Writer/director Justin Kelly gets his inspiration from true stories.
His first feature-length film, “I am Michael,” is based on the New York Times Magazine piece, “My ex-gay friend,” by Benoit Denizet-Lewis, about a gay rights advocate (played by James Franco) who renounces his homosexuality after finding God.
His latest project, “King Cobra,” tells the story of the murder of gay porn mogul Bryan Kocis (Christian Slater) over a contract dispute with his young talent, the porn star Brent Corrigan (Garrett Clayton). James Franco, who also produced the film, costars with Keegan Allen as cash-strapped porn producers Joe and Harlow, who attempt to poach Corrigan.
We spoke with the 38-year-old director about writing unstereotypical gay characters, taking pointers from “Boogie Nights” and how the campy aesthetic is more fun. “King Cobra” is in theaters Friday.
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What drew you to the project?
Initially, I read about the story and found it wildly fascinating and wanted to understand why a gay pornographer was murdered over his star’s contract. The more I read about each character, the more I thought it would make for a really unique film, you know, different kinds of gay characters and just exploring why these particular four people did what they did.
The film toes the line between campy and sincere in an enjoyable way.
The early drafts of the script were probably a little more dramatic, but I just kept thinking of “Boogie Nights,” the way characters would say things that sounded so ridiculous but you kind of felt like they really would have said that, you know, Mark Wahlberg doing Kung Fu in front of the mirror. [In “King Cobra”] Keegan (Allen) saying his jacket is Diesel, and feeling like that’s a thing that means he’s classy and rich, feels like something his character really would have said. The more we had fun with the scenes, the more interesting the film became. The combo of it being a bit more campy at times made it better.
A key theme in the film is the abuse of power, which we see both in the relationship between Stephen and Brent, and Joe and Harlow.
I’m interested in how [power dynamics] play into people who are trying to find out who they are, whether it’s changing your name from Sean to Brent or changing yourself from a potentially straight family man to a gay pornographer. In terms of these relationships of power, it does affect how the other person can be perceived, because they’re either forcing them into this box...like, maybe Harlow would have done something very different if Joe hadn’t had this power over him, to steer him in the direction of escorting and porn.
This is your second film you’ve done based on a true story. What’s it like navigating the reactions of the real life people they’re based on?
It’s been very bizarre, considering Michael Glatz loved his portrayal [in “I am Michael’] as an ex-gay man (which he would no longer say, now that he’s married to a woman). With Sean Lockhart [aka Brent Corrigan], someone who wants to be a star, I thought he was going to love the idea of the film and then love the actual movie — he hasn’t seen it, by the way. He did give us permission to make it, I gave him the script, we met up in person. The short answer would be he thought that no matter how involved he would be in the film, it’s not going to be his full story.