Interview with Interior. Leather Bar Director Travis Mathews

Anton Bitel

12 Dec 2013
Travis Mathews, writer and co-director (with James Franco) of Interior. Leather Bar, speaks here about the film's conception and form.

Interior. Leather Bar is a 60-minute metacinematic docufiction that traces the transformative experiences of straight actor Val Lauren as he takes the lead role in a reimagining of the hardcore gay SM club scenes that were cut from William Friedkin's controversial thriller Cruising (1980). Travis Mathews, writer and co-director (with James Franco) of Interior. Leather Bar, speaks here about the film's conception and form, in anticipation of its screening in a double-feature with Cruising on Sunday 15 December.

Anton Bitel: Cruising was quite controversial upon its release amongst both straight and gay viewers. What is your stance on William Friedkin's film? Do you have any reservations about it? And has your opinion shifted over the years?

Travis Mathews: I always thought that Cruising was a problematic movie. It's easy to watch Cruising and pick it apart and criticise it for its representation of gay people in the things that it suggests - in a pretty heavy-handed way - about a gay life leading to one of depravity and horror; but one thing that gets lost in people's viewings and analysis of Cruising, which was lost on me also until I had to revisit the film so many times in preparing for the film that we did, was the way in which the bar scenes in particular in Cruising, if you were just to edit those alone, amount to a really important and interesting time capsule of New York City just before AIDS, this particular, you know, leather community, this subculture. Friedkin shot those particular scenes just like a docufiction - like our film was in some ways. So, just look at those scenes in particular, also having an understanding of the way in which those scenes were constructed, which is with the real bars, real patrons, and him really encouraging them to dance, do drugs, drink, smoke, have sex, do whatever they would normally do in these bars. He just sort of floated around and filmed it, and a lot of what he filmed in those scenes is what was cut from the forty minutes that we are reimagining and referencing in our film. But what still exists in the original Cruising is a pretty interesting document of this time right at the end of the 1970s, that honestly a lot of people of a much younger generation continue to kind of fetishise now. And that's been something that's also been interesting for me, is seeing how there's been something of a generational divide with how people look at Cruising. People my age, in their thirties and older, have a pretty critical or ambivalent take on that film, I think. My experience over the last year touring with the film has largely been that younger guys are almost amused by the ways in which it's troubling, but are just more interested in the fetishising of this pre-AIDS, 1970s kind of aesthetic.

AB: Did you have any contact with William Friedkin? Did he give his blessing for your film? Did you even need to get his blessing?

TM: We didn't need to get his blessing. We were trying to contact him for kind of like an adjunct piece to what our film was, but for reasons I won't go into, it sort of fell apart. So yeah - he wasn't involved. Intellectual property, especially with something this large, is something that you need to be really careful about, so there were a lot of touch-and-go moments with this film, sort of figuring out how much we could reference Cruising and put it under the fair use kind of law versus us messing with intellectual property, but we ended up sorting that out and being fine. I think the concern was, there were so many different waves of people talking about what our film was actually going to be, even before we started shooting it, and I think initially there was, on Friedkin's part and on the studio's part, a concern that we were remaking Cruising. We obviously didn't remake Cruising, but we had to get some distance to reassure them that that wasn't what was happening.

AB: There are many scenes in Interior. Leather Bar in which Val Lauren and some of the other cast are seen expressing confusion as to the whole purpose of the project. I realise this is a big question, but what, in your mind, is its purpose? 

TM: It's funny, because I don't really use the word 'queer' all that often, and I think it's overused by people in a lot of ways, and I think that most of the films that I've made up until this one I would easily describe as 'gay', but I would describe Interior. Leather Bar as a queer film, and James [Franco] and I had several discussions about some reference points of things that we were interested in, and one was obviously Cruising, and then this idea of talking about and showing sex as something that's a storytelling tool. So we had a couple of key ingredients that we knew we wanted to play with, but we also wanted to make a queer film. So in doing that we did something that in a lot of ways was experimental, both in the form of the film, it being this docufiction that is always kind of in an agitated state and never resting fully in one camp of fiction or documentary. But we also wanted just, with that in mind, to play with boundaries. The thing that really sparked this was our discovery of these mythical 40 minutes that were shaved off the original Cruising and using that as a starting point - and that in itself is dealing with censorship and the boundaries of where sex in cinema, and especially gay sex in cinema, where those boundaries are, why they're there, why they're arbitrary and why there's hypocrisy with where these boundaries lie within the MPAA system in the States. So we took this idea of boundaries and this idea of wanting to do a queer film, and we kind of ran with it. In terms of a narrative arc, we wanted to do something that followed this character Val Lauren in a very similar way of how we could have followed Al Pacino going into the same Cruising world that he did in 1980. So we took that as our story arc, but then around that, the whole film is playing with different boundaries - personal boundaries, creative boundaries, artistic boundaries, sexual boundaries - and then obviously back to this idea of censorship. So that's kind of a long-winded way of explaining where our intentions lie.   

AB: Given that it is a topic expressly raised within Interior. Leather Bar, do you regard your film as in any way pornographic? 

TM: I get asked pretty frequently, not just about this film, but my work in general, how I define pornography, or if I think my work is pornographic, and I really don't. On the one hand I'm not interested in arguing with people who want to say that my work is pornographic because I feel that it's a losing argument in that I'm never going to convince every person who's out there all the reasons why I don't think my work is pornographic. But that said, it doesn't bother me if people call Interior or anything else that I've done pornographic. I mean, for me it's more about pushing  people's ideas of where, again, these boundaries lie. I certainly don't think Interior is pornographic just because you see some amount of sex and some amount of nudity - which is a very small amount to begin with. Just because you see that in the film, I don't think that inherently makes something pornographic. For me pornography is much more about the intentions of something being made, and then the way in which it's being consumed. There was nothing in Interior specifically that was meant to be material for somebody to sit at a computer and jerk off to. That's not the purpose, it wasn't the intention. You know, while some people may do that, that's not how we imagined this film being consumed and viewed either. I wouldn't call it pornography.     

AB: It is only in the film's opening scene that we see you and your co-director James Franco discussing together the issues that the production may address, although I would guess that you have must have discussed this a lot off camera. Were his aims for the film and yours always the same? Were you always on the same page or was there a dialectic between you on set?

TM: There certainly was a dialectic between us the whole time. We actually filmed some scenes with the two of us on set working, [but] in crafting the arc of the film around Val Lauren, the scenes of James and I on set just didn't seem to work. But, first of all, James and I work together really well, and I think we have a pretty similar temperament and approach and, I guess, politics, so it was pretty easy to jump into things - and especially since this was such a low-budget film, and an experimental one, we were both in the mindset of taking risks, and really listening to each other. And if either of us had ideas that we thought were justified, with some sort of smart reasoning, both of us were willing for the most part to leap forward in that direction. I think the one thing where there was an interesting kind of push-pull with James and I for a while is that I was much more of the mindset of wanting to do something that was more carefully constructed with scenes that were just shy of being fully scripted, with blocking and stuff like that, and some of that exists in the film - but James was much more inclined to an exploratory kind of mode where we maybe didn't even use a script and we just let it become what it became while we were on set. We met somewhere in the middle of that and I think that's part of what you see in the texture of the final film.

AB: How much was improvised and how much scripted - and within that tension, to what degree was artifice itself a part of your subject?

TM: The tension that I'm talking about between scripted and non-scripted, that was something that we resolved well before we shot the film, in the discussions and the pre-production of the filmmaking. But yeah, artifice was definitely a part of the film. I thought that it was important for us from the very, very beginning of the film to bring the audience in with the artifice of what we were trying to create, with the idea that they would be searching for moments of truth and honesty in the film, whereas if it was the other way around, if we had tried to present something that was 'pure', for want of a better word, or something that was trying to hide the artifice, I think people would have spent the film looking for the ways in which it was fake, and not believing in anything. And so I wanted to flip that around and enter with the artifice with the audience from the beginning.

AB: The scenes in which Franco is shown impishly teasing and cajoling Lauren about how far he is willing to go as an actor echo the scene where you direct two of the actors in the bar to negotiate their sexual limits. To what degree do you think the relationship between director and actor is an S&M one, rooted in trust, control and boundary-pushing performance?

TM: Well for sure it can be that way. I think you need to put it in context, and every situation is a different one depending upon the actor and the director, but that relationship can definitely exist there. I think for me as a director, I try to work in a much more collaborative way as opposed to a master/servant S&M kind of dynamic. It's much more interesting to me to share what I'm trying to accomplish with an actor and then see what they're interested in bringing to it, because often I'll be surprised. An actor will often have an idea to do something that I would have never imagined, and it works, and part of the time it works because the performer is taking ownership in something that they generated on set or in workshopping the script, and I think that sometimes makes for a much richer performance. I try for the most part in the work that I have done to really get naturalistic, raw performances that, whether it's fiction or not, feel like they have an almost documentary quality to them, and I think working with an actor collaboratively is important if that's something that you're wanting to achieve.  

AB: Your film is a collision of queer and mainstream, both in its focus on a straight actor/character going undercover in a gay community, and in its collaboration between yourself and Franco. Which audience were you trying to address more, gay or straight? Or is that a dichotomy that you were aiming precisely to break down? 

TM: I actually think the thing which is most dividing of audiences is not the gay or the straight element to it, but is more the running time of the film which is short - 60 minutes, and the fact that it's constructed in something of an experimental way which for many people out of the mainstream audience is probably too much for them. So if our film had been longer, that would have meant a much wider theatrical distribution, and a more mainstream audience would have been exposed to it  as opposed to a small theatrical or film festival line. More specifically to your question, I want it to be both. It's been interesting touring with the film the past year, because I've had just as many gay people come up to me in sometimes almost an indignant way, telling me this isn't a gay film, and I don't disagree with them, because as I said to you, I think it's a queer film, I don't think it's a gay film that belongs in just the box of gay, like it should only exist there - I think it's broader than that;  but I've also had a lot of straight men - liberal-minded straight men - come up to me and say that they didn't know what they were walking into but the film really made them uncomfortable in that it made them realise that they still had these pockets of homophobia in them. I'm in Sao Paolo right now, at the film festival here in Brazil, and a gay guy came up to me on the street the other day and he told me almost the same thing that I've heard from straight men - but this was from a gay guy - saying that he lives a pretty narrowly defined and conservative life as a gay man, and watching the movie made him question his own internal homophobia. So I don't see this as something that I want to be experienced as a straight audience or a gay audience - I think just like the film is a soupy mix of different sexualities, I think ideally the audience would reflect that.

AB: What is the significance of Franco's departure from the set near the end? In a sense he just disappears from the film.

TM: That was my idea. I wanted him to leave for several reasons. One, it was very clear that James' involvement in this, especially his being in the film, threatened to eclipse everything else that could be happening in the film, so his involvement needed to be measured and tempered according to what the story was, and we had made the decision before filming that this was going to be Val Lauren's story, not James' story, not my story, not anybody else's story but Val's story. Everything needed to support Val's arc through this day of production. Up until the moment that James leaves, we've seen Val uncomfortable, we've seen Val have this heart-to-heart with James where he's basically trying to get James to defend why he's doing this, and Val's taking in everything that James is saying. So we needed James to leave so that Val would be left to his own devices and have to think for himself, because up until this point he'd given so much trust to working with James, and also so much trust that James was going to protect him. So when James leaves, Val's forced both to engage more with the cast, and also to attempt to experience and see what's happening from a different perspective, and he finds an unexpected humanity and intimacy in that second sex scene that he connects to in an unexpected way, and then there's the cameraderie that's forming after that scene when they're in the break room together, which is also something unexpected for him.

AB: What's next?

TM: James and I are talking about another project that we would do together next year, and I just finished writing my next feature and I will know more about what's happening with that probably in a month from now. So I'm about to rest for a minute before gearing up for another year.

The double bill of Interior. Leather Bar and Cruising screens on Sunday 15 December at 3pm, with a video introduction from director Travis Mathews.