Inspired by the rumored-to-be-lost 40 minutes of gay S&M footage from the controversial film, “Cruising,” filmmakers James Franco and Travis Mathews explore the limits of sexual and creative freedom over their frenzied single day of production.
In order to avoid an X rating, 40 minutes of gay S&M footage was rumored to be cut and destroyed from the 1980 film, “Cruising.” Inspired by the mythology of this controversial film, filmmakers James Franco and Travis Mathews collaborate to imagine their own lost footage.
Amid the backdrop of a frenzied film set actor Val Lauren reluctantly agrees to take the lead in the film. Val is repeatedly forced to negotiate his boundaries during scenes on and “off camera,” as unsimulated gay sex happens around him. The film itself is constructed as a play with boundaries remaining queer in subject and form. As much a film about filmmaking as it is about an exploration of sexual and creative freedom, “Interior. Leather Bar.” defies easy categorization.
I wanted to be taken on a ride. I wanted to make a film that was as much about the experience as it was about making something. I wanted to go to a place of uncertainty, to set up parameters and then let the movie make itself. I wanted to explore the beauty of queerness, beautiful because it is counter to everything normal. As “straight” becomes the new “gay,” I wanted to find places where the anti-normative still thrived. Travis became my partner and guide on a trip to the queer-side.
One of the first things that James and I ever talked about was gay marriage. We shared a concern that the race toward equality was also a race of straightening out the queer kinks, of erasing subcultures in favor of assimilation. It’s a conversation captured in the opening scene of the film, one that “helps inform choices” as I say. In a lot of ways this became the foundation of the film, this idea that we’d make a queer film about a gay subculture that was as much a celebration of as it was an agitator. Yes, there is gay sex in the film, but it’s the slippery way in which boundaries and definitions are in constant flux that really make it a queer film for me.
We took the mythology of a still controversial film, “Cruising” (1980), and the rumored-to-be-lost 40 minutes from the original cut of that film, as an opening for this exploration. But our film is neither a remake nor a dedicated 40 minutes of re-imagined lost footage. It’s so much more about our process of constructing this film and the mercurial ways in which the film plays with expectations and form. Is it real or is it fake, is it art or is it porn, and where exactly does one bleed into the other?
But as slippery as the film is, I was never interested in a “gotcha” moment that duped the audience. From the beginning I wanted to shine a light on the construction, to pull back the curtain between us and the audience. If people embraced the artifice I figured that they’d start hunting for moments of authenticity. The actors are on a parallel journey constantly sorting out personal boundaries and sexual identities while trying to understand what it IS that we’re actually filming. James and I were no different, sometimes reaching for the map but just as often choosing to go without it.
Q&A WITH WRITER-DIRECTOR TRAVIS MATHEWS
How did you get involved with James Franco and this project?
Early in the summer of 2012 my first feature, I Want Your Love, was playing film festivals and getting some attention because of the way I wove unsimulated gay sex into the story. This was happening around the same time James was interested in doing a project that revisited William Friedkin’s Cruising. It wasn’t going to be a remake, but more of a nod, using it as a jumping off place.
A jumping off place. Okay, so what were the parameters?
One of the things he knew from the offset was that he wanted there to be real gay sex in it, and this is where I came in. Initially, the scope of the project was small, it was just going to be a short video among a couple that James was playing during fashion week at a clothing boutique in NYC, CoSTUME NATIONAL. We had a month before production and one month following for me to edit. It was pretty insane.
The first time James and I talked I gauged how willing he was to acknowledge his celebrity – incorporating how he’s talked about in relation to gay themed material – in the making of this film. I knew that with the number of films he’d recently made that had either gay or queer content, people would be talking. And even though we weren’t remaking Cruising, there’s some baked-in controversy to that movie that casts a pretty long shadow. We could use this all to our advantage.
We knew that we needed to be one step ahead of the audience for this to work. I had a list of things I expected people to ask upon hearing about the movie: “Is James gay?” “Does he have sex in this?” “Who does he think he is for touching this movie?” And it’s been exactly how I thought it would be with people asking me these same questions all the time. And James, to his enormous credit, was open to going out on any limb as long as there was a smart reason behind it. We took the last weekend in June to build the basic structure of the film, coming up with a tight concept that placed us in 2012 while only giving a nod to Cruising.
What do you find most compelling about CRUISING?
One of the things about Cruising that we found most interesting as a starting point was how William Friedkin had been rumored to shave off 40 minutes of footage from the original cut in order to avoid an X rating. Those 40 minutes have supposedly been destroyed, but whether that’s true or not, they’ve never been screened publicly. So, what if James and I were reimagining the 40 minutes that were lost from Cruising? Hmm…And so we started from there. I was still holding onto all of these meta ideas that I thought were important for us to hit head-on. Ultimately, we felt it made sense to shape this as more about the production and the making of this film, because it allowed us the necessary freedom to confront these ideas around James and to also create a story arc with the actor Val Lauren, that paralleled Cruising in unexpected ways.
If we had wanted to do something that was very stylized and carefully set-up, we wouldn’t have gotten more than 10 minutes of a movie finished in the time allotted, which was 4 weeks from inception to post. The film ends up being a combination between what is ostensibly behind-the-scenes footage and then scenes that are the film-within-the-film which are part of the supposed reimagined forty minutes.
When did you realize that you did have enough material for a feature?
I was secretly hoping that there was enough here that I could make into a feature. I didn’t really share that with a lot of people, because I knew, at max, we were only going to have three or four shooting days, though we ended up only having about one-and-a-half. I didn’t sense that there was a feature here until i was in post.
Once we settled on making the actual production such a big part of the film, James wanted a lot of cameras (3 or 4) always rolling. It saved us really, because it meant coverage. There was a little bit of dialogue that I knew I wanted to be in there, but for the most part it was a bunch of scenes that were in the service of building a particular arc around Val Lauren’s character, with Val playing himself going on this day-long journey through this gay subculture. There were all these little scenes that I included in the outline — things I knew needed to be accomplished — while there was also room for spontaneous scenes to happen, which actually do occur in the film, adding to the question of what’s real and what’s not real. I watch it and still don’t totally know sometimes.
I heard that you edited this in your childhood bedroom. True?
Almost immediately after we wrapped I flew to my mom’s house in the middle of nowhere Ohio to edit the film in my boyhood bedroom. So yeah… I worked twelve or fourteen hours a day on this in order to go through all the footage from multiple cameras and line everything up. This was pretty complicated at first, but I’m glad that I did it in order to get that much more familiar with the footage and to understand where things needed to go. I realized pretty quickly that there was a richer narrative present than I even expected, and I was going to push to make this into a feature.
How did your parents feel about you editing a celebrity gay leather bar movie in their house?
They loved it, were totally supportive. It was so much like being in high school again with me always in my room with the door shut and my mom always asking what I wanted for dinner. If my 16-year-old self would have known that I’d be working on this with my family’s enthusiastic support…my mom was really the first audience for this. I’d edit a section, mom would go get her glasses and her soda and I’d have her take a look. She had some good notes.
How did the gallery piece differ from the feature?
I made a really long assembly cut of what I thought would be the feature, before having a conversation with CoSTUME NATIONAL about what they wanted for their show. I was under the impression that they wanted something that was, in my mind, what an art video is: kind of impressionistic, where you walk in, have an experience, and leave, something where you don’t need to sit through the whole thing.
I’d just recently met a couple of extras from the original Cruising, and recorded them talking about what it was like to be part of those infamous bar scenes. I was planning to mix the audio of my interviews with them with these 2012 extras that are in our film, but CoSTUME NATIONAL wasn’t so interested in that. I think they wanted as much James Franco time on screen as possible, so they encouraged me to do something more narrative-driven that was as long as I wanted it to be. Once that was understood, it didn’t make sense for me to make something that was going to be more work for me (and something they didn’t even want in the first place), so I just continued editing the feature. Ultimately, what I did for the piece was pull out certain scenes from it, tweak them, and massage them for a forty-four minute version. The final version of the film, which barely clocks in as a feature, is sixty minutes long.
How did you find the actors for the film?
I found them a couple of different ways. One of the actors, Brenden Gregory, worked with me on the short version of I Want Your Love in 2010. I knew he was living in LA and I wanted the chance to work with him again. So I contacted him, and he and his real-life boyfriend, Bradley Roberge, got on board. Brenden was reluctant to do this initially, because he wants to be taken seriously as an actor and he didn’t want to do another film where he was going to have to take his clothes off. We shelved this conversation, knowing we needed to have it, and waited until the day of production to talk about these issues. This was another of those aspects of the film that’s both real, but also sort of staged. We were filmed working through his reservations, and it made it into the first cut of the film, but now it’s the domain of DVD extras.
We also had a casting call at Playhouse West, where James first started acting. I’d never done a casting call like this before — I had done auditions, but not an actual casting call. The only thing that the guys who showed up knew was that it was a James Franco project involving a gay bar scene. There were probably 50 guys who showed up, and they all sat in these theatre seats, as Iris Torres, one of the producers, gave me the floor to talk about this project. Once I got into the specifics, a good third of the men left the room. I wasn’t asking any of these guys to have sex. They were all going to be extras for the bar scene, but I was asking for them to be in a very gay space where sex would be happening around them. For this, I needed to know how comfortable they were with kissing and touching another man in a space that was supposed to be a gay leather bar. What we ended up doing was putting different people in different corners of the room based on their comfort level interacting with another man and being so close to actual gay sex. I kill myself a little every day wishing that we’d filmed this. It was pretty rich and would have probably made it into the final cut.
I asked the remaining guys to pick one of four groups in different parts of the room. The groups ranged from “I’m up for anything, I’ll do whatever” to a group where the guys were only as comfortable as taking off their shirt, but not actually touching, kissing, or dancing with anybody. I could see a lot of these guys doing some quick internal processing about what they might be getting into and what it all meant. To be honest, I was pretty surprised at how weirded out many of them were. Nevertheless, we ended up keeping almost everyone who wanted to be part of the bar scenes. Initially, I didn’t want anyone from the “weirded out” group, but the more I thought about it, it seemed like including those guys would add to the whole texture of it. I thought it would be interesting to have a solid mix of gay and straight men involved, but also with varying degrees of comfort being in such a gay space, and it worked.
What about Val Lauren? How did he become a part of the project?
Val, who plays the lead, is an old friend of James’. They worked together at Playhouse, and James had asked me what I thought of Val playing what would ostensibly be some version of the character Al Pacino based his performance off of -I say that, but Val’s performance is more than pantomime, he’s doing his own thing.
Val came in just as I was finishing up the first draft of the treatment. I sent the treatment over to them, and Val looked at it and had a conversation with James where — it was relayed to me — he asked James to reconsider the whole project. Val didn’t understand the artistic merit in doing something like this, and there were all these boundaries that he was putting up very quickly about what he would and would not do. Hearing all of this and having just watched James’ film Sal, in which Val played Sal Mineo, I knew he’d be perfect. His resistance mixed with a willingness to be part of the film was music to my ears. We got along great, but there was always some tension with what he wanted to do and how far I might push him on the day of the shoot. James was interested in letting it be whatever it was. Honestly, that was a bit scary for me, but it was the right decision, especially with the story we were telling.
All of the stuff you see with Val in the opening scenes where he speaks directly about his ambivalent feelings, totally real. None of that was planned.
What about the rest of the crew?
All of this was happening really quickly. In the four weeks between first talking to James and beginning production, I approached a few people I had worked with before, whom I trusted, to get story consultation and advice, as well as the production team that I had worked with before. One of them was Michael Lannan, who was the assistant director on I Want Your Love and ended up being the A.D. on this film as well. I also brought in my producing partner, Keith Wilson, who had been the director of photography on the I Want Your Love short and feature. I felt like the three of us were all on the same page when it came to decision making, and we had a shorthand language with each other which was helpful with time management.
What were some of the ways you referenced Cruising in the film?
One of the things I knew about Cruising was its history as a lightning rod for a lot of people, and it still is, for its representation of gay people. I had rewatched Cruising just a few months before James contacted me, and then I watched it again immediately after that. I still think if you just look at those gay bar scenes alone — forget the murder stuff, even forget Pacino for the most part — it really is an interesting and important document of NYC gay, leather subculture right on the brink of AIDS. A lot of that comes through because, according to reports from people who were on the set for the bar scenes, Friedkin encouraged the extras to treat the space, which was a real gay S&M bar, as if it were any old night. So people were drinking, people were smoking, people were smoking weed, doing poppers, and by a lot of reports, there was real sex happening. I think that’s why those scenes have a documentary feel to them.
I counted on certain people to blindly be all over our production because of James’ involvement. But I also expected a lot of people to roll their eyes and basically say, “Why revisit this movie?” I wanted to find a way to weave in a 2012 protest element. In my first treatment, there were actual people outside the studio protesting, which seems really silly now when I think about it. And so, we found a way to sneak it into the film in a way that seems really authentic and not over-the-top. You can see this in the scene where we have a bunch of the extras sitting around — not knowing fully what they were doing or what they would be expected to do — talking and gossiping about the project, how they felt about it or James, or how this would be perceived by a wider audience once it finally gets out there. I think this scene basically serves as a millennial version of what protesting is, and a lot of what they were saying was echoed by people online.
What was it like also being in front of the camera for the first time in one of your films?
I knew that there was some risk in signing on to this project the way we had talked about because I was going to be on display as a director. If I looked like a jackass, or an idiot, or incompetent, that was going to get recorded. I think all of that helped to make me a better director, but it wasn’t something that I was consciously thinking about. We were moving so quickly that there wasn’t time to worry or ruminate about much anything.
How did you film the sex scenes?
You know, I never sought out to be known for my sex scenes. It may seem like it’s been strategic, but it all just kind of happened this way. I’ve been consistently interested in telling stories that I wasn’t seeing on screen, ones that felt honest, intimate, and raw in different ways…that interest dovetailed into sex at a certain point.
There are so many different stories that can be told through the way somebody has sex. You have so many different rides you go on — for a moment it’s playful, and it’s super fun, and it’s hot, and then it’s like you’re taking a break, or maybe you’re feeling insecure. There are a lot of underutilized ways to explore character and story through sex.
For the sex scene between Brenden and Bradley, we knew that it was going to involve Master Avery instructing them on what to do sexually, and then something wasn’t going to work, and we were going to have to stop, and I was going to have to sit and talk with them about what they needed to make this sex scene happen. This was going to give us permission -within the story- to shoot something that’s more intimate and loving than just a raw fuck scene, which was basically what the sex in the film had been up to this point. That sort of intimacy is what I gravitate toward as a filmmaker and that’s what people have begun expect from me. But within the story, it was important for Val to witness an intimate homo sex moment that challenged his ideas.
The way in which all of this transpired with Brendan and Bradley was interesting because we didn’t really know what was going to happen to make them uncomfortable with what was going on. Some of that was a bit staged, but they truly were ill at ease with the instructions Master Avery was giving them, and it became a strange experience for all of us. At a certain point, we stopped, and I sat on the couch with them to talk about the issues they were having. This was “scripted” in so much as we planned for when these things were going to happen, but they were things we accurately anticipated would actually occur. lot of “interesting! lets suspend this for later when it’s being filmed.”
Brenden and Bradley became uncomfortable with the way in which Master Avery was instructing them because that’s not how they normally have sex with each other, so we had to deal with it. As a director, it was about understanding what was uncomfortable for them. If they had said that the whole situation was just too much for them, we would have stopped. This wasn’t me performing for the camera, this was me genuinely wanting me to know what was uncomfortable and what to we needed to do to move past it.
Filming sex scenes adds up to a lot of basic stuff, like trust, giving the performers space, respecting them as people, catering to what they need, and ultimately, as much as possible, receding into the background in moments where it would be advantageous to disappear.
The first thing the actors and I do is to agree on the parameters before we start filming so that everyone’s clear about where this is going and what people’s limits are. Also, within the story context, it’s important that we have an understanding of the points that need to be hit within the scene. There’s a certain amount of room that I give people in finding how to get from Point A to Point B. I think that’s where a lot of the raw, honest stuff comes out. The actors figure out how they (and their characters) would normally get to the next stage sexually with someone, and people recognize that. One of the things that’s maybe important to point out is that everybody whom I’ve filmed having sex was performing for the first time on camera, with a crew I should add. (laughter). To my knowledge, none of these guys are aspiring porn stars. These guys get involved because we’re all on the same page with trying to capture this sort of raw intimacy. It makes it so we’re all together for similar reasons and on the same page, but it also becomes a much more vulnerable experience, for everybody.
Q&A WITH DIRECTOR OF PHOTOGRAPHY & PRODUCER KEITH WILSON
How did you feel when Travis approached you to be the director of photography on this film?
When Travis told me about this, I was excited and intrigued, but also a little intimidated, not just by the fact that we were going to be working with a celebrity, but mostly because there was only going to be a month from the point that we first discussed the film to our first day of shooting. Considering the way the shooting days kept getting scaled back and being somebody who wants to plan shots and make sure we get coverage, it sort of frightened me. But I actually think the limitations put on us, by the budget, the time constraints, and even the space itself, actually made the film better. It forced Travis, and it forced me, and everyone else involved, to make really strong decisions about how we were going to shoot it, and what this movie was going to include.
How did you decide upon the look of the film?
Travis and I were holed up for one day in this Travelodge motel, figuring out the shot list, the script, the story, and everything down to the last minute. We were going back and forth about whether or not to shoot the film on a tripod. I wanted to use them, because I wanted control over the way everything looked. But Travis was correct in suggesting against it, because, for one, we weren’t going to have enough time to set up the shots as I would like them, and two, it didn’t make sense for the film that we were about to make. The film needed to feel kind of dirty, raw, and intimate, and in my opinion, intimacy with a camera happens off the sticks. At the same time, it was really important that the bar scenes we were creating looked really polished to show our filmmaking chops a little bit.
What type of cameras were used on the set?
One of the things that James’ producers made sure we were aware of was that he likes a lot of cameras going on set, including his own. We had probably (six or seven cameras covering at all times, but there were three different types of cameras used. James and his production team had two Sony EX3s, and Travis and I had our own Sony EX1, which is a really solid camera and especially good for vérité. There was also a Canon 5D, a Canon Rebel and this bizarre tiny camera that looks like old film. It shoots in HD and is around 3 x 1 inches and James was introduced to it by Harmony. We didn’t end up using any of that footage because it was so strikingly different from the rest. In the behind-the-scenes stuff, the Sony and the Canon added a subtle slipperiness to it. The bar scenes were all shot exclusively with the Sony EX3, so that it looked consistent.
What was it like filming the sex scenes?
In my mind, there are two ways to look at shooting sex. On one hand, it’s just like filming any other scene, in that there’s coverage you have to get and there’s lighting that has to be done and there’s consistent emotional narratives that need to be captured. There are actors that have to be considered and time management is crucial. There’s a camera lens that needs cleaning, blah blah blah. But on the other hand, it’s different because you are filming people when they are most vulnerable. It’s less about directing the actors than it is about connecting with these actors as humans, and as gay men, and as sexual beings. This makes them feel comfortable and able to do these scenes, and gives the film authentic displays of gay male intimacy. I guess shooting sex the way Travis and I do requires me to put on both my cinematographer and my group therapist hats.