Travis Mathews on working with James Franco on his new film, Interior. Leather Bar.
When William Friedkin's Cruising was released in 1979, it was met with protests. The movie, starring Al Pacino, follows an undercover cop as he delves into the gay S&M scene looking for a serial killer, and the gay community protested the negative portrayal. Forty minutes of the film were famously cut because of sexually explicit material.
In his newest film, director Travis Mathews (In Their Room and I Want Your Love) collaborated with actor James Franco to use Cruising as a jumping-off point for a many-layered, fascinating movie that pushes boundaries of all sorts. Billed as an attempt to re-create those lost forty minutes, Interior. Leather Bar. is a compelling piece of docufiction that purports to show the behind-the-scenes making of Cruising . The drama focuses on Val Lauren, the real-life actor playing the Al Pacino character and his real-life reservations about his involvement in the sexually explicit film.
In advance of his appearance Friday, July 19, at the Cinema Q Film Festival at the Sie FilmCenter (full disclosure: I work there scooping popcorn), Westword spoke with Mathews about Interior. Leather Bar. , working with James Franco, the unspoken merits of Cruising, and his continuing project of examining gay male intimacy and sexuality.
See also: - PJ Raval discusses Before You Know It, his new documentary on aging in the LGBTQ community - Keith Garcia's top five picks for the Cinema Q Film Festival - 100 Colorado Creatives: Keith Garcia, Denver Film Society
Westword: How familiar were you with Cruising prior to making this film? What's your take on it?
Travis Mathews: I was very familiar with Cruising before James [Franco] approached me to work on this project. I had seen it in my early twenties, and that was its own particular experience based on who I was at the time. Then, kind of randomly, I ended up seeing it again just a few months before James contacted me, and was basically just reminded of how it makes sense to me that it has such a controversial history and how people protested the film. It's still a lightning rod of a film, for so many people, of misrepresentation of gay people and what it suggests. That said, I always felt that the bar scenes in particular in that movie, if you were to just edit them together, amount to a pretty important document of pre-AIDS New York of this particular gay subculture that I don't think really gets mentioned hardly ever when that movie is brought up. Those scenes in particular were shot in a very docufiction kind of way by Friedkin. They used real venues and real patrons, encouraging them to do whatever they do from dancing, drinking, drugs, sex, in the space that they would normally do that in. Those scenes in particular I think are important, and I think that often gets overlooked with the larger picture of the representation in the film, which is admittedly bad. The movie pretty much suggests that a gay life is one that leads to a dark place of death and destruction. And obviously that's problematic. But one of the things that often gets overlooked are these bar scenes that sort of connect the larger scenes, and the fact that these are real patrons in a real bar playing themselves.
How did you connect with James Franco?
In the spring of last year, my first feature film, I Want Your Love, was doing festival rounds, and that film has unsimulated gay sex that's woven into the narrative, and James was looking for somebody to collaborate on a project that would ultimately become Interior. Leather Bar. He wanted to work with somebody who was already using sex as a storytelling tool and somebody who he could work with to figure out what this movie was going to be. At the time he knew that he wanted to have sex in the film for storytelling reasons or to be a springboard for other discussions within the film, and he wanted to do something that referenced Cruising, but beyond that it was a very aimless picture. So he kind of out of the blue reached out to me last June and we just had a couple of conversations, feeling each other out to make sure we were on the same page, we understood the material, and we connected really quickly and it was clear that we trusted each other pretty quickly. From there we took our film to a lot of edges and sort of went out on those edges ourselves and supported each other's choices as long as there was a smart reason behind it.
How much of the film was scripted?
I had written a treatment that had a bunch of key scenes in it that were all in the service of Val Lauren's arc, and Val is the actor who plays some version of the Pacino character from Cruising. In my mind it was always his story, his arc, and we needed to have enough scenes that were about his journey over the course of this day. But we also knew that there were such ripe conditions of the people who were going to be there and just the sort of strange atmosphere that was going to be alive that had a lot of potential to enhance or support or shed light on Val's arc. So when we realized this we kept the cameras always rolling. We had certain key scenes that were in the service of Val's arc, but because we knew the conditions were also so ripe for kind of spontaneous things to happen, we had four or five cameras always on. Everyone was aware that even after I said "cut" that they would maybe still be getting filmed. It just added to the whole milieu and the whole sense of paranoia, which I wanted to be in there in some way because, you know, that's also an homage to Cruising in the sense of not knowing what's going on, and the meta layers, which are many. They stack up on top of themselves to the point where I think everyone involved just has to rely on their true nature to keep moving forward in the film. My hope was to play with artifice and have so many layers of meta that it would actually uncover a lot more of each individual's truth. And again, these scenes that popped up, the ones that we ended up including in the film are ones that were all in the service of Val's story. So to answer your question about how much is scripted and how much was not scripted, I don't have an easy ratio breakdown, but I would say that most of the scenes have some element of construction in terms of being in the treatment in some capacity.
You mentioned the meta aspects of the film. It seems that Interior. Leather Bar. is very self-reflexive in that it's also a movie about moviemaking. It touches a lot on the power of celebrity to get a project made and also how much trust is put in the director. Can you discuss those aspects of the film?
When James approached me and we first had an initial conversation, I had a lot of questions for him. I'd never met or talked to him before, and I had a lot of questions for him thinking two steps ahead. Like, okay, if we get together, we make a movie, and it references Cruising, however we do that it's going to polarize a lot of people regardless of what we do with the material because we're using, in a lot of people's minds, a very flawed text as our reference that we're jumping off from. In addition to that, there's a straight celebrity who's at the helm of making this happen. There was a lot of thinking through how will that be received and how can we be one step smarter than the audience and bring that expectation into the movie and discuss that and dissect that and then move past that. Because obviously, as James says in the movie, a lot of the power of this movie and people's interest at least starts or has some anchor in the fact that James Franco is doing this. There's a lot of ways in which we could have played with his involvement as a celebrity and him being James Franco, but for me it was something that we needed to incorporate and to acknowledge. But again, the more interesting piece was Val's journey over the course of the day. I think if James had played Val or something like that it would have been so much about James the whole time. So that was something that we needed to kind of dance with and then dance away from to a certain extent.
In terms of trust, the films that I've been making over the past several years, the through line has been around gay male intimacy, masculinity, and sometimes, sometimes not involving male sexuality. In all of the films that I've made in the past few years, I've asked for an enormous amount of trust from the people that I've worked with, and it's often been a very collaborative effort. And I don't take that lightly. If you look at my previous work, I think it shows that I try to take a very compassionate and gentle hand with the people who are trusting me in such a big way. I know that to get naked or to be emotionally naked in a film, especially when you're not a porn actor or you're not a trained actor where you're just sort of bringing in a performance, I know that that's super super vulnerable. That was something that along the way, as we were doing this, there were a lot of discussions around trust, around communication, and just basic principles that I think are a little bit common sense in terms of bringing people on board with this kind of project.
What did you want to show in Val's story arc?
Similar to Cruising, where Al Pacino goes into a gay subculture that he's not familiar with and doesn't really understand and is still sort of forming his opinions of, and then he has a change in that process, we wanted to have a similar arc in our film. You see Val Lauren, who had real life reservations about this movie. The first scene in the movie when we're all at that hotel, none of that is scripted, none of that's planned. That's really the first time I met James in person and that's the first time I met Val in person and the reservations that he was expressing were his true reservations. What was amazing for me was that I had written in the scripts, similar to Cruising, that this actor goes through a very long day of production and he kind of reluctantly goes in, he has confusion, he's not sure what's happening, and he gets some guidance from his director, James in this case, but mostly he's left to his own devices. It takes James leaving the set in the middle of the film for him to have to fall back on what he really believes, what he's really experiencing, and the change that he has is left somewhat ambiguous at the end. That's purposeful, because for me it's more about him processing this very full day that caught him by surprise and challenged the ways he thought and the ways that he expected to experience this day. That's quite a different outcome than in the original Cruising, where the suggestion is the change that Pacino has is that he may have unleashed this gay rage that's inside him. That's definitely not the outcome that we want people to come away with with the Val Lauren character. But again, it is ambiguous as to what the change is that he experienced.
Did you specifically cast an actor who you knew had reservations about the role?
Well, no. What happened was I had written the treatment and given it to James and James suggested an actor who he's friends with and who he's worked with. He recently cast him in a film called Sal, which is a film about Sal Mineo and that film's going to have a theatrical release in the fall I think. James just sent me the movie to look at and said, "Here's my friend, he's a good actor, I've worked with him before, what do you think?" I thought he was a pretty close dead ringer for Pacino, especially for what we were doing, and I didn't know really that he had these reservations. Then James told me that there were certain things that he was willing to do, not willing to do, he was confused about what our artistic intentions were, and I thought, perfect. This is perfect. It just dovetailed right into what the actual treatment was. When we we were on set Val was always respectful and easy to work with, but I never knew at what point he was acting versus what points he was actually feeling uncomfortable about. Over the course of this long day of shooting he had his own sort of transformation in a way that mirrors his character's transformation. He's talked about that with me subsequent to the film being finished, that during the end of the day he was understanding what we were doing and he was also starting to feel a camaraderie with the guys, which is also important to show towards the end of the film how it left him, similar to the character, sort of processing this whole crazy experience.
Is audience reaction something that you think about when making a film and if so, what do you hope that people get out watching Interior. Leather Bar.?
As soon as James said that he wanted to do something referencing Cruising, I knew we were making a polarizing film. I just knew. So we kind of dove in understanding that it was gonna be polarizing, and with that in mind we embraced that and made the film that we thought made most sense for us with the intentions that we had and the things that we wanted to provoke. Audience response is always something that is in my mind and I think should always be in every filmmaker's mind on some level for sure. We wanted to make something smart that was challenging, that would leave people having conversations. That's a little bit of a pat answer I think, but it's true in this case where I want people to feel that they can play with this film, because I think it's actually pretty funny in a lot of places. I think if people allow themselves to have fun with it and play with it then they can also see the serious conversations that we're provoking within it around boundaries, primarily. For me it's a movie about boundaries. Personal boundaries, creative boundaries, artistic boundaries, sexual boundaries, and then how that dovetails into censorship. For me that's the heart of it and that's the serious meat of it that I hope people talk about. But I also hope that people allow themselves to have fun with it. It's funny watching the movie with audiences because when audiences allow themselves to have fun early in the film, I see them and and I hear them and watch them be loose and playful with it throughout the whole movie. But it's when people go in and they're very serious about it for the first fifteen minutes, they seem to walk into a serious state of mind that doesn't loosen up throughout the film. To each their own, but that to me misses part of the whole experience of this movie.
How do you think Interior. Leather Bar. interacts with your other work, the In Their Room and I Want Your Love ?
All of my work, so far anyway, to bigger and smaller degrees lives in kind of that gray area of docufiction. I Want Your Love is much more fictional but has documentary tone to it in different ways, and then In Their Room is very much documentary with some fictitious elements lightly drawn in. I like living in this space and part of the reason I like living in that space is because, for me, I'm always striving to find this kernel of truth or this kernel of raw intimacy. I don't think there's ever a moment where it's like, a-ha, I've got it. It's more of a pursuit. And for some projects it makes more sense to go a documentary route and for some a more fictional route. So that piece feels very connected and familiar. But also all of my movies have explored gay male sexuality and intimacy and masculinity. And Interior. definitely from a different angle attacks those angles just as much.
You have a master's degree in counseling psychology. How do you think that informs your work?
If you look at all my work I think it's clear that I have an interest in people's interior world as much as I do in their physical lives. In particular, in looking at men in particular, I think that so often the more emotional landscape of men gets lost in the physical. I'm interested in both and I'm interested in the ways that they intersect and I'm curious about people's internal lives and what makes them tick and approaching that from a raw lens, and sometimes that lens means that it's really funny and really honest in a way that is hilarious. Or sometimes it's really sad. Or sometimes it's really sexy in how vulnerable that is. But those are the places that interest me, and my graduate work definitely informs that, especially when I'm doing my In Their Room series [which the Sie FilmCenter will screen in its entirety Saturday at 2:15 p.m.] and I'm generally with one other person and talking to them and thinking of ways to make them comfortable and trust me enough to come forward and share these vulnerable parts of themselves. Not a lot of people have that challenge or opportunity or however you wanna describe it, where someone is kind of probing who they are with a gentle touch and also wanting to explore that space where sexuality and intimacy and vulnerability interconnect. I don't take that lightly, and I think that a lot of my graduate work has just reinforced how it's a privileged position to go into people's internal worlds and then also their emotional worlds. I try and to do it with a gentle hand. and Two of Travis Mathews's films will screen on Friday, July 19 at SieFilmCenter: In Their Room: London at 7:30 p.m. and Cruising at 10 p.m.
Get the Arts and Theater Newsletter
Weekly information keeping you in the know when it comes to the art and theater scene. Find out about upcoming performances, exhibitions, openings and special events.