James Franco Talks to Director Justin Kelly About Sundance Hit, I Am Michael

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Photo by Eric Ray Davidson. James wears shirt, jacket, jeans, and boots by Gucci. Justin wears jeans by Levi’s, jacket and shirt by Anzevino Getty. Styled by Rachel Pincus.

James Franco, the megastar, multi-hyphenate actor just blew Sundance away with his turn in I Am Michael, a film by first-time director Justin Kelly. For BlackBook, Benoit Denizet-Lewis, the writer of the magazine story that inspired the film, interviews the pair about their creative process.

ON THE EVENING of June 19, 2011, I received an email from prolific emailer James Franco: “Gus Van Sant and I read your piece in today’s NYT Magazine. Has anyone
optioned the rights to that story? Peace.”

If any actor is crazy enough — or interested in sexual identity enough — to try to make a movie about an ex-gay pastor living in Wyoming, it’s probably the sexually ambiguous Franco, who has said “I’m … gay in my life up to the point of intercourse,” and “I like that it’s so hard to define me.”

I Am Michael, the resulting fi lm by first-time director Justin Kelly — who also wrote the script — premiered at Sundance in January, and it is, in many ways, a reverse coming out story. It tells the complicated life story of Michael Glatze, an old friend and colleague of mine whose outspoken advocacy inspired a generation of gay youth before he rejected his homo-sexuality and urged others to do the same. “Homosexuality, delivered to young minds, is by its very nature pornographic,” he claimed, shocking those who knew him.

Recently, I sat down with Franco and Kelly to talk about why Michael’s story appealed to them, their innovative approach to telling it, and whether I Am Michael might be difficult to watch for those coming at the film from a political perspective.

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BENOIT: You’ve both spent a lot of time talking publicly about this movie since it premiered at Sundance, but I trust you saved your best stuff for this conversation. Let’s do our best not to be boring.

JAMES: Well, this is the insider conversation. We were all part of making this movie happen.

JUSTIN: I’m bored already.

BENOIT: I’d like to begin by talking about intentions. When I decided to write about Michael, I had two intentions. First, I wanted — I needed — to figure out what happened to my former friend and colleague at XY magazine. How does a guy go from being a proud gay man who inspires young LGBT people to an ex-gay fundamentalist? Secondly, as a magazine writer, I sensed that Michael might make for a fascinating profile. I’m interested in both of your intentions for turning the
story into a film.

JAMES: For me, this all started with Gus [Van Sant]. Gus told me to read an article in The New York Times Magazine, and when I did I saw you wrote it. I thought that was cool, because I really liked the time you interviewed me for The Advocate in the poetry room at City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco.

BENOIT: Yeah, our talk that day happened to coincide with the Pride celebration in the city. While everyone was out partying, you
whispered gay poetry to me.

JAMES: Did I?

JUSTIN: Obviously, this was more memorable for Benoit.

JAMES: No, I totally remember the interview! So when Gus told me to read this article, at first I didn’t know what my intentions were. I just knew that Gus — one of my heroes — thought this could make a good movie.

BENOIT: You told me on set last summer that you were unsure at first, but that you got excited because of the innovative way Justin wanted to tell this story.

JAMES: Well it’s such an unusual story, and the trajectory of the character is so strange. But that’s also what made it interesting. If you watch different kinds of subject matter portrayed in movies, many have their own little predictable arcs. Take films about drug use: For a long time, the characters would always need to be punished or have some dark demise. That changed with Drugstore Cowboy and Trainspotting. Suddenly you’re finding humor in a movie about drug addicts. Now on so many TV shows, you can portray drug dealers as fully rounded people — they don’t need to be cut-out villains. I don’t know how much progress we’ve made in movies about sex. Take a movie like Shame, which is an incredibly well-made movie in many ways, but the main character — because he’s supposed to be a sex addict, even though he actually doesn’t seem like that much of a sex addict to me — needed to be kind of punished in the end. I had my qualms about showing his bottom as an addict in this seedy gay bar that’s depicted as kind of like hell, and then getting blown by a guy, as if that’s the lowest a person can go.

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BENOIT: What are some common arcs for LGBT films?

JAMES: There’s the coming out narrative, the fighting for rights narrative, the closeted secret affair narrative, like we saw in Brokeback Mountain. All of these films are
very important, but not every movie needs to be like that. Once those stories are told, we can tell unexpected ones that might challenge us or make us uncomfortable in some ways. What I think is so innovative about I Am Michael is that we’re watching a man go in an unexpected direction, and that direction brings up a lot of questions about identity, and what identity consists of, and how it’s defined, and who gets to decide. And this film tackles faith versus sexuality, and the tensions there, in an important way. But what’s innovative here is not only the trajectory of the main character, but the fact that Justin made this movie about a person’s inner life, about a person’s beliefs and how they shift over time. To track that is also so fresh. You don’t really track a person’s belief step by step in most movies. Usually
it’s enough for a character to have one main need, or one defining obstacle. To have a character where you see all the gradations of his beliefs is really unusual.

BENOIT: James, in the recent issue of FourTwoNine, you wrote that you considered yourself “queer” in your art and that you like “destabilizing engrained ways of thinking” and challenging “hegemonic thinking.” I’m curious about engrained ways of thinking in the LGBT community, and whether this movie challenges any of those. Something that really struck me as I was researching my article about Michael was the visceral reaction that so many gay and lesbian people have to ex-gay people, or to people who question the idea that sexual attraction and identity — especially among gay men — can be fluid.

JAMES: There’s clearly a prejudice against people who say, “I was gay and now I’m straight,” or, “I was gay and that didn’t really fit for me so now I’m something different.” We don’t really want to believe them, and we think they’re in denial.

BENOIT: And many ex-gays clearly are in denial, including leaders in the movement who have had high-profile public slips — or who have returned to their gay identity. And in many ways it’s understandable that gays and lesbians have such a hard time believing that a gay person can go straight. For many of us, before we came out we spent years trying to be straight. We tried, but we couldn’t do it. So here comes a group of people who insist they have done it, and that maybe you should do it, too. Their stories are then used by the Christian right as supposed proof that homosexuality is a “choice.” Which, of course, is then used by some to fight against equal
rights for LGBT people.

JUSTIN: Before I met Michael, part of me really hated him. So much of what he wrote and said was so hateful. But the best films about people who are easy to dislike are the ones where they really try to figure out what happened. In the first meeting I had with James about this film, he said to me, “Wouldn’t it be cool to try to understand what happened to Michael instead of vilifying
him?”

BENOIT: I think Michael really trusted you both when you told him what kind of movie you wanted to make. He had trusted me, too, by letting me visit him and write a profile. But I had no interest in writing a takedown of Michael — in a lot of ways, I wanted to show him more compassion than he was showing gay people when he wrote awful things about us. I also felt like he deserved some compassion, because he seemed lost and in need of help — plus, there’s no denying the good he did for gay youth back when he worked at XY and YGA. Though the film doesn’t condone his behavior, it has compassion and fairness, which I really appreciate. But, certainly, not everyone will.

JUSTIN: I will admit I was surprised at how I’ve had to occasionally defend the movie to some gay critics who think that telling Michael’s story supports the anti-gay right. I don’t think that’s fair. We all have the right to tell our stories, and telling Michael’s story by no means seeks to condone his beliefs. No one involved in the making of this film supports ex-gay conversation therapy or believes that gay people can choose to be straight. Maybe I just have a balanced view on what it means to be gay. I mean, for me, being gay just hasn’t been this huge issue. I just so happen to be attracted to men. So what? Who cares? I’ve been very fortunate to have supportive family and friends, and even in high school I wasn’t tormented for being gay. Then I moved to San Francisco for close to ten years and hung out with both older gay men (those who fought for people like me to be comfortable) and radical queers (those who don’t support gay marriage because it’s “assimilating into heteronormative culture”). I never sided with either group because I feel like…to each their own. We can learn from both schools of thought. So coming from this background, I’ve been surprised at the negative critics, as though we’re pushing some agenda…we’re not. We’re telling one person’s story, and I think there’s a lot to learn and discuss from that. Some people see the ending to the film as Michael being trapped and sad, while others think the film shows that Michael has been “saved.” When we screened the film in Berlin, there was one person at each Q&A who would say, “This film is dangerous.” But then after, I’d have at least 20 gay people come up to me after to say: “That’s bullshit. This film isn’t dangerous. It’s complicated, and fascinating, and makes you think.”

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BENOIT: Were you at all worried that the Christian right might try to use this film as evidence that conversion therapy can work? After all, the film ends with Michael married to a woman and pastor of his own church.

JUSTIN: I don’t want to be so naive to say that the balanced approach we tried for wouldn’t mean that some anti-gay Christians would like the film — there is that possibility. But I still think that you can make a balanced film that has a point of view. This is not a film celebrating conversion therapy, nor does it blindly buy into the
idea that Michael is fully comfortable and happy in his new life.

JAMES: I think the vast majority of people who see the film recognize that.

JUSTIN: Part of the reaction from some LGBT people, I think, is that people are used to the idea that gay films, or films with gay content, are meant to send out this message to the world that gay people are just like everyone else. So many films that we all love are like that, and I think some people came to this film expecting a message at the end. When they didn’t see that, it kind of freaked them out. I think James said it best in Berlin when he said that this isn’t a propaganda film. It’s a film about one man’s interesting and controversial and confusing story.

JAMES: The film reminded me a little bit of the way that Gus [Van Sant] presented the characters in his movie Elephant, where there was so much discussion about what pushed the Columbine kids. Was it because they wore black? Was it bullying, violent movies? He kind of put it all in there and let people make up their own mind. For our movie, we see a lot of the possible things that could make Michael do what he did. But in the end, there are no easy answers. The audience gets to struggle with them.

BENOIT: I want to switch gears and talk about the process of adapting a film from written material. What was it like to have me there with you through this process? Was it helpful, distracting? I feel like we really helped support each other, especially before the film got financing and we weren’t sure if
the movie would even get made.

JUSTIN: I got so much out of talking to everyone who knew Michael, including you. You knew him at a time when I didn’t. And because you’ve written so much, I feel
like you understand the need to restructure things, or leave things out, for the greater good of the story. Part of me sort of expected you to read the script and sort of want to change all of your dialogue. I was fortunate that you understood that your character sometimes had to say something to get a point across that we needed in a particular scene, even if it wasn’t exactly when or how you would have said it.

BENOIT: How important was it to you to have LGBT actors in this film? I remember a picture from Sundance of you, me, James, Zachary Quinto, and Michael Glatze, who came to see the film with his wife. I posted the picture to Facebook and wrote “Three gays, an ex-gay, and a James Franco.”

JAMES: I didn’t hear that last part. Three gays, an ex-gay, and a what?

BENOIT: A James Franco.

JAMES: Oh, I see.

JUSTIN: It was important to have out gay actors, but it’s tricky to talk about. I don’t think it’s the best use of energy to go out of your way to find a gay actor for a part when maybe there’s someone else who is better for the part regardless of their sexual orientation. Even though I know it’s progressive and the right thing to do to have gay actors, it’s almost oddly against some of the things we’re exploring and saying in the film, that someone should be picked based on their sexual identity. It’s really tricky. For me, you try it first and see what happens. We ended up getting Zachary Quinto, and a lot of the smaller roles are played by out gay actors.

BENOIT: It must be great to have an ambassador like Quinto, who can reassure LGBT people who might be a little wary of the subject matter, “It’s okay, guys, you can go see this movie.”

JUSTIN: I feel like it’s the same way with James, because people know that James wouldn’t be involved with an anti-gay movie. Not that James needs anyone to come
to his defense, but I think it’s progressive that James takes on a character because it’s a great character and a great story, where sexuality is secondary. That’s so much of what the film is about. People should be judged on who they are, not who they sleep with.

JAMES: Hey guys, I’m sorry to do this, but I have to go.

BENOIT: Perfect. Now I can ask Justin what it was like to work with you.

JUSTIN: James was great. He was a producer on this film, too, so he was committed to the project and the role. Without his support the film wouldn’t have happened. It was of course a little intimidating at first, because this is my first feature, and James is such a known, phenomenal actor, but he’s very respectful of new directors. A bit of a mentor even. So as soon as the second day I really felt at ease and completely comfortable directing him.

Hair by Tony Chavez, grooming by Jo Strettell.