Justin Kelly

Director Justin Kelly discusses his films I Am Michael and King Cobra

by Joanna Orland

Screenwriter and director Justin Kelly first garnered industry attention when his debut feature I Am Michael premiered at Sundance Film Festival in 2015.  His second film King Cobra continues the tradition set by I Am Michael, by being based on a true story. “I read about it online while researching my first film, I Am Michael,” Justin says about discovering the true events behind his latest film. “The more I read, the more fascinated I became by the stories, by the characters, and just thought it would make for a cool, wild movie.”

When adapting a true story, a director inevitably must use some artistic license to add drama and shape the narrative.  Justin explains, “it would be in the little things, you know, like Joe and Harlow’s company wasn’t called Viper Boys, it was called something else. But then Cobra versus Viper, and the obsession with the Viper car which was true, to me that was really interesting. But the kind of bigger story points that some people almost assume was added, like for example Harlow’s molestation past to give a bit of a reason for the murder – that was all true.”

The character of Stephen, played by Christian Slater, is a complex one that could easily be portrayed as one-dimensional.  “The goal with that character was not to vilify him – it would have been super easy to make him a total sleazy creep. And he has his sleazy moments, because he did like to entertain with much younger men, and he did make porn. But I thought it was fair to really make him sympathetic and at times likable,” says Justin.  “It’s more than a film just about gay porn and the murder, I’m trying to weave in little other things that make it an interesting film.”

As the film is based on a true story, it’s inevitable that not all real life counterparts would be pleased about the outcome – least of all Brent Corrigan.  “I was taken aback because for someone who wants to be in the spotlight – he still makes gay porn and he wanted to be an actor at one point – I thought he’d be like elated at this,” says Justin.  “And it’s funny that he’s not and that Michael Glatze in my first film – he loves [I Am Michael]. It’s shocking because, a movie about a gay activist who becomes an anti-gay pastor – that story told by a gay director – of course I was very very balanced with that story, but I definitely don’t agree with everything he says.”

The real life Joe and Harlow on the other hand sent a close friend of theirs to the film’s Tribeca screening.  “It was pretty exciting to hear a close friend of theirs say that the film felt very accurate and that the characters were very much like so Joe and Harlow,” says Justin.  “There are people who, you know, gimme a little bit of shit for those characters being a bit over the top and silly but… basically that’s what they did – they loved to go out and tan and wash their cars and have sex.”

When asked to give one word to summarize himself, Justin Kelly exclaims, “I’m bad at questions like this. Terrible. I guess seeing as I’m in London and showing this, I guess I would say, ‘grateful’.”


Our review of King Cobra

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