The opening night Frameline screening of Justin Kelly’s debut feature I Am Michael is a homecoming of sorts. Through raised in SoCal, Kelly spent much of his twenties in San Francisco, where he made a number of inventive no-budget music videos for queer artists such as The Gossip, Hey Willpower, M Lamar, Hunx and His Punx, and Alexis Penney. Kelly directed some short films as well (he cast Daeg Faerch in 2007’s Front before Rob Zombie “discovered” him for the Halloween remake), but I Am Michael is his graduation to the feature form. Executive produced by Gus Van Sant and starring James Franco, its story — based upon Benoit Denizet-Lewis’s New York Times article “My Ex-Gay Friend” —has some Bay Area touchstones as well: the movie charts Michael Glatze’s transformation (or is it?) from a young gay magazine editor in San Francisco to a straight-identified pastor in Wyoming.
EatDrinkFilms: Even before making I Am Michael , you had an interest in making a film related to Savannah Knoop’s Girl Boy Girl: How I Became JT Leroy. What do you think draws you to stories that question or cut through easy assumptions or current-day definitions of identity?
Justin Kelly: It feels like this unwritten rule or law that we have to find out who we are and stick with that for the rest of our lives. A lot of people do. I’m always drawn to stories like Rachel Dolezal’s, or Laura [Albert]’s and Savannah’s, or Michael’s. It’s such a huge thing to decide to change who you are. I’m fascinated by that, and want to understand why.
EDF: For me, XY magazine conjures memories of SF in the mid-’90s; I remember some friends reacting critically against its sexualized cover images of gay youth, which had a dark undercurrent in the story of Josh Puckett. At the same time, the magazine seems almost iconically representative of a time in gay culture when representations of coming out became more celebratory and perhaps more youthful. Was XY on your radar as you grew up, came of age and came out? In writing the screenplay and creating this film, did you read the magazines and Michael Glatze’s writings to get a sense of how his views changed over the years?
JK: I used to read XY at the bookstore, the Barnes and Noble or Borders, in my hometown. I would sneak [a look at] them — pretend I was going to grab an entertainment magazine, but put XY inside to read it. As you mentioned, it was scandalous because of the cover images of young boys.
I was very familiar with XY and it was the first thing along with the story — a gay activist becoming an anti-gay pastor — that got my interest. Thanks to Peter [Ian Cummings], the founder and editor of XY , I got a stack of about 40 back issues and got to go through and read Michael’s writing, including his first article. It was helpful in terms of seeing how he was evolving as a writer, and what he was writing about. He often wrote about issues of identity. He was into queer theory and wrote about how gay people shouldn’t feel the need to identify as gay — which he says now. Interesting [laughs].
It’s a complicated issue to address, the idea of identifying ourselves by who we sleep with. It’s something I never expected to talk about so much, to be honest.
When I lived in San Francisco in my twenties, I had a lot of friends who were queer activists and involved in Gay Shame who didn’t want to assimilate into straight culture or support gay marriage, and a whole other subset of friends who wanted to get married, buy a house, and have kids. I never leaned towards either side, and I think that helped in being objective with this story.
EDF: An early scene of the film is set in the Castro, and The Fisher King is on the marquee. Having lived in SF for a large part of your adulthood, what was it like to return there to film some sequences, and what were the challenges?
JK: The San Francisco segments were the last two days of production. It was exhilarating because I’d lived there for close to nine years. I went there to go to film school and make work and run amok all over the city without a permit filming crazy shit. I had such an amazingly supportive group of friends and collaborators. I feel like I learned so much about filmmaking and storytelling, and I had my eye on the prize the entire time. I always wanted to be a director. It was never just a hobby for me, it was a career path, and it’s so hard to get into. To be able to come back to San Francisco and shoot was exciting, and as you probably noticed, I called all my friends to come be extras.
EDF: Do you think Glatze’s changing identity goes beyond or outside of sexuality? I’ve read some people’s reactions to him (in the Denizet-Lewis piece, for example) and to the movie, that put forth the idea that his gay identity was as much a knowing and perhaps artful construct as his current one. It rings a bell in terms of individuals I’ve encountered in the course of life, certainly within LGBT circles. Not to say such people were or are impostors, but rather that personality and notions of public and private self are complicated. There’s a dissatisfaction with self that seems fundamental to Michael’s character.
JK: Definitely. That’s why I found myself having to defend the reason why we wanted to tell this story. To me, his big shift of identity could have been about anything. Because it’s sexual orientation it might be a bit more shocking or controversial, but really he’s having this identity crisis and trying to find out who he is. For whatever reason — and we provide clues in the film — he decides he does not want to be perceived as gay and therefore can’t be gay. There are people who’ve found a middle ground, who date people of the same sex but don’t participate in the culture or go to gay bars, but he didn’t want to be thought of as gay. It’s extremist, to go full-on in the other direction. For me, it’s only fair to tell the story in the way that the films I like tackle a character who might be considered unlikeable, whether it’s a mean boss at work or a serial killer. A good movie won’t just attack and vilify, but try to understand them.
EDF: At screenings, have you noticed any differences between the responses from mixed audiences and from primarily LGBT audiences?
JK: It’s been relatively similar in terms of support. People who are skeptical going in — though not everyone — seem to understand and appreciate it once they’ve seen it. People gay and straight have thanked me for taking a more nonjudgmental approach because it allows discussion. With the mixed audiences, there tends to be a bit more engagement during Q&A. I don’t exactly know why, but I kind of wonder if the strictly gay audiences are kind of reeling or hesitant, having just watched something about someone who has written hateful, anti-gay stuff.
The only screening where there was a specifically different reaction was at the Berlin Film Festival. At Sundance, we had four big screenings, one of which was in Salt Lake with a largely Mormon audience. Almost everyone stayed for the Q&A, and multiple people said the film nailed the Mormon sections and that they appreciated the sensitivity towards religion. It was a great reaction. In Berlin, people were a lot more critical, especially older gay viewers. I got a few unexpected reactions along the lines of, “Why would you even want to make this movie and give this person a voice?”
EDF: As a writer or public personality, Michael isn’t especially compelling to me. But his life story is interesting in that it provides a different — questioning or complicated — vantage from which to view shifts in identity that are often taken for granted when navigating personal relationships.
JK: Even when I first met Michael, he said something like, “I’m not that interesting a guy. What’s the story — why would you make a movie about me?” What he went through speaks to so many different things. It’s not just a film about a gay person becoming straight. That becomes almost secondary. It’s about people struggling with identity, struggling to find themselves, and the extremes that they go through to find happiness. Who are we to judge that he didn’t find that happiness?
EDF: Some of the film’s themes, and its final shot, reminded me a bit of Todd Haynes’s Safe.
JK: I did think of Safe , though not until after making the film, because of people’s reactions. Safe is done so well that someone could watch the film and think the main character is totally batshit crazy and someone else could watch it and think she’s totally right.
Some gay people see I Am Michael and say, “Oh, it’s cool that the film is so balanced — he’s obviously insane, he has a diagnosable problem.” And other people say, “I’m happy he’s found himself.”
EDF: Early media coverage of I Am Michael fixated on a three-way sex scene in a titillating way. In most movies (and overarching society), three-way relationship dynamics are automatically rendered as love triangles, but your movie contains a “throuple.” Were there particular challenges to representing this visually?
JK: I consulted a friend who is in a relationship that was the same — three men. There’s a scene that’s at a doctor’s office, and I asked him, “Do you all sit together?” He said, “Oh no, because I was the new person, the third, I would sort of stand in the back.” There were all these rules or things to think about — like who sleeps in the middle — but in a subtle way. It’s not the focal point of the story, but it was important to show, because I felt like it added to a bit of Michael’s jealousy and insecurity and was a tiny factor in what made him change. I had to ask a lot of questions and figure out how to set up shots.
The three-way sex scene was totally blown out of proportion [by the media], but I get that it’s the scandalous draw … I’m sure there will be an audible something [from the Castro Theatre audience] when we cut to the pancake scene.
EDF: Do you have a favorite shot in the film?
JK: One would be of Michael sitting in the pews right after the breakup. There’s a shot of a cross, and then it cuts to him in the bottom right of the frame. James’s performance, the way that it’s framed, and the light — it’s haunting.
EDF: You’ve made a lot of creative no-budget or low-budget music videos for imaginative queer musicians. Were there practical ways in which those experiences helped you on the road to making a feature film? At the same time, making a feature is I’d imagine a very different experience: What were the biggest challenges?
JK: While making all those music videos and the shorts, I remember that with almost every new project, it would be, “The last one was so difficult, what was I thinking?” There’d be a three-day shoot — like with Veronica Lipgloss — for under 500 dollars, which was barely enough to buy people food and rent the camera. But I’m grateful I had that experience, along with editing experience. It helped a lot with this, and informed a lot of decisions, and it did make me feel confident that I could pull anything off. We had a tough schedule with a lot of location and costume changes, and past experience definitely helped me power through and quickly come up with solutions to problems.
We had one huge school campus that we were using for twenty or more locations in the film because it had everything — even a doctor’s office — and we lost it because it was a Catholic college and they found out what the film was about. Stuff like that happened literally every day. But because the film was fully union, I didn’t have to do everything like I had to with other projects.
EDF: This is the kind of question most directors give evasive answers to or find annoying, but I know you’re an avid movie watcher — were there any favorite films that you thought about while you were making the movie? (One piano recital sequence reminded me of your love of Michael Haneke.)
JK: Sort of subject matter-wise, I’ve always been such a fan of Three Women. It’s a bit off from this film, but I’ve seen it a million times and sort of had it in the back of my mind. Certain things about the way it was shot were inspiring for this film. And somewhat randomly, Shame, actually, because I felt like it dealt with similar issues.
Because the film is such a character study, I knew that I wanted the filmmaking to be very still except during the breakup. I didn’t want to force the audience to feel a certain way by music choices or the way it’s shot. I wanted to capture these characters’ faces and what they were going through and thinking. My director of photography Chris [Blauvelt] and I like a lot of the same films, and we could reference a lot of films that his mentor Harris Savides shot.
One funny thing related to the Castro premiere is that during shooting we did a lot of screen grabs to give people an idea about the tone in a scene, and some were from Francois Ozon’s Time to Leave. I went to Frameline’s opening night screening of that film. It was so close to this date that I wondered if it was ten years to the day of this premiere, but I think it’s nine years. It sounds so cheesy, but I remember seeing Francois and thinking, “That’s going to be me one day.”
It’s a real double-, triple-, quadruple-whammy — Castro Theatre, opening night of Frameline, so many friends who saw me try to get to this place. It’s a lot of cool things rolled up into one.
Frameline39: I AM MICHAEL
Thursday, June 18, 2015; 7pm. Castro Theatre, 419 Castro St, SF.
Johnny Ray Huston has written about film, music, and visual art for 25 years at various newspapers, magazines, and websites. He has co-created movies and put together film programs shown at Artists’ Television Access, Yerba Buena Center of the Arts, and the San Francisco International Film Festival, and written and made collage work for exhibitions at [2nd Floor Projects] in San Francisco. He’s collaborated with director Skye Thorstenson on two movies, Tourist Trap (winner of the Golden Gate Award for Best Bay Area Short at the 2011 SF International Film Festival) and Morgies.