James Franco and Travis Mathews go Cruising TO 1980
by Jorge Ignacio Castillo
Interior. Leather Bar
Among the many, many side projects James Franco has undertaken in recent years, Interior. Leather Bar is perhaps the most intriguing. Alongside director Travis Mathews, Franco sets up to re-imagine the mythical 40 minutes of footage William Friedkin excised from his controversial film Cruising to appease American censors. The missing section supposedly includes explicit sexual encounters between gay men, but very few people have seen it — and nobody’s talking.
Franco and Mathews’ intention wasn’t to “fill the blanks”, but to document the process of shooting an openly gay, sexually charged sequence. Another focal point is how participating in a project of this nature affects those participating. A particularly insightful exchange in Interior. Leather Bar features Franco and the putative lead, Val Lauren, discussing their uneasiness on set (they’re both straight). Franco is particularly harsh on himself, blaming his upbringing and the media for his discomfort with man-on-man action.
I recently had the opportunity to discuss the film with co-director Travis Mathews. Mathews, who was responsible for the controversial I Want Your Love (included in last year’s Queer City Cinema), believes sex is an organic element of cinema and works accordingly.
Do you remember the first time you watched Cruising? What kind of emotions it triggered?
I first saw it maybe in my early 20s. Around that age, you’re hungry for representation. I was excited to see a different kind of gay life and was [awed] by the idea of seeing gay bodies on screen. While I was aware how horrible the representation was, the establishing bar scenes were fascinating. Strung together, they could pass for a documentary of what it was like in that community in New York before AIDS happened.
It lingered with you for quite a long time.
Actually, the idea came from James. Last year, he saw my film I Want Your Love, which has graphic sex interwoven into the story. James was looking to collaborate with someone willing to use sex as a storytelling tool. When he contacted me, he didn’t have a specific idea in mind, but he wanted it to involve Cruising. It’s still a lightning rod and no matter how we approached it, it was bound to be controversial.
When we heard about the 40 minutes cut from the original, it seemed like an interesting launching point for us to explore all these other avenues.
We only get to see a portion of that footage.
It was never envisioned to shoot all 40 minutes and make them the main event. The core of the movie is what happens around it. We decided to film everything we were doing (five cameras operating simultaneously). There’s an arc that’s parallel to the one in Cruising: the lead goes undercover and experiences things he has never gone through before and it changes him. In the original, Pacino discovers a sadistic part of him and concludes that gay people are bad. In our movie, Val witnesses different kinds of gay sex and develops a camaraderie with the other actors. He leaves the set with a lot to process. All that was purposeful.
Was the presence of Franco on set distracting for what you were trying to accomplish?
There’s a dance to do when you have James Franco in your film playing himself. We had a good understanding of what to do with his presence. I liked the fact he could be “distracting” to some of the extras, because that was supposed to be part of the experience.
The length of Interior. Leather Bar — 60 minutes — is rather curious.
James was asked to do a video for Fashion Week, so it was originally conceived as a short. Once I had all the material and started editing, it became apparent that we had something that could technically be a feature. An earlier cut was 90 minutes long, but it diluted what we were trying to do. A 60-minute feature is difficult for a theatrical experience outside of the festival circuit, but fits with the unorthodox spirit of the film.
You’ve seen the film with audiences. Are they reacting as you expected?
They are all over the map. People are warming up as they realize Interior. Leather Bar is not a remake of Cruising and it’s not 40 minutes long. I had straight men telling me the film made them realize their own homophobia — something I didn’t aim for. I also had gay men upset with me because we made a film about the straight man’s experience in a gay environment. They’re missing the point: this is actually a conversation between gay and straight men.
CRUISING FOR BRUISINGS
William Friedkin’s much-maligned 1980 film Cruising is a mixed bag of gay panic, minority exploitation and daring plunge into a subculture audiences back then knew little about: S&M clubs (a.k.a. leather bars). At the time, Friedkin was at the height of his powers and his star, Al Pacino, had a reputation for fearlessness. What could possibly go wrong?
The story of an undercover cop crashing the seedy N.Y. scene to find a killer rubbed the gay community the wrong way. It’s implied the Pacino character becomes a predator himself after being exposed to that environment. Protests broke out during production and didn’t stop until long after the film opened. The main complaint: the depiction of homosexuals as perverts and murderers was doing a major disservice to the gay cause.
Cruising was originally slapped with an X by the Motion Picture Association of America. In order to secure an R rating, Friedkin cut 40 minutes of footage.
Years later, the filmmaker attempted to track down that portion of the film to no avail; it seems United Artist had it destroyed. /Jorge Ignacio Castillo