Pulitzer-nommed playwright, screenwriter, and veteran showrunner Jon Robin Baitz responds to critics of his LGBT historical drama Stonewall and explains why he’s always identified with those who’ve felt different from those around them.
Written by Todd Aaron Jensen
(October 2, 2015)
In the summer of 1969, the day a single brick was hurled at an invading police wagon outside an illegal gay bar in Greenwich Village, essentially instigating a blunt, brutal six-day showdown between New York’s long oppressed gay/trans community and the city’s abusive law enforcement, Jon Robin Baitz was catching a tan and sneaking beers on a pristine beach in Rio de Janeiro, giddy with the keen intoxication of bearing witness to strutting Brazilian boys in micro-bathing suits. He was 8 years old.
“That probably sounds like terrible preparation for writing Stonewall,” Baitz says, referencing the screenplay he penned for director Roland Emmerich, based on those long ago Big Apple riots, frequently referred to as the “Rosa Parks moment” in gay history. “But maybe it’s not. Everything is sort of weirdly a form of autobiography, whether we like it or not, and I’ve always felt like an outsider. I’ve probably always been one.”
Indeed, the 54-year-old Baitz’s staggering oeuvre – theatrical works like The Substance of Fire and Other Desert Cities, which earned him a Guggenheim Fellowship, as well as nominations for Tonys, Drama Desk Awards, and the Pulitzer Prize, not to mention creating the much-loved Brothers & Sisters for ABC and The Slap for NBC – all tilts from the same seething, combustible axis, the feverish mining of truths immured beneath an amaranthine avalanche of fever and flame, roil and rot, fear and shame. In the brilliant, often daring work of Jon Robin Baitz, the only thing more costly to a man’s soul than dishonesty is the existential treason coarsely cannibalizing the only thing he ever really needs: truth.
Though Baitz says his mid-‘80s breakthrough, an ecstatically received staging of his play Mizlansky/Zilansky in Los Angeles, “feels like a million years ago,” he continues with a scorching intensity and uncommon compassion to interrogate our social and spiritual infidelities, the treachery and casual brutality, even as it often mirrors his own battleworn experiences in the entertainment industry or, in the case of Stonewall, the fraught childhood reveries a world apart from the seismic shifts in Greenwich Village that would pave a clearer, more clement path – one brick at a time – for the gay and trans community around the world.
Photo: © 2015 Roadside Attractions
Jeremy Irvine and Jonny Beauchamp in Stonewall.
If every generation gets the author it deserves, then Baitz – also serving as the Artistic Director of the BFA Theater Program at The New School – might very well be our man, a perennial outsider less interested in breaching the mainstream than in engineering a brand-new bridge across which the rest of us might one day walk.
Twenty-five years ago, you told a journalist, “I am not a screenwriter at all,” stating that you lacked “the visual sense and pacing.” Since then, you’ve written dozens of episodes of episodic television and a handful of feature films, including Stonewall. What’s changed since 1989?
Well, I'm still struggling with all of that, actually. I started out as a playwright, which I still am, and I came to see very quickly that theater and film require a very different kind of ear, a very different sensibility. They’re just very different kinds of music to me. With screenwriting, I have to always be thinking of the visuals, the mathematics, every frame, every scene – where are we in the story now, which character knows which things at which point in the story, is there sufficient tension between what the audience is seeing and what the characters are saying? Screenwriting doesn't have the natural, cumulative power for me, the raw music of writing plays, which feels to me, at times, like creating incantations. With screenwriting, it’s true that I’ve done a fair amount of it since having that long ago conversation, but I feel I’ve yet to really master the padlock. I would say I’m fascinated by screenwriting – particularly in writing for television – and I’m still trying to get better at it, so we’ll see. The only real difference between what I said in 1989 and what I’m saying today is that I’m not afraid of trying anymore.
If it was truly fear gripping you back then, how did you come to screenwriting at all?
Well, I was invited to. That’s what happens with young playwrights! You get invited to try it and you get paid for the attempt, whether it’s a successful one or not, and then most playwrights are just sent back to doing what they’re really good at – writing plays. I was hired by [Brian Siberell] a senior executive at HBO – who is now actually my agent – and I was working on this screenplay for him, a work-for-hire thing, and I just could not crack it. I was filled with frustration over that, and I thought to myself, I don’t know if I want to be in this situation ever again.
Some of your screenwriting efforts – notably, The Substance of Fire – have been based on your own plays. How is it different writing from your own source material and tackling a screenplay as a hired hand?
The hired screenwriter, in some ways, is a kind of handmaiden, and I don't know, frankly, that I can do too much more of that. It’s been an enormous struggle for me, learning to find some form of independence as a creative person, while I’m being paid to realize someone else’s vision. Television today – the kind of work that David Simon has done and that Matthew Weiner has done, for example – is an excellent arena for expressing the authorial voice. What guys like David Simon are doing is blending a powerful authorial voice seamlessly with whatever scene it is they’re writing, to where the scene itself is entirely dependent on that authorial voice. You can’t separate the two. I tried to do that with The Slap, but the screenwriting work can get very intellectual for me, and I start over-thinking things and second guessing myself. I’m not pinned down when I write a play, but I’m stymied sometimes by a kind of cautiousness sometimes when I’m writing screenplays.
And yet, there are a good number of critics and audiences alike who probably could not differentiate between something like The Slap, which you did as an “employee,” and something like The Substance of Fire, which you adapted from your own play and also produced. The projects you’ve written, they all feel plucked from the same bird, regardless of what sat you down at the typewriter.
Well, I mean, I am stuck with my concerns. They used to be about power, but now – while I'm still interested in power, whether it's power in a family structure or in a corporate structure or whatever – I'm much more interested in the assumptions that we make comfortably while other people suffer. It's all of a piece, these things that, should we pay them a bit more heed might actually improve the world we live in. These are things that matter very much to me. I mean, Roland Emmerich didn’t come to me to write Stonewall because I am a cruel human being or dispassionate about the suffering of others. He came to me because – to my absolute shock – he had read a lot of my work and seen a number of my plays and saw in it something he wanted for Stonewall – the ability to write about how we come to recognize who and what we are.
You were 8 years old when the Stonewall Riots exploded. How aware were you of the events in New York during those six days?
Well, I was in Brazil, 8 years old, with no meaningful sense of what was going on anywhere in the world. I spent all of my days at Ipanema Beach, eating Brazilian food, and sneaking beers. That probably sounds like terrible preparation for writing Stonewall, but maybe it’s not. Everything is sort of weirdly a form of autobiography, whether we like it or not. I’ve always felt like an outsider. My entire life, I’ve felt like an outsider. I was an American child living in Brazil – and then South Africa a few years later – and I was white and privileged and Jewish, thousands of miles from the place I belonged, just absolutely horrified by the apartheid that surrounded us in South Africa, embarrassed and ashamed and full of confused as to how cruel people can be, and I was coming to terms with this very different thing inside of me, too, which is that I found myself strangely, irresistibly drawn to all of those little South African boys, running around the beach with their beautiful Aryan tans all the time. So I come by the outsider’s perspective pretty honestly. Discomfort was simply a part of my life – every single minute. I was always uncomfortable. As you get older, hopefully you deal with some of that stuff and come to understand yourself and the world a lot better, but the discomfort – a lot of it, anyway – remains. All of my writing comes from that place. I think Roland sensed that in me and, after we had spent some time together, came to see that I’m not a man who believes in politics; I’m a man who believes in human beings.
Standing up to bullying is, on the most reductionist level, what Stonewall is about. How did you come to write the film, and what was the process for distilling the best, most authentic drama from a story that’s been pretty exhaustively covered over the last 40 years?
There is so much material about Stonewall, and it probably would’ve been completely overwhelming, except Roland had an absolute, holistic vision for the film. He had the story. He knew what he wanted, very clearly. We shared an agent then who put us together for dinner, and I had no idea what was on Roland’s mind. I couldn’t understand for the life of me why he had any interest at all in talking with me. And then he told me about a young man he knew who'd just gone through, quite literally, a version of the events in the movie, a kid from Kansas, heading to the big city, trying to figure out who he really is and how to express it in a world that can be impossibly intolerant, and all of that weaves together with the historical events. I realized about halfway through the dinner that I was going to do the project, which really surprised me. I was sort of rueful, though, because there was a part of me that was sitting there all the way through dinner, even as Roland was completely persuading me to write Stonewall, that was thinking, “Well, I want to do the fucking disaster movie! I want to do the big thing where people blow up the aliens! Why do I have to do all of the ‘art project’ stuff?” But Roland had a different kind of movie in mind, and I’m very proud that I was able to help him realize that.
It might surprise audiences who have grown accustomed to Emmerich’s “the sky is falling” themes and very pop aesthetics from films like Independence Day and Godzilla that he is here making a film that remains immensely entertaining, but is also thoughtful, heartfelt, and reaching for more than popcorn thrills and spills.
And don’t forget Stargate! It’s funny, years before I met Roland, I’d gotten into a terrible fight with a group of smart-ass New Yorkers who had started this club and anointed themselves “The Schlocks.” Their thing was: they would go see shitty movies and then they would sit around and rip on it for hours. The first movie this group went to, and I ended up being invited along for the film, was Stargate. When we walked out of the theater that night, everyone was roaring with laughter about how stupid the movie was and how much they hated it and how incredibly smart and sophisticated they were and how Stargate was just another example of how dumb the world is getting, and I could just feel the anger welling up in me, and I was thinking, “Fuck you, fuck all of you and your New York Review of Books arrogance! That movie was really hard to make and it was really entertaining and that’s what Hollywood does – they make big, bold, crazy movies that employ thousands of people and occasionally one of these movies becomes weirdly iconic. Why don’t one of you guys get off your ass and actually make something?” I didn’t even know those people; I just knew I didn’t like snobs. Roland loves that story!
Let’s go back to breaking the story on Stonewall. What was that process like?
Like I said, Roland had a very clear vision of what he wanted. He would narrate a string of events, and I would take notes, and then I’d pitch in with things that added to the trajectory he’d laid out. Then we went back over everything, and we really tuned in to the emotional aspects of the story, the ones that were very, very painfully real to me. When Danny [Jeremy Irvine] goes through that overflowing, overwhelming moment of realizing how ashamed his parents were of him, that was a lot of truth-telling for me. It was a moment I understood too well, as I’d gone through it in my own way many years ago. I’ll tell you: it’s a moment you never, ever forget. You will never forget the moment when the look on the faces of people you thought would always love you changes all of a sudden. There is a moment after you’ve told the truth about yourself to someone and, well, for some of us it doesn’t go very well. There were a lot of ways I connected and identified with that character, which may have helped the writing process. If it’s a question of “did I see the scenes play out in my head,” yes, I definitely saw the scenes play out in my head. In some cases, they’re called memories.
Before the film went into production, there were some objections to the Stonewall script from the LGBT community who were unhappy about a lack of trans characters and minority characters in the film. These protests have flared up again in recent weeks. What are your thoughts about the so-called “white-washing” of the Stonewall narrative?
I’m going to go on the record and say, I absolutely understand where they’re coming from. There is a lot of very justifiable rage in the trans and trans/people of color community. This is a group of individuals who have been made to feel invisible, whose story has not yet been told, who have been marginalized, and they feel like someone is finally going to tell their story – except they’re not in it as much as they’d like. I’m not sure Stonewall deserved all of that preemptive rage. It’s not yet another “White Male Saves the World” movie. But I do understand the reasons they’re angry. I’ve tried to really listen to everyone who has raised their voice over this film. Every one of those voices deserves to be heard. But I also believe Roland has every right to make the film he wants to make, and that is what he did. I can’t take any of it personally, but my God, all I have is pain for having unwittingly hurt anyone, let alone people who have already suffered so much.
What screenwriting wisdom, business or craft, have you learned over the years?
All truly thinking writers face blockage from time to time. That’s essentially a fact of life. But a lot of writers just disappear into this fear and malaise that hovers, and it just gets worse and worse. There’s nothing rejuvenating about existing in that kind of anxiety. What I’ve learned is that a blockage is actually an invitation to stop for a minute and recharge – on the couch, in your pajamas, eating whatever you want, reading, resting. Other people would say, “That’s a lazy writer.” I would say, “No, that’s a writer in the ‘subconscious knowing zone.’” It’s very important to just stop sometimes – which is probably terrible advice for the aspiring screenwriter!
It sounds fantastic right about now, but it’s unlikely anyone’s agent would be happy to hear that advice!
I can do better than that. I know that I can…Here you go: the worst thing you can be in the world – and especially if you’re a screenwriter in Hollywood – is someone who wants to please people. You can be accommodating. You can be professional. You can be “good to work with.” A good collaborator. All of those lovely things. But when it becomes, “Oh, I’m just going to please everybody,” you’ve just lost your voice and your testicles. Or, uh, whatever organ powers you. Not all writers have testicles. Nor do they need them. But you know, I have a lot to learn. When I look back at my experiences as a writer, the only fights I’ve ever really had were about doing the most excellent work possible. I look back at the Brothers & Sisters situation and I probably could’ve been much more cooperative instead of arguing for the kind of quality I believe in. But then again, I couldn’t ever do that. So life’s going to batter you no matter what you do and for a writer, it helps so much if you can accommodate your own terror.