In 2011, Benoit Denizet-Lewis wrote "Going Straight," an article about his ex-gay friend for the New York Times Magazine. It reads like a Grimms' Fairy Tale for queer culture: Michael Glatze, an outspoken gay role model and activist, not only goes straight but also denounces homosexuality outright.
Filmmaker Justin Kelly read the story of Glatze's Christian conversion and asked, "How did this happen?" His first feature film I Am Michael attempts to answer that complex question.
Michael's first internal conflict comes from being gay while yearning for a religious/spiritual practice.
Justin Kelly: It's complicated for him, which is why I always stress that it is just one person's very specific story. It was a combination of being unhappy from moving to a new place, and never having successfully grieved the death of his parents. On top of that he felt like because of who he was surrounded by, identifying as gay means that you do X, Y and Z and look this way and talk this way. He came to a place where, in part because of his interest in religion, he felt like he no longer identified with the person he had been.
It's not so uncommon at all for people to question their identity... He could have stopped identifying as gay without turning against the community, but he felt the need to take that extra step.
Michael comes across as a character who is lost. At the same time, he feels he has a calling to tell gay people how they should live.
Does being gay mean that you should celebrate your difference and not desire to assimilate or do anything to make straight people happy, such as getting married? Or does it mean that you should become more “normal” because that leads to more acceptance? ...the film's not seeking the answer, or to prove anything. It's the kind of story that incites conversation about a lot of topics that I'm interested in.
In the very first scene Michael is in bed with his partner and he is so full of joy. By the end of the film, that joy is completely drained from him.
Some people at screenings or interviews have questioned why the film was made and if it could be used against the gay community. [That] speaks to the film being balanced and not judging him... But at the same time, had he undergone ex-gay therapy and come out of this an extremely happy person, that's not the movie I would've wanted to make at all.
Everything in the film really is factual... He really did have a complete breakdown that was far worse than what we show in this film... He's still searching for what's next. If he has an addiction, it's an addiction to trying to reinvent himself. Maybe he would say “finding himself.”
What is James Franco’s process like as an actor?
All I can say is he just has this very uncanny ability to multitask and be able to click something in his brain to shift from the person reading and observing, to going to a lecture, to teaching in a class, to acting in a scene in the film. Before every scene we'd just sit down, talk about what the character's going through and I would just see him completely get it, almost immediately.
How did you connect with Gus Van Sant, the film’s executive producer?
I was an assistant to the editor on Milk back in 2008... Towards the end of the job [Van Sant] ended up watching this short film that was my thesis film and he liked and respected it.
We kept in contact from time to time after Milk but this really came about from one of those magical moments where he read the article and pitched it to James Franco. He said, “I know the perfect person who made this short film that deals with identity and perception,” and he just connected us, me and James, then we hit it off and went from there.
Was Safe, a film by Todd Haynes, another cinematic influence?
I think that Julianne Moore’s character is treated in the same way I treated Michael. There is one interpretation of Safe that makes her seem completely insane. There's another that makes her seem completely right. It wasn't leaning towards either side; it was just trying to help us understand what she's going through.
You don't fully realize or understand how it works until you start to get those responses. You'll definitely have some people just come up and say, “I feel bad for him because he's so insane.” Then some of the people say, “Oh my God, that's such a beautiful story, he finally found himself. I'm happy for him.” Completely different responses.