Justin Kelly talks to Tiffany Pritchard about his feature directorial debut, the true story of Michael Glatze’s transition from gay to straight and the challenges he faced in tackling the controversial move. James Franco and Zachary Quinto star and Gus van Sant serves as executive producer.

What made you choose this particular story for your feature debut?
I was excited because [Glatze’s] story deals with a lot of issues I have dealt with in my music videos and short films. My films often deal with identity and perception – people that want to be somebody else. It’s really relatable on a number of levels.

Did you find conversion therapy and gay men and women turning straight more common than you thought?
A lot of people think this issue is outdated, but it’s not. There are still people that think they were born gay – and that they have to be straight to go to heaven. More often than not it boils down to religion. If you didn’t have pastors or religious parents saying it’s wrong then you would never think it’s wrong. That’s why I included a lot of stuff about queer theory and gay identity, which is what Michael was really into. It took lots of research to find the best way to tell the story – it’s always much more than just ‘gay guy goes straight.’

Did you have the opportunity to meet Michael Glatze?
Yes. The first time I met him was at his Bible school in Wyoming about 2-and-a-half years ago [one year after Benoit Denizet-Lewis’ New York Times article was published and five years after Glatze made his announcement he was going straight]. At first it was hard to talk to him. He was like a robot. He was in his final years of Bible school, and he was spouting Bible verses. I remember telling him ‘I want you to tell me what you really think.’

Was he accepting of your making the film?
I think he expected a more recognisable director so he was taken aback when he met me. But he knew it would be executive produced by Gus Van Sant, who he is a fan of, and that James Franco would be starring in it – so he trusted that they had put their support in me.

Has he seen the film?
He actually saw the film here with his wife, Rebecca, on Saturday [January 24] and they both loved it. It’s exciting and a little scary. I wanted them to like it and that means what we did worked. But then if he is publicly talking about it – some might think he was involved and had a say in our film proving that gay men can go straight. That is not at all the case. He was actually in a talk here on Saturday – I think he wanted to share his side of the story. But he has chosen not attend the premiere so not to steal the spotlight. I thought that was commendable.

Were you in touch with his ex-boyfriends and family?
I went to Halifax six months after I visited Michael in Wyoming where I met all three of his ex-boyfriends [who have asked to remain anonymous]. They were all skeptical at first, but oddly enough their concern was more for Michael’s well-being and not their own. Once they opened up I got all these interesting and fascinating story points. This guy was scared of everything – life, death – it gave a more human side to him. That changed the whole angle of the script and made it easier for me to tell his story in a non-judgmental way. We were also in touch with Rebecca over the phone, his sister in San Francisco and even the producer of his documentary Jim in Bold. Everyone had a different take on Michael.

Have you had a backlash from the gay community?
We’ve had little issues throughout filming, but I think most people are willing to see the film and what our angle is. After the press screening we heard people wondering: “Is this going to look like propaganda – like a Christian organisation trying to say, ‘You too can be straight.’” But we would have never made it if it was that simple. He had a breakdown for years of his life. He thought he was dying. It’s clear that he is an extremist and pretty dogmatic. My friends that have seen it think he clearly has issues whereas his Christian friends will see it and think differently. I feel confident in showing there is no wrong or right. Who is to say he is not happy now? A lot of gay journalists have attacked him saying he is suppressing his gay feelings, but who are we to judge?

How did you meet Gus Van Sant?
I was the editor’s assistant on Milk in 2008. I stayed in contact and it was fortuitous timing that he had just read a script of mine about gay identity and really liked it. So when James [Franco] optioned the rights Gus said ‘I have the perfect director.’ It was crazy – like a dream come true.

What was it like working with James Franco?
Both Gus and James came to me with Michael’s life rights, which means contractually Michael had no say in the script or edit. They were not sure there was even a feature in his story, but with James Franco as the producer and the lead I was obviously going to go nuts until I found the movie inside the story. James loves being a mentor to emerging artists; he teaches film at USC and UCLA, so he puts a lot of faith behind first-time directors. Not a lot of actors of his calibre do that. He really listened to what I had to say.

Talk about the production shoot
We had a very tight schedule: 20 days in total with 17 in Long Island [a replacement for Halifax]; two in San Francisco; and one purely for graphics. We had a budget of $2.5mil thanks to Patriot Pictures – but it was still very tight. We literally finished the film one week ago. 

Was there a specific tone you were looking for when representing his life as a gay person and then as a straight person?
It just sort of turned out that way. When portraying his gay life – we needed lots of energy without having so much exposition. We added the graphics showing what the magazine was like. And then we added more music – something the composer was not expecting – he was told he initially would compose two songs and that extended to 36. For the scenes around Michael’s transition, he spent more time in the park or at Bible school and that warranted for quieter moments. The change in style wasn’t intentional. Generally I like working as a minimalist. 

How involved have Gus Van Sant and Benoit Denizet-Lewis been throughout the making of the film?
Benoit was very helpful – I would send him drafts of the script and he would give me notes. And Gus was like the godfather of the film. He wasn’t involved hands-on but he would give feedback or help make phone calls if we needed something. I feel very lucky to have had support from both of them.

What are your upcoming projects?
There is a script I wrote before this film. It is also controversial and based on a memoir called Girl Boy Girl: How I Became JT Gilroy. It’s moving quicker now that I Am Michael is doing well, thank God.