• James Franco in 'King Cobra' (SBS Movies)Source: SBS Movies
Director Justin Kelly has two films playing in this year's Melbourne Queer Film Festival—'I Am Michael' and 'King Cobra'. Both are based on true events, and both star James Franco, but the films couldn't be more different.
By
Stephen A. Russell

14 Mar 2017 - 1:50 PM  UPDATED 14 Mar 2017 - 1:50 PM

Michael Glatze was a prominent queer rights activist and publisher until - three years after a health scare - he claimed he had found God and was no longer gay. In fact, he went much further, saying he was “repulsed by homosexuality,” and that it was a sign of his weakness, becoming an aggressively anti-gay Christian pastor.   

This revelation forms the basis of American writer/director Justin Kelly’s debut feature I Am Michael, starring James Franco as Glatze, and it's sure to spark debate at the after-party when it opens this year’s Melbourne Queer Film Festival (MQFF).

While the director met with Glatze, who offered to help where he could, it may still be a surprise to learn that when it screened at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, the pastor and his wife Rebekha were in attendance. “I thought he would sense how careful we were and how fair, so I didn’t think he would particularly hate it, but with the final scene implying that perhaps he may have made the wrong decisions, I thought that would maybe throw him,” Kelly says.  

In fact, Glatze told Kelly he loved the ending and was still searching for happiness, having belatedly reached out to the queer community to try and make amends for his hateful commentary. “He and his wife both cried and were giving James Franco a hug, thanking him,” Kelly adds.  

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An open-minded exploration of what makes Glatze - a confounding character - tick, I Am Michael also stars out actors Zachary Quinto and Charlie Carver as Glatze’s former polyamorous partners, plus a cameo from Daryl Hannah. Kelly will be a guest of the festival, with this his first time in Australia, and MQFF will also showcase his sophomore feature, the pop noir true-crime drama King Cobra.  

James Franco also stars in King Cobra as small-time porn producer, pimp and livewire Joe Kerekes, a man who, interestingly enough, was a former youth pastor. Keegan Allen plays his boyfriend, escort and video star, ex-navy man Harlow Cuadra. Their feud with a rival home studio forms the basis of this shocking real life murder story.  

That studio is Cobra Video, run by Bryan Kocis in the real life tale, although Kelly has altered his name to Stephen for the film adaptation. He’s played by Mr Robot star Christian Slater, with Garrett Clayton as his in-demand, bareback twink star Sean Paul Lochart - going by the porn name Brent Corrigan. Alicia Silverstone and Molly Ringwald also appear for extra cult cache.

“I’ve always been drawn to films about flawed characters, people living on the fringe,” Kelly says. “In high school I watched a bunch of Almodóvar and John Waters, and early films from Gus Van Sant and Todd Haynes, like Mala Noche, Superstar and Poison.”

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Hooked by news reports detailing the controversial bond between Lochart and Kocis, it wasn’t until Kelly discovered the book Cobra Killer by Andrew E. Stoner and Peter A. Conway that he felt he had enough material to flesh out both sides of the story. “Joe was just a ticking time bomb, and when I read about him and Harlow, these wild aggressive escorts who really did fight and make up all the time, I thought ‘how cool [would it be] to make this more of an ensemble piece?’”

There’s a dark streak of black humour coursing through King Cobra that sets it apart from the more serious tone of I Am Michael, particularly in the portrayal of Joe and Harlow, who Kelly says clearly, “thought they were much bigger, smarter and cooler than they really were”.

One thing Kelly wasn’t interested in doing was passing moral judgement on the porn industry. “It’s interesting, because porn actors are always so vilified, so many people judge them for doing it, but then those same people watch porn, which is hilarious.”

Slater, in particular, delivers a very human performance. “It’s more interesting to try and understand characters than just vilify them,” Kelly says. It’s why he was also drawn to Glatze, despite I Am Michael’s even-handed approach opening him up to accusations of giving a platform to gay hate speech and possibly validating conversion therapy.  

Kelly acknowledges that Glatze has written “a lot of very nasty, anti-gay things,” and says that he initially found it “difficult… to even try to be non-judgemental” about him. It wasn’t until they met in person, he recalls, that he felt he could even take on the project.

Recalling “the passion in [Glatze’s] eyes,” Kelly says, “When you’re sitting across from someone and they’re telling you, ‘I don’t care what people say, I’m happier this way’… who am I to tell him that he’s actually wrong?”

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He adds: “Not that l agree with him - because I don’t - but it’s more interesting to try and get to the core of what’s happened.”

Recently, James Franco has made headlines as people have debated whether his string of gay-centred projects is ‘baiting’ a queer audience, or even whether it constitutes cultural appropriation. While Kelly finds Franco’s fascination with queer cinema intriguing, he doesn’t find it problematic.

“I just think that he’ll always pick a great story and a great character regardless of who they sleep with,” he says. “It’s funny because that, to me, is the kind of progress that the gay community has been asking for forever - to not judge us based on who we sleep with or who we love - so he’s kind of doing what people keep saying they want yet at the same time getting torn down by some people in the gay community.”

I Am Michael will open the 27th Annual Melbourne Queer Film Festival on Thursday March 16. Keep an eye out for late release tickets here. King Cobra screens on Saturday March 18th, tickets here. Stephen A. Russell will host an In Conversation event with Justin Kelly at ACMI Cube on March 19th, tickets here.