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7 Things Learned About James Franco’s ‘I Am Michael’ at Indiewire’s Sundance Panel

7 Things Learned About James Franco's 'I Am Michael' at Indiewire's Sundance Panel

One of the more provocative titles at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, “I Am Michael” hails from first time feature filmmaker Justin Kelly and stars James Franco opposite Zachary Quinto, Emma Roberts and Charlie Carver. Based on Benoit Denizet-Lewis’ New York Times Magazine article “My Ex-Gay Friend,” the emotional character drama tells the true story of Michael Glatze, a gay activist who went on to renounce his homosexuality in 2007 and eventually denounce it as a sin. While Glatze’s life may be understandably troubling for some viewers, Kelly’s astute handling of his subject provides ample fuel for exploring Glatze’s mentality without reducing it to a one-sided punchline. During an “Indiewire in Conversation at Chase Sapphire on Main” panel at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, stars Franco and Quinto, director Kelly and subject Michael Glatze joined Indiewire’s Editor-in-Chief Dana Harris for a lively discussion about their new film. Here are the event’s biggest takeaways:

You can thank Gus Van Sant for “I Am Michael.”

Gus Van Sant is credited as one of the drama’s Executive Producers, but the Oscar-winning director was actually the first one who got the ball rolling on the project. As James Franco explained, “Gus Van Sant came to me out of the blue and said, ‘Hey, check out this article in The New York Times Magazine, I think it could make a good movie.’ I looked at this article and it’s not really the direction
that you’d expect to go in with a story like this. You normally have the coming out story, but this movie goes in the other direction.” In addition to bringing the story to Franco’s attention, Van Sant also suggested Kelly for the director’s position and showed Franco Kelly’s short film as proof of his capabilities. Kelly had worked with Van Sant before as an assistant editor on “Milk.”

 

Quinto responded personally to the film’s approach to sexual identity.

“I really responded to Bennett, the character I was being
asked to play,” explained Quinto. “I’ve never done a gay movie. I’ve played gay characters
before but I’ve never really done anything that actually addresses, examines
and explores the issue of sexual identity, which obviously in our culture today
is becoming ever more fluid. I liked that it adopted this position of neutraility. That was
something for me that made it very clear about the character I was playing. It’s very complicated, and I responded to that. I think
Bennett is a really strong, authentic voice. He wasn’t going to be swayed by
all the things happening around him, only by his commitment to his love for Michael. That’s something that I identify with and it drew me into the story.”

Kelly’s research for the film extended way beyond the article headline.

Kelly dug beneath Denizet-Lewis’ article and “Gay Guy Goes Straight” longline and reached out to a number of Glatze’s friends in researching the project. “A lot of little tiny things
that came up in conversations that they didn’t think was important to the story ended up shaping it,” the director explained. “I read a lot of things online that Michael wrote that I
disagreed with, but when I met the
exes in Halifax their number one concern was protecting Michael, and that was
this major turning point for me in the re-write. I could see they knew that he
meant well and he was going through this rough time. Their love and support for
him made me take a new direction in the script and made me be as neutral as
possible.”

Glatze was open to a film about his life only after realizing what the themes would be.

“It was a crazy idea that I wasn’t willing to do it at first, but I
considered it and thought about it,” Glatze bluntly explained. “The movie explores indentity and how
fascinating the search for yourself really can be in life. I think once I got
this sense of there was a good heart in the middle of this project, I really
felt excited about it. The issues it addresses are so divisive and so full of anger. Our tendency
as human beings is to grab hold of some identification so that we can
politically prove ourselves to some other group, and that’s inherently divisive
in and of itself. The film really opens up this really raw space in which
we can say, “Wait a minute, is it possible for us to be ourselves and then
figure out the definitions later?” Once I felt Justin and James and everybody on board were kind of
looking at this not as some sort of, “Let’s pick this side and attack the other
side and blame Michael for the good things he did here and the bad things he did there,” then I knew I was ready to take this on.”

Franco’s research for the project fell entirely on Kelly. 

When asked about the amount of research he did for the movie, Franco surprised by claiming that everything boiled down to his relationship with Kelly behind and in front of the camera. “I have to say that after a certain point my guide
on this movie was Justin,” said Franco. “Once I saw how on the ball Justin was, and how
extensive his research was, I think I just followed whatever he said. Of course
with any character I want to be in synch with my director, so it was just a lot
of discussions with Justin about where the character was at any given point and
why he might be thinking certain things or feeling certain things. It was about
being clear with Justin at every point of the way. Justin needed to be very clear where we were at
any given point because a lot of the drama and the arc and development of the
piece is happening within the character.”

Glatze sees himself in Franco’s performance.

“Watching James be me is
weird,” Glatze admitted, “but when he gets this sort of dark, blank stare as he’s going through a deep spiritual trauma in
his heart, I’m just like, ‘Yup, that’s me.’ When he dogmatically stares at
someone who he lived with only a couple years earlier and says something so aloof
and cold as if to dismiss that person like he’s no longer human, I think to
myself that I’ve been there. I know what it’s like to buy into something and
then in a second no longer see someone as a human being. This movie brings
that out and shows the capacity we have to be harsh and strange to each other.” 

The film has been a cathartic experience for Glatze.

“Their interest in my life has actually
stimulated an incredible amount of healing in my own personal life,” Glatze observed. “As I’ve gone from one extreme to another, you
realize you start to settle and something happens in the middle and that thing
is very hard to define, and the tendency is to grab hold on to one definition and
than the other comes back and says, ‘Why didn’t you hold on to me?’ So you find
yourself balancing somewhere in the middle, and that’s where I am today and I love
it. This whole thing, it’s caused that to happen in me. Now I can move forward
in a much more whole and centered way in my real life. Rebecca, who
Emma Roberts plays, and Bennett and I all spent last weekend together crying
and saying we love each other. My mom died of breast cancer, which is in the
movie, and his mom just died of breast cancer recently. We were crying thinking about our moms and thinking
about life. This project, the fact that it happened, has stimulated so much
goodness in me.”

“I Am Michael” premiered this weekend at the Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.

READ MORE: Sundance Review: James Franco Excels in ‘I Am Michael,’ a Provocative Look at ‘Ex-Gay’ Activist Michael Glatze

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