London Film Festival 2016: King Cobra dir. Justin Kelly (+Interview)
King Cobra was a strangely enjoyable film. I went in not knowing exactly what to expect, except bloody murder and gay pornography, which if you ask me, is as sensational as a film can possibly get.
There’s a hint of Harmony Korrine’s Spring Breakers here, in that it features a Disney star violently shredding his Disney roots, and James Franco is involved. But that’s about all the similarities between the two films.
King Cobra is a fun romp through the true story of the murder of Bryan Kocis (known as Stephen here, and played by Christian Slater), former owner of Cobra Video, the gay porn company that made a star out of twink Brent Corrigan (Teen Beach Movie star Garrett Clayton). James Franco and Keegan Allen play Stephen’s would be murderers, and we embark on a wild romp and a battle for control over Corrigan.
Of the actors, Clayton may have busted his good-boy Disney image, but thankfully, he’s done pretty well here, portraying the wide-eyed yet mature beyond years aspect of Corrigan perfectly. Not to mention – those sex scenes were done really well. But the real star has to be Christian Slater, who takes us through the eyes of an ageing gay man, full of fear that he’s lost it all. Slater will be pleased to know that he’s still got that same charm since his teenage years from films like Heathers, and truly does elicit a sense of sympathy from his performance.
Kelly’s film won’t make you think twice about the gay porn industry. It’s neither an expose nor a documentary of any form. What King Cobra does do well is entertainment. From the opening scenes introducing Corrigan’s first steps into porn stardom to the slow burn of obsession that we see seething through the veins of Franco and Allen’s characters at Viper Boys, there’s never a dull moment in the film, and you’ll be kept with eyes rapt throughout. Come for the raunchy premise, stay for the oddly somber narrative.
Director Justin Kelly knows how to cause a stir. He made a big splash in 2015 with his debut feature film I Am Michael, about an ex-gay activist who becomes a Christian pastor. Riding on the wave of controversy, he’s now unleashing King Cobra upon the world as well, about gay porn star Brent Corrigan and his ill-fated porn producer, also marking the second time he’s working with James Franco. We managed to snag a bit of time with Kelly and talked to him about the film and working with some of the stars on board:
BCM: You started off with I Am Michael and now King Cobra. They’re both LGBT films that deal with controversial figures and issues. What draws you to the controversy?
Justin: I’m definitely drawn to scandal and controversy because they’re interesting and fun, but they also do involve potentially spotlighting unlikeable characters and understanding who they are and why they do what they do instead of just vilifying or judging them. In Michael’s case, it’s easy to vilify a gay activist who becomes anti-gay as a gay person, because why would he lash out against everything he sought to change? And then in King Cobra, you get people who work in porn and commit murders, I really like exploring these characters who do all these things and why they did them.
BCM: I guess that these are essentially very character-driven films then.
Justin: Yeah, Cobra was always about plot and character, and the sex and porn just a backdrop. Of course the main part of the story deals with how Sean wanted to become Brent, why Stephen wants to be a pornographer, or why Joe and Harlow want to fight so hard over Brent to the point they’d commit murder. They’re just interesting characters I guess.
BCM: So what actually got you to want to do the King Cobra story in the first place?
Justin: We based it off the book ‘Cobra Killer’, but initially I read about it online. Just thought it was a very insane story and the more I read about it the more fascinated I became and at first I didn’t know anything about Joe and Harlow, and I found out about Joe’s escort business and how Joe used to be a pastor, and these characters are just so rich, they’d make for a really great movie. I didn’t think it’d be easy to get a cast, or financed because it’s so scandalous but we had some weird magical moment because it all happened so fast, so I guess for some reason, it was the right time to make a movie about murder in the gay porn world.
BCM: You guys actually approached Brent Corrigan himself to get involved with the film. How did that go, and did you do any other research in the course of the film?
Justin: All my research was mostly online research, and the book had an immense amount of information, because there were all these authors and did all the research I would have done for the movie. I mean, they went through court documents and visited Joe and Harlow in prison multiple times so the book had a ton of information. We met up with Brent in person, and he read the script and I assumed he was going to be excited about it and wanted to be involved and he decided not to. He did allow us to use his name and allowed us to make the film, but ultimately wanted to tell his story himself via the memoir he’s writing.
BCM: He’s releasing a memoir?
Justin: I think a lot of talk around this film is the sort of difficulties and what it takes to bring a true story to the big screen because you don’t have enough time or space to bring every character to life, you gotta kind of dig and find the heart of the story and the right kind of story points that make it a watchable, entertaining, good movie and not a bunch of ‘real life’ moments churned together without any real ups and downs. I just don’t think Sean was willing to help with that, and in fact, any film made about him would not have been his story. Most people who’ve had films made about their lives understand that some things have to be cut, and not every single person in your life can be in the movie, some people get that some people don’t, so that’s why he didn’t decide to involve himself I guess. But he hasn’t actually seen the movie yet! He’s read the script, and some reports imply that he’s seen it, but actually he hasn’t seen it.
BCM: Variety magazine said Cobra King was all ‘smut and no soul’, how do you react to that?
Justin: I feel like the biggest thing that connects all of the good reviews is the exact opposite of that, that they were these really interesting unique characters where we took the time to understand what motivated them as opposed to judging, vilifying or making them very flat. So to read that was just very shocking, and it’s just one person writing for one magazine. There’s clearly something personal, or I don’t know what was going on with that writer, but I’m totally fine with bad reviews. I put something out there, as long as I love and am proud of it, I will defend it and also know that there will be bad reviews. But that one was just so off that I was very confused. It was just wrong, I’m sorry. There will be people going into it wanting an expose on the gay porn industry, or they just assue that because it’s a queer film by a queer director there’s going to be a strong and uplifting message, but that’s not what this film is about. It’s meant to be this wild insane thing that happened that reveals the backstory and the characters and why, it’s what happened and why and it’s meant to be honest, it’s meant to be an entertaining movie. There’ll be plenty of people both gay and straight that’ll like it.
BCM: This is the second time you’re working with James Franco, what’s it like to work with him on the set?
Justin: He’s really fun to work with! He loves what he does so much, he loves to be on set and tell stories and he;s such an artist. You know, he used to be a painter before he became an actor, and he has such an artistic mind, a unique take on the world and everything in general. And he’s very passionate about getting stories told that might otherwise not see the light of day so he’s very supportive of emerging filmmakers, and I think that’s the exact reason that he’s involved as a producer in so many LGBT films or as an actor because it helps to get these stories out and when he’s on set for one of my films, it’s not for a fat paycheck or the hope of an award, it’s not for anything else apart from bringing these unique characters to life, and to be a great actor and have fun and makes the environment fun. How can you not have fun with a crazy character like Joe, who’s insane and owns a gay escort company and wears bedazzled jeans?
BCM: Is Franco queerbaiting?
Justin: That’s actually come up a lot. I don’t know, it’s been a funny thing to talk about in both my films. These things have become really political and I didn’t think they’d come up, but then you become quoted on things. It’s been very odd and something that at this point I just have to own it and say what I feel. I disagree with the whole queerbaiting thing, that people in the gay community would give sh*t to people like James and Nick Jonas who have such a huge fanbase across the world, and are putting out this message that it’s ok to be gay, and that it’s ok to be perceived as gay, because that’s the biggest message that we need to combat homophobia. People think that when a gay dude hits on a straight dude, why can’t he just see it as a compliment, but the typical thing that happens, not every straight person but a lot of macho dudes are horribly offended that someone of the same gender is attracted to them. It’s because they fear they will be perceived a certain way, that the assumption is they walk a certain way and talk a certain way like Barbra Streisand on Broadway. It freaks them out! So you know these actors, say James and Nick Jonas, when they get sh*t from the gay community for playing positive role models for the gay community and in shock that there’s this whole queerbaiting thing as an actor that it’s ok that people think you might be gay. If Franco plays out his gay roles and when people question his sexuality and he goes ‘Ew gross of course I’m straight’, that would be one thing. But the fact that it’s more progressive that he is kind of playing with his image and working on queer projects in various capacities in a way that separates himself from who he sleeps with because the whole last 40 years of gay rights has been ‘don’t judge us based on who we sleep with’ and we don’t want to go back to that. To think that you have to play gay roles means you’d actually have to have sex with men, that’s just backward. I think the whole basis of queerbaiting is people asking ‘how dare you be so hot but not want to have sex with me?’ and it’s a little bit desperate. Queerbaiting is so over.
BCM: Garrett Clayton is essentially popping his Disney cherry by transitioning to such an adult themed film. He’s been compared to stars like Selena Gomez in Spring Breakers. How did you get him on board to play the role?
Justin: One of our producers Scott Levenson was working on a project with him that fell through. He got a good vibe from Clayton, and he was looking for a more edgy, different role from his Disney Teen Beach Movies. So we looked him up and he has such a perfect look. We placed his picture side by side with early Brent Corrigan and the similarity was eerie. He has that boyish charm but also that cocky sex symbol attitude. I could tell he could play both sides, which was what the character was all about. We met up in person and he was willing to give the character in the film everything, because he was ready to move away from Disney. As opposed to if I found a more established actor to play the role, he might have been more afraid because he doesn’t need this role as much, maybe there’s a sex scene and they’d freak out. I knew Clayton was just willing to go all the way, so to speak.
BCM: What’s the next project after King Cobra?
Justin: We’ve actually already shot it! It’s totally insane. We’re in post-production now, and hope to premiere at Tribeca in April. I wanted to make something over summer, so I shot a film tentatively called ‘Welcome The Stranger’. It’s got Riley Keough, Abby Lee Kershaw, who were both in Mad Max: Fury Road. The male lead is Caleb Landy Jones. I wanted to do something, so it’s not controversial, it’s not LGBT themed. It’s family drama with a bit of a supernatural storyline, and I wanted to try something different so I don’t get pigeonholed into a stereotype.
BCM: Final question – what would your porn star name be?
Justin: The way to do that is the first pet and street you grew up on right? Mine would be Puffy Delight. Really! I had a Siamese cat named Puffy, and I grew up on Delight Street.
BCM: [laughing] You really couldn’t ask for anything more appropriate.