WARNING: This post contains sexually explicit language and NSFW images. Please read on at your own discretion.
The dresser starts to vibrate before Travis finally extends his hand and picks up the phone. "James is interested in this film, and there will be real gay sex in it, and he wants to know if you would be interested in collaborating and directing or filming the sexual content."
So maybe you've heard bits and pieces that went something like this: James Franco is making an erotic gay short. Gasp! Say what you will about James Franco -- debate his merit, his credibility, his performance in the 2002 teen comedy Whatever It Takes or his decision to lip-dub Justin Bieber tunes on YouTube -- but are we having fun yet... really? It's moot city from any angle you look at it. Love him or **** him, Franco continues to gestate in the many creative spaces he's devised. One of those spaces happens to be a gay one. Allen Ginsberg in Howl, activist Scott Smith in Milk and poet Hart Crane in The Broken Tower represent the trifecta of Franco's foray in the gay. But many will find his latest project, Interior. Leather Bar., described as "a play with boundaries remaining queer in subject and form," the most balls-to-the-wall of his homo bounty.
Travis Mathews, on the other hand, knows gay. He's the creator of the documentary series In Their Room and the much-acclaimed short film I Want Your Love, which went on to become his first feature of the same name. So as bizarre and seemingly out-of-nowhere as it is for Franco to make a film exploring William Friedkin's controversial 1980 film Cruising, his calling on Mathews to assist in such an endeavor seemed somehow symbiotic. In fact, Franco went on to describe Mathews as "[his] partner and guide on a trip to the queer-side."
Mathews and Franco came to New York City in September to present a shorter, alternate version of the film at CoSTUME NATIONAL's "New No Dark Wave" exhibition. At the time, Mathews was wrapping up the final edits to submit the film to Sundance. Amidst his hectic schedule, I politely demanded that Mathews meet me at The Urge, have a drink and spill. And he agreed. And so it went:
Katz: Who the fuck are you?
Mathews: My name is Travis Mathews. Filmmaker. Live in San Francisco. Aries. I'm 37 years old.
Katz: What kind of movies did you watch growing up?
Mathews: I was obsessed with horror movies, like so many gay men. I probably watched every straight-to-VHS B movie that existed at the local video store. They all had sex in them, mostly boobs in peril. But there were other teen movies, like Just One of the Guys, where there's multiple locker room scenes that dared you to pause the tape in order to see some guy's ass. Pre-Internet and without cable, I took what I could. I felt like I'd discovered some secret knowledge that no one else knew about.
Katz: That was Any Given Sunday for me, with the pausing. So what films did you identify as boundary-pushing at the time?
Mathews: Probably My Own Private Idaho. It was one of the first gay films where I saw a possible world that could exist beyond my very limited scope in rural Ohio. It wasn't the specifics of the hustler life or anything like that. It was more about the sensibility of the film that I related to. I was 16 and had a few straight boy friends, and we ostensibly went on "dates" all of the time. I took one of these guys to see the movie, and I remember leaving floored and sheepish, because it was like I'd just outed myself by attending that screening. I remember very clearly the guy I was with said, "It was pretty cool, except for all that fag shit." I probably just nodded or passively agreed.
Katz: So what made you want to start making your own movies?
Mathews: I was consistently frustrated with the fact that I never saw in movies -- not never, but rarely -- things that I felt represented the way I felt or the stuff I believed in or the stuff that turned me on. I knew that among my friends, I wasn't alone in feeling that. I was aware that Butt [magazine] was filling a vacuum, and I knew that this could be a good platform for my work to be seen. So I played around with various ideas and then ended up creating In Their Room: San Francisco in 2009.
Katz: And for people who don't know what that is...
Mathews: It's an ongoing multi-city series. I'm finishing editing the London episode right now. Basically I go into different gay guys' bedrooms and film them for one to two hours as if nobody is there -- they ignored the camera -- and they do whatever they do when they're alone in their rooms, from the most banal, everyday stuff to some of them naked and some of them jerking off. I think it says something about somebody, not negative or positive, but just something about you, the degree of how sexual you want to get with a camera present.
Katz: It almost sounds like part social experiment.
Mathews: I like the anthropological component to it and get inspired by filming a bunch of people and not knowing fully what is going to happen. As I was doing it, I was seeing all of these little micro-narratives of contemporary gay life that were not huge or gay crises, per se, but narratives that weren't coming-out stories or AIDS-related. They weren't gay military stories or gay marriage stories. They were just like everyday gay guys, and their problems had nothing to do -- directly -- with their gayness. And I was like, "I wanna write a film that is about this, that pulls from this inspiration," and that's when I wrote the first draft of I Want Your Love.
Katz: That film was really my entry point into your work. I remember watching that and wondering, "How does one script sex?"
Mathews: The thing that's interesting to me about filming sex -- this is the only reason it's interesting to me -- is that it's an untapped area to explore relationships and character development. I feel like there's so much that happens when people have sex, when their defenses are either down or weird -- they're somewhere different than where they are in their normal lives -- that there's lots to be mined and played with. I thought it would be exciting to show sex in all these other ways, like sometimes it will be hot, but I'm more interested, honestly, in everything other than it being actually hot.
Katz: Which, paradoxically, will probably end up turning people on.
Mathews: Yeah, I realize that some people will find it hot because it feels honest and it connects to them in a way that they probably hadn't felt before. But whether somebody gets off is the last thing on my mind.
Katz: So where the fuck does James Franco come from?
Mathews: Palo Alto. I think we relate on this NorCal pseudo-hippie vibe where being casual and unorthodox feels at home. But he came from kind of out of nowhere, to answer your question. The I Want Your Love feature was doing festival rounds, and if you googled "gay sex movie," I probably came up top of the list at the time.
Katz: And why was James Franco googling "gay sex"?
Mathews: I was told that he was revisiting some movies from the '70s, and the first one he wanted to revisit was Cruising. And the one thing he knew he wanted was real, gay, explicit sex. And so he asked his people to find somebody to collaborate with who had filmed gay sex. They found me and asked if I would be interested in working on this project. Originally he wanted to remake the film and wasn't able to get the rights to do it, so it turned into more of an art film project where it wasn't going to be a direct remake in any way, but it was somehow going to connect to it. And the little I knew about him, he felt like a real person that I was going to be able to talk to.
Katz:So do you say "yes" immediately?
Mathews: I wanted to hear more, so by the next afternoon, we were on the phone, James and I. It increasingly became more of a collaboration and less about me filming sex scenes. He wanted to know what I was interested in and what inspired me and what I might want to take from that film and bring into the present. And I know that one of the things that he wanted was some sense that we're in a different era and things are much different in terms of gay representation.
Katz: Had you seen Cruising?
Mathews: Yes, I knew the film. I knew the history of the film. I knew the protests and the controversy and that it was still a lightning rod with a lot of people. The main thing that interested us was that [William] Friedkin had to go to the MPAA 50 times before they would give him an R rating. He spent $50,000, going back 50 times to get them to review it down from an X. And they ended up cutting 40 minutes from it. And I thought, instead of us diligently trying to recreate the 40 minutes and try to fool people, it would be the perfect opportunity for us to address the chatter about James and his involvement in so many gay projects.
Katz: Did you ask him that directly?
Mathews: I did. It's in the film. I knew we needed to be smarter than people thought we were going to be about this. He had done all of these other gay-leaning movies that were basically lifting up gay luminaries that had not gotten their fair due in the broader public in terms of their contributions to either gay culture or broader culture. But then my thought was, "It's going to be a different ball game with Cruising, because that's a movie that's going to get a lot of 'who do you think you are, touching this film as this straight man? Who do you think you are to give your take on gay representation? Dah-duh-duh; dah-duh-duh.'"
Katz: Did you know that James would wind up in the film?
Mathews: Well, I asked him to be in it. I knew he needed to be in the movie to address the questions people would ask. It's predominantly us, through the course of one very long day, making this film. And some of it is staged and some of it not.
Katz: Gimme the business: Is there gay sex in this movie?
Katz: How explicit?
Mathews: Naked men. Spanking. Dick sucking.
Katz: Holler. So why does James Franco want to make this movie?
Mathews: I don't know if I want to answer that.
Katz: Because you don't want to answer for him, or because it's answered in the film?
Katz: I guess this means I'll have to see the movie.
Mathews: I guess it does.
The film will make its debut at Sundance Family Festival this Saturday, Jan. 19, before heading overseas for the 2013 Berlin International Film Festival. For more on Mathews, click here. For more on the film, click here.