Michael Langan talks to Alex Karotsch, the Fringe! Film Fest producer, who is performing in Travis Mathews’ film In Their Room London.
A few years ago the filmmaker Travis Mathews began a project to make short films of gay men in their rooms. In this In Their Room series he wanted to show them going about their daily lives, indulging in the everyday behaviour – sometimes banal, sometimes bizarre – that we can all recognize, and to hear them talking about relationships and intimacy and themselves. They’re often naked and sometimes engage in sexual activity, but most of the time they expose themselves through their words, not their bodies. The latest episode, In Their Room: London, was shot last year and will premiere at the Fringe! Festival. One of the Festival’s directors, Alex Karotsch, is in the movie and I got together with him to talk about the experience.
How did your participation in the film come about?
I met Travis at the Fringe! Festival last year when we showed [his first feature] I Want Your Love, and before he came over to the UK he told us that he really wanted to do the London chapter of In Their Room while he was here and we were really excited about that. He asked us if we knew anyone who could be in it, then when we actually met he asked me if I wanted to be in it. I really wasn’t sure but my friends were telling me I had to! It took me a while to agree to it but, you know, sometimes you just have to do things to see if you can do them, so I thought, Ok, I’m just going to do this.
What were you most nervous about?
Well, like most people, I hate hearing myself talk! And having seen all his other work I wasn’t sure what was expected of me – being naked and what have you – but Travis told me I could basically do whatever I wanted. I didn’t have to be naked, because it’s meant to be as natural as possible; I could do whatever I was comfortable with.
When your friends were putting pressure on you, did you secretly want to do it?
Yes, of course! I kind of wanted to but at the same time I thought, should I really? I just wasn’t sure…
And you just needed a bit of persuading…
Yes, that’s right.
So what was the process? It looks as if Travis is just there with a camera pointed at you – how much direction did he give you?
Only a little bit. He told me the set-up, which is about guys preparing for hookups, and then it was down to me to come up with something that felt normal, and what I would do in that situation. I came up with all the things I did because that’s the whole idea behind the film. I was also terrified about the state my room was in – it was so messy! And he told me, ‘Don’t tidy up your room!’ so I tidied it while he was filming.
Would you say you were performing but not acting?
I definitely wasn’t acting. I guess as soon as you’re being filmed you’re performing to a certain extent, but I tried to be as natural as possible.
photograph by Christa Holka
You’ve got a guy in your room, pointing a camera at you – how aware of that were you? Did it fade into the background after a while, or were you always aware of it?
I was always aware of it because my room’s also quite small, so I couldn’t really avoid noticing it. He was totally present. When you’re talking to the camera you’re responding to questions Travis has asked so, even though you don’t hear him on screen, he’s still a presence.
Which did you find most difficult – being naked in the shower or talking about personal stuff?
Oh the talking, definitely! Before we started I thought it would be the other way round but because what I’m talking about is so personal I think it’s a lot harder to do.
And the stuff you’re doing in the bathroom, trimming your pubic hair for example, not many people see us doing those things, and yet you’re doing it on camera and everyone’s going to see you. How was that for you?
It was fine actually. Again, I just wanted to do things that were natural and normal for me and make it a bit more interesting for rather to film, rather than me just having a shower.
And are you nervous about your friends’ reactions?
Not really, I feel more cautious about people you don’t know me that well reacting to what I’m saying because some people can be quick to judge you. That was one of the reasons I deliberated at the beginning.
I think people are funny around bodies as well. One of Travis’s things is that he uses ordinary people who might have quite good bodies, but they’re not porn bodies, We’re not that used to seeing that on the screen and his work’s not about titillation in that respect.
That was one of the things I found really interesting after last year’s showing of I Want Your Love, when some people were really offended by the sex in it. And I thought, well, there are plenty of straight films where people have sex and, also, was it because they weren’t all like Adonis?
You’re revealing things about your sexuality on camera as well, was that what made you really nervous?
It was. I think everyone likes a bit of mystery – you don’t want it all out there – but at the same time in a film like that you can’t really hold back. And I didn’t want to hold back, because that’s the whole point of it. So I tried to be as honest as possible, but it’s very different from talking to your friends.
And when you finally saw the film yourself, were you able to have some distance from it?
Not at all. I found that really hard and had to have several attempts to watch it just because I don’t like to hear myself, as I said earlier – I tried skipping my bits at first! But I was okay about seeing myself naked.
I know Travis has this mission to represent gay men and their relationships in a way that often we don’t see on screen. How do you see what he’s trying to do in the context of gay cinema?
I think it’s definitely something that we’ve not really seen before, mixing the sexuality aspect with intimacy. The only film that comes to mind that also got that right is [Andrew Haigh’s] Weekend. Apart from that it’s either full-on porn or something that doesn’t upset the straights.
Some people are a bit against this idea of depicting gay relationships in this way – as if it’s not ‘queer’ or transgressive enough.
I know. I think there’s space for both really, and I want to see both.
I also found when watching I Want Your Love last year that it’s a very different experience watching it on the big screen in an audience. There are times when I felt uncomfortable because, in the past, I’ve trained myself to avert my eyes from that kind of thing, not wanting to expose myself, but suddenly you’re in a situation where you’re allowed to look and enjoy it and it takes some getting used to.
I had the same experience as well because I’d seen that film on my own beforehand, and it was a very different experience than sitting in a room with three hundred other people. I felt a bit awkward at times.
I suppose a Festival like Fringe! is the perfect outlet for this kind of work?
Definitely! This was one of the first films we chose to show because it was made around the same time as the Festival last year, and it was made in London, so it makes perfect sense for us to show it. Our past association with Travis means that we’re really pleased to have this as a world premiere.
Tickets for the festival are now on sale. Free events and workshops are ticketed so book in advance to avoid disappointment. Go to the Fringe! Queer Film & Arts Fest website and reserve your tickets now.