The Binge Interview: Justin Kelly on “I Am Michael,” Tori Amos Fantasies, and Three-Way Regrets

June 18, 2015 feels so far away now, and like such simpler times. The Supreme Court was eight days from announcing its landmark decision legalizing marriage equality in all 50 states, and the pre-Pride air in San Francisco was humming with anticipation. Just two days earlier, Donald and Melania Trump had descended a golden escalator in Trump Tower to announce what seemed at the time like history’s unlikeliest presidential bid and its greatest gift to comedy. Jon Stewart was still hosting The Daily Show, preparing to hang up his satire spurs and leave America’s liberal conscience to fend for itself; his work here was done.

It was on that day that I sat down with filmmaker Justin Kelly to discuss his feature debut, I Am Michael, which was screening at the Frameline Film Festival later that evening. Why the hell am I just sharing it with you now? Because the movie didn’t officially come out until last Friday, January 27. The film festival circuit can become a limbo, which Kelly knows all too well; in the time since our conversation, he successfully released his sophomore film, the gay porn crime drama King Cobra, and is reportedly in postproduction on his third film, Welcome the Stranger, starring Abbey Lee, Caleb Landry Jones, and Riley Keough. He’s also prepping a scripted feature about the San Francisco-based JT LeRoy literary scandal, which was on his mind at the time of our interview; my name had startled him when he noticed it on his schedule.

So what’s taken so long for I Am Michael to come out? In short, it’s a tough sell. It premiered at Sundance in January 2015 riding a wave of sensationalistic buzz due to a nudity-free three-way gropefest between stars James Franco, Zachary Quinto, and Charlie Carver. Franco fever was running hot, and audiences were excited to see the queer-fixated provocateur put his money (and whatever else) where his mouth is with a full-fledged gay sex scene. However, I Am Michael couldn’t have less in common with the titillating romp audiences were imagining based on that clickbait coverage.

Intimate yet cerebral, I Am Michael depicts the true story of Michael Glatze (played beautifully by Franco), a leading figure in the gay media world—he was the longtime managing editor of XY Magazine and founded Young Gay America—who sent shockwaves of anger and disbelief through the LGBT community when he converted to Christianity and publicly condemned homosexuality. Quinto is wrenching as Michael’s shellshocked longtime boyfriend Bennett, Carver charms as a twink who becomes their third, and Emma Roberts is sweet and understated as a woman Michael dates in his self-styled heterosexual reincarnation. Daryl Hannah, Lesley Ann Warren, and Ahna O’ Reilly also costar.

Based on Benoit Denizet-Lewis’ widely read New York Times feature “My Ex-Gay Friend,” I Am Michael always had its work cut out for it from a commercial perspective. After all, what audience was it for exactly? Glatze’s story strikes many queer viewers as an unconscionable betrayal not even worth thinking about, which undermines its chances with its presumed target demographic. But for those willing to meet the film on its own terms, I Am Michael is a mature, bold, almost infuriatingly respectful meditation on some very big questions about human identity. Rather than dismiss Glatze’s narrative because it’s upsetting and offensive, Kelly confronts it head-on with a searching, steady, fearless gaze that ultimately proves quite revealing; in this scary new world of ours, we could all benefit from applying this approach to that which challenges us.

Also: while I Am Michael may lack an obvious target audience, there’s at least one person out there for whom this film feels tailor-made. That person is moi. I already knew this going in to my conversation with Kelly, but I had no idea it was going to become the biggest interview of my life—by which I mean my own life wound up being discussed nearly as much as Kelly, Glatze, and the film. Read on and you’ll see what I mean.

Hi Justin! What’s it been like touring your debut feature around so far?

It’s been amazing. I’ve been working in film for a while, but it takes some time to get to this point. Our world premiere was in Sundance and then we went to Berlin, so to have those two as kickoff festivals was like a dream come true. The response has been really interesting; mostly positive, and if not positive then at least something that incites debate and conversation, which is kind of the point.

You’re coming out of the gate with a film that guarantees heated Q&As and heavy interviews. Do you feel like you were prepared to have those conversations during this process?

Not entirely. (Laughs.) I wouldn’t be so naïve as to say that I wouldn’t have expected it to be an issue, and I made a film about things I do want to talk about. It ended up being heavier than I expected for sure. I ended up being “prepared” just by being thrown into it. The biggest round of press is the premiere, and Sundance was like two full days of it. It was definitely a little bit overwhelming to talk so much about Christianity and homosexuality, especially since to me the movie is a bit more about identity. It was kind of intense, but I feel super comfortable talking about it now.

When you have those conversations where people are focused on faith and sexuality, do you feel yourself constantly trying to reframe it as an identity conversation?

Yeah, definitely. I always try to redirect the conversation. I’ve been writing and developing it for a long time and you can’t distance yourself from a project, so I get that. But there were a lot of people like producers who were involved enough that they wanted it to be a good movie, but distanced enough that they can give good feedback in an honest way, and they all felt the same way. Even the sales companies were like, “It’s not even really a gay movie, there’s just gay characters.” It’s about someone trying to find themselves, which is universal and more relatable than being boxed in as a gay and/or Christian and/or ex-gay movie. But again, I’m not dumb, so I know people are going to ask those questions.

Does that make you hesitant to do gay film festivals like Frameline?

Maybe really early on, there was a teensy piece of me that worried if this would push the movie further in that direction. But I have to be realistic. It’s James Franco playing gay and an out gay actor playing his boyfriend. It should play at gay festivals. (Laughs.)

There’s a strong Tori Amos element in the film, from Michael playing “Silent All These Years” on the piano to “Crucify” playing over the closing credits. What’s the story there?

I can’t remember how, but somehow I did find out that Michael liked Tori, not in any obsessive way but in a way that stood out from other music he listened to. I went to high school in the ‘90s and Tori was just everywhere. She embodied feminist sexual energy and was just so fucking cool. She still is! So when I heard that Michael listened to her, I latched onto it. It might be a slight bit exaggerated, but what she stands for fits so perfectly into the film. Getting her music in a low-budget movie was difficult, but I think she understood [the connection] and let us use her music. I’d written the “Silent All These Years” scene into the script not thinking we’d be able to get it, but “Crucify” was always in the back of my mind as this dream end-credits song.

But then I started thinking, “Is it too on the nose? Does it throw off the balanced nonjudgmental approach we’re taking?” And the person who solidified the song choice was James. We listened to it together and he was like, “This is so perfect. It has to work.” And now any fear of it squashing a balanced approach has just gone out the door. No one has ever commented on it! All the press, I keep waiting for someone to ask, “How bold and ballsy to close with a song asking why we crucify ourselves?” No one has said it. It’s the weirdest thing. I’ll just project and assume that they’re so enthralled by the story that when the song comes along it just integrates into their experience. [Laughs.]

Do you know if Tori has seen the movie yet?

I’m not sure. There was talk of getting her to Sundance, but people’s schedules are crazy. I definitely had the fantasy of walking the red carpet with Tori Amos at my Sundance premiere. [Laughs.] It would fulfill all my gay ‘90s dreams. I did get a signed copy of her new album, though [Unrepentant Geraldines].

I’m jealous! One thing about the film I really admire is how it presents so many different factors that may have contributed to Michael’s change of heart without didactically laying claim to any of them with some kind of reductive A + B = C logic. Was it important to you that people make up their own minds?

It was a collaborative discussion from the beginning with me, Gus [Van Sant, who served as executive producer], and James. Like, “Wouldn’t it be cool to do this like any other film about a character people might find unlikable, whether it’s a mean boss at work or a serial killer?” And the good versions of those movies are about what makes the people tick rather than just saying they’re horrible people. This is an extreme example, but I always think of [the Aileen Wuornos biopic] Monster. That would’ve been a shitty movie if it would’ve just been like, “She’s a crazy nutbag bitch!” But instead they tried to understand why she did those things, which doesn’t mean that they approve of her or condone serial murder or anything like that…

You feel some compassion for her.

Right. It’s been a constant thing I’ve had to defend, because people—mainly people who haven’t seen the movie—have been super critical. And I’m like, “You have to see it first and I think you’ll get it.” I’ve had to defend myself a lot and I get really frustrated for that reason, because I think the better version of this story is the one that tries to understand what happened without vilifying him. I don’t want to judge him in the same way that I wouldn’t want him to judge me. That doesn’t mean it was easy, it was just a thought from the beginning. And having to read hundreds of articles about him or that he wrote where he’s just saying the nastiest things about gay people… That made it really difficult. But once I met him and his ex-boyfriends, it all fell into place in some weird way.

In those conversations where you’re defending the movie, do you feel like there’s pressure to just explain it and draw the simplistic conclusions they want to hear from you?

There definitely is. It didn’t come up until I started doing press about it, but I was nervous to talk about it because if you’re going for the balanced approach, how can you honestly say what you think without ruining that? But what I realized is that I feel comfortable talking about it because Michael told me to my face, “When I had a breakdown, I went crazy. I literally went crazy. I lost my mind, I was mentally unstable.” So therefore, I can show it and say that’s the truth. I can talk about it and say that’s what he told me.

But he also said in very simplistic terms, “What’s the big deal about my story? It’s very simple: I want to be reunited with my family in Heaven, which is where they are. I believe that to get there you have to follow the Bible, and I believe that the Bible says you have to be heterosexual.” In a roundabout way, he 100% admits that he’s forcing himself to be straight for God, so I can say that and feel comfortable that I’m accurately representing him and his experiences.

That’s what was so interesting to me watching the movie. He says that his father was a nonbeliever, and it’s in no way a mainstream evangelical belief that a nonbeliever would be in Heaven.

[Pauses.] You know, I had so many conversations with him and I don’t think that ever came up. But knowing him now, I have a strong feeling that he would say, “God forgives and my father is in Heaven for sure.” He had no doubt in his mind that his parents were good people and that they meant well, and that he’d see them in Heaven.

Now’s probably a good time to tell you a little bit about my background and why the movie effected me the way it did. I was out and gay as a teenager with the support of my family and friends, but I converted to evangelical Christianity at the age of 17 with no clear how or why.

So you were gay before becoming evangelical?

Yeah.

Oh, wow.

And XY was the first gay magazine I ever bought before I converted, so it was really layers upon layers with this movie and me. Then after converting, I believed strongly that I couldn’t be both Christian and gay, so I chose Christianity and threw myself 110% into that for the next five years. Like Michael, I was an anti-gay gay Christian who used my identity as a formerly out gay person to legitimize anti-gay belief within my faith community. I was that person walking around saying, “Being gay is wrong, and I can say that because I was gay.” I understood him so deeply. But then I graduated from college, moved to San Francisco, and quickly became backslidden.

You slid back into sin!

I slid so far back that I wound up getting gay-married by a drag queen with a sacrilegious name, Peaches Christ.

Oh wow! That is unbelievable.

So, putting that old hat back on, it’s crazy to hear him say the “good people go to Heaven” thing, because that isn’t evangelical at all! I have to call bullshit on that because if he’s going to loudly trumpet that being gay is evil but also his unbelieving dad is going to Heaven just because he’s a good person, that is inconsistent and unsound theologically. The number one salvation message of Christianity is that unless you reconcile yourself to God through accepting Jesus as your lord and savior, you won’t spend eternity with Him, period. I realize that I’m now taking this down the religious path with the movie and we were just talking about how you try to avoid that…

No, it’s okay! There were also a lot of hard questions I asked that made me feel comfortable making the film and telling the story that I wanted, and some of it definitely had to do with that hypocrisy. I grew up with literally no religion. We went to Sunday school when my parents were at church maybe twice. Then my parents divorced and my dad was like, “Should we keep going to church?” And my brother and I were like, “No, it’s boring.” And my dad was like, “Great, I don’t want to go either,” and that was that. It’s been intense to talk about, but just from the coming-out process you’re inundated with religious beliefs and hate, so I’m aware of it.

I would ask him stuff like, “Are you straight because you’re genuinely attracted to women, or is it just because you think it’s wrong in God’s eyes?” I got him to admit all that stuff he believes is true. At one point I was like, “So it’s totally wrong to be gay?” Him: “Yes.” “We [gay men] are all horrible and going to hell?” Him: “Yes.” “Okay, what if God appears and says I don’t give a shit who you sleep with? If He came down and said it’s okay to be gay, would you be gay again?” And he literally choked. Stuff like that is why I think the final shot of the film is totally in line with his character. Some people will see that and be like, “You’re obviously saying he’s going to become gay again.” And I’m like, “Actually I’m not, I’m just saying he’s still changing and evolving and uncertain,” which is the complete truth. But yeah, he couldn’t answer that question.

Yeah, when you’re living under so much self-imposed discipline and denial about something so essential to your core human identity, anything that comes along and undermines that feels like an earthquake. There was a young woman who came out in my college ministry and got removed from the team’s leadership, and I just couldn’t hear her message. I wanted so badly to believe that what she was saying was true, that it was possible to live as both gay and Christian. But ultimately fear prevailed for a while longer and I dismissed it as lies and laziness.

What does your husband think about your period of being ex-gay? Does it scare him?

Well, when I first moved to San Francisco I thought guys would be into the whole “good boy gone bad” thing; I didn’t anticipate that to most guys, my narrative was nothing but huge red flags about how much baggage I would have. So when I met my husband, I was pleasantly surprised that he didn’t flinch when I told him I was a Bible-reading Christian. He didn’t judge. There were definitely moments early on when he needed assurance that I was fully and completely out and wouldn’t go back to my former beliefs on this subject. Even when I came home from watching I Am Michael and was raving to him about how much I related to it, he kinda flashed a little side-eye at me as if it was going to somehow trigger me into regressing. This was the first time I’ve seen anything come so close to telling my own personal story, and it captured it all so eloquently.

That is so good to hear. This is a first for me, my first formerly ex-gay person I’ve been able to talk to about the movie! I think the more typical experience is someone who grew up in some sort of faith and then had to come out, which is way more common. I‘ve heard a lot of those stories, but I haven’t yet talked to an ex-ex-gay. It’s really interesting!

There was a period during college where I attended weekly ex-gay support meetings at a church in Akron. I was always the youngest person there by 20 or 30 years, surrounded by men and women who were usually married to people of the opposite sex and looking at me like, “Why are you here? You have your whole life to make mistakes and repent later.”

I think that’s why a lot of people are surprised by the film, they expect to see some kind of conversion therapy or ex-gay camp. I can tell even from questions I’ve read online from people who haven’t seen it like, “Why bother telling this person’s story who went through ex-gay therapy…” And I’m like “No, no, if he went through ex-gay therapy I wouldn’t have made the movie, that’s a different movie entirely.” I stuck so true to what he went through. He really did just do all of that on his own; he really did just go into a bookstore on a whim and buy a Bible. No one was telling him to do it, there was no pressure from his family, nothing. Just totally on his own.

It was the same with me; there were no external forces at play when I converted. I had no one in my life pressuring me to become Christian or denounce my sexuality or anything like that. It all came from some place inside me and I was completely autonomous every step of the way.

Wow.

Do you feel like there’s hesitation to talk about sexual identity in fluid terms because of political hesitation around losing our rights?

Big time. When I lived in San Francisco, I had a bunch of friends who were in that super-militant queer theorist group Gay Shame who were anti-gay marriage, and I could see why that’s a valuable point of view. Then I had my friends who were older gay men who wanted to get married and have kids and live in a nice house with a white picket fence. I didn’t relate to either side fully, which is why I was comfortable telling a story like this. But since I did feel like I’m open to those different perspectives, it made me more open to what Michael said about sexuality being fluid. I felt like I was talking to that point more until I got into a deep conversation with a friend about exactly what you asked. Like, “Well, what if some of the most antigay places in the world hear that in America we believe that sexuality is fluid? What they’ll hear is that we’re saying it’s a choice.”

I haven’t found a way to talk about it where I feel comfortable and confident that I’m expressing how sexuality is fluid without supporting antigay groups. I don’t know if there is a way, so I’m just honest about it and say I don’t know what the answer is. It’s tricky. I wish I had some eloquent solution but I just don’t. I do believe it’s fluid for those who want it to be fluid. I wouldn’t go out there stressing it, because then how come I’m not dating women? Maybe one day I would, but so far in my entire life I’ve had zero interest in dating or having sex with women. So, sexuality is not fluid for me. But it seems like if it were fluid for a lot of other people, then there’d be less fear, less homophobia, and less hate by far. If some drunk jock at a college party doesn’t think that hooking up with a guy that night means that you’re gay or that you’re a fag or all these things, he would just do it instead of beating the guy up.

They tell me the kids today are embracing that kind of thing.

Where are these kids? [Laughs.]

And do they wanna hang out?

Yeah, right?

I hear they all work at the Whole Foods next door to me, so I’m looking into it. Speaking of luridness, how did you feel as a filmmaker when every headline out of Sundance about I Am Michael said “JAMES FRANCO GAY THREE-WAY”?

It was definitely a crazy thing. I didn’t hate on it because of course they’re going to talk about that and I get it. Honestly, I wasn’t mad about it at all. My main concern was just that people were going to be disappointed [when they saw it because the scene isn’t explicit]. People might assume that scene was tame because of the actors or producer contracts, but it really wasn’t. Everyone was down! The actors were ready to get down and dirty. I was just thinking about how when I was the editor’s assistant on Milk, there were a lot of sex scenes and they all got cut. The most explicit thing in it is Harvey giving Scott a little peck in the beginning, and then there’s Harvey and the new boyfriend [Diego Luna] rolling around on the floor and Harvey slaps his butt. That’s it. But there were prosthetic penises made and major sex scenes!

You have no idea how crushed I was when I first heard about the prosthetic penises thing. I was like, “What have I been tracking down pictures of online all this time?”

James actually kept his; he made a short with it in Paris called Someone Penis-y where he wore it on his nose. It’s totally nuts. But I kept thinking about how I saw Gus Van Sant, an out gay director, and Elliot Graham, an out gay editor who I was working for, cut those scenes of their own accord because they weren’t really integral to the story. I kinda wish I would’ve gone a little further just because we did get all that press off of it, but the sex wasn’t important in their relationship. It wasn’t the reason that they connected, so I just felt like it wasn’t important to show. I’ve taken the movie to a few gay festivals so far and can definitely feel a palpable audience disappointment when it cuts from the foreplay to them making pancakes. Like, “Ugh, that’s it???” [Laughs.] But James grabs Zachary Quinto’s ass and licks Charlie Carver’s armpit if you look closely. It’s still hot!

I Am Michael is available on iTunes now.

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