Watch Travis Mathews' In Their Room (2009) on GagaOOLala.
Mathews is undoubtedly an artist, one genuinely interested in his craft and I’m quite glad I finally had the chance to discover his work and even more the opportunity to have a lovely chat with him upon the release of his compelling collection of short documentaries called In Their Room. The project finds Mathews interact with gay men of different backgrounds and nationalities, not only interviewing them in their bedrooms about their lives but also observing them up close as they live part of their lives in those rooms. It’s an intimate, raw and erotic exploration of the different facets of what it means to be gay in this day and age and Mathews has talked to subjects from three of the most progressive cities in the world: San Francisco, Berlin and London.
In Their Room started in 2009 with the first series shot in San Francisco where Mathews himself is based. He reveals: “Since doing In Their Room I feel like I’ve been sort of creating a love letter to my 16 year old self. I grew up in a pretty isolating area of Ohio. Not only I didn’t have any role models of gay men, I didn’t have any contacts. I didn’t have cable and I came of age the second before the Internet was a thing. As a kid it would’ve been a big deal for me to see other men in other places that were far away and relate to the intimate moments they were sharing. I think there is a lot of connection and intimacy and healing that can happen in having those representations in a visual kind of way and obviously I was studying psychology so In Their Room in a way was almost some sort of sexy therapy session.”
When I ask about his selection process to find interviewees and how hard it was, Travis explains: “The first time in San Francisco I found guys because this was something I was doing for Butt Magazine and obviously in 2009 everyone was excited to do something that involved Butt magazine. And those guys truly got what I was trying to do. Most of the ones in the San Francisco edition I wouldn’t say they were in my circle of friends but definitely one circle removed. When I went to Berlin I obviously had done the San Francisco one so I could forward the link to people and they could decide whether they understood what I was doing and wanted to be part of it. By the time I got to London I had to work against the fact that everybody who was interested in doing it and who knew my work belonged to a very particular demographic. I have endless respect for all of these guys who willingly come forward and are vulnerable in so may ways but that said, as a filmmaker I needed to begin moving outside of this very narrow demographic.”
The people we get acquainted with during the series are a quite diversified bunch but Mathews doesn’t just go for the average transgressive types to grab your attention. We meet guys who are just interested in hook ups or those who’d like to find someone special but are disillusioned about it hence wind up hooking up. Yet there’s also an extremely cute couple in Berlin who cuddle in bed and make plans for the night out or a peculiar old man in London, John, who likes to dress up in drag and tells his story while getting ready in full attire and make up. As he goes deeper into his selection process Mathews notes: “I was beginning to get curious about different types of men and different ways of constructing the series. I knew I wanted to finish the London one and to have it be its own thing and be reflective of the other two but moving forward with the series I’m going to re-examine the way I put it together and the people that I film. In London it wasn’t hard to find a lot of those guys but it was hard to find John, the old guy, and Shane, the black guy. I never would’ve been arrogant enough to say that I was going to create this definitive cross-section of gay London. Nobody can do that plus I don’t live there, I’m not British. I was trying to just capture one slice of life for a handful of guys at a particular moment and I’m happy with the guys I chose. And also I curate the guys I decide to talk to and include. I don’t involve whoever is interested."
"They have to be guys who seem interesting or compelling for some reason and they must have access to who they are and both the desire and the ability to convey who they are in a way that feels real. I have zero interest in hot guys who are boring and don’t have a clue who they are as people.”
He continues: “I’m excited where I am right now as I’m having the opportunity to basically make a straight up 90 min art-house film that adheres to pretty classical acts structure but it’s still very much me. I like both forms and I actually enjoy that run and gun gorilla style of work I did with In Their Room more than anything because it’s so spontaneous. Even if I’m slightly directing things and talking off camera, I’m so agile cause it’s just me and my camera and whoever I’m with. If something’s not working we can go somewhere else. It’s not a two hours set up for another scene. It makes me feel alive. There’s an exciting tension about not having a good idea of what’s going to happen. It’s hard for me to say what my preference is or where I’m a better filmmaker in those different spaces cause while I’m not so young anymore, I’m still a young filmmaker in terms of discovering what I want to do and how, so I need to do some more fictional pieces before I think I can really say where I’m most comfortable.”
I’m interested in learning if he plans to continue In their Room in other cities: “I have a few big projects in different stages of development right now that do not involve In Their Room so talking about different cities is too premature as I know it’s going to change over the next three years. But I can tell you some places I have talked to people about are Sao Paolo in Brazil, Instanbul in Turkey and there’s community of really cool people in both places that I know would be interested in helping me to put this together but I think by the time I return to it and especially because I’m shifting to places that are much further from my familiar comfort zone and where English isn’t the first language or next to first language like it is in Berlin, when I go to these place I’m gonna have to treat it more like a small film than my free flowing documentary series cause I’m gonna have to stay longer in those places and gain trust with people and it will have to be a collaboration in a bigger sense because I don’t wanna be the white American guy who comes in and he’s like: here’s how it is in Instanbul! I could get away with it so far but I can’t do that in a culture where I can’t even speak their native language so I’m probably gonna keep the name In Their Room but let it evolve into different things."
"If you look at the San Francisco one which was only 2009, it’s almost quaint, there’s no Grinder or smart phones, I look at that and I’m really happy I captured that moment of those guys. Who knows what’s on the horizon?"
I can’t help but ask him how he feels about the current state of LGBT-themed cinema and if there’s room to widen its audience. He admits: “I feel very ambivalent about it and it’s a conversation that I keep having with my filmmaking piers. I’ve been hearing a lot of things like: ‘I’m trying to make a character drama and one of the things about this person is that they’re gay. I’m not making a gay film.’ I get it and have the same sort of impulses and I’ve explained my current project in similar ways. But there’s something about me hearing this out of my own mouth and out of my peers’ mouths that’s almost defensive. And so it makes me wanna think of it more since actually it is gay and I don’t wanna run away from that. So I feel that whole conversation between appealing to the mainstream vs ghetto-ing yourself with something super gay is one that exists within a very small and narrow group of people while the rest of the world and the consumers of whatever it might be you’re making just do not give a damn. I wanna do projects that eventually are gonna give me enough money so I don’t have to worry about money but I don’t have any ambition to be rich and I think that’s possible. I understand how that conversation is born from economics: if you have a gay themed film that is embraced and talked about as a gay themed film, it’s never gonna make money but if it’s referred to as a character drama and they just happen to be gay then producers and investors think it might make money and it becomes more appealing. But whether it’s real or imagined there’s also a sense of maturity and growth like ‘I don’t have to make something that’s just in the gay ghetto anymore. Look! I can make something where it’s just one piece of the larger fabric.’ So I guess I craft those conversations based on who I’m talking to. I think it’s a little bit of a transition time in terms of this topic.”
Watch Travis Mathews' In Their Room (2009) on GagaOOLala.
Writer: Francesco Cerniglia – Film Editor
This article originally appeared on CANDID Magazine on December 9th, 2014.