In the six years since Travis Mathews made his first ‘In Their Room‘ film, interviewing gay men about their sex lives, the way gay sex is negotiated has changed beyond all recognition. We’re living through the nearest thing to the liberated gay ’70s, he tells Brian Finnegan
Next January, the second season of the HBO series, Looking will begin airing. The series, set in San Francisco, follows the adventures and misadventures of a group of four gay male friends, and is notable for its realist style, which is directly influenced by its creator/director Andrew Haigh’s 2011 feature film, Weekend. Haigh comes from a generation of queer film auteurs who are trying to reflect gay life beyond the confines of the genre, which tends to focus on well worn tropes like the ‘coming out’ film. One of the key figures in this new queer cinema movement is Travis Mathews, whose 2012 feature, I Want Your Love, examined modern gay identity with explicit sex-scenes filmed in real time. The movie, financed by porn website Naked Sword, came from a short of the same name, but was originally inspired by Mathews’ first foray into gay filmmaking, a fly-on-the-wall documentary called In Their Room –San Francisco.
The film features a basic one-camera interview set-up, in which a number of gay men in the intimate environs of their bedrooms explain what they desire sexually and emotionally, and some of them masturbate. Since then Mathews has gone on to film episodes of In Their Room in Berlin and London, and all three films will be released on DVD and to stream this month.
“I was tired of complaining amongst my friends that almost all of the gay media I was consuming at the time, particularly movies, were things that didn’t reflect my life or my friend’s lives,” Mathews explains over Skype from his apartment in San Francisco as we discuss how In Their Room first came about. “It was a West Hollywood idea of what a gay life was. Then there was this call from Butt magazine for 20-minute or shorter videos for a show they were curating. That gave me a deadline and I said, okay, I’m going to do something that could live within the Butt magazine world but is also accomplishing these other things that I’m interested in doing.”
Mathews has a masters degree in counseling psychology and decided to bring this background to the plate. “I’m interested in interior worlds,” he says. “I wanted to be really intimate with people in a raw way that’s sometimes messy, sometimes sexy, sometimes funny or playful, and to not shy away from that.
“For the San Francisco one, it was more me talking with friends of friends and sort of tapping that. I didn’t know any of the guys, bar one. It wasn’t about how hot they were, how sexy they were. For all of the films, it’s always about if there’s something interesting about the person, that they have an understanding of, and an interest and capability of expressing it that feels honest and intimate. If they can do that, I don’t really care what their background is. If they just seem like a fascinating character, or somebody with something to share, then it usually works. It’s rare that I film a person and don’t use it.”
In the six years since Mathews began the project, the dating scene has changed immeasurably.
“In the San Francisco one in 2009, nobody had smartphones. Grindr didn’t exist yet, and it almost seems quaint. The more interesting recent development in the States is the introduction of Truvada. I think it’s a defining moment. It opens up these questions about how we approach sex that I think I never thought I’d even be having to ask myself, around condom use, and taking a pill, and what that means.
“To untangle that feels like a betrayal of what you know at your core to be wrong because of growing up in that era. I think there’s so much fetishising of pre-AIDS 1970s, from the culture to the free sex, and that this emerging moment is the closest thing that will ever approximate that in our millennial time. The combination of Truvada and the access of Grindr and Scruff, is the closest thing to a liberated embracing of sexuality that we haven’t been allowed to have since the 70s.”
While on the surface this is a positive development, Mathews believes there is another side to the coin.
“The thing that’s happening concurrently with that is that we’re also fragmented. We’re all in 500 different places at the same time. I think that way of living that we’re all becoming comfortable with makes it more of a challenge to find real intimacy as opposed to something that’s surface, or cursory, or fleeting. The idea of a deepening intimacy is harder.
“There’s a real and imagined idea that there’s always something better. We’re always shopping now. I spent an hour on my phone the other day and I was technically shopping, like browsing. I’m not just talking about Grindr. When you break it all down, we’ve become consumers of everything, and I feel like we’re all looking for the best deal.”
Despite the massive technical and medical developments since 2009, there is a key sense about Mathews’ In Their Room episodes, and to some extent his feature film, that does not change. For all the frustration and desire that lie beneath the stories, the men Mathews engages with offer up a hopeful story.
“There’s an element of hope in the films because the viewer is sharing something potentially intimate with these people who are bravely revealing things that sometimes are not easy to reveal,” the director says. “I think it’s a constant reminder of how similar we all are, not in a negative way, but on a deeper level beyond the cultural stuff and the things we’re all interested in. It’s good to be reminded of the ways in which we all experience things more or less in similar ways. It’s nice to have that empathetic exchange.”
For the next episodes of In Their Room, which Mathews hopes to film in Istanbul and Sao Paulo, he wants to combine the interviews with a more traditional cinematic structure.
“I’d like to do something more challenging, where I shake up this template. I’ve tried to push it in a few directions, especially with the Berlin one, where for the second half we stay with the same couple. I want to inch it towards the narrative – a very simple narrative with two or three guys that are local to wherever it’s filmed. I’d like to workshop with them about playing themselves and put them in a situation and make it into a movie. I want to keep it interesting to myself and I like the idea of all the films being different.”
Meanwhile, Mathews is working on his second feature proper, entitled Oscillate Wildly, after an instrumental track from the The Smiths’ Louder Than Bombs album. “I’m going to be filming it in Austin next May,” Mathews tells me. “It’s a very unconventional story, but I’m trying to use a very conventional, three-act structure. I’m leaning in to something that’s more classical to prove to myself and to other people that I can make a straight-up arthouse film. This isn’t going to have explicit sex in it, but you will know that it’s a film by me. I’m very excited.”
When our chat comes around to Looking, and how the television medium has affected the original vision of films like Weekend and I Want Your Love, Mathews doesn’t respond with his characteristic verbosity.
“I was just on set a few days ago,” he says. “I think it’s great. Whenever we can have more stories reflecting different people who are actually part of our community, then that’s good.”
Pushed to give an opinion on whether the small-screen has added a layer of gloss to the realism of the new queer cinematic vision, he says: “Whenever there’s a lot of money at stake it’s hard to do something that’s grittier or taking chances. HBO is known for taking chances, but really there’s a lot of compromise when there’s that many people involved and that much money.”
As our conversation comes to a close, I ask Travis what he might have learned about himself as a gay man from making the In Their Room series so far.
“It’s an excuse for me to go to a new city and suddenly have a lot of intimate moments with a lot of new men,” he says. “What I’ve learned from it is that anything is possible.”
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