james-travisIn order to avoid a dreaded X rating, 40 minutes of gay S&M footage was rumored to have been removed William Friedkin’s 1980 film Cruising. Inspired by the mythology that exists about that footage, filmmakers James Franco and Travis Mathews collaborated on Interior. Leather Bar., a quasi-documentary that purports to recreate the missing scenes.

Amidst the backdrop of a frenzied film set, actor Val Lauren reluctantly agrees to take the lead role in Franco and Mathews’ recreation. Echoing Al Pacino’s original involvement in Cruising, Val is repeatedly forced to negotiate his boundaries as unsimulated gay sex happens all around him. As much a film about filmmaking as it is about an exploration of sexual and creative freedom, Interior. Leather Bar. clearly defies easy categorization. When it debuted a year ago at Sundance, the New York Times lauded the film as one of the best surprises of the festival. It has been the subject of hot debate at additional festivals and screenings ever since. Click here to find out where you can see Interior. Leather Bar. I sat down with writer and co-director Travis Mathews in Los Angeles to discuss the controversial film.

interior-posterDanny Miller: When I first heard about this film, it sounded like it was going to be a complete recreation of those 40 explicit minutes that were cut from Cruising but it’s much different than that. Are you finding that audiences have varying expectations of what they’re going to see?

Travis Mathews: Oh, yeah. When we first started getting press about the film, people were talking about it as if we were remaking Cruising. We’ve tried to make it clear that we’re just using those 40 minutes as a launching point for exploration.

I think a lot of people are hoping to actually see James Franco engaging in explicit gay sex in the film. Spoiler alert: That doesn’t happen!

We never said anything like that — I think that was just a lot of wishful thinking on some people’s part!

Was this a joint idea between you and James Franco?

What happened is that I was promoting my first feature, I Want Your Love, a film that blends narrative and explicit sex. James was looking for somebody to collaborate with who was already using sex as a storytelling tool, so I got on his radar. He called me and said that he wanted to do something with explicit sex that was a kind of deconstruction. And he had this idea of touching on the film Cruising. We had a few conversations about it and it was only then that we found out about these 40 minutes that seemed perfect for us to explore.

I know there are some people who say those 40 minutes never existed.

Yeah. There’s this whole mythology about the film and that if they ever did exist they’ve never been seen publicly. But then, of course, there are all these people who’ve come out of the woodwork to say that no, they’ve seen them!

What does Friedkin himself say?

He’s said that his strategy at the time was to deliver a film to the MPAA that was so unbelievably explicit that he knew they would force him to cut, cut, cut, and then when he was done cutting it would still be a very hard R.

That’s pretty smart. The film was made at the time right before the AIDS epidemic hit so, no matter what you think of it, it’s a pretty interesting document of a time and place.

Yes, you know, many of the bar scenes were made like a docu-drama, those are real patrons, real venues, real booze, real drugs, and even real sex. Friedkin told them to just go about how they normally would and he filmed his story around them. So I think a lot of the stuff that was cut from the film was almost like this documentary footage of this moment before AIDS.

Wow, so it’s like this amazing, unintentional time capsule.

Yes, and nobody talks about that. I mean, it’s very easy to talk about the problems with the movie.

And yet, as we see in your film, some of the same issues that actors had on Cruising still seemed to be happening decades later.

Right. Some people just freaked out. We did a casting call here that just said it was for a leather bar scene for James Franco Productions. About 50 guys showed up and I presented the project to them and said that the film would take place in a gay milieu where sex would be happening around them. That was enough for many of the actors to leave.

You’d think shooting a “leather bar scene” would have tipped them off!

Yeah, a lot of them, gay and straight, were really grappling with it. They wanted to be part of a James Franco project but they were worried about how it might affect their careers.

The same thing that happened with the actors in 1980.



Was your lead actor, Val (who looks so much like a young Al Pacino), as conflicted about being in the film as he seems to be?

That first scene in the hotel room with Val was completely unscripted. That was really the first time I met him in person. All the reservations you hear from him are completely off the cuff comments he had after reading the treatment. He didn’t understand what we were doing or why we were doing it. I like Val a lot and I understand his reservations. But at a certain point, he shared with me later, he was beginning to understand what we were doing and the role he was supposed to play so I guess on some level his performance pivoted more towards acting.

Interesting. So his actual discomfort morphed into his character’s discomfort.

Yes. I loved the echo of establishment of Val’s wife, almost like how we HAD to see Al Pacino with his girlfriend before he goes into this undercover job.

One of my favorite moments in the film, and I wondered how real it was, was when Val says to James, “Oh, you got a new haircut?”  And James says, “Yeah it’s my Oz thing.”

That was totally off the cuff!

I loved it because it then almost seemed like this whole film was Franco’s response to  starring in this huge Disney juggernaut, Oz, the Great and Powerful, which he was making at the time. Was Disney aware that James was making this film? Did they care?

James never seemed to be concerned about that. He can get away with a lot more than other Disney stars can! When the Oz film was coming out, I asked him about it again and he said no one at Disney had said a word about our film even though it was being screened at a bunch of places at that time. The great thing about James is that he’s just focused on all of the different things that he wants to do and he’s willing to accept whatever the repercussions are.

Do you think Cruising itself has undergone an evolution over the years in terms of the way it’s perceived?

Oh yeah, there is this whole generational shift with it. I think if you’re in your mid-30s or younger, you experience that movie in a very different way. There’s been a real nostalgia for the pre-AIDS years, both stylistically and politically, and that movie is such a time capsule of that. I think because we’ve come so far from the oppressive nature of that time, younger people who’ve never experienced it can look on with almost amusement.

Right, they don’t understand that nearly every movie that touched on gay characters back then had some kind of scary murderous element.

Yeah. Or even if they realize it intellectually, it doesn’t have the same impact because they’ve never experienced what that meant. But anyone who’s around my age or older has a much more complicated take on Cruising.

I know that a lot of people in the gay community at that time were dead-set against it at the time.

Yes, and I think Friedkin is infinitely frustrated when people say that Cruising is homophobic. He continues to defend it as just a murder mystery with an exotic backdrop or something like that. To be honest, I feel like he’s being a little disingenuous when he says that because when you watch the film and see all those  scenes where people are getting murdered, there is always the echo of the guy saying, “You made me do this!” I’ve never talked to Friedkin and I obviously can’t speak for him, but I think a more honest take would be that he was part of the culture and he wasn’t able to see the ways in which the film was sending a certain homophobic message, even if that wasn’t his intention.


Your film has some pretty explicit moments. I’m sure in Friedkin’s “lost minutes” you never saw an erect penis.

Oh, sure you did!


Oh yeah. I mean, there’s a whole fisting scene that even made it into the R-rated version of Cruising! Sure, there’s a pole in front of the action so you don’t actually see the fist going up his ass, but that’s clearly happening in the scene. People were really having sex in that film. I talked to a couple of extras who were in Cruising and they confirmed everything that I heard. They said Friedkin would say, “All right, light ‘em up!” and he was talking about people smoking pot and then he’d tell them to have a good time however they wanted to have a good time. The two people I spoke with said that they didn’t actually have sex on camera but that they were around plenty of guys who were having sex in the bar.

Wow. Does having an erect penis in your film today automatically mean that it won’t be allowed in most theaters?

I think so. I’m dealing with that right now, even for our digital release. In some cases they won’t even allow us to blur stuff, I actually have to find alternative shots for the places where there is probably only about 30 seconds of explicit material.

But that explicitness hasn’t been an issue at film festivals? 

Usually not. They make exemptions for those. It also depends on the country. Australia, weirdly enough, is one of the strictest places in the world. They banned my last film from screening there because of the explicit sex. James actually made this short YouTube video about my film being banned there which was great. It didn’t reverse the ruling, but it ended up being discussed in every big media outlet in Australia and started a conversation about changing their classification system which is so arcane now that it’s a real embarrassment.

Do you see yourself as a kind of activist about changing what is allowed to be seen in more mainstream films?

I don’t think about it that much but I think it’s inherent in the DNA of the stuff that I’m doing. Look, if somebody wants to call my films pornography, that doesn’t bother me. But my definition of pornography is something that’s made and consumed with the sole purpose of getting someone off and I just don’t feel that’s what I do at all. I have other reasons and other layers for the ways in which I engage with sexuality.