Justin Kelly is a writer-director living in Los Angeles who has wanted to be a filmmaker since childhood and has been working towards making that happen ever since. He started off as a production assistant in the 90s, then moved to San Francisco to go to film school so that he could study directing. He made a bunch of short films and music videos, then started editing as a means to make a living, beginning with short documentaries and working up to narrative feature films, all the while writing various features of his own. After three years of developing “I am Michael,” it became his directorial debut, about which he says, “Damn, I am beyond ecstatic to premiere it at Sundance!”
What it’s about: “I Am Michael” is based on the fascinating true story of a gay activist who becomes an anti-gay Christian pastor.
What it’s really about: This film explores the power of belief and the desire to belong.
When 30-year-old gay activist Michael Glatze published his 2007 article, “Confessions of a Former Gay Rights Leader,” he shocked his former contemporaries and his boyfriend of ten years, Bennett, with the revelation that he’d become a heterosexual, anti-gay Christian. His unusual and controversial story sparked heated debate—Christian news outlets praised his strength and made him the face of the ex-gay movement, while gay news outlets shunned his weakness, insisting that he’s lying to himself and the world.
More than just a story about a gay activist who goes straight, this film reveals the series of events that led to Michael’s transformation, which create a complex and fascinating portrait of a man struggling with his identity yet determined to find his place in this world.
How we identify shapes how we’re perceived, and although identifying as a part of a community (be it gay, straight, Christian, Buddhist…) can create a sense of community and comfort, it can also box you into something that you’re expected to adhere to. That’s what makes this film so unexpectedly relatable. We all identify as something yet we all occasionally question what that really means. We all desire to be perceived a certain way, and we love to control that perception, be it with our style, car, Facebook pictures, etc., but what if some newfound beliefs made you question your identity? What if how you’re perceived began to clash with who you think you truly are? What extremes would you go through to reexamine your identity?
Biggest challenge: Wanting more than the budget allows.
Any films inspire you? “Beau Travail,” “I Can’t Sleep,” “The Piano Teacher,” “Code Unknown,” “Fat Girl,” “Shame,” “Boogie Nights,” “All About My Mother,” “Fox and His Friends,” “In a Year With 13 Moons,” “Three Women,” “Ratcatcher,” “Ida,” “Elephant,” “Time to Leave,” “Before Night Falls,” “Breaking the Waves,” “Wild at Heart,” “Gummo,” “Happiness”… omg what am I forgetting…
Cameras used: Arri Alexa with Hawk V-Lite lenses.
Did you crowdfund? No. We reached out to film financiers first, and although it took a while… it eventually panned out.
Hopes for Sundance audience take-away: I want people to think about the power of religion and belief, the fluidity of identity, the need to belong and the extremes that we’re willing to go through in order to be loved, and the complexities of how we perceive others and ourselves, to name a few things.
What’s next? Another controversial true story! Based on the memoir Girl Boy Girl: How I Became JT LeRoy.