Michael Langan continues his conversation with Travis Mathews. In this revealing exchange, Mathews talks about how his work operates in the space between categories.
Travis Mathews has written that what makes his work fundamentally queer for him, regardless of the content, is the way it crosses and blurs the boundaries of form. In Interior. Leather Bar, James Franco and Val Lauren play “versions of themselves”. I remember him telling me that the actor/character of Jesse, the protagonist of I Want Your Love, was very good at “performing himself”. Travis also told me that the Berlin film festival have moved Interior. Leather Bar from the documentary to the fiction strand of the festival. I think it could be in either – or both.
It strikes me that there’s a hybridity of form in your work that says something about queer identities. There’s hybridity also in the In Their Room series – increasingly so, as I discovered when you let me see the first cut of the latest episode, set in London, in which people seem to manage to be themselves, and not, at the same time.
I think this is more the rule with my work than the exception. There are very few characters or people in my movies (fiction and non-fiction) who aren’t playing some version of themselves. It says something to the tension I feel between story and straight up documentary I guess – I don’t feel fully comfortable in either. I like the in-between space because it leaves open the possibility of the unexpected while having some sort of map to refer to if it goes off the rails. I was voted “most unpredictable” in high school, so there you have it. But there’s no conscious (queer) theory behind it, it’s just where I feel most comfortable.
In Their Room London contains a definite element of constructed narrative that is focused around gay websites and phone apps as a way of hooking up or even finding a relationship. The narrative is slight, but it’s there – so it’s no longer ‘pure’ documentary, if such a thing even exists.
One of the reasons why I love the In Their Room series is because there’s so much room to play and for me to experiment as a filmmaker. I didn’t go to film school so, in some ways, each one feels like a class project. I try to take chances and it has to be fun. In Their Room London is weird because I remember being constantly fatigued and stressed when shooting last April, but the editing process has been totally enjoyable and there’s a really lovely composite that forms among these eight men.
I don’t remember much about the music in the other films, but in this one there seems to be a definite decision to have a soundtrack that creates a mood.
Tonally, the film owes a lot to the decision to use so much of Santiago Latorre’s gorgeous electronic instrumental music. When I was filming these guys I was getting to know Santiago and his music and so my whole London experience is wrapped up with him. It made sense to bring him into the movie somehow. We talked a lot about whether or not I’d film him but ultimately decided against it – it was more his choice to not be filmed than mine and, looking back, I’m thankful we decided against it. We met at the London premiere of I Want Your Love. He came to the movie with a CD for me and we just started hanging out. We got each other right away. His music, like my movies I guess, also lives in an in-between space, somewhere between electronic and something more ambient or jazz-leaning. There’s also often – but not always – a hint of melancholy to his music which I obviously connect to. There’s a track of his, ‘E4’, that I heard and instantly saw as playing a very specific role at the end of the movie. The rest of the music just filled itself around this track because it punctuated the whole thing. That’s how come there’s a soundtrack’s worth of his music in there. Because of his work scoring Interior. Leather Bar he’s been getting a lot of Spanish press and we did a photo shoot with Chris Baum for Spanish Vogue. Christian Patrick, who plays Master Avery in Interior. Leather Bar, lent us some of his gear and we had a lot of fun with that…
One of the guys in In Their Room, London, Ryan, says that there has always been a barrier between him and other men. He’s a painter and he says that, in his paintings, he’s trying to represent that relationship with men and also trying to resolve something about that in the actual making of the paintings. Do you think that you are trying to resolve anything in your relationships with men in this series?
The short answer is yes. I think if you watch everything I’ve made it’s a pretty transparent window into who I am. But I’m tripping out right now because I just re-watched the first movie I ever made, Better Times (2003). I haven’t watched it in years and I only pulled it out because while at Sundance I had a conversation with a friend about first projects. It’s such a personal and confessional movie that, at its core, is just me working through my relationship with my dad. It’s overwrought and littered with my laconic voice over in this slowwwwww deliberate drawl, but I was pretty stunned by how revealing it is in the opposite way to how my work is now.
When I was constructing In Their Room London there were two themes that I wanted to play with, the first of which was what guys do in the space between confirming a hookup and meeting the guy, the mental and physical preparation. So, about half of the guys in the film are preparing for someone to come over and the other half are traveling. It’s that theme that’s really the loose arc of this episode. Another theme that was emerging, just based on the men I was meeting, was about artists working in different media dealing with very similar subject matter that I return to; that of masculinity and gay male intimacy. Not everyone I filmed made it into the final episode and as I was making choices this sort of B-story started to fade. Ryan, the painter you’re referring to, was the only one who remained in the final cut who spoke to this. There’s such a raw way in which he shares that, that it felt important to include it. It’s a little tangential, but I think it works where it’s placed in the film and, yes, I often feel something similar to what Ryan describes. I don’t fully understand it but I keep returning to these personal subjects for a reason.
Like your relationship to your dad, which you mentioned in the first of these correspondences when you recalled how he took you to see horror movies?
I’m happy to say that the dad stuff I was working through was thoroughly worked. My dad and I had a pretty explosive relationship in the wake of Better Times and we were both ready never to speak again. He felt tricked into sharing more than he wanted – which is partially valid – and it just sparked a horrible time but one that we needed to have. My dad told me that he hated me and it felt like the most refreshingly honest thing ever. I knew that whatever was happening was real and if we got past this it would be because we really wanted to save our relationship and not because of some familial obligation. It seems like forever ago now but it was nice to revisit Better Times and to see that I’ve actually dealt with and moved past the central issues in that relationship.
You see it again in I Want Your Love – that’s actually my dad talking on the phone with Jesse in the film – but that felt very fictional to me. I was drawing on my experience, but not one that felt alive in the present as we made that film. In Better Times I’m speaking directly to who I am in a particular way I almost can’t imagine doing today – I guess I’m sort of doing it here – and that’s really been the only time that I’ve done that in a movie. In everything I’ve made since then it’s been through other gay men’s stories that you get a sense of me.
Check back to read Mathews’ recollections of the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.