The Man and Woman Behind "Stonewall Uprising": An Interview with Filmmakers Kate Davis & David Heilbroner

(Photo: “Stonewall Uprising” Directors David Heilbroner and Kate Davis with Jed Ryan)

The Man and Woman Behind “Stonewall Uprising”: An Interview with Filmmakers Kate Davis & David Heilbroner

Arriving in theaters just in time for the 41st Anniversary of the Stonewall Riots is the new documentary “Stonewall Uprising”, directed by Kate Davis and David Heilbroner.  If you think you already know all there is to know about that hot, heady, and historical night in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village back in 1969, think again.  This lively, fascinating film goes further than any other movie ever made about the event– widely believed to have launched the modern gay and lesbian liberation movement as we know it.  Based in part upon David Carter’s book “Stonewall: The Riots that Sparked the Gay Revolution“, this fascinating movie blends archival video and photos of ’60’s-era New York City with eye-opening new interviews, mostly conversations with many men and women who were actually at The Riots.  Davis and Heilbroner strived for optimal historical accuracy.  Even so, they admit that if you ask ten different people what happned that night, you still may get ten (or more!) different answers.  As Heilbroner tells me, “People want to own history. They DO own it! This is a story that people get passionate about, for good reasons. But they also have to accept that THEIR Holy Grail is a maybe a little bit different from MY Holy Grail! … but basically, it’s the same Holy Grail!” Kate Davis & David Heilbroner, partners in life as well as in movie-making, spoke with Jed Ryan on The Press Day for “Stonewall Uprising”… which took place, appropriately enough, at The Stonewall Inn.

JR: Thanks for meeting with me!  So, as established independent filmmakers, what was the biggest challenge in making this particular movie?
KD: One of the biggest challenges was bringing the Riots to life. The homophobia at the time seems to have affected the choice of ABC, CBS, and NBC not to cover days of major clashes with the police, whereas those same people would go up to cover the Harlem riots with no problem. So, I sense that they just didn’t want they just didn’t want a gay rights issue on the news. There’s very little footage. Fortunately, there was a wonderful photographer who took some great snapshots… but overall we didn’t have that much to work with. That was the biggest challenge of making the film. So, what we did was use riot footage from the time, and we tried to keep it very true to the telling of the story– with the practical police force, and the fire department, and so forth. So, the film still has a “You are there” quality. We integrated actual riot footage with a small amount of recreation on our own: the kids in the street, the Village…
DH: It’s daunting: The one thing you want to put on the screen, the dramatic apex of your story… and all you have are seven still photographs which aren’t even that exciting! A couple of them are great, though. So, we felt really intimated at the beginning of the project, but as it came together it got more and more exciting. By the end, I think we succeeded.
KD: And, nobody at all seemed to question the footage. It’s extremely lively and gritty. Sifting through the footage of the Village was so much fun. It was wonderful to unearth these gems of some places that are still around that look almost the same; you have to “cut around” all the Starbucks!
JR: That’s true! Now, “Stonewall Uprising” was based on the book by David Carter. Was there any deviation from the book?.
DH: We used the book as a way to break into the story, through someone who had spent ten years sifting through interview after interview after interview. We didn’t just want to take the book and just slavishly adhere to it. That’s really not artistic collaboration; that’s just doing a PR piece for the book, if you will. So, we worked with David Carter, the author, to identify people we thought would be the best voices for the film. Once we got them, we went with what they told as at the time. David was aware that sometimes what they said wasn’t exactly what they told him! That’s the nature of human recollection; that’s the nature of history. So, we went with what we were told and what we could find, and also we put a lot of backstory and social context into the film. One of the things that makes the film a feature film, as opposed to just a nice recounting of the riots, is that it really tries to take you back in time to what it was like to be gay in America in the 1960’s– which was not so great! The images of Mike Wallace hosting “The Homosexuals”, and the psychiatrists, and the public service announcements warning you that ”Ralph is a homosexual. He’s mentally ill!” really amplify the forces that made the Riots happen. The book was a way to get into telling the story accurately, but that was only the start.
KD: We just went with the strong storytelling of the patrons: The Stonewall kids, now in their sixties. We were desperate to understand the lives affected by homophobia, and how closeted people were. The pain and the depression became a part of their lives. So, all of these personal stories about growing up in the ’50’s have nothing to do with the book.
JR: The extreme prejudice and downright hatred of homosexuals at that time is astonishing to watch, and it’s all caught on vintage video.
DH: It was appalling. We have a teenage son, and we showed the film to him and a couple of kids his age. They were like, “You gotta be kidding!”  We really want people to walk away from the film with a sense of inspiration. These street kids with nothing to lose, and nowhere to go, had the courage to stand up to the police and fight for their rights. Without them, all the well-meaning and well-mannered Mattachine Society members in 1969 wouldn’t have gone half as far. I sort of like that fire-breathing attitude that I miss at this moment. It’s funny… When we went to get archival footage of riots in New York City, in the 1960’s, at night, there was no problem finding lots of material. Try finding a riot in the last 20 years. It’s a different era!
JR: We don’t take it to the streets nowadays. We send e-mail petitions instead! Now, one of the elements of the Stonewall Riots that some viewers may feel was left out was the issue of Judy Garland‘s death that day. That seems to be a part of both Judy Garland and Stonewall lore to this very day.
DH: Oh yeah! (Laughs) You know, the best person to get a quote from about that is Danny Garvin (one of the Stonewall veterans whose story is featured in the movie). Danny will tell you that day Judy Garland was buried, the Stonewall kids were 20 years old and dancing to The Doors and Janis Joplin and Stevie Wonder. Judy Garland was on their minds, but it would be like 20-year olds today rioting over Barbra Streisand (Jed laughs.). Yeah, they knew it, but it wouldn’t have caused a riot. There was a sadness in the air. It was as important as the full moon. We did mention the full moon and maybe we should have mentioned Judy Garland, but everyone I know who was there will tell you that it was the last thing on their minds. They were just mad about the cops busting them. They were busted and harassed one too many times, and all of a sudden they got together and said, “Screw you, cops. We’re not gonna take it anymore.” Judy Garland wasn’t really what was going on! It has a lovely resonance to it, and there’s poetry to it. It did happen. That day was a very bad day. But talk to the people who actually rioted. You can’t make a case. If you could, we would have put it in. We had a big discussion about Judy Garland. Needless to say, it wasn’t brushed over.
JR: Some people are still protective of her spirit, it seems!
DH: And, I understand. There‘s that “Holy Grail“ feeling again!
JR: The story of the Stonewall Riots has been told in various incarnations a few times before in film. What sets “Stonewall Uprising” apart from the previous cinematic endeavors?
DH: A couple of things. The story really hasn’t been told in feature length. There were John Scagliotti’s films “Before Stonewall” and “After Stonewall”, but they don’t really go into what happened at all…
JR: I have to say that one of the best things about the “Stonewall Uprising” was the historical context, and the backstory leading up to the Riots…
DH: We devote a good 20 or 30 minutes in the film to recreate the period that the Riots took place, so that you can “feel” it. Otherwise, you just don‘t get it. You have to see it, and also “feel the pain“. Then, you can understand it. The Riots were this huge cathartic release. The story really hasn’t been told in any kind of detail, and certainly not in the mainstream. This film is opening up in 30 cities so far nationwide, and may show in 50 or 60 before it‘s done. For a documentary, that’s a big deal. It’s getting a lot of press, and it’s going to play around the world eventually. We had the resources to really shoot it beautifully; to license all this archival footage pretty cheaply (Archival footage is expensive!); and then to edit, and re-edit, and re-edit; and to hire a wonderful composer, Gary Lionelli to score. His score is really powerful. Then, taking it to PostWorks to get it color-corrected: getting the re-creation footage to match the archival footage accurately. We were really, really lucky!
JR: And so is the audience! Now, one last question: Where does your and Kate’s affinity for the GLBT community come from?
DH: Someone earlier asked us if we were members of the gay community. We’re house guests! (Both laugh.) Kate has been very gay-friendly since high school. She took a girl to the prom and wore a tuxedo, back in Boston in 1972…
JR: I love her already!
DH: Yeah, me too! (Both laugh) With Kate, there’s just an art to it. We’re both just of the “child of the ‘60’s” mindset. We don’t look at identity: short or tall, or black or white, or gay or straight. To me, it’s just about being a human being, and I think that somehow this subject has just always been… you know, it‘s hard to say why! It’s the same reason we’re documentary filmmakers; I can’t really give you an answer! But what I can say is that we’re really proud of the film.

“Stonewall Uprising” is now playing through June 29th, at The Film Forum, W. Houston St. (west of 6th Ave.), in NYC. Visit for more info and showtimes.


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