Interview: Travis Mathews

About a month ago San Francisco based director Travis Mathews has presented the Berlin episode of his “In Their Room” project at this year’s Porn Film Festival. The movie, which interlaces a couple of very private and portraits of gay Berliners and their dating- and sex life, will be released in Germany via Edition Salzgeber this winter. The DVD will also feature the San Francisco episode and a couple of short solo portraits made in conjunction with this first project. I’ve interviewed Travis for the latest issue of Salzgeber’s sissy magazine, which will be out next week. Here’s the english version of the conversation, which goes back until the very beginnings of Travis’ work as a director. The second part, in which we talked about his new movie “I Want Your Love” (Trailer here) will be published here as well as soon as the movie is out.

Your movies all have interesting stories about how they came to live. Tell me a little bit about these backgrounds, maybe we could start with the San Francisco episode of “In Their Room”. It was a collaboration with BUTT magazine, wasn’t it?

Basically it was winter 2009 and I had been doing documentary stuff for quite a while and was really putting all of my energy into getting back into film after I had left it for a while to pursue being a psycho therapist. I read a posting on BUTT’s blog where they were curating some videos for the Ace Hotel in Palms Springs or LA or something. I had a pretty short amount of time to try and come up with something to submit for this thing. So the idea of “In Their Room” came together – I shot a couple of people not really knowing what I was doing or what the template was going to be for it. But soon it became really clear to me how I could put it together as a piece with different men linked together. So I did that and submitted it to BUTT.

I didn’t know anybody there yet and got an email back from Adam Baran who was one of the editors at the time. He loved it, they all liked it a lot, but they said that it didn’t make sense with the other movies. So basically I developed a friendship with Adam and a relationship with BUTT where although they of course didn’t have any money to pay me for anything but they would give me the platform to do more episodes of “In Their Room” if I wanted. So with BUTT being the parameter “gay coolness” at that time I knew that it would get a certain amount of eyes on me if people liked it and hopefully people would be interested in what I was doing.

You just said that when you started with the shorts you didn’t really have any idea where you were heading. But didn’t you have at least an abstract idea of what you wanted to show?

Well, the year before the first “In Their Room” thing I did a short film called “MEN” I think. It was basically a little voyeuristic bathroom jerk off thing. It was a little bit arty and played at the San Francisco Indie Erotic film festival in 2008. I’d always been interested in really in-between moments rather than huge big cinematic moments and I think that there’s lost of interesting things to learn about people by seeing how they do their everyday things. So I asked my friend Linda to just hang out in my apartment, so she just hung out and I started giving her things to do and was kind of lightly directing her to do things, but she was still playing herself. As we were doing that a narrative started to form in my head with her, about what she was doing and how she was doing it and so I continued to direct her in that way. And I found that I got really excited by the whole process. All of this happened one month before I saw the posting for BUTT.

How did you find the people for “In Their Room”?

It was a mix of word of mouth through friends in San Francisco combined with messaging a lot of “buttheads” on the BUTT magazine blog.

“In Their Room” teaser

Did you turn people down? How did you chose who you’d shoot and who not? 

Basically I wanted somebody who was willing to be vulnerable in front of me and not give me a fake sort of presentation of who they are. And I also wanted somebody that had an interesting bedroom, which for one reason or another that said tons about who this person is. That was my criteria more than anything like someone’s age or their style or how sexy or not sexy they were. I wanted to definitely just show real guys, I wasn’t interested in showing the sexiest people I could find. Although most of them are pretty sexy.

Your next project was the short film “I Want You Love”. As far as I know you shot it for a porn company.

Yeah, in summer 2009 I started writing the script for a feature called “I Want You Love”, the movie that I just finished. I have a friend named Mary, who happens to be old personal friends with Jack Shamama, who is the producer at Naked Sword. I didn’t know Jack, I didn’t even know who Naked Sword were, but my friend invited me to a birthday dinner after she had told him a long time ago that he should check out my “In Their Room” stuff. So when we met at the dinner he had looked at it because he knew he was going to have to talk to me and thought we’d have something to talk about.

I assume he liked it…

… yeah, he really liked it and that’s how that relationship started. They never asked me to make straight-up porn, they always saw working with me as an experiment to see if there was a different audience that they didn’t grab. So they liked the idea of doing the feature film, but before agreeing to that they wanted to do a short scene from the film, to see if there was an audience for what I was doing. They got inundated pretty regularly with people complaining about porn and complaining about how there’s no connection and how it feels very mechanical. And that was coupled with the fact that there’s so much internet porn that’s freely available now that people aren’t really paying for stuff.
I think they weren’t sure if I could pull off filming sex in a naturalistic way that also felt honest and interesting and sexy, so they agreed to just finance the short film. We did that and it was more successful that either of us thought, just in terms of the number of people watching it and the good press we got with it. I think the last time I heard we had over three million people who watched that short scene. What was cool about that is that during the time the short was online I could really develop it into a real film, because the porn studio is used to coming up with an idea and executing it within two or three months. And I was telling them that I needed a year or a half to do this… I felt like what would be really great is if we made a film that was a real film that happened to have sex in it and could possibly premiere at Sundance or Berlinale, as a pretty juicy story about the “Indie filmmaker works with porn company to make first feature” kind of thing.

Still from the “I Want Your Love” short

So now you were sure you could do the whole movie, what made you decide to shoot a Berlin episode of “In Their Room” before the feature?

I got some great advise from a programmer at Sundance who used to head the NewFest, the gay and lesbian film festival in New York. He told me that to sustain people’s interest in this project over the year period it would be really smart to  release teaser material or promotional material that was leading up to the feature film itself. With that in mind I thought it would be cool to do an “In Their Room” episode in another city.

Did you do your “castings” the same way when you were looking for people in Berlin?

Thank fucking god for Gayromeo. I had never heard of it and everyone was telling me that I needed a profile there and then just message people. I had this idea of doing a “24-hours in Berlin” film, where I was hoping that I could find 4, 5 or 6 different guys and basically just be with them for 24 hours to show how they find connection, both with friends and with lovers. Show all these different ways in which somebody can find intimacy. My idea was that each of these different guys would be kind of representing a different way of finding that, like thought a one-night-stand, through a lover, a friend, all these different ways. But then it felt just too ambitious for the amount of time I was here and what I was doing. Partway through I started to film guys using the same kind of template that I had used for the previous episode, but then I just found that I just got bored with asking the same questions and I felt that if I was bored with it then people would gonna feel that. So at a certain point I stopped asking people questions and I thought it would be more interesting just to follow somebody around. I had met Toby and I filmed him once and I knew that he was very both available and interested and engaged and engaging in just spending more time with me and filming more. So at a certain point during my stay in Berlin I decided focus more on Toby and just follow him around a little bit. It’s apparent in the film itself, where the first half of it is a little bit more typical of the earlier “In Their Room” stuff that I did and then about halfway through it breaks off and just becomes what Toby is doing.

“In Their Roon Berlin” teaser

I have the feeling that in this episode you didn’t just want to show the warm and cuddly moments. I had the feeling that there are more moments in which you can see that people are kind of lonely or struggle with things.

When we’re talking about different representations of men that are real or honest, they of course don’t always have to be cuddly. The thing that happened with Toby and another guy called Luke in terms of them getting together for example was really funny. They only saw a picture of each other that I sent both of them and after I had already filmed Toby a lot and I went over to Luke’s house and filmed him just before he was about to go over to Toby’s. Then I travelled with him over to Toby’s house. What we kind of expected was that they would just have a couple of smokes and a little whiskey and then they would get it on and I would just film it and we’d see would happen. What ended up happening is, they got in a really long combative kind of argument for about 40 minutes. I actually made a cut of “In Their Room Berlin” that was just their argument and then them having sex. And I loved it, it’s really obnoxious, intense and all of these things, but people don’t wanna sit and watch it. I don’t know how much that comes across in the film.

Would you say that the people you’ve shown in the “In Their Room” films have something in common, is there a connection? To me it feels like what you do is more than just portraying individual people.

What really continues to excite me about this whole project is that it feels like it will be really interesting as a time capsule, to see this collection of men that share a certain sensibility or interest or outlooks. Although I want to be careful about boxing anything in. And I did feel that there was a lot of similarities between the men that I was filming in San Francisco and the men that I was filming in Berlin. And it goes beyond just the guys I filmed, I was surprised how much the city of Berlin itself reminded me of San Francisco. I think it also really speaks to the fact that the amount of access the people have to the same material via the internet primarily makes geographical distances a lot less important.

There is are whole bunch of young queer photographers on the internet at the moment that share your approach of portraying (gay) men in their private environment, artists like Quinnford & Scout or Benjamin Fredrickson. Maybe it’s something that started with Wolfgang Tilmanns, this very intimate way of showing men naked in their beds or in everyday situations, mostly in a very “naturalistic” way. What do you think makes it so interesting especially for gay men to see other gay men in such private situations? Is it something voyeuristic, or is it some sort of projection?

I think it’s a bunch of different things that kind of come together at once. I feel like there’s a certain punk aesthetic that is the foundation of this little genre you’re talking about. And I don’t mean “punk” in a very sort of late-seventies-England kind of way, but what I wanted to do was trying to do something new that’s potentially provocative or transgressive just in the fact that it’s men being vulnerable and sweet with one another. It’s so easy to make men be all these other sort of archetypes that we’ve seen as masculinity and what’s acceptable.

(c) Quinnford & Scout, 2011

I don’t think there have been very many images that have been both sexy and sweet of men and men with other men and when there have been, I don’t think there has been like an audience to really embrace them in a way that it seems like there is now. And I think part of it is people projecting in sort of like this is what they long for or this is how they long to express themselves and I think there is a voyeuristic piece for sure.

Did you during the shooting sometimes feel like  this was getting too intimate. Did you ever feel like a voyeur?

All the time. I’m never really totally comfortable, I’m always thinking “oh god, should I be here right now, should I be exposing this?” But I’m a pretty disarming guy and I’m also very respectful of the people that I film, I never had any intention of making somebody look stupid or ugly. On my best days when I’m thinking about what I doing I also think that there’s kind of a healing potential to some of these portraits that show men being really honest about stuff that is relatable to people that are watching it on the computer, but maybe are not able for whatever reasons to express their-selves in their own lives. I feel like it’s important to see people sharing your experience that you don’t feel alone. There’s a lot of strength in men being that vulnerable.

There are pornographic moments in all your films so far and it is obviously an important thing for you to show sexuality openly. Just to pin this down, would you say that the way you show sexuality is also a reaction to how it is shown in conventional porn movies?

Well, the way that free porn is structured on the internet now is that you can go in and type in very specifically what you’re looking for to get off on and then get it. But I think that something can also be really hot that doesn’t really follow this more tried and true path of traditional porn. I think having the sense that you know that person on the screen or you believe that it’s a real person is a big turn-on for people. It’s a turn-on for me if I feel like I believe you are the person you’re showing me right now and then I see you in a sexual situation. I feel more invested whatever my relationship is with you.

“In Their Room” still

Which is funny, because I think a lot of people watch porn because there’s this distance to what’s happening on the screen, because then it’s easier to project your fantasies on what’s happening.

For some people it may be like this, I’m sure. I think it’s also safer for people to not feel connected.

What are you experiences with festivals so far, are they hesitating to show your movies? I don’t even know how that works in the US. Do festival show films with pornographic content?

I can only really speak from my experience so far: I feel like most gay film festivals have some sort of program that caters to films that are kind of explicit. So gay film festivals are for the most part fine with that, although there have been some exceptions. There’s kind of an interest in showing sexuality more, just sort of globally, there are a lot of films that have been coming out more and more frequently that are pushing the bar of what’s acceptable to see in an actual narrative. I’ve also been told that there are a lot of longstanding festivals like Sundance that are wanting to regain some of there relevance and their edge and so are more interested in accepting material that might be a little bit on the edge of what’s acceptable.

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