The American independent filmmaker, Travis Mathews has had a run in the queer filmmaking industry for almost 12 years now. Best known for his audacious take on gay films and his experimental, documentary-inspired style of filming, Mathews stunned the audience at the Urban Nomad Film Festival with his leather scene-inspired docufiction film titled Interior. Leather Bar., which he co-created with the actor James Franco in 2013. The film also made its way to the prestigious Berlin International Film Festival and was widely well-received for its take on to conflict between creative freedom and censorship, and the ways in which the film was able to portray the cinematic representation of LGBT issues and people has evolved since the 80s. With this, we, here at GagaTai, introduce you to a series of three short films by Travis Mathews, which is now available for streaming over at GagaOOLala. These three docufiction titles were shot during the course from 2009 to 2013, across three different cities, and were collectively given the title In Their Room.
In Their Room (Source: GagaOOLala)
Likewise, in 2017, Mathews once again took his new feature Discreet to the Panorama section at the 67th Berlin International Film Festival. Discreet tells the story about a closeted gay drifter, who spends most of his time at an erotic DVD store, and engages in sexual encounters with random strangers to release and satisfy his sexual desires. Upon returning to his hometown, he finds out that his childhood abuser, the center of his pain, is still alive. He then decides to confront the man with his new friend, and through the interactions between the three of them, we start to discover the true motivation of this visit and the drifter’s true intention. This film is packed with a mix of eerie but unique images and similar sound effects, like what we would probably see in a David Lynch film. It also reminds us of the masterpiece Mysterious Skin made by Gregg Araki where the audience is led into a mysterious world and made to find the answers along the journey, a sensual experience fit for the big screen.
Our contributor, George Bond, arrived at the interview room on the fifth floor of Berlinale Palast of the Berlin Film Festival at 10:40 in the morning on February 13, 2017. And the following is his exclusive interview with director Travis Mathews and actor Jonny Mars from Discreet.
George Bond: Can you briefly talk about the motivation behind creating the series of short films In Their Room?
Mathews: I think it was between 2008 and 2009 that I was invited by the Butt Magazine (an international fashion gay magazine from the Netherlands) to create this project beginning from the place I lived, San Francisco. While I was growing up, I was exposed to many gay films and media, but most of them were largely focused on the negative aspects of the LGBT community such as discrimination and bullying. Therefore, I always wanted to use a different angle to capture and express the lives of gay men.
In Their Room (Source: GagaOOLala)
George Bond: San Francisco, Berlin, London, which one do you consider is the most challenging to make? And why is that?
Mathews: London. Because London was my last one and also the latest one. The challenges came from it being the concluding chapter of the series, so we needed to find a way to tell the story differently than the first two films but at the same time, we had to find a way to fit into the model we created from before. Also, the other challenge that we encountered with London was that we were looking for people that had no prior knowledge of the existence of the first two films, to shoot with. As a docufiction film, avoiding any form of forced or deliberate ”acting" in front of the camera was the most crucial thing for us.
George Bond: Were there any interesting things that happened during the shooting that you can share with us?
Mathews: Coming across and meeting people who understand their own identity and have the ability to use words to express and convey themselves. I think that was the most interesting thing that happened to me.
George Bond: How do you find a suitable crowd to shoot within different cities?
Mathews: In San Francisco, it was through the recommendation from my friends. In Berlin, we used the app called Gay Romeo (which is now renamed Planet Romeo) to find our targets. In London, many people came forward voluntarily because of the knowledge and awareness about my previous works. That is why I mentioned earlier that London was the most difficult one to shoot. Because I was not looking for someone who wanted to be famous through the film, I was looking for someone simpler and naive and who had prior knowledge of me and my work.
In Their Room (Source: GagaOOLala)
George Bond: Rumors have it that the series’ next film is targeting an Asian city. which city do you have in mind?
Mathews: Well…nothing concrete yet at this moment. I have never been to Asia before, so I don’t know where would be suitable for shooting. Maybe Tokyo, and maybe Taipei as well. I want to be able to find a city of unparalleled contrasts. Which one would you do you recommend?
George Bond: In Asia, Thailand is one of the most active cities for the gay community. In comparison, Tokyo is considered very conservative. Taipei actually has a very dynamic homosexual culture, and it might pass the same-sex marriage bill in May and in doing so, Taiwan might become the first country in Asia to legalize the gay community. This might help Taipei stands out from Tokyo or Bangkok.
(Note: The interview was conducted in 2017, Taiwan successfully passed the same-sex marriage bill in 2019.)
George Bond: Is there any Asian actor you like?
Mathews: I haven't watched a lot of Asian movies. But I had spent a lot of time with the works from director Wong Kar-Wai when I was a kid. So I think I will go with Tony Leung for that matter.
In Their Room (2009-present) is an ongoing multi-city documentary series about gay men, bedrooms, and intimacy. The series veers into the bedrooms of men where you see them doing everything from the most banal to the sometimes more erotic. Complimenting the revealing nature of their everyday activities are confessional interviews about fantasies, turn-ons, and vulnerabilities. The throughline of the series highlights the ways in which gay men in disparate cultures deal with connection, intimacy, and loneliness in the modern world.
George Bond: The film Discreet reminds me of David Lynch.
Mathews: We didn’t intentionally want to imitate David Lynch’s style while shooting the film. But it did naturally resemble his feeling. Anyway, I would take that as a compliment. Discreet is a story that strikes back at the conservatism in America. It is set in Mid-West America. The protagonist must hide his identity in the conservative society he is a part of. And it is especially at this moment that I want to express my rebellion against the current environment with this film.
George Bond: I believe the script for the film was already completed before the Trump administration, right?
Mathews: I started to write the script in 2015. At the time I could already feel some conservatism flowing up in the air. And after the Trump administration started, the hostility toward the conservative in film naturally become stranger and more obvious.
George Bond: The nudity in the film seems to be well-controlled?
Mathews: It’s because the film is called Discreet. The background is set in the conservative areas of mid-west America, so I want to emphasize the oppression gay people felt in this way.
Jonny Mars from Discreet (Image/GagaOOLala)
George Bond: Do you do any homework on the characters before you start shooting?
Jonny Mars: Yes. I tried to meet with some people from the mid-west, who shared similar trauma or abusive experiences as my character. I also met upon certain individuals who encountered something even way more devastating and heinous in their lives than my character. I talked to them, listened to their stories, identified with them, and expressed my empathy to them, all of which ultimately helped me develop the characters for my creation.
Discreet is the latest film director Travis Mathews. After years in hiding and struggling to control his demons, Alex, an eccentric drifter returns home and discovers that his childhood abuser, the center of his pain, is still alive. Armed with this knowledge, the drifter plots his revenge, all the while navigating the perilous land of masculine fragility in modern-day America.