James Franco’s ‘King Cobra’ Director on Explicit Gay Sex Scenes: ‘Actors Took Things Further Than the Script’

Tribeca 2016: Justin Kelly tells TheWrap film is “unapologetic” in depicting gay male sex, with a high-profile cast committed to honest and graphic storytelling

“King Cobra,” a fact-inspired movie about the underbelly of gay porn starring James Franco and Christian Slater, pushes boundaries far beyond its gritty subject matter.

Director Justin Kelly‘s film, which premieres Saturday at the Tribeca Film Festival, includes eye-poppingly explicit scenes of gay male sex — and a lot of it.

“We wanted to make it as unapologetic as possible,” Kelly told TheWrap ahead of his festival debut. “I didn’t have a desire to shock — it’s a part of the story. Myself and the actors discussed from day one that you can’t shy away.”

“Cobra” is inspired by the 2007 murder of Bryan Kocis (renamed Stephen in the movie and played by Slater), founder of Cobra Video and producer of adult films specializing in young gay males.

Kocis died at the hands of two male escorts and industry competitors (played by Franco and “Pretty Little Liars” star Keegan Allen). They allegedly wanted to eliminate the producer’s contract with young porn star Sean Paul Lockhart (Disney Channel alum Garrett Clayton), who worked under the stage name Brent Corrigan.

Kelly isn’t lying when he says his actors were not shy, and to his credit the most explicit sex scenes manifest in the relationships of the characters, as opposed to the adult movies they make within the film.

The scenes range from graphic to tender to borderline non-consensual, and are unflinching in showing the specificity and variety of gay male love-making.

“A few times, the actors took things further than the script,” Kelly said.

King Cobra James Franco

From left: Christian Slater, Garrett Clayton, Keegan Allen, James Franco

He referenced an early scene in which Slater’s middle-aged character wants to sample the goods of his barely legal young star, played by Clayton. “Please, make me feel wanted,” he says as he half begs and half forces himself on the young man.

In the script, the encounter “was far more mild, just kissing on the couch,” Kelly said. “But they decided it had to go further. Christian takes him up against the closet. That is would have happened.”

Equally graphic are the scenes between Franco, as the rival porn studio head, and Keegan Allen as his younger escort/lover, who have a volatile and verbal sex life predicated on jealousy.

“That’s the thing everyone has been saying, ‘This is something that hasn’t been done before,'” producer Scott Levenson said of the film’s sexual content.

Fellow producer Jordan Yale Levine added, “I’m not gay, I just love great film. Gay, straight, black, white, nothing phases me — and now with society as it is, it’s the right time for something like this.”

Keegan Allen Naked King Cobra

“King Cobra” is the latest film to test the boundaries of onscreen depictions of gay sex in mainstream movies, which have increasingly pushed the envelope since Heath Ledger‘s implicit palm-licking in “Brokeback Mountain” a decade ago.

Corey Stoll‘s recent stint on “Girls” saw the actor’s ankles planted on the shoulders of Andrew Rannells, both men fumbling through sex. And Chris Kelly‘s Sundance 2016 entry “Other People” featured a similar encounter with Jesse Plemons and “Silicon Valley”‘s Zach Woods.

Kelly sees his film less as a bellwether and more an accurate representation of gay relationships, he said, adding that such scenes remain taboo because of a double standard and base homophobia within Hollywood.

“It’s a complete fact that graphic gay male sex will get you an NC-17 rating,” Kelly said. “Straight men can [appear] completely naked and be choking a woman, and that’s PG-13. There are crazy rape scenes that get by, it’s mind-blowing.”

The sex in “Cobra” does feel like it’s serving a narrative — not that the movie is entirely subtle. There are campy moments, as when Slater treats himself to a new convertible with profits from his protege’s video sales. On a joyride with Clayton, he belts “Rose’s Turn,” the classic song from the musical “Gypsy” about a momager who wants to take the spotlight for herself.

There’s also some face-palming dialogue (in one scene, Allen’s character is incredulous that a friend has not heard of Brent Corrigan and asks, “Are you living under a porn rock?”) but it’s a noble attempt at levity.

The film will inevitably inspire hot takes from blogs, a tsunami of X-rated memes and rekindle speculation about Franco’s sexual identity (a national pastime of the Internet, at this point).

But Kelly is optimistic that audiences are ready for more graphic onscreen content. “I can’t say for sure, but my take is the people are really starting to want to explore the context of a story and not be afraid,” he said.