Behind 'King Cobra': Murder, Porn, Celebrity (& James Franco)

by Robert Nesti

EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor

Saturday October 22, 2016

Will "King Cobra" be best remembered as the film where James Franco takes it up the ass?

That happens about midway through when Franco, who plays an out-of-control porn producer, has sex with his boyfriend (up-and-coming actor Keegan Allen in a break-out performance). As Allen mounts him from behind, Franco repeatedly screams, "fuck that ass!"

"It is definitely a Franco on-screen first and I was glad I was able to arrange it," the film's writer and director Justin Kelly says with a laugh, adding that he doesn't believe that scene will be what audiences take away when the film opens in theaters on October 21.

"What's funny is that I haven't really heard anyone even comment on that scene. Like no one says, 'It's so crazy when Franco is bent over a couch and is fucked.' No one talks about that. At least to me."

True-crime story

What they are likely talking about is the sensational true crime depicted in the film - that of porn producer Bryan Kocis, who was murdered in 2008 by the men Franco and Allen play, the self-styled porn stars called the Viper Boyz. What linked Kocis with the pair (whose real names are Harlow Cuadra and Joseph Kerekes) was Brent Corrigan, the porn star who rocketed to the top of the industry in 2004 for his twink persona. When Kocis wouldn't release Corrigan (whose real name is Sean Paul Lockhart) from his contract, Joe and Harlow went to Kocis's Pennsylvania home and brutally murdered him. With the help of Corrigan, authorities apprehended the pair and convicted them of the crime.

The story made the news cycle briefly in 2008, but didn't come to Kelly's attention until 2013 when he was making his first feature "I Am Michael," another real-life story that also starred Franco (as gay activist turned ex-gay Michael Glatze). He thought Corrigan/Kocis story would make a good film. Subsequently he came upon the book "Cobra Killer" by Andrew E. Stoner and Peter A. Conway that offered an extensively researched account of the killing that became invaluable in the writing of the script.

Why murder?

In Kelly's telling of the story, Kocis (renamed Stephen and played by Christian Slater) is a mild-mannered, suburban photographer who sets up a porn studio in his home where his mostly twink videos were made and distributed under Cobra Video moniker. Sales of Cobra videos took off when he discovers Lockhart and christens him Brent Corrigan, trademarking the name in the process. In time, though, Corrigan feels exploited and moved back to San Diego; but when Stephen refuses to release him from his contract, Corrigan's porn career hit a dead-end. It is at this point that he crosses paths with the Viper Boyz, who seek him out to star in one of their videos.

"The original script had far less of Joe and Harlow in it," Kelly remembers. "It was more about Brent and Stephen and porn in general. But the more I read about Joe and Harlow and got more information about them, their story was as fascinating and made me want to tell the entire story. Why they would go as far as to murder someone?"

Kelly recalls that the film went from script to production in record time, largely because of the star power of Franco, who came on board when early on. Next he sent the script to Slater, his first choice to play Stephen, assuming he'd reject playing a porn producer who is accused of pedophilia. (Corrigan turned out to have lied about his age and was 17 when he made his first film.) To Kelly's surprise, he accepted. He then approached Molly Ringwald, who plays Stephen's sister, and Alicia Silverstone, who plays Corrigan's mother, who both joined the project.

Casting tween throbs

For the key roles of Brent Corrigan and Harlow Cuadra, Kelly approached two young Hollywood stars with considerable tween fanbases - ex-Disney heartthrob Garrett Clayton for Brent and Keenan Allen, best-known for his ongoing role on "Pretty Little Liars," for Harlow. Despite the explicitness of the roles, both were taken by the challenges of the edgy, sensational story.

"I thought Clayton had the right look and learned he wanted to try something different," explains Kelly. "We met up in person and discussed the project and he came on. I also knew that James had worked with Keegan on a couple of projects and spoke highly of him. He loved the script and was very dedicated to the role. He found a lot of old Harlow porns that I didn't find when I was doing the research."

Keegan's commitment paid off: he projects a little lost boy quality that makes his character both oddly sympathetic and dangerous. He also has terrific chemistry with Franco, whose volatile performance recalls a similar turn in Harmony Korine's memorable "Spring Breakers."

"I didn't want to portray this guy in a bad light because he's still alive and I wanted to be respectful of the reality of what happened to this person," explains Keegan. "And once I took the role I wanted to find out everything about him." This led him to watch every porn video Harlow had made, along with his home videos and the interviews that Stoner and Conway had with him after he was incarcerated.

"I wanted to be respectful to whom this person was and the terrible, terrible things that happened to him, like child abuse and being thrown out of his house when his parents learned his was gay. I didn't want to justify what he did, but I wanted to justify to myself why he would commit murder."

A challenging role

He also attributes his chemistry with James as coming from their friendship, which developed from two earlier Franco projects, "Palo Alto" and "The Sound and the Fury," that Keegan was a part of.

"Working with James just felt very natural," he says. "James is incredible to work with. He's a very good listener. He really understands from an actor's point of view how it was for me to take on a very challenging and new type of role. And I think that is why I was attracted to this role because it offered me a chance to branch out and play a character with the dramatic and comedic elements that are radically different than Tobias on "Pretty Little Liars."

"The chemistry was just there. We just played with what Justin had written, played around with different aspects as to how it would be viewed by an audience. And also be respectful to the fact that this was a very real situation that happened."

Keegan recalls having no anxiety when it came time to film the "fuck that ass" scene with Franco, despite the fact that they filmed it with the crew present wearing only what are called "cock socks."

"I was never nervous about it because I was working with James, who is a good friend, and Justin, whom I trusted. And Justin leaves a lot to the imagination in the sex scenes, yet shows enough that it makes it real. This is the kind of film experience I dreamt about - to play somebody totally different than what you expect yourself to be, and have the support to bring it to life. And Justin has created a film that's so funny and rich in a dark way."

Elephant in the room

What's become the elephant in the room when discussing the film is Sean Lockhart, who has been very public about his disdain for the project. (After the events portrayed in the film, Lockhart returned to porn as Brent Corrigan, but also branched out with more mainstream roles in indie films.)

"It's made. And it's not about me. It's Hollywood's attempt at bastardising my early years in porn," he tweeted this past April when the film premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. "It doesn't matter what A list celebrity is involved. The screenplay & content didn't jive. I passed it up," he added. His account of the events portrayed in the film is the subject of his book "Incorrigible" that is scheduled for release later this month a week after "King Cobra" is released.

Kelly recalls sending Corrigan the script and meeting with him to see if he wanted to take part in the film. "He was okay with us making it, but didn't want to be involved in it personally because he's writing a book that's telling his version of the story," he says.

"I definitely wanted to get some sort of support from him, which we didn't get. I don't want to comment too much on what he says because I respect the fact that he went through this intensely traumatic experience. It is weird that a film has been made about it, and he wants to tell his version exactly as it happened via his book. That will be his official story, but the official story could have been the film, but that would have meant that we worked well together and that just didn't happen."

Franco's gayness?

While doing press for the film, Kelly has also been finding himself answering questions about Franco (whom he calls "his daddy") and the actor's ongoing appropriation of gay culture. LGBTQ critics have criticized him for not being upfront of his sexuality as he continued to play gay characters in film after film. When asked about if he's gay or not this past April in an interview published on the New York Magazine's site Vulture, Franco said: "There is a bit of overfocusing on my sexuality, both by the straight press and the gay press, and so the first question is why do they care? Well, because I'm a celebrity, so I guess they care who I'm having sex with. But if your definition of gay and straight is who I sleep with, then I guess you could say I'm a gay cock tease. It's where my allegiance lies, where my sensibilities lie, how I define myself. Yeah, I'm a little gay, and there's a gay James."

"Some people love that he does this, some people don't," Kelly says. "I don't think the entire gay community criticizes him for it, but it definitely a conversation I have heard come up a lot. People are entitled to their opinion, but I completely disagree because he's doing more for the gay community than many others out there -- gay or not. I think what he is doing is true progress by pointing the message out there to his millions of fans worldwide that it not only okay to be gay, but as an actor with a reputation, he doesn't care if people think he is.

Super helpful

"It's a bit silly for me to give actors like him shit for playing gay multiple times when that's exactly what we as a gay community have wanted for so long in terms of people not treating us like we are different. He is accepting roles because the stories are great and the characters are great. It is not just because they're gay. I think it is more progressive than a straight actor playing gay once just to win awards, but not do it again because people might think he's gay."

And did Franco, known for wearing many hats (actor, writer, director) in his own films, overstep his role when working with Kelly on the film?

"Not at all. This is our second film together after "I Am Michael." A lot of people ask and assume that he is such a prolific filmmaker and artist himself that he would be heavily involved, but no. Of course he gave me his ideas, but in very respective notes that are truly in line with what any actor would say. James has worked with top directors of their generation and of course has have great ideas and know what works and won't work. He was great at giving advice and being supportive, like a 'daddy,' but never got in the way at all. He has always been just super, super helpful."

Watch the trailer to "King Cobra":

For more about "King Cobra," visit the film's Facebook page.

Robert Nesti can be reached at [email protected].