Director Travis Mathews makes gay porn intimate, cuddly, relatable

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Travis Mathews is quickly making a name for himself in the San Francisco film scene. A short film culled from his In Their Room series earned him top honors at the Good Vibrations’ Independent Erotic Film Festival last year. Now he’s working on I Want Your Love, a full-length scripted feature. Although Mathews has only completed one demo scene, the project is already generating online buzz. I spoke to Mathews about his inspiration for I Want Your Love and how the short scene fits into the bigger picture.

San Francisco Bay Guardian: The last time I interviewed you, we were talking about In Their Room. What brings you back to erotic film?
Travis Mathews: I have always liked to see people be really candid, honest, raw, intimate, vulnerable. And I think there’s a lot of different ways that you can show that and reveal that in movies, and one of the ways you can do it is through sex. But strangely, I think that’s what’s missing in a lot of porn, is that all of those things that I just mentioned are missing from porn. Instead, it’s just the very carnal “money shot” where it seems often divorced from feeling, from interpersonal relationships, and then all those other things I mentioned, like intimacy, vulnerability, honesty. I consume porn like most people do, and I myself feel disconnected from it, and I don’t really feel engaged with it and I don’t expect much from it. And I hear a lot of other people complaining or echoing similar thoughts. It just seems crazy to me that there aren’t more depictions of real people—whatever real people means—but not chiseled, “I go to the gym four hours a day, six days a week” people, having sex in a believable scenario that doesn’t seem stagey or ridiculous.

Jesse in I Want Your Love

SFBG: The scenario you present in this scene from I Want Your Love is definitely relatable—two friends who haven’t had sex with each other but are thinking about giving it a try. It’s something that many gay men have experienced. What brought you to that scene?
TM: It’s a scene that’s been stretched for the demo for a feature that I wrote. So it’s one of among a lot of other things going on, a lot of scenes and a lot of other mini-dramas. It goes back to the original thing I told you: I want to write stuff and I want to show stuff that people can respond to that feels honest to them, even if they don’t totally relate to it. Like, maybe someone hasn’t had that same experience, but it is an experience that a lot of gay men have had. I think a lot of people can make that leap, that like, “I get that. I think that’s probably something that really happens.” I’m not interested in creating big dramas that overshadow the intimacy and the more nuanced stuff.
 

SFBG: One thing I really liked about the scene is how natural it felt. Was everything there scripted or was there improvisation as well?
TM: That was all scripted. The only thing that was improvised is when they’re having sex—there’s lines when they have sex that are scripted, but the only thing that’s improvised is, there’s a moment when they’re having sex when Jesse says, “Oh, this feels so good. Oh, I like it so much.” And then he checks in with Brenden, and says, “Are you OK? Do you want more?” And Brenden says, “Yeah.” Like, really soft, and I like that a lot. But everything else was scripted. So I gave them the script for the scene and they basically memorized it, and they knew about it, and we had talked about it. During our first rehearsal, it was more of a workshop. I told them from the beginning, “I’m not so married to this script that we can’t deviate from it. I want you guys to bring parts of your real self to it, and I also want you to give me feedback on whether this feels like something you or your character would say.” So we massaged it together as a team and it was definitely at that point a collaborative effort. It was very democratic at that point. Me, Jesse, and Brenden, and my DP/producer Keith sat together and went through the script and tried out lines that I had written to see how they worked.

Jesse from "In Their Room"

SFBG: It’s impressive to me that it’s scripted, because it does feel so real. You don’t really get the sense that they’re acting.
TM: That was at the top of my list of things that I really wanted to keep an eye on, is bad acting. I feel like there’s a lot of other things that you can massage or you can hide or you can choose not to include and insert something else. But if you’ve got bad acting, it’s really hard to recover from that, I think. Because as a viewer, when I see something that’s poorly acted, I lose interest and I just don’t believe it. And I feel disengaged from it, which goes back to the problem of so much porn that tries to be cinema or tries to be like a regular movie.

SFBG: So let’s talk about casting. I know you worked with Jesse on In Their Room, but how did you decide on these guys?
TM: The first time I met Jesse was when I basically knocked on his door and went to shoot him for In Their Room. And then, we had a mutual friend in common, and then we had other friends in common, and we became friends. And I also really liked the way Jesse looked on the camera. Not necessarily physically—although I think that he’s really a sexy, handsome guy—but how the camera would catch his eye, or I would be able to catch him doing something really small that seemed to say a lot more. He’s really good at just leaning into really quiet moments that we all engage with when we’re by ourselves. He’s a performance artist, so I think that’s part of it. I also think that there’s a comfort level that goes along with that. He does it in a way that’s so natural. He knew from the beginning—we talked very little about, with In Their Room, what my intention was, but he knew what I was getting very quickly. And with his own work, he deals with issues of masculinity and things like that, so it’s not like what I’m doing is divorced from the stuff he’s doing. So he got it right away, and that was really refreshing. So I knew I wanted to work with him again, and I was starting to write this feature toward the middle of last summer, and I definitely knew that I wanted him in it in some capacity. When we went forward to do the demo, I told him about the project, I told him I wanted him in it as this character, and he was enthusiastic about it and wanted to be involved.

So then it was a process of finding the person who was going to play opposite to him. We had a casting call on Butt Magazine’s blog, and I put the word out there among boys in San Francisco. We probably had less than a dozen serious contenders, and we auditioned a bunch of people. Brenden was actually the first person that we auditioned. I had seen Brenden out and told him I was interested in having him audition again, and he did. He and Jesse have really, really good chemistry together. They can be playful and sexy together, and that was key for me. A lot of these other guys would have been great, I’m sure, some of them, but it needed to feel like—because they were supposed to be old friends or best friends—it needed to feel like they were comfortable inhabiting each other’s space, and that it was a familiar thing for them to be doing that. So that’s what I was looking for. If it felt like these were two people who had just met each other yesterday, and now they’re pretending to be close friends, it wouldn’t have worked.

SFBG: So the movie extends past these two friends, then. Can you talk a little about what’s going on in the full feature?
TM: What’s potentially confusing, I think, to people is that, you don’t have any sense in just watching the demo, you don’t have any real sense of what this whole feature is about. Or I think people think they do. But the basic log line for it is, Jesse’s character has been living in San Francisco for a decade, and for reasons I’m going to leave a little bit vague, there’s money issues and he has to leave the city. He can’t afford to live here anymore, and he’s moving back to the Midwest to live with his dad. So it’s kind of an opposite Tales of the City story where he’s not coming bright-eyed and bushy-tailed into this Emerald City where everything’s new and he’s going to experience everything for the first time. It’s like he’s done it and the thing that he’s grappling with is how much he’s failed this experiment of moving to San Francisco, or how much the city’s failed him. And the movie takes place in the last 24 hours before he leaves San Francisco. There’s a party that happens the night before he leaves, so there’s all these opportunities for these friends that are interconnected and then with himself to have a lot of quiet moments and reflection and introspection and things about what it’s been like living here, and what it means to be leaving it. There’s also a lot of opportunities for playfulness and sexy times.

SFBG: There’s a thin line between “porn” and “erotic film,” if there is one. I wanted to ask you about your reaction to the term “porn,” and also some of the more recent variations, like “hipster porn” and “mumblecore,” which are kind of contentious.
TM: Honestly, I’m kind of entertained in hearing different people label it different things, and I’ve decided—before I even released this—to not get engaged with debates or arguments or getting in a place where I’m being defensive about what it is. I feel like, I’m going to hopefully get to make the movie that I want to make, and there’s going to be sex in it, and yes, it’s going to be produced by a porn company. If people want to stop there and just label it porn, they’re going to do that. I can’t control how people are going to respond to it, so I’ve kind of let go of that. Some of these terms, I think are funny. Like, “hipster porn,” I know that that has a—what did you say, “contentious”?

SBFG: Just because a lot of people immediately reject the term “hipster.”
TM: Sure. Yet at the same time, I think if you’re somebody who’s well-tuned with the word “hipster” and you heard “hipster porn,” I think your interest would be peaked and you would be like, “What is that? I want to see that.” Although, you know, you might have a knee-jerk reaction and be like, “Ugh, hipster porn.” So I don’t think it’s as simple as it being a pejorative thing. And “mumblecore,” I love Funny Ha Ha (2003). I think it’s amazing, and I actually think “mumblecore” is a funny term. I like it. I know the guys that are sort of spearheading that whole scene kind of hate that they’re reduced to that. I like the intention of mumblecore movies. I think that they’re often really poorly executed, but I think Humpday (2009) was a good movie. I think the dialog was fantastic and it seemed real. And I also think that about Funny Ha Ha. But I mean, you go further: sort of the grandfather of mumblecore movies is Cassavetes. He would shoot things in this cinema verite style and get people to bring their real selves to their performances.

SFBG: You said in another interview that you’d like I Want Your Love to feel very San Francisco, and I was hoping you could elaborate. Why is that important to you?
TM: I come from the country, Ohio—I’m a country boy from Ohio. I don’t mean that I’m a country bumpkin, but I still feel wide-eyed and really grateful for the fact that I live in San Francisco, and that I’m able to survive here. The city has its problems, but I love living here. For a long time now, I’ve wanted to do something that was, in some ways, a tribute to the city without being cheeseball or so obvious but more nuanced. But then, I also felt that there’s a particular brand—there’s a regional gay in San Francisco. I wanted to document the people that I know in San Francisco in a way that felt authentic to me. Not in a way to be like, “Look at us, we’re so cool!” But in a way to show these guys—and there will be women in the feature, too—in the most candid way that I can show. The more I do the In Their Room stuff, or after having done that, I realized how much the guys I shot for the most part and the spaces that they inhabit just ooze San Francisco, without me trying to do that. So that was part of the momentum as I was writing the feature. I was realizing that without really doing a lot of work or without really trying to do this explicitly, I was going to be able to showcase San Francisco in a very nuanced kind of way.

You can view the demo scene from I Want Your Love free of charge at Naked Sword. Perhaps needless to say, it’s NSFW. For more information about Travis Mathews, check out his Web site.

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