Michael Langan talks to Travis Mathews direct from the 2013 Sundance Film Festival about queer cinema, the horror movies that influenced him, and what it feels like to watch intimate gay sex in a crowded cinema.
When I first thought about corresponding with filmmaker Travis Mathews for Polari Magazine it was with a view to having an in-depth conversation about his work , his creative practices, and what it is that makes them specifically queer. I wanted to talk about how not only content, but form and practice, can make an artist and their work queer. What does the word queer even mean in this context to those on the front line of creativity?
At the same time, Travis’s new project, a collaboration with James Franco called Interior. Leather Bar., was selected to be shown at this year’s Sundance and Berlin Film Festivals. Our conversation took on an extra-dimension as a result, and Travis said he wanted to use the correspondence as a way to document a specific moment in his life, that it was important “not to lose the nuance of what’s happening.” I suppose that when you’re in the middle of these things, and it’s all a bit of a whirlwind, that can happen very easily.
Over the next week Polari will be publishing our conversation, with Travis writing directly from the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.
Travis, where are you right now – physically, creatively, emotionally, artistically?
There’s just a surreal intensity to everything. At first it was so foreign that I thought it was bad, scary and doomed to implode, but I’ve embraced it at this point. It feels good. It’s hard work and overwhelming, but I love it. I’ve never felt so much encouragement to basically play, to just make movies like a kid in a candy store, while at the same time feeling as if I suddenly own a small business that I have to be very adult about. I think that’s why I haven’t gone insane. I actually enjoy the wonky business side of producing as much as I do the art part.
I’ve written about how the film Cruising confronts me on a quite deeply personal level, and I was also thinking about how I felt about I Want Your Love and the In Their Room series. I love the fact that you show intimacy between men, because that’s something I crave in my life, and I’m really drawn to your work because of that. But when I saw I Want Your Love at the Fringe! Festival in London I felt slightly uncomfortable sharing that film with a cinema full of people because I grew up feeling ashamed of looking at men and frightened that someone might notice, and the residue of those feelings still makes itself known to me at times. Is there anything about yourself personally that you’re confronting by making the work you make?
When I was little I always called things out in my family. I felt like I could detach myself from my involvement and look at us in some outside-looking-in way. I felt enlivened and confident when I called things out. It was always something that made me feel good about myself – that I was insightful, I guess. I’ve had that same interest with myself and then also with the gay guys in my movies. I’m not really confronting something within me as much as I’m trying to make movies that I would have eaten up as a teenager or early twenty-something. I’ve always struggled with a certain amount of anxiety. Intimacy can be hard, and you see these things in my movies. If you look at the work I’ve made in the past three years it’s not hard to figure out what my deal is. But that’s so many people’s deal, in one form or another. It’s just life.
So how do you think your sexuality has affected your art and you as an artist, on an existentially creative level?
You know, I grew up in a place that felt largely unwelcoming to me. I was a fat, closeted kid, in a casually homophobic environment with no gay role models and football forever. From a very early age it was all about preservation and escape and concealing how I felt. I started writing stories about escape, horror stories basically, about scream queens like Jamie Lee Curtis. My make-believe consisted of running around the backyard gasping in terror at the pretend killer about to get me.
I’m utterly fascinated that you would use the horror movie as an escape route in childhood – it’s a far cry from musical theatre! But it also strikes me that there’s an element of danger or violent threat in the way you describe running away from the killer chasing you. So it’s double-edged – there’s energy there, but also real fear. I grew up watching lots of scary movies, as well as reading Stephen King and Frank Herbert and loving all that stuff, but now I can’t bear to be scared in the cinema.
For me, horror movies were intertwined with my dad.
He took me to slasher movies aged five! Happy Birthday To Me [a cult film from 1981 involving a group of elite American high school kids being brutally murdered] is my first memory of this.
Tons followed, a lot at drive-ins. I loved and hated it because it felt like a safe way to deal with my own aggression while it was also something special between my dad and I, as if he trusted me with the adult material in the movies. Of course the aggression I was bottling up was largely about my relationship to him, so it’s been strange. The first documentary I ever did, around 2000 was called Better Times and it’s about all of the visits to the drive-in with my dad. I had romanticized these memories of what this experience was like – they were the best I remembered from childhood with my dad – and I thought, how did he remember all of that? At the end of the documentary we go back to the drive-in that we always went to, which, coincidentally, was closing that season, and talked it out. It was pivotal for our relationship because it was the entrée into a whole other conversation about my childhood and him as a parent.
Check back tomorrow to read about what Travis Mathews has been up to at the Sundance Film Festival.