65th Berlinale Interview: James Franco (Actor) & Justin Kelly (Director) – ‘I Am Michael’

James Franco & Justin Kelly at the 65th Berlinale

James Franco & Justin Kelly at the 65th Berlinale

Michael Glatze (James Franco) is handsome, charismatic, and opinionated. An Ivy League grad with multiple degrees, he’s a writer, pianist, and “queer theorist,” espousing his belief that sexual orientation shouldn’t define one’s identity. After years co-editing the iconic XY Magazine, a gay periodical based in San Francisco, he moves to Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, with his charming and intelligent architect-boyfriend, Bennett (Zachary Quinto). Michael experiences a traumatic health scare during which he thinks he’s going to die. Plagued by doubt, paranoia, and fear about the afterlife, he begins to question his beliefs and his identity. Once deemed healthy, he’s convinced that God saved him, pushing him to explore religion, eventually coming to his own decision that homosexuality is not a God-given identity. Michael renounces his gay lifestyle, rejects his friends, and endeavours to find his “true self.” He explores Buddhism and Mormonism, yet ultimately lands at a Christian Bible school in rural Wyoming where he meets his girlfriend, Rebekah (Emma Roberts), and becomes the pastor of his own church.

After a successful premiere at Sundance, ‘I am Michael‘ comes to the 65th Berlinale as part of the festival’s Panorama section.  We managed to sit down with one of the film’s stars, James Franco, as well as its talented Director Justin Kelly to discuss the film, what’s next, and, of course, ‘The Interview‘.

Find more information about ‘I am Michael’ at the 65th BerlinaleHERE


James, how do you feel having three films play at the 65th Berlinale this year?
James Franco:
It is great to be here. It wasn’t planned. To have films at the Berlinale by two of the giants of German cinema (Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders) is a very special honor. “I am Michael” is also a very important film for me. I’m very proud of it.

What made you decide to accept this project?
JF: I was with the project from the very beginning. Gus Van Sant talked to me about the article it was based on. This movie interested me for its own reasons, as it dealt with identity, politics, belief and faith in an unexpected way. We don’t expect to follow the character from a straight to gay narrative. In a movie like this you would expect the character to come out of the closet. Since it had that unexpected approach it was very interesting.

i-am-michael-james-franco-zachary-quintoDid you meet the real Michael Glatze?
JF: Yes we talked to him in various stages of the process. We had to get his life right and Justin did a lot of work with Michael and everyone else represented in the film. Justin did a lot of the heavy lifting and research to shape the stories. Now Michael has come around from his extreme views about gay lifestyles and the gay community. At the time Justin was researching, Michael was still staunch about his beliefs.

Justin Kelly: When I first met Michael it was at his Bible School in Wyoming so he was not yet a pastor and it was really intense.

So meeting Michael made the story more clarifying for you?
JK: Yes because the initial research, which was reading so much of what he wrote online, was very hateful so why would you want to make a movie about this guy. But once I met him, I could see he is a very intelligent, charming and charismatic guy. Once I spoke to him, and others, the story became much more interesting.

Did Michael Glatze see the film?
JF: Yes, he saw it at Sundance not long ago and he loved it. He did a press conference with us where he thanked both of us and even mentioned that it had been a healing experience for him.

So the film affected him in a positive way…
JK: It did. He has become less extreme, less dogmatic.

i-am-michael-zachary-quinto-james-franco1-600x400Where you afraid of any backlash from the community?
JK: Yes somewhat. Being such a polarized figure the community might ask why give such a person a voice. But I don’t see it as giving him a voice, it’s telling a story as it happened and I don’t think the film would be interesting had we done it to prove that he is wrong or lying to himself. We worked really hard to tell the story as it is and it happens to be about a gay guy who becomes straight.

How did you approach this project and the role?
JF: I make movies on all different positions on-set. I direct movies, sometimes I write them, sometimes I act in them, and I also produce. My reason to do movies now is not just from an actor’s perspective; to play a great character I want to challenge myself with. I got involved with this film because of its issues, as well as an interesting story, so I started on as a producer.  Foremost, I just wanted to have this project made. Later when Justin signed on, writing the script drafts, I realized how great it was and I thought I could serve it by acting as well. I decided to do both but it wasn’t because it will be a challenging character, it was more about the issues I am interested in as a creative person.

As an actor, I don’t have the need to show off. The choices I make are to help the projects. So if it is a character that requires extravagant behavior like ‘Spring Breakers‘, then I’ll go for it. If it’s something more subtle it won’t serve me to go to the director and say “I have this idea for my goal and I only wear purple jumpsuits”, it wouldn’t serve the project.

What was the purpose of “The Interview” and were you expecting the kind of reaction it received?
JF: I don’t think anyone was expecting what happened. I don’t think the Studio, even the President, expected that kind of reaction, but the role was what it was. I did what I thought was required for the project.

At the beginning of this project when Gus Van Sant pitched the idea you weren’t so sure about it becoming a film. What made you change your mind?
JF: It wasn’t quite that. I thought the article was very interesting but because the direction of this narrative goes from gay to straight my concern was not to make a pro gay to straight conversion film. It’s to examine identity and ask the questions, are we born with it? Who decides? All these issues were what was important to us. What I couldn’t see in the beginning, and what Justin shaped, was how we address those issues using this kind of narrative. If done poorly it could go against of what we were interested in.

i-am-michael-james-franco-emma-roberts1With a first-time director how was Justin approached to come on board this project?
JF: Gus introduced me to Justin, he was the assistant director on ‘Milk‘. Once Gus got the option to the article and gave me a short film Justin directed, he seemed to be the right person, so we both hired him.

Have you finished your university studies? Is there something you still want to study?
JF: I signed on to do a PHD in literature at Yale a long time ago, 3 or 4 years.  I’ve finished most of it, still working (laughs).

Can you tell us a little about the new film you are directing?
JF: I just directed one called ‘Zeroville‘ based on a book by Steve Erickson, acting in it is Seth Rogan, Will Ferrell, Megan Fox and Jacki Weaver.  I will also direct another film called ‘In Dubious Battle‘, based on a Steinbeck book.

– Interview conducted, edited & transcribed by Lia Fietz


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