Entertainment & Arts

Roland Emmerich defends 'personal' Stonewall movie

Stonewall Image copyright TIFF
Image caption Stonewall stars Jeremy Irvine (right), who says accepting the role was a 'no-brainer' as soon as he read the script based on the real-life gay rights riots in New York in 1969

Known as cinema's "master of disaster", director Roland Emmerich has moved away from his apocalyptical blockbusters such as 2012 and Independence Day to a project he describes as "deeply personal" - a self-funded movie about the start of the gay rights movement.

Stonewall, a fictional account of rioting by the gay community in New York's Greenwich Village in 1969, premiered at this year's Toronto International Film Festival, with Emmerich saying he was "deeply relieved" that the whole film had been shown to audiences.

When the trailer for Stonewall was released in June, many in the LGBT community called it a "whitewash" of history, as Emmerich's main character, Danny, played by War Horse's Jeremy Irvine, is a blond blue-eyed boy from Indiana.

An online petition collected nearly 25,000 signatures calling for its boycott, stating that the riots were a "multicultural movement" with transgender woman Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, Storm DeLarverie, an African-American lesbian, and Sylvia Rivera, a Puerto-Rican drag queen acknowledged as some of its central protagonists.

"It's a good thing the film is out there now, but I never quite understood the fuss," Emmerich says.

"It was a trailer, and people always complain that trailers show everything. We didn't want to make that mistake.

"But it clearly was a big mistake for some people out there. The film is racially and sexually far more diverse than some people appear to think."

"It's just a trailer," Irvine adds, "but it's perhaps misleading because there's a second in there where my character throws a stone and it might look like he starts the Stonewall riots, but nothing could be further than the truth.

"Many of the real-life activists of the time are characters in the film. It's been taken out of context."

Image copyright AP
Image caption Roland Emmerich invested a lot of his own money into making the movie

The police raid at the Stonewall Inn on 28 June 1969, started three days of rioting from the gay community who frequented the bar, and led directly to the instigation of the gay Pride marches the following year.

German-born Emmerich, who is openly gay, believes its significance as part of the civil rights movement is often overlooked.

"Over the years I realised how little people knew about the riots, and this is actually the event that started everything - and it was a group of homeless kids at the centre of it.

"I work with the gay and lesbian centre in Los Angeles and I realised this little known fact - that around 40% of homeless youths in the United States are LGBT.

"The problem on the streets hasn't changed since 1969. We may have gay marriage now, but most of these homeless kids come from the small towns where growing up gay is still terribly difficult, and I wanted this story at the heart of the film.

"Above all, I wanted to make a movie that felt personal - the ones I normally do, not that I hate to do them, but they are not very personal. They have to appeal to nearly everyone and this is a different approach.

"It was the first time on a film set that I was able to tell a straight actor like Jeremy how he should feel as a gay man. I put a lot of emotion into making this movie."

The 59-year-old director also put a lot of his own personal finance into the film, which had a budget of around $15m (£9.8m) - a far cry from the $200m (£131m) that he commanded for 2012.

Emmerich says "not one studio in Hollywood wanted to make the movie, we had to do it totally independently and that was much harder work.

"I had forgotten how hard it was, it's much easier to have a studio behind you, and I guess I've had it easy because of my past success."

When Ang Lee's Oscar-winning Brokeback Mountain was made a decade ago, it was considered a potentially risky project for its stars, Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal.

If Emmerich says he still struggled with the studios, Irvine believes the situation has changed drastically for actors.

Image copyright TIFF
Image caption Eddie Redmayne stars in another forthcoming transgender film The Danish Girl

He says lesbian actress Ellen Page was right to say in a recent interview that she was "bored" of straight actors being called "brave" for taking on a homosexual role.

"Stonewall was a no brainer for me," says Irvine.

"Good scripts are few and far between, and when I read it, I jumped on a plane and went to Roland with a stack of notes and ideas.

"Am I worried about doing a 'straight' movie with an actress I am not attracted to? No. It's exactly the same thing. Jonathan Rhys Meyers is in this film as my love interest, and I could have done a lot worse."

Will 2015 be the year gay cinema becomes mainstream? As well as Stonewall, Julianne Moore and Ellen Page star as a lesbian couple in Freeheld.

Todd Haynes's Carol, starring Cate Blanchett, examines a forbidden lesbian relationship in the 1940s.

Eddie Redmayne plays a transgender woman in The Danish Girl - which is being released by Universal studios.

Emmerich says it's "the year of the transgender person - it started with Caitlyn Jenner on the cover of Vanity Fair magazine".

His next movie, Independence Day: Resurgence, the long-awaited sequel to the 1996 original, will feature gay characters, Emmerich adds.

"But we're not even close to the day when a gay person in a movie is not an issue," he concludes.

"The time when we don't discuss it is a long time in the future. We may have marriage now, but in terms of the gay civil rights movement, we have just got started, I really believe that."

Stonewall is yet to receive a UK release date.

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