David Heilbroner & Kate Davis Directors of Stonewall Uprising

By Juan Carlos

I had the chance to chat with fellow filmmaker David Heilbroner about his latest picture “Stonewall Uprising”.

Its about the 1969 riots that began the Gay Rights Movement. The film premieres on June 16th at the Film Forum, and will be in theaters near you. David, of course, is incredibly excited.

“It was the Rosa Parks moment,” says one man. June 28, 1969: NYC police raid a Greenwich Village Mafia-run gay bar, The Stonewall Inn. For the first time, patrons refuse to be led into paddy wagons, setting off a 3-day riot that launches the Gay Rights Movement. Told by Stonewall patrons, Village Voice reporters and the cop who led the raid, STONEWALL UPRISING compellingly recalls the bad old days when psychoanalysts equated homosexuality with mental illness and advised aversion therapy, and even lobotomies; public service announcements warned youngsters against predatory homosexuals; and police entrapment was rampant. A treasure-trove of archival footage gives life to this all-too-recent reality, a time when Mike Wallace announced on a 1966 CBS Reports: “The average homosexual, if there be such, is promiscuous. He is not interested in, nor capable of, a lasting relationship like that of a heterosexual marriage.” At the height of this oppression, the cops raid Stonewall, triggering nights of pandemonium with tear gas, billy clubs and a small army of tactical police. The rest is history.

What got you interested in making a film about the Stonewall Uprising? Why now? What’s the importance of this subject today?

Stonewall was a story Kate and I thought had already been told which is why, when American Experience approached us about doing a Stonewall Doc we both felt nonplussed. Then, when we started to look at the huge amount of material that had never been put on film, and listened to the voices of the people who were fighting on the streets those nights back in 1969, we suddenly felt that we had a chance to make a real contribution to the historical and cultural record about the great human rights struggle.

I think the film is timely now, especially timely, because America has finally come far enough historically to look back at how deeply homophobic we were as a society and feel a true sense of horror. The film, I hope, remains an inspiration to all people who still feel oppressed, carrying a message that history often changes from the bottom up.

Were there moments you uncovered while researching that surprised you? Who or what was the most disturbing?

Most disturbing was the archival footage from the 50s and 60s showing the respectable likes of Mike Wallace on CBS stating with absolute certainty that “the average homosexual…is promiscuous. He is neither interested in nor capable of a lasting relationship like that of a heterosexual marriage.” And Wallace was not alone…

You get 10 million dollars to work on whatever project (film or series) that suits your fancy? What subject do you attack and who do you interview?

It’s too late now, but I’d rent a boat/copter, cover the oil spill and try to get inside BP to watch CEO Tony Hayward soul searching late at night…

Making a movie is team work between you. How does the creative process work for you both? Does one of you edit while the other sifts through history?

Kate and I trade off in all sorts of ways. Kate usually does the first pass at an edit, then I can come in and see the bigger picture. In very general terms, she tends to be better at fine cutting and I am better at structure on a larger scale, but that generalization often falls apart. Our main motto is that we have to check our egos at the door. It’s the film that counts. And there’s no job too small that one of us won’t do it.

Who are your role models (fictional or real)?

I tend to admire all the really uncompromising artists, be they painters, novelists or musicians. They range from Jimi Hendrix to Vladimir Nabokov to Werner Herzog. That’s probably because in film it’s really hard not to bend to the dictates of a commissioning editor, though Kate and I do it all the time and pride ourselves on being good team players.

What film of yours are you most proud of and why?
Right now it’s Stonewall Uprising because we managed to blend a lot of different techniques into an aesthetically unified whole. There were deeply intimate interviews, recreations, and deep historical archival montage. We could never have pulled off this film ten years ago.

Have we evolved as a society much from when the original Stonewall Uprising took place? Are we getting closer to real equality?

I think every generation finds new ways to look at equality, and inequality — a lesson I have learned from being a parent of teenagers. Socially, we have evolved profoundly from the rampant, nasty homophobia of the 1960’s (gay men were hospitalized, arrested, even castrated!) but I have no illusions that there’s not a long way to go. The real goal, I think is in post-identity politics, where we get beyond grouping people into segments and demographics. But that’s probably a pipe dream.

You both get to co-direct a film with the documentarian of your choice? Who do you choose to work with?

Me, I’d choose Werner Herzog. I’d just be grateful to get coffee and watch him work!

Are you still writing novels? How do you balance the writing/directing/producing?

Novels and all other creative activities, like music, have been on the back burner for the past two years as we’ve been making three docs simultaneously. Stonewall, Diagnosis Bipolar (which aired last year on HBO) and a murder story for HBO that is still in production.

What song or album are you listening to right now that I should be listening to?

Carlos Lyra, Revisited Classics.

Best pizza in NYC?
I make my own, and my wife swears by it…

Thanks, David for taking the time to chat.