Michael Langan continues his conversation with Travis Mathews, in which the filmmaker talks about the creative process that informed Interior. Leather Bar, and the strength that can be drawn from being an outsider.
Click here to read the first part of this conversation with Travis Mathews, in which he talked about queer cinema, the horror movies that influenced him, and what it feels like to watch intimate gay sex in a crowded cinema.
I’m often aware of a deep problem of articulation in my life – finding it very difficult to ‘speak from the heart’ – and that pulls my work askew, or creates a feeling of dissatisfaction in what I’m doing. Does that kind of thing ever happen to you? At the same time I’m learning to celebrate and enjoy this aspect of myself and my creativity, but it has to happen through the work itself, not separate to it, which prolongs the process sometimes.
I’ve learned over the past couple of years that over-thinking and over-strategizing doesn’t serve me so well. The experience with Interior. Leather Bar – the experience of it happening so very quickly – didn’t allow time to worry or ruminate on choices. This was new to me and I was happy, and maybe surprised, to see that my gut instincts are right more often than not. It also just feels pretty enlivening to take quick choices. It’s made me a more confident director. Limitless choice is always a scary prospect and having few options regarding time and money force you to make creative decisions. That was the basis of the process of Interior. Leather Bar really, and I could say the same about the In Their Room series.
I think that the creative process is often about solving the problem of making: there’s a thing that you want to bring into the world and you don’t quite know what it is or how to do it and you work out in the process the solutions to those questions, or at least get closer to that. For me, those blocks can be specifically queer – they’re about the validity of my experience and my voice, which I have to fight, internally, to assert.
I’ve learned that most of the things that make me feel “special” are really things that many, a lot – even all – people experience… especially other gay men. I get emails from guys from wildly different places telling me that my work makes them feel less alone, or some variation of that, and it just makes my world. It’s because I’ve gotten such positive reinforcement in this process that it’s becoming less difficult to assert my voice.
It sounds as if, from this and the way you described your family life, you get a lot of validation from speaking your mind, and you found your voice at an early age specifically because of your outsider status.
I completely agree that I found my voice by identifying as an outsider. If I’d been straight I don’t think I would have ever left Johnstown. It’s different now with the Internet, but when I was a kid there were baked-in assumptions that boiled down to “you will never leave here and why would you want to?” I’ve made my peace with Ohio and would never be who I am without these experiences, but I wanted to kill myself more than a couple of times in my teens.
And do you think that still affects the way you view your work and your development as a filmmaker?
I’d be lying if I didn’t say that the speed and size of what seems to be happening has made me nervous. In some ways it’s much easier to make my little gay art films that stay under the radar. It’s a lot of what makes me want to continue with the In Their Room series for a long time to come and to see it change as I mature and become a better filmmaker. I think I’ll be doing that series into my seventies, in between bigger films. Next stop is Bangkok, but that’s a year away …
Check back tomorrow to read about what Travis Mathews has been up to at the Sundance Film Festival.