“First of all, I hardly ever use the word queer. I think it’s usually pretentious or used in ways that don’t make sense to me…. really, it’s gay.”
This came about half way through my interview with film-maker Travis Mathews, but it had been apparent from the moment we began chatting that he’s man who doesn’t hide behind any kind of façade or artistic pretence. In fact, if one considers his creative output this shouldn’t come as a surprise – the style and sensibility of his debut feature I Want Your Love betrays this exact quality. His are breathtakingly honest films, but never in the deliberately shocking, ‘in-your-face’ way that seems to have become synonymous with ideas of verisimilitude in cinema. Rather his are gentle, quiet movies that depict all the banal (and often beautiful) little moments that make up life. This is particularly true of his much talked about sex scenes, which are captured with such committed authenticity that they neither feel gratuitous nor even particularly sexy; simply real.
Indeed, it appears that this was an artistic objective that had been forming from a young age. When I ask him where his interest in film-making originally came from, he describes an early frustration with the way gay people were depicted in films:
“…I was largely frustrated at not seeing depictions of gay lives that felt like anything I experienced or anything that I saw my friends experiencing – where your gayness was informing who you were, but it wasn’t defining everything about you. So many of the gay movies up through the 2000s were very gay-trope driven: like AIDS story, coming-out story, the homophobic stuff, gay marriage…where someone’s life, or these very intimate vulnerable three-dimensional aspects of the characters, were erased or eclipsed by the gay trope of the movie.”
Mathews informs me that his background is more academic than one might think; he has a master’s degree in counselling psychology, which is something that often informs his directorial choices. He talks about a desire to capture people’s inner lives and discusses how his interest in capturing scenes of a sexual nature originated:
“I also hadn’t really seen gay sex represented in any ways other than hot hard bodies that were in many ways just porn. There’s so much, from a story perspective, that you can explore with the way that two people have sex. They’re like literally and figuratively naked, right? And the ways in which it’s sometimes funny, it’s sometimes awkward, it’s sometimes silly, it’s sometimes sexy, it’s sometimes really vulnerable and scary… I wanted to just sort of linger in that space. That’s where my interest in filming sex has come from. And not to film stuff that’s necessarily hot… because, I don’t know if it comes as a surprise or not, but that’s one of the last things on my mind when I’m filming something sexual.”
After hearing about this early frustration, I trepidatiously ask if there were any film-makers from whom he took inspiration, at which Mathews lists off a ream of New Queer Cinema auteurs including Todd Haynes and John Cameron Mitchell. But there is one figure in particular he really seems to get excited about. He explains that Gus Van Sant was one of the very few directors who made films that he could relate to in some way, and recounts a wonderfully sweet anecdote from his youth:
“I was 16 when My Own Private Idaho came out. I was still in the closet. I used to go to this very rural school and I was friends with all these straight guys and we basically used to go on dates… it’s funny because I really never thought of it as a date and I know they never did. And this one particular weekend, I went with this boy out for dinner and then we went and saw My Own Private Idaho together. And I remember leaving the theatre and just like, not even wanting to talk, not wanting to do anything, because it had been such an important experience for me… And I also didn’t want to talk to this guy because I was so afraid that A) it was going to out me, because I wasn’t going to be able to withhold how I felt about the movie, or B) that he was going to ruin the experience for me by just saying some stupid straight-boy bullshit. I remember he eventually said something like he thought the movie was ‘really cool except for all that gay stuff.’”
This anecdote is oddly appropriate when considering Interior. Leather Bar. The film is a fascinating piece of work that initially appears to concern itself with the re-imagining of forty minutes of footage that was (supposedly) cut from the 1980 film Cruising due to its explicit sexual content. This re-imagined footage, however, makes up a very small fraction of the finished film, which is largely a behind-the-scenes style account of the shoot, told from the point of view of actor Val Lauren who has been cast in the Pacino role. The crux of the film is the reaction of Lauren (who is straight) as wanders around set, stuck between a confused and uncomfortable ambivalence at the homosexual content being filmed around him, and a firm artistic devotion to his friend James Franco.
It quickly becomes apparent though, that much of what we’re seeing is actually scripted and that Lauren is playing ‘Lauren’ and Franco is playing ‘Franco’. I ask Mathews how they came to the decision of making the film a hybrid of documentary and fiction:
“We wanted to have a parallel story with the Val Lauren character that paralleled Pacino’s story in Cruising, which is the straight man goes into a gay subculture that he’s not familiar with, that he’s confused by, that he’s a little ambivalent about and it’s suggested that it changes him in some way… Or in the case of our film, it ends with him processing an experience that he didn’t expect… throughout the whole movie [Val] is in this confused, agitated, unstable place and we wanted the film to reflect that. And that’s why we wanted it to be weaving in and out of this real/not real, documentary/fiction space, to have the audience having a similar experience as Val.”
One of the interesting aspects of the film is this idea of people ‘playing’ versions of their real selves. When I ask Travis about Val’s character, he informs me that it was a very fortunate piece of casting:
“When James read the treatment, he said ’Oh, I think I have the perfect person for this.’ Val had a pretty visceral response to some of what was in the treatment… The first scene in the film, when we’re in the hotel and you see James and I and Val talking? None of that was scripted and none of that was anything I actually thought would make it into the movie. And the reservations of Val you hear in that scene are very much coming from Val – those are his real reservations.”
The question of how much of this film is scripted is an intriguing one, but it is by no means the most pressing or pertinent that the filmpresents. A conversation between James and Val half way through the film, for example, raises questions concerning the place of sex in art and how to combat social conditions of heteronormativity. When I ask about the decision to have a straight guy as essentially the protagonist in a queer film, Mathew’s brow furrows and he briefly talks of the misuse of the word, before explaining the difference between this and his other work:
“I feel that all of the movies I’ve made up until now are ‘gay movies’, but I feel like this is a queer movie in the way it’s constructed, in what we’re doing in the film, and the people involved… With Interior, we wanted to make a queer film that wasn’t for any one particular audience, you know what I mean? And this is where some of the flack has come from: gay men who feel: ‘why are we seeing this movie from the perspective of a straight man? And revisiting Cruising from the perspective of a straight man – a movie that was already so problematic to begin with?’ The other movies I’ve made are for a gay male audience and this is more of a queer film – it’s more inclusive of bringing different people together with different points of view.”
Mathews, it appears, was ready for criticism. In fact, he almost welcomes it:
“We didn’t sit down and have conversations like, who our target audience was. We set out to make a queer film that provoked certain ideas and discussions that we weren’t gonna completely answer. It’s more about presenting something to the audience and letting them chew on it themselves. And not trying to be coy… but I think if we had concluded the film with any sort of declaration, it would have been unsatisfying for me first of all… and I think it would have been a trap. I think it’s more interesting as a film-maker to have an audience leave having discussions – especially heated discussions – because I know people love this movie and I know people hate this movie. And I think that’s great.”
This is perhaps where the presence of James Franco should be addressed. The pair met after Franco saw I Want Your Love and approached Mathews wanting to do a project with two primary conditions: 1) that it use the cut forty minutes of Cruising as a starting point, and 2) that it feature real gay sex.
Of course, for anyone familiar with Franco’s recent activities this will make sense. The self-styled ‘renaissance man’ has had quite a year, with many fingers in many cultural pies. He’s curated art projects, written literature, been involved in journalism, teaching, producing, directing, screenwriting, acting. Some of his critics feel that he may be spreading himself too thinly to create anything of any worth. Many have accused him of perhaps being a cultural dilettante. I had heard stories of his bizarre methods working with directors like Danny Boyle and Harmony Korine, so when I ask Mathews what it’s like working with Franco, his response surprises me:
“It’s easy. He’s very easy going… He’s attracted to anything that might have a smart and provocative understanding to it… so throughout the whole process there was never really an instance where I would present an idea which he shot down. I would say, this is an idea and here’s why we should do it: X Y and Z. And he would be like ‘Ok, let’s do it!’”
There were naturally issues with Franco involving himself in this project. In the film itself, one of the performers voices the question that people will inevitably be asking “Why is the straight dude touching this?” It seems that a lot of people have talked about Franco somehow using the project to build upon his image, or lending his celebrity to the project, but most have ignored him as a creative/intellectual force. When I ask Travis about this, his response is nothing but admiration:
“You know, for somebody at his level of celebrity at this point, I think for him to put this level of trust in somebody like me (someone he didn’t know at all) and to be willing to go out on a limb with things is pretty cool… The thing that I find amazing about him is that he does have a million things going on, and you would expect a person like that to be really highly strung and neurotic, but he’s so relaxed and so available… and that’s what I find strange but ultimately cool.”
There’s also the issue of what Franco’s role actually entailed. In watching the film, Travis it seems is pretty omni-present whereas Franco is more often than not noticeably absent (in fact there’s even a scene in which Lauren phones him and asks where he is). But when I ask what the balance was between the two co-directors, Mathews is very clear on the matter:
“It’s a joint vision… I mean he contacted me and he had a few things in mind that he wanted to explore. I wrote the treatment and we had several conversations about things and I sort of massaged things based on those conversations, and then we just went into it… I mean, I had a few questions initially: like if we’re co-directing this, how does that look? At what point do I do something or you do something and what if we disagree on set? I had questions about the potential pitfalls of this sort of thing and he was like ‘Don’t worry, it’ll be fine.’ We had gotten along so well that I just trusted that and that’s largely how it played itself out”
It’s tricky to get a sense of what the shoot was like by watching the finished product, particularly due to the fact that much of the film is to some extent staged. One point of interest for me, was watching Travis directing in front of the camera rather than behind it:
“What’s interesting about that is a million people have talked a million times about the power of the camera and how, if a camera’s on you, everyone is an actor. And I think that’s true. However, we shot this film in two days and I think it all moved so quickly and there were so many things that needed to happen so efficiently that there was no time to ruminate, there was no time to worry. It was all about making bold choices and just moving forward. And so there were always cameras filming, even if I said cut there were always cameras filming. I’m sure it had an impact on me… in some ways it probably made me a better director, because there’s this cellular awareness that I’m being filmed. I’m glad that it all happened so quickly because if I had had the time to think about the risks I was taking in showing the world me as the director, I think I probably would have freaked out a little bit more.”
When I ask him whether it was difficult to keep the film pointed amid this seemingly chaotic film-making, he seems almost confused by the question. It appears that there was method to the madness and that this is an environment in which Mathews flourishes.
“It wasn’t difficult, because there were enough scenes that we had to accomplish and it was while we were shooting these scene, or in between shooting, that the more spontaneous and organic scenes popped up. So it wasn’t like we went in and said ‘Ok let’s see how everybody’s feeling and just go with the energy’, it was more ‘Ok we’ve got this scene to shoot and we have an hour and a half to shoot it, or we have twenty minutes to shoot it…’ and then while that was happening, something else would be happening. There were like 4 or 5 cameras on set all the time. So there would be someone shooting in the parking lot and they would come and get me and say ‘This thing is happening and I thought maybe you would wanna film it.’ It was like having a map, and every once in a while hiding it and then bringing it back out.”
Seeing as this project was born of forty minutes of cut footage I thought it necessary to question Mathews on the editing process for Interior. Leather Bar.. I am interested to hear that the film originally clocked in at ninety minutes (its final running time is a wonderfully brief sixty minutes). This is a rare case of directorial self-restraint in an era that seems increasingly filled with films that are simply over-bloated. When I ask him about it, Mathews makes it clear that the brevity of the final product arose of a want to retain the energy he felt over the 2 day shoot:
“The things that I cut from the film were not juicy scenes that would make people ‘oh’ and ‘ah’, but were things that were like interesting scenes that were tangential, that were not to do with Val’s journey. It would have just been a mess of scenes instead of something that was just moving with one particular character…
“For me it was hard to make those choices, because, you know, a sixty minute movie (especially one with explicit content and that’s experimental) is hard to program. I had a lot of distributors asking is there anything I could pad the film with to make it seventy five minutes or eighty minutes… I could have done that, but it wouldn’t have been the film we wanted to make.”
This was a brave choice, especially considering Mathews’ history of distribution problems (famously, his debut was banned in Australia). When I ask him whether the reception to Interior was at all different to his previous films, he again touches on the difference between what he sees as a ‘gay movie’ and a ‘queer movie’, as well as the effect of Franco’s celebrity status:
“The big difference for me has been the stage that Interior is on, in terms of who’s seen it and who’s talking about it and the ways in which it’s being talked about. I didn’t really feel that way about I Want Your Love. I mean, I get it: it’s a movie with James Franco in it and producing/directing it where there’s explicit gay sex, I mean I get that. That’s been the big difference really.”
I finish by asking Mathews about the future and he goes on to tell me that his next solo feature will, again, be different to his prior oeuvre:
“James and I are gonna be working on another project at the end of the year, which I can’t really say too much about… But someone who’s been in my mind that I really want to be in this movie is Sharon Stone. It’s for a particular part that I think she would just knock out of the park.
“In the summer I’m gonna be shooting my next feature… Again, without really going into it, I’m ready to take all the things I’ve learned in the past three or four years and kind of up my game a little bit. So it’s going to be a film that I think is more sophisticated than stuff that I’ve done so far. And the main protagonist is gay, but it’s not going to be a movie where I’m showing explicit sex, or where the primary thrust is exploring sex.”
A Travis Mathews film without sex? A Travis Mathews film starring Sharon Stone? This may sound almost like a move towards the mainstream, but I wouldn’t count on it. For Mathews – who tells me that he never went to film school – each film is an experiment and a new learning curve:
“I Want Your Love was a hard process for me because it was my first film. With Interior, one of the things I loved about it was that the root of the film is documentary. I think in that space I kind of thrive. It’s like it’s moving, you know? And with a narrative film you can spend so much time filming one scene that it’s hard to keep up a dynamic freshness with it. Whereas with something like Interior you’re on a ride. And it’s fun.”