In the first of Polari’s exclusive Sundance 2013 coverage, Michael Langan writes about the films of Travis Mathews and the film maker’s collaboration with James Franco.
In May 2012 I interviewed the filmmaker Travis Mathews about his feature debut, I Want Your Love, when it was shown at the Fringe! Film Festival in London. Mathews was also using his time here to make the latest installment of his series In Their Room after having already caused quite a splash with the San Francisco and Berlin episodes. I really liked talking to him – he’s clever and sincere and genuinely creative – and I enjoyed watching his films, too.
All of Mathews’ work is concerned with showing gay male relationships in ways that he felt weren’t being represented. Nowhere could he find depictions of his own experience of relationships, nor that of his friends, and he focuses very much on displays of intimacy, tenderness, desire and – yes – sex. The sex in his movies is always driven by character – it reveals something about them as well as pushing the narrative forward – whilst remaining unashamedly erotic. The fact that the sex is ‘real’ and not simulated adds extra layers to his work that go beyond the initial frisson or any controversy that fact may generate. It’s okay to enjoy watching men fuck and suck and wank and cum, but it’s even more enjoyable when it actually means something.
His latest project, Interior. Leather Bar, is a collaboration with the award-winning actor-writer-director James Franco, and uses William Friedkin’s controversial 1980 film Cruising as its starting point. Franco’s proposal was to engage with Friedkin’s movie in a uniquely creative way, re-imagining lost footage from the original shoot. In order to avoid an X rating, Friedkin apparently cut up to 40 minutes of Cruising to secure a general release. This material was mainly footage from the gay bars used in the movie, and legend has it that it showed sexual content more explicit than that which ended up in the final cut – maybe even including Al Pacino, as the main character Steve, appearing to engage in sexual activity (though this might be the point where the legend takes on the status of movie mythology).
Having interviewed some of the extras who took part in the original movie, Mathews should be able to clear some of this up for us. What they can confirm is that Friedkin directed them to treat the scenes they were filming in the gay bars as any other night there and a lot of the activity shown was happening for ‘real’. In that way Friedkin anticipates the work that Mathews does, with its verité feel and aesthetic, though he’s certainly not concerned with showing intimacy and tenderness. Quite the opposite.
Interior. Leather Bar focuses not so much on the moral politics of the sexual activity itself, but on the personal politics of making and showing it. The film highlights how difficult this still is, not just for the industry and the actors involved, but also for a potential audience. What does it mean to be doing and watching this?
Mathews and Franco gave themselves just four weeks from set-up to post-production. Many of the aspects of the movie that make it so interesting were unplanned and unforeseeable – particularly when it came to documenting the experiences and anxieties of the actors involved. Mathews and Franco cast the film from a combination of actor friends and open call. Val Lauren, who plays a version of himself as an actor, loosely based around Al Pacino in Cruising, had worked with Franco before in Sal, a biopic of Sal Mineo, and his journey over the one-day shoot forms the narrative arc of Interior. Leather Bar. These issues in some ways mirror those of the central character in Cruising, a New York cop who finds himself forced to struggle with his sexual identity and his perception of himself. The result is a film that becomes as much about filmmaking as it is about anything else.
Many of the actors who were cast in the bar scenes found themselves questioning their boundaries and not just because they might have to touch or kiss another guy, but merely by virtue of being in a space where gay sex was happening. Mathews saw this as an opportunity to explore feelings that are personal, professional and cultural. Quite a lot of actors who’d turned up for the call left the room as soon as they were told what the project was, and Val Lauren himself had serious doubts about the artistic value of revisiting Friedkin’s film in the way Franco and Mathews intended.
All of this became meat for Mathews, who realised in post-production that he had enough of this kind of material to develop a sixty-minute feature out of it, interwoven with the re-imagined bar scenes. The film plays with – and blurs the boundaries between – the fictional and the real on different levels. There are scenes-within-scenes and filmed conversations that provide a commentary on the action and process of the movie as it’s actually being made.
It’s a risky endeavour to make a movie about a movie, and an even riskier one to do it in such a short time frame and be dealing with the particular issues around gay sex that Interior. Leather Bar contains. Travis Mathews also puts himself in front of the camera as he’s filming, something that he feels makes him a better director. It’s a high-wire act nevertheless and an admirable one at that. And it sounds as if all these risks have paid off because Interior. Leather Bar was selected for this year’s Sundance Film Festival, that Mecca for Indie movies, which takes place between 17th – 27th January. It’ll also be heading to the Berlin Film Festival in February. Hopefully, someone somewhere in the UK will pick it up soon.
I’ll be corresponding with Travis for Polari as the Sundance Festival goes on, chronicling this time in his career and talking to him about wider concerns around queer artistic practices and processes. On the Interior. Leather Bar website Travis has written, “… it’s the slippery way in which boundaries and definitions are in constant flux that really make it a queer film for me”. It’s this kind of thought-provoking statement that puts his work at the vanguard of an exciting moment in new queer cinema. I’m looking forward to seeing Travis’s career and art develop and really excited to be accompanying him along a small part of the way.
Click here to read Michael’s take on the 1980 film Cruising.