Travis Mathews’ short film, I Want Your Love, has been kicking around the internet for a year or so now. It shows two young friends talking, drinking, laughing and, eventually, fucking. It’s not porn – it’s too intimate for that and the emphasis is more on characterisation – but it is as sexy as hell. Intimacy forms the core of Mathews’ film work so far, including his ongoing series of documentaries, In Their Room. These vignettes, shot in gay men’s bedrooms and living spaces in San Francisco and Berlin, show them in moments of sensual activity and tender solitude, as they talk about relationships, desire, sex and men.
The feature length version of I Want Your Love was given its international premiere on the opening night of the recent East End Fringe! festival of gay and lesbian cinema. Hackney Picturehouse was duly packed out and there was a real sense of anticipation in the audience.
The film itself was even more subtle and thoughtful than Mathews’ previous work and portrays a series of relationships that revolve around the central character of Jesse, a somewhat self-absorbed young guy who’s about to leave San Francisco and return home to Ohio, having not really made it in the big city. There are moments of incredible, still beauty, as well as intense, graphic, honest-to-goodness sex, some of it joyful, some of it less so.
I caught up with Travis Mathews the next day to talk about his work and the forthcoming London version of In Their Room.
What gave you the idea to make I Want Your Love?
I have a background in documentary film making and I’d already started my In their Room project as a series of short films of gay men, just hanging out, doing pretty banal things, or whatever they wanted, and talking about stuff to do with their lives and telling their stories. At the same time I was writing and developing a film script that became I Want Your Love and uses some of the same themes and approaches to gay men and gay sex.
At what point did you decide to show explicit sex in your work?
From very early on I just felt that I wanted to show gay men’s sexual relationships in ways that aren’t really being depicted in mainstream gay porn. There’s so many different reasons why people have sex and I wanted to create stories and characters that explore that. Mainly I want to tell stories that focus on relationships.
So was it a political decision, or more of an aesthetic one?
A bit of both to be honest. Well, it’s intrinsically political, to show gay men in this way, but in the widest sense of the word. Intimacy is very important to me and I didn’t think I could show intimacy without showing sex. I also didn’t want to show gay men in the ways that they are most often shown – as victims, or as hyper-masculine sex machines.
The film has a very naturalistic, cinema verité feel to it? Was that a deliberate decision you made, or did it grow more organically from the process?
My experience as a documentary maker was of just following people round with a camera, and when I was making In Their Room it really was just me with my camera and the film’s subject, so I’m very much used to that way of working. With I Want Your Love, I wanted to keep that aspect of my work in the movie, even though it was filmed in the usual way, with a crew and a script. I’m very influenced by directors like Nicholas Roeg – Don’t Look Now is one of my favourite movies – and the way he shot and edited his films also has that very ‘real’ aesthetic.
The way that you film and focus on bodies in your work is really interesting – you get right up close to faces and body parts, and treat bodies in a very different way to porn, where the emphasis is on display, which requires distance.
Yeah, that’s a good way of putting it. For me that’s all about creating intimacy.
I wanted to show normal, average bodies, not the usual pumped-up, commercial porn body. The guys in my films are hot, for sure, but they’re not hard-bodied studs.
The film was produced by a porn company though, wasn’t it – Naked Sword? How were they to work with?
Actually, they were great. I met the producer who’d seen the I Want Your Love short and they didn’t put any pressure on me to change the film or the way I was making it. I was occasionally worried that they didn’t know what they were getting into, and that it wasn’t sexy enough for them, but they were fine.
Though I suppose the casting process must have been fun?
It was! A lot of fun. Especially meeting all those interesting people. You know, as soon as I met Jesse I knew that I wanted to write for him. He was very good at performing himself, if that makes sense. So the character of Jesse in the movie is both him and not him. I did find myself casting according to parts I had written in the movie, but also writing characters based on the people I met in casting.
There’s a lot about ‘want’ in the film – the characters often talk about what they want and what they don’t want, and the word appears in the title obviously.
I think that’s where the main thrust of the narrative, such as it is, exists in the movie. It’s also the main source of conflict in the film. The central character, Jesse, doesn’t really know what he wants. He’s a bit lost and thinks that he can get affirmation from sex, but actually, all the sexual encounters he has are unsatisfactory.
My one moment of discomfort was when the character of Keith, who’s Jesse’s mentor, kisses him. It felt like he was taking advantage of Jesse’s vulnerability. How do you see their relationship?
Keith’s like a father figure for Jesse and I wanted to see what would happen if I blurred the lines in that relationship. It’s really important that Keith never forces Jesse into anything but actually that moment in the film gives Jesse and important opportunity to take control of what he’s doing, maybe for the first time, and to have a moment of empowerment.
Have you faced much hostile reaction to the sexual content in your work?
Not much as yet. I’m only just starting the process of seeing the film with large audiences, on the festival circuit, and I guess I’ll need to be prepared and ready for negative comment. I think most people will know what to expect when they come to see the movie, especially if they’ve seen the short.
Do you feel like there’s a burgeoning movement in contemporary queer cinema? I’m thinking of the ways in which Andrew Haigh in Weekend and even James Cameron Mitchell with Shortbus have been privileging relationships in their treatment of queer sexuality in the same way you have.
Well, I definitely feel like there’s a moment, if not a movement – it’s too soon to say. I really loved Weekend and what Andrew Haigh did in that movie, which was to create a real sense of characters as individuals who do the same things as everyone else.
And while you’re here you’re filming In Their Room, London, is that right?
It is, and I’m really excited about. Each city I’ve filmed in so far has been different and the same. I’ll be here for a month or so, getting to know guys and deciding who I want to film. I’m thinking of developing a story line of people getting ready to go out and people preparing to receive them and the audience not knowing who is going to meet up with who. That could be interesting.
What’s your next feature going to be?
I really want to tell the story of Brontez, who’s a character in I Want Your Love. I want to explore his more complex side and not just have him as a comic figure. He also appears as himself in In Their Room, San Francisco, which shows him as more vulnerable, but at the same time he’s such a personality, such a charismatic performer. I’m writing that at the moment, trying to get funding for it. It’s all good.