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Travis Mathews on Interior. Leather Bar, James Franco, and Cruising
"I’ve shot stuff that’s sexy, and I’m sure people have jerked off to it, but it’s honestly not something I think about."
by Alex Heigl
Travis Mathews is mostly known for his in-depth looks at male intimacy in films like I Want Your Love and In Their Room. Last year, though, he was tapped to work on Interior. Leather Bar, James Franco's re-imagining of forty minutes of footage cut from William Friedkin's 1980 film, Cruising. As Interior: Leather Bar rides out its Sundance debut, we talked to Travis about the film.
What prompted you to collaborate with James Franco on Interior. Leather Bar?
He contacted me first, and we started talking about different ideas. He knew he wanted to do something that was a bit of nod to Cruising without being a remake, and he knew that he wanted there to be gay sex in it, but the parameters of what he wanted to do weren’t quite in place. The first time we talked, we just started spitting out ideas, took a weekend on it, and came out with what we have now.
I think the world let out a collective groan when they found out James Franco wouldn’t actually be having gay sex in this film —
He did say recently that maybe he would in the sequel, but I wouldn’t hold your breath.
Did you grow up in the haze of the Cruising backlash?
I did. I was born in ‘75, so I was only five years old when it came out.
It’s strange — it’s developed a bit of a cult following, but it was reviled, and rightly so, for a very long time.
I think there’s a generational thing with that movie. It’s hard to argue that the representation of gay people, and in particular, the subculture of the leather/S&M community, in Cruising has any sort of positivity. It could have done a better job. But the way it's aged is interesting; a lot of people my age and younger look at it like they do so many things from the 1970s, before AIDS happened — with rose-colored glasses, or as a time that they were robbed of.
And you know, I went back and watched it again last night, and it’s a great time capsule. Setting aside the rest of the film’s baggage, the bar footage really feels like a documentary. Those are real people, not actors. It’s a real bar — I think the Mine Shaft — and people were really drinking, smoking, doing drugs, having sex. [Actually, the footage shown in Cruising was filmed in the Hellfire Club, because the Mineshaft had banned Friedkin from the premises. The Hellfire's interior was made up to look like The Mineshaft, and regulars from that bar were used as extras. — Ed.] Friedkin said he just floated around and shot it as a documentary, and I think that really comes across.
Broadly, how do you think queer cinema has changed since Cruising?
Well, I think for a lot of the ‘80s, any kind of film representation made by gay people was thrilling, and people rallied behind it regardless of the quality of the movie, just because we were hungry for images of people who looked like us or had experiences like us. And then there was a lot of great queer cinema in the ‘90s, with a lot of directors doing experimental, political things, like Todd Haynes. During the last ten years, though, I feel like it’s kind of gotten boring, and there’s been a lot of straight-to-video, goofy, almost slapstick-y comedies... it felt like it was spinning further and further from any experiences I felt like a part of.
Most of your work, like In Their Room, takes a naturalistic, uncensored lens to intimate gay life. In light of what you just said, are you trying to course-correct? What are your goals with filmmaking?
A lot of what I gravitate toward is gay male intimacy. And there’s a lot of ways to look at that, many different angles and ways to explore that. But I’m also interested in representations that feel more like me or my friends, so yeah, there is a little bit of me wanting to make films I wish I was seeing. I think that’s important, and I think that people are responding to that, because they’re hungry for stories and characters that relate to them.
How do you film intimate sex scenes without it feeling like pornography?
Probably what’s most important is what your intentions are, and making your intentions clear to your actors. Everything I’ve done has been a collaboration, to one degree or another. And all of the guys who have wanted to be in my movies have been in my movies because they’re excited by what I’m doing and want to be a part of it. So nobody’s ever taken a part in my movies because they wanted to be a porn star or because they needed a job.
In terms of the actual filming, it’s important for me for the scenes to be about more than just people having sex. I mean, I’ve shot stuff that’s sexy, and I’m sure people have jerked off to it, but it’s honestly not something I think about. I’m always thinking about what it's communicating about the characters or the overall plot. Structure-wise, when we're shooting, we define a “point A” and a “point B,” as in, “You’ll be having sex here, and then you’ll stop and talk here," and then we’ll leave it up to the actors to take it from there, and I think that’s how we get the kind of naturalism and authenticity that people respond to.
Well, how do you respond to people who classify your films as porn?
Some people call what I’ve done porn, and some don’t. That’s it. I don’t really care. Personally, I don’t feel like I’ve had an experience of making porn. I don’t see it that way, and so it doesn’t bother me.
Anything else you want to add about Interior. Leather Bar?
I’m proud of it, certainly, and I think it’s going to be a polarizing film. I think that it’s definitely going to leave people with a lot to talk about, and isn’t that the goal of any film?