Interview – Travis Mathews

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Travis started his career with documentaries, exploring the world of gay men relationships. His series In Their Room brought him to international attention, and gave him the opportunity to move on to his first narrative feature, I Want Your Love. This was the film that attracted James Franco’s attention and started their collaboration with Interior. Leather Bar. Travis was kind enough to answer a few questions about his project…

First of all, I really need to say I loved the film. It made me laugh a lot…

Good! I was worried people wouldn’t realize it’s okay to laugh.

How did “Interior. Leather Bar” came to be?

It’s a long story, I’ll try not to make it too long. First of all, James and I did not have any sort of previous relationship, did not know each other, anything like that… But in June 2012 I had a film, my first feature, called I Want Your Love, that had real sex woven into the narrative. I had that out and it was playing festivals, and it was at the same time James was interested in collaborating with someone on a project that would revisit the 1980 film Cruising in some capacity, and also kind of play with this idea of boundaries, and the understanding of them from that 1980s perspective, how things may or may not have changed since in 2012. So I was contacted out of the blue by James, and initially we just had some conversations over the phone, to feel each other out and see if we could work well together, because it was going to be a project we knew it would be somewhat experimental in nature, and we were gonna have to develop a quick sort of trust in shorthand, a way of communicating with each other. You know, I had a lot of questions for James when we first talked, about why was he interested in Cruising, and also discussing what I knew people were going to say about this project, even before we thought about what we were doing? I mean, I knew there was a sort of population, within the gay community in particular, who had been very curious about the number of gay-themed projects that James have been doing, and they were going to have something to say about this. And so I knew that, regardless of what we did, I had a good sense from the very beginning that this was going to be a very polarizing project, because me, James, and revisiting Cruising, and we knew we were going to have some amount of explicit gay sex in it. All these things together, I knew it was going to be a bit polarizing and the more we talked about it, the more we were interested in the whole process of what we were creating, and we were still playing with ideas of what we could do, and then we found out about these mythical lost 40 minutes from the original Cruising, that were shaved off in order for Friedkin to get a rated R-version as opposed to a rated X-version. We got interested in that, partly because they have never been seen publicly, and there are all these ideas about these 40 minutes having been destroyed, suppressed, hidden, you know, there are a lot of different stories. So we came up with this idea of re-imagining these lost 40 minutes, and the more we talked about it, it just began to make sense, for a variety of reasons, that we should start filming everything that we were doing, and make this about the process, as opposed to straight up making up 40 minutes of recreated, re-imagined footage. It seemed like we would be able to have more flexibility, and stretch the limits of the things that we wanted to explore, than if we tried to have a more traditional narrative.

How was the process of creating this film?

Well, I wrote the treatment that we used – I hesitate to say script, because it was pretty bare-boned. As much as some people believe that we just shot a bunch of stuff and then figure it out in the editing room, that wasn’t the case, and a lot of the documentary-like or verité scenes are actually very staged scenes. So there’s a lot in the film that comes from me that’s very, sort of scripted, but not in a strict sense, with dialogue or so, but more directing people to play themselves in a particular situation, with some idea of where that scene needs to conclude. So people had a vague sense of what we were doing, we deliberately left people a little bit confused, but also understanding that we would be filming constantly, even after I would say cut. So people always knew that the cameras were going, and there was always a possibility for a scene to kinda emerge. I had a skeletal treatment that had all of these scenes both within the re-imagined footage and then, also, the more verité stuff, that together, created a pretty skeletal arc that was Val Lauren’s arc. And the film rests on his little journey, this long day of shooting. But we knew the conditions were right for other more spontaneous and organic scenes to happen. With this many people together in such a weird arbitrary space, exploring something that wasn’t completely clear to a lot of people there, we knew there was going to be a moment or more where there would be something interesting, to make sure that we capture. And so there are those scenes in the film as well, but most of what you see comes from a treatment that I wrote. And then, James and I co-directed, and then I edited the film.

How was to work with Val Lauren?

I love Val, I think he’s such a fun gay and he’s really easy to work with. We were lucky to find someone that had such a striking resemblance to Pacino, and also this relationship to James, but also a real ambivalence going into the production very early, and I know that changed pretty quickly, but…  You know, there were a lot of good things that were in play with choosing him, and I also think he’s a good performer, I think he really pulls off what we were trying to accomplish. It was funny, because I never really knew when the moment was that Val started to understand what we were doing and kinda come on board, and begin acting more, as opposed to sort of expressing his own feelings. And things were moving so quickly, I didn’t care to stop to ask him, because it didn’t matter to me, I knew that I was getting the kind of performance out of him that I was hoping for, so it wasn’t until we were completely finished filming that Val shared with me and my DP that, at a certain point, it was beginning to be difficult to him to show how awkward or uncomfortable it was for him, because he had started to both understand the project, and also enjoy working with us. I mean, we had fun, it was a very fast-paced, frenetic shoot and it was actually leaned in the direction of being fun in that regard, as opposed to be stressful, which I am very thankful for, and we shared that a lot after we finished filming.

Friedkin was a straight man trying to portray another community. Your past projects deal mostly with the gay community – any plans on expanding the explorations?

I’m working on a script right now, actually, that’s much more… I guess everyone’s in it, I can say that much. It’s certainly not a gay film, it does have gay elements, but it’s more of something that… something for everyone, I know I’m being vague (laughs). So the answer to your question is yes.

In the beginning of the film, someone mentions that the queer community is becoming mainstream. Do you think that’s true?

Yeah, of course. I don’t think there’s really any argument for that. I mean, globally, certainly there are arguments all over, in different places, but within North America, Europe and other places… The momentum for gay marriage has swallowed up a lot of LGBT struggles and fights. I don’t necessarily have a problem with gay marriage, I don’t know if it’s right for me, but I think that we should have that right. But I also think that in that struggle toward gay marriage there’s a lot of tacit agreements that we made about assimilating into a more mainstream culture, for the right to be married. And in doing that, I think a lot of our more progressive and radical dynamics that are more interesting for my point of view… culture and politics within the gay community is being a little bit eclipsed by the race to marriage, which I basically acquaint to mainstream.

In your previous feature, you used explicit sex as part of the narrative. What’s your argument for it?

In that particular film, and in the In the Room series, it’s a lot about, at its core, vulnerability, and just being really raw in a very honest way. It’s close to something that can be honest. I know that there’s no essential truth to any of these people that I’m filming,  because I’m filming them, but when I was writing and making that film, I was exploring so much of the emotional world of these guys in a way that up until then I didn’t feel it was being done very much, you know? And they were guys in their 20s in San Francisco, and a lot of what we were exploring was around intimacy and relationships and sex, and I thought, if we were going to be dealing with this in a very emotional context, in a way that felt we were striving for something raw and honest, I didn’t want to shy away from them actually having sex, and then exploring the actual act of sex in different contexts, not necessarily arousing. If you look at most of the sex that I film, yes, there are moments that I’m sure that for a lot of people can be arousing, but almost 9 times out of 10 I’m more interested in filming something that is like between two friends, so there’s this awkward subtext that you play with, or an awkward hook-up, or a really funny playful moment between two lovers that have been together for quite some time. Those kind of things I think are infinitely more interesting than just a sexy sex scene.  And I think that, done properly, can add to the character and to the subtext of the story.

Do you think that with the mainstream audience it’s still a matter of what kind of sex is portrayed on screen, or between whom, censorship wise?

Yeah, for sure. I mean, in the US we still can’t show hard dicks, ever, because a hard dick would suggest a man’s arousal, which I guess would be threatening to a primarily straight male audience, or straight male executives who make those decisions. We’re talking about that level of censorship. Knowing that you can’t even argue that, that it is the way it is, then all the other things that follow after that, like types of sex, and different people who are having sex, that certainly comes into play.

In your opinion, what’s the line between pornography and art?

It’s subjective with everybody. People who call what I do pornography, it doesn’t bother me, and I choose not to argue with anybody who thinks that. I don’t believe that what I do is pornography, and that’s because it really doesn’t stand up to my personal definition of what pornography is, which is something that is basically made and consumed with the primary purpose of getting someone off. I won’t act like the arousal piece doesn’t exist in any of my work, like I said, but it’s never my primary concern when I’m shooting something.

Were you happy with the final result for “Interior. Leather Bar”?

Yes. Something you need to understand that I didn’t share earlier about the origins of the project is that James was commissioned to do a couple of short films for this boutique in Soho, New York City, and this was going to be one of the videos to play in this boutique that imagined itself as an art gallery during Fashion Week, September 2012. So the only expected life of this was going to be something that would play in a dressing room of this boutique, for one month, during Fashion Week. So that was all I was brought on to collaborate with. It was only after I had a treatment that had possibilities, and, you know, we weren’t really sure how far we would go with things, and the stakes were so low, because of what was initially for, that we were allowed to push it a little bit further, I think, just because in our minds it felt there were no stakes. I kept it to myself that I had been hoping all along that I had enough material to actually submit a feature to Sundance and Berlin. Those are the two places where I always wanted to premiere a film. We were fortunate enough that it premiered at both of those places. The only thing that I wish it would be different is that it would be longer. I wish that we had thought through just a little bit more to make it longer in a way that it didn’t feel that it was padding, but was also essential to the film. Because it’s 60 minutes, it’s technically a feature, but psychologically, it’s not a feature for most people. And it’s also been a little bit of a problem in terms of distribution, because it’s a 60 minutes experimental film. Most places, if it was longer, the more experimental and explicit nature of it would have been okay. It was just a matter of it not being long enough to be programmed.

What are your next projects?

The thing that I’m writing right now is another project that I’m doing with James. It’s going to be its own crazy ride, but it’s going to have a more traditional kind of narrative, and it will be… longer than 60 minutes. (laughs) That we will probably don’t film until the end of the year, or earlier next year. I have a feature that I’m doing where James is a producer but he’s not involved with the more day-to-day pieces of it, it’s about a young gay man with cerebral palsy, who lives in a working class situation, and he is a very angry, hot-headed young guy, and it’s his story. And that’s something that we actually just got a grant for yesterday, from the San Francisco Film Society, which we are very happy about. But you know, it’s hard to put a movie together, there’re lots of people and there’re lots of things that get shuffled around, so with both of these projects I would love to be filming them before the end of the year, but it may not be until earlier next year.

 

 

 

 

 

Sara is originally from Coimbra, Portugal, where she studied Film Studies before moving to London to enrol in film school. Having made her first short film about her neighbour's chickens when she was 9 (a dystopian sci-fi, still her favourite genre), she is now a London-based film director and editor, and also a writer for the Portuguese Take Magazine. She is a huge fan of Lars Von Trier, Krysztof Kiéslowski, and David Lean.