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.
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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.