Travis Mathews first made a big impact on the world of gay movie-making in 2009 with his continuing video web series called In Their Room. Early episodes were shot in the San Francisco bedrooms of gay men, the first achieving "Best Film" honours at Good Vibration's Indie Erotic Film Festival. Subsequent episodes have been filmed in cities around the world, including Berlin. During the making of the series Travis wrote his first feature screenplay, I Want Your Love. Now completed, Lustralboy wanted to get to the bottom of this, to us, major new force in movie-making for gay audiences. In Their Room/Berlin has been playing festivals since June 2011.
(Photos from "In Their Room")
The trailer of I Want Your Love is posted below. The scene features Brenden and Jesse, two friends who are negotiating their first shared sex. The fact that they’ve known each other for a while underlies the intimate exploration. Let's chat to Travis about this and his earlier work.
TM : Travis Mathews / Lb : Lustralboy
Lb : Where did the inspiration for In Their Room come from, apart from Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City?
TM : It really came from a post in BUTT magazine about some videos they were curating. I had seen a lot of BUTT inspired photography and drawings –which continue to thrive- but not much in the way of video, especially anything that felt honest and candid. All my life, I had seen so many bad gay movies (bad acting, preposterous storylines and defensive posturing -usually with hot bodies) that said nothing to me of my life and the friends around me, so I felt inspired to make something with honest portraits at the center of it. And because most of these guys are in their 20s, they’re mostly in shared living situations, which means that their worlds –and the ways they express themselves- are mostly confined to the objects in, and the presentation of, their bedrooms.
I was doing documentary work for nearly 10 years before this project so I already had an interest for the banal, the in-between moments, and something of an ethnographic eye for people and “artifacts”. I thought it would be interesting to look at a demographic that I mostly aligned with and to examine it with some detachment. If nothing else, I think it will age interestingly, showing how certain gay men in the early 21st century find connection and deal with loneliness.
Lb : What are the greatest challenges you face when trying to capture on camera the intimacy of your subjects?
TM : I’ve been fortunate to not have a lot of challenges with this. I think it’s a combination of being a pretty quiet, disarming presence as we start filming; bringing the subject in as collaborator; and only working with people who have a clear understanding and appreciation for what I’m trying to capture. I’ve also shot enough people now that I think people trust that my intentions are good. I’m never trying to make someone look stupid or ugly, just as candid as possible.
Lb : The sense of spontaneity is impressive. But do you actually script it all?
TM : Nothing in the IN THEIR ROOM series is scripted, however, I do ask people to repeat things, to slow things down or to switch it up from time to time. I’m definitely a presence, but not one who is feeding them dialogue or working from a script. It’s only me and the person(s) I’m filming. There’s never been a sound recordist or PA or anyone else involved during recording. I think that’s something that can’t be underestimated in terms of capturing intimacy too.
Moving forward with the IN THEIR ROOM series, I’m hoping that the next city will be very different from San Francisco or Berlin. Istanbul, Tokyo, Sao Paulo are high on my list. And moving forward, I hope to work with a sound recordist in order to get the best sound possible, so we’ll see how that impacts story and intimacy having another person present.
I WANT YOUR LOVE is all together different from IN THEIR ROOM. It was inspired by all of the men I was filming for ITR, but it came from a script. The earliest versions of the script are probably hard to see in the final version of both the short and the recently finished feature because rewrites were endless. I wrote the script, cast people based on already fleshed out characters, then workshopped the thing to death. It’s more important to me that a line sounds like it’s naturally coming from someone’s mouth than it is that they stick to a line I wrote. So much of the dialogue is owed to the contributions of my actors, Jesse Metzger and Brontez Purnell, in particular.
(Photos from "I WANT YOUR LOVE")
Lb : Pornography, erotic movie-making, sex videos, indie sex-flick........labels can be over-simplistic. Do you have one for what you're doing now?
TM : I try not to pigeon-hole myself or to get caught up in any defensive conversations about whether it’s art-indie-movies or porn. I don’t really care how people label it as long as it doesn’t keep me from continuing to work. I figure that the people who get it, will get it, and those who don’t aren’t going to be convinced with any amount of explaining anyway.
Lb : It seemed to us that achieving arousal, emotional impact and artistic nuance takes your work towards a new genre. Did you plan for that or did it just emerge instinctively?
TM : Like I said, I was just tired of living in a vacuum of gay representation that didn’t mean anything to me personally. I’ve always been drawn to projects that show men being vulnerable. On my best days, I think there’s a healing part in hearing/seeing someone talk about their most private moments, fantasies, fears, insecurities. I was also trained as a psychotherapist, so there’s that part of me that’s drawn to this kind of movie-making as well. It makes me feel less alone to hear these stories. And one of the consequences of all that intimacy is that it can become arousing.
If you look at the last 20 years since new queer cinema, a time during which gays were quickly gaining unprecedented social and legal acceptance in a lot of places, it’s also marked a conservative swing in queer filmmaking. A lot of queer filmmakers –I’m assuming- felt a responsibility to only show positive representations, especially after having always been portrayed as the victim/comic relief/villains of the past. But all this reactionary storytelling kind of lost the map and with few exceptions I feel like the last 20 years have been pretty disappointing in terms of challenging queer content. With the absence of oppression, coming out stories and AIDS as our major story-telling devices, what’s left? I’d like to think that we’re entering a cultural shift where the most revolutionary representations are those that are just plain and simply honest, warts and all. I’m not interested in making gay men look bad, but I’m also not interested in hiding any of the bits, dirty or otherwise.
New genre? I have no idea, I’m just trying to stick with what feels right and trust my gut with what’s worth showing.
Lb : How did you manage to capture that tangible sense of long-term friendship between Jesse and Brenden that is pivotal to the concept of I Want Your Love?
TM : They had a real life flirtation that already existed between the two of them, which helped. And in San Francisco -like a lot of cities I guess- the line between hanging out, friends, flirting, and sex are often part of the same pot.
(Photos from "I WANT YOUR LOVE")
Lb : Is there anyone else making movies about gay lovers that capture this same sense of reality and intimacy that underpins your work?
TM : Andrew Haigh comes to mind immediately. I couldn’t be happier for Andrew. Weekend really is a great film, deserving of all its accolades, that’s raising the bar for other filmmakers about what can be done simply and honestly.
I know that Ira Sachs is just finishing up a film that also deals with a gay couple and the intimacy between them. Knowing Ira’s previous work, I expect great things from it.
Antonio da Silva’s short film, Mates, is also worth checking out. It does a good –and sexy- job of capturing the gay hookup as it exists in 2011.
Lb : Who in the world of mainstream movie making seems to you to have the same cinema verite feel for the revelation of the real self under the actor's skin?
TM : Kelly Reichardt. I'm sure there are more, but she’s always on my mind.
Lb : It took us a while to get over a slight feeling of voyeurism as we watch the intimacy unfold. Does that surprise you and is that a common reaction?
TM : I don’t think it’s surprising. When you see sex that’s without intimacy you don’t have to think about the characters as real people, but when the intimacy is believable you have to take into account that you’re watching something very private and real.
Lb : For those of us who don't live in the USA and don't know San Francisco well, what is it about the place today that helped propel your project?
TM : I live here, I know and love the city, and I felt that there had not been an updated gay story that dealt with San Francisco in some time. It’s a different world from the one Armistead Maupin wrote about in the 70s, even as the aesthetic of that pre-AIDS time has been reclaimed in the wake of BUTT and the like.
Lb :Thanks for such an open and thoughtful chat, Travis. Happy future movie-making.
Teaser of the movie "I WANT YOUR LOVE". Enjoy!!
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