996), Godzilla (the 1998 version), The Day After Tomorrow (2004), 2012 (2009), and most recently White House Down (2013) – but with Stonewall Emmerich turns his attention, with a much smaller budget of just $20 million, to a project which he has a deep connection to as a gay man, and I only hope he does the subject justice.
As Emmerich told Jeff Labrecque during the shooting of the film in the June 4, 2014 issue of Entertainment Weekly, “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 . . .”
The film was shot in Montreal, partly for tax reasons, but also because, as Emmerich noted, “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, 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.”
This is a story that needs to be told, and as I said, I only hope that Emmerich does a good job with it; working with actors Jeremy Irvine, Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Ron Perlman, it would seem that he has a chance. Emmerich really is much more at home with big budget films, and as he told Labrecque, “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.”
Distribution plans in the US seem to be on hold, or at least proceeding very quietly; though it’s already been pre-sold in Germany. I wonder what kind of US distribution it will get – probably “selected cities,” and then art houses, and VOD, which would be a shame if the movie lives up to its potential. Clearly, for the US market, this would seem like an “indie,” and Emmerich’s usual audience probably won’t give the film a chance. But I personally hope that it’s successful, and that Emmerich can successfully make a humanly scaled production – even if he thinks of it as a “small project” – because this is a part of American cultural history that people need to know more about.