WARNING: This post contains sexually graphic content and possibly NSFW (depending on where you work) imagery. Read on at your own discretion.
This Friday night James Franco and Travis Matthews' stunning, complicated and sexually graphic new film Interior. Leather Bar., a "docu-fiction" exploration of queer sex and BDSM subculture as it relates to Hollywood, mainstream culture and where we all draw the line as people, is making its Pacific Northwest debut at QDoc: Portland Queer Documentary Film Festival.
I had the opportunity to catch up with both Franco and Matthews this week to chat about the public's reaction to the movie (so far), their intentions behind making it to begin with, how gay sex will save American cinema, and much more.
Watch the official Interior. Leather Bar. trailer and then read our conversation below:
Logan Lynn: Thanks for taking time out to do this, you guys! I watched the screener of Interior. Leather Bar. this week and ended up recognizing a handful of the actors you cast from Portland. One major focus of the film is the inner struggle of Val Lauren, whom you cast to play the Al Pacino character, and I am just wondering if this is something you experienced with all of the cast. Was there a process you went through with each of the actors and extras?
Travis Matthews: If you mean a process that went as far and as deep and exploratory as it did with Val, no. Initially when we did the casting call, and there were so many guys who were both gay and straight, and a lot of them had different ideas of what they were willing to do, what was OK, what was too much. I kind of thought that we should just bring on extras that were really 100-percent behind this, but then it seemed like it made a lot more sense just to complement the arc that was Val's story. You look at Cruising; it's a story that follows that main character in a very similar way. That was a lot of the intent.
Lynn: That makes sense. I'm seeing the term "docu-fiction" used all over the place to describe the movie. In the context of this film, what does that mean to you?
James Franco: I think that describes a lot of different dynamics that are happening within the film. Our source was a piece of fiction, a movie called Cruising, but that fictional feature film had a lot of documentary kind of history attached to it in a very strong way. If anybody knows that film nowadays, it's very hard to extract the film from its history, the history of its production and the protests that went on, the history of its reception and the personal histories of the people involved. So, from the start, our project was engaged with a source that was already combining docu-fiction in a very strong way. I think that the way that Cruising and its history are tied together informed our approach, and a lot of it really was discovery and exploration as we went. We didn't have any firm goal in mind. I think that, for me, one of the clearest things about the project at the beginning was that we had an area to explore, but that it would be an exploration. That was a huge part of it. Anyway, I guess that's a long way of saying our source involved docu-fiction and our approach accordingly involved docu-fiction.
Lynn: Do you have any theories on what William Friedkin's motivations were in making the original Cruising film? Have you heard him speak to that?
Franco: Yeah, I have heard him speak about it, and he actually has a new book out. I started reading it but haven't read the Cruising chapter yet. My understanding of why he did it was that there was a book that was written by a police officer that inspired the Pacino character, and that book had actually been attached to a young Spielberg at one point, strangely enough.
Franco: It wasn't made, and then that book came around to Friedkin, and he wasn't interested, and then there was some weird connection between a guy from one of his other films that was then working, like at the NYU hospital or something like that.
Matthews: Or was it the morgue?
Franco: Yeah, it was the morgue. (Laughs). I'm screwing this up, but there was some connection that he had with somebody from one of his other films where either that guy was in trouble for murder or knew about these murders, and I guess there had been a series of murders maybe near the Chelsea Piers or in the clubs or around the clubs or something, so that interested Friedkin, I guess, the murder stories, and he wanted to use the backdrop of these leather bars for a murder story. I don't think Friedkin went into it with any bad intentions or bad faith or anything. After a while, it had to have been clear to him that the juxtaposition of these murders with the gay clubs was upsetting people, because it made some unfortunate connections that, you know, that this lifestyle led to depravity and murder.
Franco: But I don't think that connection was Friedkin's intention when he started at all. In fact, to his credit, he made The Boys in the Band very early, a fairly mainstream film that tried to examine gay lifestyles in a positive way. So I think that's what happened, and then once he was in production, I guess it's hard to know what to do at that point. You know, you're just trying to make your movie, and this whole community is against you. I guess at that point you could either shut down or change the movie, which I guess he did in some ways, or just try and get it done. My guess is that he was thinking, "Look, I know my intentions aren't evil or negative. I know I'm just trying to make a movie as best as I can. Maybe in the end people will see the light, that people are protesting something that's not even finished; they don't know what it is. Maybe when it's done people will come around."
Lynn: Have you experienced any of that yourself with Interior. Leather Bar., like, before people have seen it, there's a reaction? Any parallels there?
Franco: Before it came out, there were some pieces talking about it, and they were just not right at all about what the movie was, as far as content or anything. So there was this misconception that was created just because people were writing about it in an uninformed way, and then as far as the reception after we started showing it at festivals, everybody sees it differently, and I guess that's not surprising.
Matthews: I've been to a lot of the screenings, and I can tell you they vary, but they have been pretty consistently intense, like the Q-and-As. I don't mean that necessarily just in a bad way, but I think people, regardless of what their expectations are going into this movie, are surprised. Some people are surprised in very positive ways, and sometimes in negative ways. Part of it, I think, is that the map of where things are going is a little bit crumpled, and I think people get thrown off in the midst of this. There are some pieces of it that, depending on who the person is watching it, can be a little bit intense or visceral for them. A lot of people have told me that they wish they could somehow come back to have a Q-and-A the next day, because a lot of people need to process the movie afterwards. Coming right out of it and then talking about it has been interesting to see where people go. I mean, in Istanbul the Q-and-A was an hour and 15 minutes long.
Lynn: Oh, my god.
Matthews: There was nobody facilitating it. It just went on and on and on, but people were really, really engaged. Regardless of how it goes, that kind of engagement, and then seeing people actually really discuss the movie and the topics it brings up in a real way, that's every filmmaker's dream, right, to have people talking about larger topics based on something that you made?
Lynn: Absolutely. If you were to reduce the movie down to a quick soundbite, what are some of the most important themes or ideas from Interior. Leather Bar. that you hope viewers take away?
Matthews: For me, the movie is about boundaries, all sorts of different boundaries -- creative boundaries, sexual boundaries, personal boundaries -- and even the shape of the movie plays with boundaries and form. Part of it, for me, is throwing people out of their comfort zone and sort of shaking them up a little bit, then forcing themselves to ask a lot of the same questions that get provoked in the movie. The fact that people are talking about it and discussing it is what I hoped for, and that's been happening.
Lynn: Are you on board with that as well, James? Is that your hope for what the film's takeaways are?
Franco: I guess for me it helps define limits of what we think is, you know, acceptable in film and in certain areas. I mean, in my own life and professional life, I still get a little confused, because I do a lot of different kinds of films and projects. I can go on the Internet and just as easily download The Little Mermaid as I can porn in two seconds, and so can anybody. Where it gets tricky is when certain kinds of lifestyles or certain kinds of content is framed by or shown in certain places, then people get weird. I like that this film asked me and the other people in it, "What are your boundaries? How do you feel about certain kinds of content, certain kinds of depictions of specific lifestyles? How do you feel about interacting with it? What part does it play in your own life?" I think the movie both discusses those things and then also enacts those things because of the things that are shown and discussed. I guess if that helps people start to think about those things or talk about those things, that's really enough for me. We did this movie; I'm so proud and happy about the way that we made it, because its success does not need to be determined by blockbuster numbers. This is a movie that lives by its own rules, and despite that, it's gone to great places. It can do more mainstream kind of audiences; it isn't just pushed to the fringe. It has had all kinds of audiences, which I think is one of the points of making a movie like this.
Lynn: I found it so touching to hear you speak in the movie about your motivations for exploring queer issues in film. Do you mind touching on just sort of your general draw to these themes? Why this project?
Franco: I mean, there are a lot of reasons: aesthetic reasons and personal reasons. I've been a part of professional mainstream film for 17 years, and then in addition to that, I am a citizen of the United States and, you know, I am engaged with its mainstream culture, but I've also done a fair amount of studying queer theory or queer cinema classes. So I've found that my place, one thing that my position allows, is a way to bring these two worlds together and also question the rules of mainstream cinema or mainstream culture, to examine why things are made the way that they are, why some subject matter is presented in one way and not another, and how those things shape us as people, how it shapes our beliefs, how it shapes the way that we live. If we can question those things or introduce alternative ways of viewing lifestyles or whatever it might be in mainstream cinema or indie cinema or art cinema, I think it can only be for the good. If other voices or other kinds of discussions or storylines or narratives from different perspectives are introduced, it will only make us richer as a people.
Lynn: I wholeheartedly agree with that sentiment. Travis, what was the experience of co-directing this film with James like?
Matthews: [Laughs.] It was pretty wild and in-the-moment in a lot of ways, which I realize I kind of love. You know, I'm trained in documentary; I'm a self-taught filmmaker, but I did documentary for about 10 years, and something that I really miss from that is the run-and-gun feeling and execution. One of the things that was so great about this project and how we approached it was really how, from the beginning, James was pushing for this more than I was. I think I wanted to have a little more control over everything we were doing just for safety, but ultimately that collaboration of me trying to always keep some structure on it, and then James being a little more free-form with it, and then that coming together, is a lot of what you actually see in the film. There are different scenes in it that are loosely constructed with things that need to get accomplished and stuff like that, but we knew that there were so many ripe conditions with what we were filming, that there were going to be kind of spontaneous scenes that would happen through this long day of production, scenes that might add to the greater arc of what was Val's story. A lot of that actually happened, and you see that in the final film.
Lynn: So did it morph as you all went along? In looking at the finished product now, does it do for each of you what you had intended for it to going in, or did that shift at some point?
Matthews: For me, it's become much more than what I initially thought it might be. I hoped that we would be able to accomplish something that has the same intentions and weight and significance that our final film does, but that was part of the whole adventure of this movie, the not knowing. The stakes were so low that it allowed us to be that playful and spontaneous with it.
Lynn: QDoc: Portland Queer Documentary Film Festival is showing your film on Friday, and I'm excited for Portland to get to see it. The festival is sponsored by Q Center, which operates both the LGBTQ Community Center and the Sexual & Gender Minority Youth Resource Center (SMYRC) in Portland. How important are queer spaces to the LGBTQ community? Have we transcended, or do you think these places are still vital?
Matthews: No, of course they are still vital. Anywhere you can find safety, inspiration and a sense of community, I think that is always important, especially with queer youth, where, even though things have progressed dramatically in the last however many years, there's still tons of discrimination that's both direct and obvious, and also discrimination that's much more beneath the surface. I don't think there is any question about that.
Lynn: Agreed. I know you are both busy men, but before we go, can you give us an idea of what's coming up for each of you?
Franco: Well, we are working on the release of this film, and then next I have a movie that's premiering at Cannes, and I am hoping to do something else with Travis soon.
Matthews: Yeah. I think that's definitely in the works. We need to find a time to figure out what that might be.
Lynn: Well, I look forward to seeing it when that happens. OK, thanks you two. I appreciate you both taking the time to chat with me today!
Franco: Thank you so much.
Matthews: Good luck at Cannes, James! Have fun.
Lynn: Yeah, James. Break a leg! I hope the whole world sees Interior. Leather Bar., and I can't wait to see what comes next from you guys.
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For more on Interior. Leather Bar., visit interiorleatherbar.com.
For more on QDoc: Portland Queer Documentary Film Festival, visit queerdocfest.org.
For more on James Franco, visit jamesfrancotv.com.
For more on Travis Matthews, visit travisdmathews.com.