James Franco and Travis Mathews’ Interior. Leather Bar. is a short feature re-imagining the 40 lost minutes from William Friedkin’s 1980 Cruising (starring Al Pacino as a straight cop tracking a serial killer of gay men). But it is as much about the making of the new film, and the various levels of discomfort among both the gay and straight actors involved, primarily that of the straight lead Val Lauren. After its screening at last year’s Berlinale, Mathews, who is known for his gay-porn series In Their Room and the feature I Want Your Love, discussed the making of Interior. Leather Bar. and the mixed reactions it’s getting from gay and straight men, and from those who like it best — women.
BLATC: Let’s start with the obvious: How did you and James Franco come to work together on this project and why?
Travis Mathews: When James first approached me, it was a larger sort of situation where there was a series of different films from the 70s that he wanted to revisit in some capacity. Cruising was the first of these. It was never about doing a remake, it was always about doing a nod, and doing some sort of [take on] how far have we come as a culture, or with gay culture, or with sexual freedom, creative freedom. And he knew that he wanted explicit gay sex in the film.
We didn’t know each other. But the through line in my work has been about masculinity, gay male intimacy. In the last couple of years, I had been using un-simulated gay sex to weave into narratives in a way that wasn’t meant for titillation or pornography but was used for other reasons — funny moments, awkward moments, character development moments. There’s so much substance there that’s underutilized in terms of story.
Last summer, I had a feature film, I Want Your Love, that is a narrative with sex woven into it. James had seen it and reached out to me about collaborating. I got an email and then within twelve hours we were on the phone discussing this. He said he wanted to revisit Cruising and he didn’t have any real ideas of how to enter into it or what we might do but he was interested in me being involved and hearing my thoughts. And the first time we talked I had a whole series of questions and concerns, knowing his history behind and in front of the camera in films with gay content. I was, like, Okay, you’ve done all this stuff. And most of it’s been very positive, whether people have appreciated it or not, it’s been very positive, like the different characters and the different gay icons he’s brought attention to.
But Cruising’s going to be a very different situation; it’s still very much a problematic film for people, for its representation, and it has this very well-documented history of why. And he understood that and agreed with that and I thought it was important for us to include all of what we knew was going to be chatter into the film without making that the film. So it was this dance where I felt we needed to acknowledge certain things about who he was and what he’s done and why he’s doing this without letting that overtake the whole movie we were making and having it be completely about that.
We were looking for parallels with the original Cruising that would, for people who knew the film, make it richer but also wouldn’t be vital for an experience with the film. And Val’s character is the arc that’s supposed to model Al Pacino’s character.
Before I even wrote a treatment for it, the first thing that we both sort of connected to (and that I hadn’t heard about) were the lost 40 minutes. And this whole mythology of them being destroyed or them being buried, or Friedkin has them in a dungeon somewhere. Actually I hope with the amount of attention that the film has gotten that somehow they’ll surface and just be their own thing. I think that would be kind of amazing. I know that they’ve never publicly been screened. I’ve heard Friedkin say some controversial things about them, but I’ve not had a chance to talk to him about them personally.
So we used that as a launching point for what we were going to do. We had four weeks, from the moment we talked on the phone till the moment we went into production, which was a two-day shoot. And with the confined limitations that we had, and also the number of things that seemed important to cover in the exploration, it seemed, and I still think so, the wisest thing to do was not try to recreate these 40 minutes on a two-day shoot but instead do pieces of that but to make it more about the process of making this film. And find arcs within that process that could make it a cohesive whole.
So that’s how it started to come together. And when you see in the first scene in the film, in the hotel, where we’re talking, and then Val comes and we’re introduced, none of that’s scripted. And that’s actually the first time that I met James. When I walked into that hotel there were three cameras on me. Once we decided that we were going to make this as much about the process, and our exploration, there was never a moment when something wasn’t recorded. So there are scenes that are scripted and crafted, and then there are scenes that happened in a much more organic sense.
And there were always cameras, so we could just quickly be, like, “Okay let’s do this! Hang on, hang on, don’t start yet.” And then there would be people in the moment really negotiating or figuring out what was happening. You know, all of this happened so quickly, there was no time to worry or ruminate or over plan anything. It was like making quick choices and then just sticking with them and then seeing what quick choices that meant you had to make because of the ones you had just made five minutes earlier.
What was your casting process?
When I got there, there’s like 50 guys – about half of them gay and half of them straight — and there’s absolutely no direction whatsoever. I wish this had been filmed, actually, because this was a very rich and interesting scenario that unfolded. You know, these guys didn’t know what they were coming for, right? But they wanted to be there because of Franco blah blah blah. But James wasn’t there, one of his producers was there, and I was there. And she was like, “Okay, go.” And I didn’t know how this was supposed to go. So I just stood up and I was, like, “Okay, thank you for coming. I want to let you know that there’s going to be actual gay sex in this, and I’m not asking or expecting any or you to go there. If you are interested, then we can talk, but if you’re not interested that doesn’t mean that you’re not involved in the film. I want that to be clear.”
But then it became this really interesting thing where people had so many levels of excitement and levels of discomfort that I actually had to ask the guys to go into different sections of the room based on how far they were willing to go sexually with another man.
So on one hand there was a group of guys who were, like, “I’m okay taking my shirt off and being in the milieu but I don’t want to touch another guy, I don’t want to kiss another guy.” And then there was another group that was like, “I’m fine touching and kissing a guy but I’m not going to get naked, I’m not going to do anything sexual.” And then there was somewhere in between, like, “I’m okay being sexual to a point.” And then, like, “I’m ready to full on fuck anybody you want to put in front of me.”
So we had clusters of guys in different parts of the room, and I had to go over to them and be, like, “So remind me, you guys are the ones that will just be okay with kissing?” And you can see them having this internal process. “I should say yes because it’s this James Franco thing, but where are my boundaries, what will my friends say, what will this do for my career?”
My initial instinct was to bring in only the extras who were not only gay but who had a comfort level. But overnight, I thought about it, and I connected with one of James’s producers, and then it just seemed obvious that we should invite all of them. And we should let those different layers of comfort and discomfort be part of the rich texture of the film, because this is part of what we’re doing.
So the arc of it is Val’s experience kind of piggybacking on these various other peoples’ experience. And their discomfort with it may have had nothing to do with the gayness but just about what it might do to their careers, being involved with something like this – both in a positive and negative way. So there were all of these ways in which it seemed exciting to capture people negotiating boundaries — ways that were somewhat scripted as well as ways that were very much live and present. As a filmmaker it was super exciting because I like to work with basically a map that I’m ready to throw away at a certain point and then revisit, and that was a lot of what this movie ended up becoming.
And did you wind up cutting it yourself?
This is an interesting story that I’ve shared but I haven’t shared with any of the press. Not for any reason, it just hasn’t come up. The film was originally conceived as a 5-10 minute art video that was going to play during Fashion Week in New York. And there was a shorter version that did play there. But there was tons of footage, and I had done an episode of this series, In Their Room, in London in April. And I had reserved the whole month of August to go back and stay at my mom’s house in the middle of Ohio-nowhere to edit this In Their Room London episode. So I had four weeks already reserved, I was going to be focused on that.
And of course this came into my life and superseded the other project temporarily. So I had two big hard drives and I went back to my boyhood bedroom in rural Ohio and it felt like I was in high school again. My door would always be shut. I mean, I had like three weeks to edit this and the thing that was hard — in addition to constructing it – was knowing when to pull back and when to give more. There were so many cameras that at different points we were capturing the same moment and to layer that and to sync that was its own difficult process.
But I was in my room, working like 14 or 16 hours, and my mom would always be knocking on the door. And I’d be, like, “Mommm, I’m working!” She’d be, like, “I’m sorry, but I went to the store and I got that turkey you like, and let me know if you’d like me to make something for dinner.”
My mom was actually the first person to see a lot of the scenes that I was crafting – nothing that was super sexual – but scenes where there’s a certain level where I wanted the viewer to understand just enough but to still be slightly confused in figuring out. So she’d come in and she’d get her glasses and her soda and she’d say, “Okay, what do I need to know?” “You don’t need to know anything!” And she’d be, like, “Okay, so how confused am I supposed to be?”
I love my mom, she’s great, but she has a pretty simple life 500 million miles away from this world.
Tell me about your expectations for the film and the reactions you actually get.
The Q&As are intense and a bit of a dance. I think this is very much seen as a gay film, but it’s not really a gay film, it’s more of a queer film, because there’s a straight protagonist, and we’re dealing with sexuality. People come into it with very strong feelings about what the film is going to be. And for some people, they’re thankful that it’s not what they thought it was going to be. And there are others who are upset about that. I get a lot of questions from gay people who know and like the work that I’ve done and are challenging me with why I did this, what it means that I’m doing this, and what my purpose is in doing this. So there are little bombs here, little bombs there, and I can almost feel people wondering if I’m going to be truthful, if I’m going to be coy, or am I going to put my foot in my mouth.
There’s a whole demographic that loves the film and there’s a whole demographic that hates it. Actually, women seem to like the film the most. I think women have connected with it because how often do women get this sort of voyeuristic look into men talking about sexuality, whether it’s gay sexuality or straight sexuality, and seeing men have to negotiate boundaries – and where those lie. And women are not involved in the discussion in the film, so they’re not being provoked to sort of check in with their own processes as much as both gay and straight men are.
I’ve had straight men come to me — liberally minded straight men mind you — come up to me and say, “Your movie really made me check in about things, like, you know, I didn’t think I had any homophobia still in me, I thought it was totally cool and I just wanted to let you know that I had my own sort of process with it.” And for me that’s fucking amazing because I feel that, of any audience, a straight male audience is probably the hardest to actually reach with the kind of material that this film explores.
But with some gay men I think there’s some disappointment that the ark and the weight of this movie rests on a straight man’s experience, whether you think it’s James’ or whether you think it’s Val’s. And that bugs me because, not that I feel like I’m being ghettoized and trying to jump outside of doing film with gay content, but I feel like, Why can’t straight men be part of this conversation? I don’t feel like I’ve pandered to straight men, I don’t feel like I gave easy answers that are, like, now the straight man is taken care of, he’s okay now and he can go home to his wife. I don’t feel like that’s how we approached or made this film.
Yet I’ve had men who are livid that, in 35 years since the original Cruising, we’re still concerned about a straight man and his discomfort or his negotiating around gay sexuality. And I’m, like, that’s part of the world we live in. If I made every film about exploring a straight man’s experience with gay content, well, sure. But then there are gay men who just want 40 minutes of sex, or they want to see James Franco’s ass, or they want to see him do something sexual.
And then of course James brings everything that James brings to the movie already where people have strong feelings for and against him, so that becomes another thing to negotiate. I’m not his mouthpiece, I’m not going to speak for him, and I’m not going to go to a lot of places I think people want me to go, of solving the riddle that they think he is. That’s for him to do.