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Constructing 'Stonewall'

It took British director Nigel Finch and the BBC to see the dramatic potential behind New York's gay riots of 1969.

July 21, 1996|Joseph Hanania | Joseph Hanania is a freelance writer based in Santa Monica

Smack amid the national debate over gay marriage, along comes "Stonewall," a film that depicts, through composite characters and events, the riots of June and July 1969 that marked the birth of the gay rights movement.

Based on historian Martin Duberman's nonfiction book of the same name, "Stonewall," which opens Friday at 25 theaters nationwide, follows North Carolina hayseed Matty Dean (Frederick Weller) from the time he gets off a bus in New York.

Searching for freedom, he instead finds only more oppression, and links up with a small group of West Village activists who ultimately helped lead the riots.

Before that, Dean's group helped plan what may be the first-ever gay rights protest in the United States--a 1965 demonstration by about a dozen gays at Philadelphia's Independence Hall.

As reenacted in the film, the Philadelphia demonstrators seem stiff, almost comical, picketing in ties and jackets to minimize their differences with mainstream Americans. Yet, Duberman says, "These people were extraordinarily brave. They were literally taking their lives in their hands. . . . Gays were killed just for being gay."

Similarly, as depicted in the film's dance scene, "You could not face your partner; you had to face away. . . . You could not talk. And there'd be an employee of the bar or hotel sitting on top of a ladder with a flashlight. There had to be a light between two men."

For all the Americana involved, it took British director Nigel Finch to see the dramatic potential behind the riots and get BBC funding. Nor does "Stonewall" producer Christine Vachon, 34, take lightly to questions about the British bankrolling a film about what is, after all, an American revolution.

"Finch would be astounded that anyone would think of this as a peculiarly American event. Stonewall was a gay event that crossed international lines," she says. "Besides, the American studios had 25 years to do something with this, and they didn't."

Initially coming on as producer of the film, which cost just over $1 million, Vachon assumed artistic control when Finch, 45, died of AIDS soon after completion of principal photography.

Co-star Guillermo Diaz says that in a crucial scene toward the end of the shoot, Finch "coached me, drew out my best performance. But he didn't beat around the bush. He was very straightforward, letting us know exactly what he wanted. Maybe it's because he knew he didn't have much time."

Finch had the editing equipment brought into his bedroom, where he completed the rough cut just before dying on Valentine's Day in 1995. But even before Finch's death, Vachon had faced challenges in bringing the production together.

She had hoped to film in the Stonewall bar in Manhattan's West Village, "because it would add authenticity. But the owner didn't want us to shoot there."

Nor, she says, did New York's gay community rally behind the film, adding that "the only location we got donated for free was by the Catholic church, St. Veronica's on Christopher Street."

Relying on period photos, Vachon re-created the old Stonewall in a nearby meat district basement, while researching "conflicting stories" about what had actually happened. "One person would tell a heart-rending story about where he was the night the riots started," she says. "Then, another would walk in and ask: 'What's he doing here? He wasn't even there.' "

Nor were the media, which largely ignored the riots, substantially more helpful. As a result, "we don't know how many hours or even days the riots went on, or how many people were there," Vachon says. "So, we had to be very inventive."

Perhaps the production's biggest problem was in casting lead character Dean. "It's one thing for an actor to play a theatrical part [like a drag queen]," Vachon says. "It's scarier for an actor to play a character who's gay and could also be the captain of the football team. . . . He can't later distance himself from the part."

University of North Carolina graduate Weller, 26, was not cast for the role until nearly all the other parts had been filled. And Weller, like others who had been offered the part and turned it down, admits that he too felt "some trepidation. Mostly, it revolved around what my family and friends would think. . . . Your worst fears are that those aspects of the film which might be difficult for some of your friends are going to be done as tastelessly as possible and predominate the film, which they didn't."

Using his fears to get into Dean's self-doubts, Weller reached a personal turning point during his love scene with Diaz because "the scene is about finding love in a world of potential despair. And that was how I was feeling about my life too."

Diaz, in turn, was almost forced to drop out of the film when he broke his right hand a week before principal photography was to begin. Nevertheless, he got a removable cast--and played drag queen LaMiranda convincingly enough that his fellow actors sometimes forgot that they were on a set.

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