Cruising With Travis Mathews: The Nightcharm Interview

interior1Travis Mathews is an award-winning filmmaker whose movies focus on gay men and intimacy. Informed with a Masters in Counseling Psychology and a background in documentary, Travis crafts thoughtful and naturalistic films that maintain their sense of humour.

Travis started an ongoing documentary series in 2009 called In Their Room about gay men and bedrooms. During the making of this series Travis began his first feature film, I Want Your Love, which was recently banned in Australia, despite playing to sold out audiences at film festivals worldwide.

Following the success of I Want Your Love, Travis was approached by filmmaker James Franco in 2012 to collaborate on what would become Interior. Leather Bar, a project inspired by the fabled 40 minutes of "lost footage" of William Friedkin's infamous film Cruising, footage doomed to the cutting room floor and never seen again after the film's producers deemed its gay leather bar content -- filmed at an actual bar of the day, with regular patrons as extras doing what Friedkin sat back and filmed after he had directed them to do what they would normally do there of a weekend night -- too explicit.

Travis spoke with Nightcharm via email this weekend, and very generously supplied some great new exclusive images from the film and its production, unseen before.

MARK ADNUM: Travis, James Franco said the Australian Film Classification Board's decision to not allow I Want Your Love to screen at queer festivals in Australia was "disappointing" and "silly". What's your reaction to the ban?

TRAVIS MATHEWS: Until I hear a coherent defense of their decision making policies -- something that's more than just pointing to the law that exists -- I'll continue to say the same thing: an adult viewing audience should be allowed to watch what they want and make up their own minds. No one is blindly stumbling into I Want Your Love. There are some double standards at play given some of the other films playing at the festivals there (Nine Songs, Donkey Love) and possibly homophobia, but I have so little to respond to from them that I'm cautious of saying much about that piece.

I'm happy to share that we're attempting to screen Interior. Leather Bar in I Want Your Love's place. It's going to be fascinating to see how this plays out because Interior. Leather Bar basically works as a rebuttal to the classification board.

MA: Travis, are you aware of this little piece of proleptic cosmic shrapnel from Cruising? What do you make of that, and could a project about that "lost" piece of "footage" been of interest to you at all?

TM: It's fascinating for sure and could make for a great film in and of itself, but I'll leave that to someone else. Who should we nominate to play Friedkin!?

MA: Something that's always interested me is that much of the criticism of Cruising is based on the myth that the film's leather bar scenes were deliberately crafted to paint gays of the day in the darkest light possible. But in fact the scenes in question were filmed in an actual New York dungeon bar and all performers (except Pacino and two or three key minor players) were regular patrons of the venue. So really, the film is actually a kind of quasi-documentary about gay leather life of the day, and if anything a diluted one rather than an exaggerated "homophobic" fantasy of gay creeps. What do you think?

TM: I keep pointing out that the bar scenes really amount to well-shot documentary footage with real patrons, in real bars, doing real drugs, real sex, real drinking... . If you edit these scenes alone it's an important document of this gay subculture on the eve of HIV's arrival. What's chilling is that HIV is probably all around them as they're filming and no one knew it.

These aren't the scenes people have problems with though, it's the overall representation of gay men in the film, that a gay life is one that can only lead to death and destruction. There's no real arguing that the movie is problematic, it is in this way and generally speaking it's narrative is pretty muddled with leaps and holes in the plot.

MA: Do you have any personal interest/engagement with the leather scene?

TM: I don't have a lot of experience with the leather scene. For what we were doing and what we were wanting to accomplish with Interior, I thought I had enough of a knowledge to dive in. It's not so much a movie exploring or even about recreating the leather scene. Yes, we have scenes that are meant to do justice to it, but it's mostly a movie about boundaries of all sorts and where they begin, end, and bleed, with the follow up question of why?

There's not a lot of real leather bars that exist anymore. Outside of certain places like Berlin, you're hard pressed to find one that is true to form and not just an indie night getting its kicks by being transgressive or retro. S&M and the leather culture interest me, but from more of a psychological perspective. It's not so much my bag, although I've experimented some.

MA: Do you think the gay-themed film movement has passed? I'm talking about what started with the hyper self-conscious films of New Queer Cinema and apexed with Brokeback Mountain and Milk. I remember going to see Weekend a couple of years back and me and my viewing partner both shrugged, like most of the audience, and I think that was the year that Sydney's G & L Film Festival went bankrupt. Meanwhile, openly gay directors such as Lee Matthews and Gus van Sant are busy, working directors, scoring Oscar nominations for themselves and their actors for crafting films that in many cases have next to nothing to do with homosexuality. What's your take on this evolution?

TM: I think we've entered a new era of sorts where gay films are being made in the absence of the well-tread gay crises (HIV, bullying, homophobia) or trope (coming out stories, hot twink comedies), in favor of a good story. I see films popping up that are good films first, but with casts whose gayness is just a taken-for-granted piece of the story. It's about respecting the audience's intelligence on some level and trusting that the audience doesn't need to be educated about "the gay experience." I saw a great lesbian film at Sundance called Concussion that did this really well.

There's also a whole wave of films about our gay elders that I think is an outgrowth of everyone's interest in revisiting early 90s politics. Young gay guys in particular seem to be much more interested in taking a serious, near academic, approach to cinema. The great film quarterly, Little Joe, was at the forefront of this, along with a lot of small indie-minded queer festivals (Dirty Looks, Fringe!) that are gaining traction.

MA: I love the part of the trailer to Interior. Leather Bar where you're filming James Franco and co-star Val Lauren sitting and watching gay porn. What's your take on gay porn as a movie genre, in light of your interest in intimacy. Do you see any triangular intimacy between the performers and their viewers?

TM: I dont think there's anything all that intimate with porn. I define porn as something which has the sole purpose of getting a viewer off. Because that's never been my primary concern with the work I've made I feel comfortable calling it something other than porn. But I'm not interested in defending that, it doesn't really matter to me if someone says I make porn or not. It doesn't elevate or disparage it in my mind.

When I film a sex scene or something sexual I'm always returning the same throughline that's in my other work, that of gay male intimacy, connection, and the ways in which we fuck it up. I've been more interested in all the ways that sex is anything but sexy in the past couple of years. A hot fuck scene just doesn't interest me.

MA: Would you consider making a hardcore porn film?

TM: Nope. There's certainly part of me concerned about being pigeon-holed as the alt-gay-porn guy, but in all honesty, there's only so far that I care to go in exploring sex in movies. I have other movies I want to make, stories that I assume will still feel as if from me, but not ones where explicit sex is a central theme.

MA: Do you watch a lot of porn? What are your favourites/preferences?

TM: Hah. Sure. I dont know what "a lot" constitutes, but I'd say I spend about 10 minutes a day looking at porn. It serves as more of a utilitarian function for me. I'm never so horny that I need to look at porn. It's more out of boredom or procrastination or something pretty banal. Porn is fantasy and so I go to fantasy places that I'd prefer to keep private.

With everything I've been doing and the fact that a porn company produced I Want Your Love you might assume that I'm well schooled on studios and porn stars, but I'm really not. I've kept my distance, but it's less to do with maintaining a protective firewall and more out of just not caring. I have non-filmmaking friends who know a ton more than I do. It's just not interesting to me.

MA: What's next for Travis Mathews?

TM: I'm really excited about the third episode in my In Their Room series, London. I just finished it last week and it will be playing before INTERIOR for much of the film festival circuit starting in April. I'm also in development on my next feature, something that will be a bit of a pivot from my recent work, while still being recognizable as me ... I think.

More on Interior. Leather Bar, including more behind-the-scenes images and the film's trailer, here @ Nightcharm.