Justin Kelly's debut feature 'I Am Michael' has already had some stunning premieres at Sundance and the Berlin Film Festival and his film is set to open the 2015 BFI Flare. Starring Zachary Quinto and James Franco in the real-life story of Michael Glatze, a former gay rights advocate and co-founder of Young Gay America who became an anti-gay pastor.
Hello Justin, thanks for talking to The New Current, how's everything going?
How does it feel to be having your debut film open this year's BFI Flare?
It's an honour to screen at the festival, let alone be the opening night film. It's awesome!
Your debut feature "I Am Michael" has had an incredible festival run, tell me a little bit about how the film came about?
The impetus was a New York Times article called "My Ex-Gay Friend" which Gus Van Sant read and thought would make an interesting film. James Franco optioned the material then he and Gus brought me in to write and direct. I'd been making short films, music videos, and editing independent features for the past 10+ years, and the subject matter really appealed to me because I'm interested in characters who go to extreme lengths to alter their identity, so we decided to move forwards together and make this film!
Has the reaction to the film surprised you?
The overall reaction has been positive, so I feel great about that, but the one reaction that has surprised me is when gay people fear that the balanced approach to Michael's story is dangerous. We wanted the film to be as balanced as possible, without judging or vilifying Michael, because that's how we can get inside his head and understand why he changed from one extreme to the other, and it allows us to start a conversation about queer identity, the power of belief, the desire to belong, and more... but I don't think the film is "dangerous" because I do believe that we can make a film about a gay man who becomes anti-gay without supporting his decision; a version of the film that spoon feeds the audience to prove that Michael is either right or wrong wouldn't interest me.
I Am Michael
Originally Published during BFI Flare 2015
You have an impressive cast, was it difficult to convince the guys to get on board with "I Am Michael"?
I was so fortunate to get to work with such phenomenal actors. I didn't have to personally convince anyone, they just read the script and really responded to the material and understood what I was going for.
When did you realise you wanted to make this into your debut feature?
This story felt so relevant to me. It explores sexuality, religion, and belief. It's controversial and fascinating and I knew that it would start a conversation about topics that I'm interested in discussing.
What has been the most challenging scene you filmed?
There's a very simple scene that's one shot where Michael is in a straight bar trying to pick up a women. It was probably the most takes of any scene that we did because I wanted to choreograph the extras and have Michael land in a certain spot and see a woman off screen and throw this look that's like, "I can do this. I can pick up a woman." In the end I love the result.
Looking back would there be anything you'd do differently on this film?
Not that I can think of.
Have you always been interested in film making?
Yes. For as long as I can remember.
Who have been your biggest inspirations?
Gus Van Sant, Francios Ozon, Pedro Almodovar, Claire Denis, Michael Haneke, PT Anderson, Fassbender.
"I hope that people will think about the power of belief and religion, and what that power holds over how people identity and the constraints that puts on their lives."
What have been the biggest lessons you've learnt from this production?
How to work with a large crew. How to ensure that your vision isn't compromised under the constraints of a tight budget and schedule. How to tell a story while on set, because it's always different than the script, and how to then tell the story again in the edit room.
What do you hope people will take away from your film?
I hope that people will think about what it means to identify as anything: gay, straight, Christian, etc. I hope that people will think about the power of belief and religion, and what that power holds over how people identity and the constraints that puts on their lives. I hope that people will better understand Michael Glatze and what he went through, and see that we can all learn from his experience without agreeing with his life choices.
And finally what would be the best advice you would give someone who is about to making their first film?
Never stop working on the script, and be open minded when it comes to collaborating with everyone on set.