Justin Kelly interview: On James Franco playing a gay man who renounces his homosexuality

Justin Kelly’s new feature will be screened at the upcoming London LGBT Film Festival

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The Independent Culture

Michael Glatze, the subject of Justin Kelly’s new feature I Am Michael, is a once gay man who announced in 2007 that he was straight.

Glatze (played in the film by James Franco) didn’t just renounce his homosexuality. He became part of the Christian right. “Gay doesn’t exist. It’s a false identity,” Glatze states at the start of the film when he is advising a troubled teenager who thinks that “God made” him gay. “If you want to go to heaven, if you’re a moral person, then you’ll choose heterosexuality in order to be with God.”

I Am Michael (the opening film at this year’s BFI Flare Festival) is inspired by a 2011 New York Times article about Glatze, “My Ex-Gay Friend,” written by Benoit Denizet-Lewis, who used to work with him at XY, a San Francisco-based gay magazine. The tone of the article is one of bemusement.

The journalist simply can’t work out why his ex-gay friend is living in Wyoming, attending Bible school and writing anti-gay articles. This, after all, is the state were gay student Matthew Shepard was tortured and murdered and where, as Denizet-Lewis points out, “two fictional cowboys fell in love on Brokeback Mountain.”

I am Michael director Justin Kelly and James Franco, who was also a producer on the film (Getty Images)

Young film-maker Kelly was an avid reader of XY magazine and was therefore all the more startled by Glatze’s transformation. “I remember thinking what a bizarre story and how could that possibly happen. It’s one thing to become straight – that’s not that big a deal – but to become anti-gay, to become a Christian pastor when he spent 15 years fighting against specifically Christianity...” Kelly’s voice tails off as he expresses his confusion.

Glatze, the co-founder of Young Gay America, was strong-willed. He wasn’t succumbing to peer pressure. The director did his own research into his subject’s life. He discovered that even after Glatze became a fundamentalist Christian, he briefly dated a man again. “No one knew that except for me because I did a lot of hard research. I definitely thought he wouldn’t want to see that (in the film) but in his mind anything he did in the past can be forgiven.”

Kelly insists that I Am Michael wasn’t made to vilify its subject. Glatze himself came to Sundance with his wife Rebecca for the film’s premiere in January and was enthusiastic about it, describing it as “a healing process” for him. He suggested it had changed him for the better and made him less dogmatic in his anti-gay views.

“In his mind, it’s simple,” the director says of the reasons for Glatze’s transformation. “To him, it’s like ‘I am a Christian. The Bible is the word of God. I have to be straight to go to heaven.’” Glatze’s parents died when he was young; he appears to believe that being “straight” will allow him to be reunited with them in the afterworld.

Emma Roberts and James Franco in I am Michael

“Even though I don’t really believe or agree with him I don’t think it is really fair for me to say he is wrong,” the director says. “It is in his personality to be extreme and dedicate himself wholly to a cause. He did it in his gay life and he did it again in his Christian life.”

As played by Franco, who is also one of the film’s producers, Glatze is charming and articulate. In the early scenes, he appears utterly relaxed about his sexuality. He jokes about meeting his boyfriend while protesting at a Christian coalition event and knowing it was true love because they were both arrested. We see him making a documentary about “queer youth in America because discrimination against LGBT youth” must be countered.

“The real Michael is very intelligent, charismatic, and has this magnetic presence about him. He is a very likeable guy,” says Kelly: “James has all of those qualities.”

The 34-year-old Kelly is a protégé of director Gus Van Sant (on whose film Milk he worked). Van Sant had first had the idea for making a film about Glatze and turned to Kelly to direct it after reading one of his screenplays and seeing his short films. Kelly’s next film with also deal with issues of identity and deception.


The subject this time will be JT (Jeremiah “Terminator”) LeRoy, the Rimbaud-like American writer who seemingly came from a poor, white trailer-trash background and went on to write several books, among them The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things (made into a movie by Asia Argento).

JT LeRoy, though, turned out to be a pseudonym. His books were actually written by a woman, Laura Victoria Albert, and the person who played LeRoy in public was Savannah Knoop.

“They saw their male counterparts getting further ahead in art and writing and life. They had this very rare opportunity to pretend to be a man that people believed in for six years.”

In both projects, Kelly’s real preoccupation is with identity and self-deception – with how, as he puts it, people “learn about themselves while trying to be someone else.”

Frangipani - the world’s first Sri Lankan LGBT film

Kelly will be in London for the UK premiere of his film at BFI Flare: London LGBT Film Festival. It is one of a number of intriguing titles that will be shown to British audiences for the first time. Malcolm Ingram will be bringing his new film, Out To Win, which looks at the experiences, good and bad, of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender sportspeople “working in the highest echelons of professional sport”.

The film features contributions from, among others, tennis stars Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova, American football running back David Kopay and basketball players John Amaechi and Jason Collins. As Navratilova says of her politics in the documentary: “I am controversial by birth. I was born in a communist country, I defected and I am gay – it’s like I’ve got no chance but to be an activist.”

The festival is also hosting the European premiere of Do I Sound Gay?, a film that explores the idea that there is a “gay voice”. This features contributions from former Star Trek actor George Takei, humorist and comedian David Sedaris, gay author and activist Dan Savage and comedian, fashion designer and actress Margaret Cho.

Tab Hunter in ‘Tab Hunter Confidential’

There is the European premiere of Jeffrey Schwarz’s film Tab Hunter Confidential, about the actor, singer and author Tab Hunter, a teen idol from the 1950s who went on to star in various outrageous John Waters films. Hunter himself is due in London for the screening.

BFI Flare will also be hosting a 40th-anniversary screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and Carol Morley will be presenting her new film The Falling, a tale of “schoolgirl obsessions and hysteria”.

Also showing is Frangipani, billed as the world’s first Sri Lankan LGBT film, new fashion feature Dior and I and Portrait of a Serial Monogamist a caustic comedy about 40-something lesbian dating.

‘I Am Michael’ is the opening film of BFI Flare: London LGBT Film Festival, 19 to 29 March (bfi.org.uk/flare)