How James Franco took on a real gay S&M sex film
Interior. Leather Bar saw James Franco and fellow director Travis Mathews having to get serious actors to have real gay sex on screen
In 1980, Al Pacino starred as a cop touring New York’s gay sex venues to catch a serial killer.
The film, Cruising, was loved and hated. But rumors suggest it was almost even more controversial. The story goes the director William Friedkin cut 40 minutes of gay S&M footage to avoid an X rating.
Now filmmakers James Franco (of Milk fame) and Travis Mathews have imagined what that 40 minutes of footage may have looked like.
Their new short feature, Interior. Leather Bar doesn’t recreate Cruising but is a mix between their take on that lost footage and a documentary-style, partly scripted, partly real, behind-the-scenes look at how they made it.
Here Mathews shares the joys of difficulties of getting actors to have ‘real’ gay sex on screen and his reasons for taking on a subject many would rather he left alone.
How did you get involved with James Franco and this project?
Early in the summer of 2012 my first feature, I Want Your Love, was playing film festivals and getting some attention because of the way I wove un-simulated gay sex into the story.
This was happening around the same time James was interested in revisiting Cruising. One of the things he knew from the offset was he wanted there to be real gay sex in it, and this is where I came in.
I knew with the number of films James had recently made that had either gay or queer content, people would be talking. And even though we weren’t remaking Cruising, there’s some baked-in controversy to that movie that casts a pretty long shadow. We could use this all to our advantage.
We knew we needed to be one step ahead of the audience for this to work. I had a list of things I expected people to ask upon hearing about the movie: ‘Is James gay?’ ‘Does he have sex in this?’ ‘Who does he think he is for touching this
And it’s been exactly how I thought it would be with people asking me these same questions all the time. And James, to his enormous credit, was open to going out on any limb as long as there was a smart reason behind it.
How did you find the actors?
A couple of different ways. One of the actors, Brenden Gregory, worked with me before. So I contacted him, and he and his real-life boyfriend, Bradley Roberge, got on board.
Brenden was reluctant to do this initially, because he wants to be taken seriously as an actor and he didn’t want to do another film where he was going to have to take his clothes off. We waited until the day of production to talk about these issues. This was an aspect of the film that’s both real, but also sort of staged. We were filmed working through his reservations, and it made it into the first cut of the film, but now it’s the domain of DVD extras.
We also had a casting call. The only thing the guys who showed up knew was it was a James Franco project involving a gay bar scene. There were probably 50 guys who showed up.
Once I got into the specifics, a good third of the men left the room. I wasn’t asking any of these guys to have sex. They were all going to be extras for the bar scene, but I was asking for them to be in a very gay space where sex would be happening around them.
For this, I needed to know how comfortable they were with kissing and touching another man in a space that was supposed to be a gay leather bar. What we ended up doing was putting different people in different corners of the room based on their comfort level interacting with another man and being so close to actual gay sex. I kill myself a little every day wishing that we’d filmed this. It was pretty rich and would have probably made it into the final cut.
The groups ranged from ‘I’m up for anything, I’ll do whatever’ to a group where the guys were only as comfortable as taking off their shirt, but not actually touching, kissing, or dancing with anybody.
I could see a lot of these guys doing some quick internal processing about what they might be getting into and what it all meant. To be honest, I was pretty surprised at how weirded out many of them were. Nevertheless, we ended up keeping almost everyone who wanted to be part of the bar scenes.
Initially, I didn’t want anyone from the ‘weirded out’ group, but the more I thought about it, it seemed like including those guys would add to the whole texture of it. I thought it would be interesting to have a solid mix of gay and straight men involved, but also with varying degrees of comfort being in such a gay space, and it worked.
How about casting the lead, Al Pacino’s character?
Val Lauren is an old friend of James. Val looked at it and had a conversation with James where – it was relayed to me – he asked James to reconsider the whole project.
Val didn’t understand the artistic merit in doing something like this, and there were all these boundaries he was putting up very quickly about what he would and would not do. Hearing all of this and having just watched James’ film Sal, in which Val played Sal Mineo, I knew he’d be perfect. His resistance mixed with a willingness to be part of the film was music to my ears.
We got along great, but there was always some tension with what he wanted to do and how far I might push him on the day of the shoot. James was interested in letting it be whatever it was. Honestly, that was a bit scary for me, but it was the right decision.
All of the stuff you see with Val in the opening scenes where he speaks directly about his ambivalent feelings, totally real. None of that was planned.
How did you film the sex scenes?
I never sought out to be known for my sex scenes. It may seem like it’s been strategic, but it all just kind of happened this way. I’ve been consistently interested in telling stories I wasn’t seeing on screen, ones that felt honest, intimate, and raw in different ways… that interest dovetailed into sex at a certain point.
There are so many different stories that can be told through the way somebody has sex. It’s playful, and it’s super fun, and it’s hot, and then it’s like you’re taking a break, or maybe you’re feeling insecure. There are a lot of underutilized ways to explore character and story through sex.
For the sex scene between Brenden and Bradley, we knew it was going to involve Master Avery instructing them on what to do sexually, and then something wasn’t going to work, and we were going to have to stop, and I was going to have to sit and talk with them about what they needed to make this sex scene happen.
This was going to give us permission – within the story – to shoot something that’s more intimate and loving than just a fuck scene, which was basically what the sex in the film had been up to this point.
With Brendan and Bradley we didn’t really know what was going to happen to make them uncomfortable. Some of that was a bit staged, but they truly were ill at ease with the instructions Master Avery was giving them, and it became a strange experience for all of us.
At a certain point, we stopped, and I sat on the couch with them to talk about the issues they were having. This was ‘scripted’ in so much as we planned for when these things were going to happen.
Brenden and Bradley became uncomfortable with the way in which Master Avery was instructing them because that’s not how they normally have sex with each other, so we had to deal with it. As a director, it was about understanding what was uncomfortable for them. If they had said that the whole situation was just too much for them, we would have stopped.
Filming sex scenes adds up to a lot of basic stuff, like trust, giving the performers space, respecting them as people, catering to what they need, and ultimately, as much as possible, receding into the background.
There’s a certain amount of room I give people in finding how to get from Point A to Point B. I think that’s where a lot of the raw, honest stuff comes out. The actors figure out how they (and their characters) would normally get to the next stage sexually with someone, and people recognize that.
One of the things that’s maybe important to point out is everybody whom I’ve filmed having sex was performing for the first time on camera, with a crew I should add [laughs].
To my knowledge, none of these guys are aspiring porn stars. These guys get involved because we’re all on the same page with trying to capture this sort of raw intimacy. It makes it so we’re all together for similar reasons and on the same page, but it also becomes a much more vulnerable experience, for everybody.
I heard you edited this in your childhood bedroom?
I flew to my mom’s house in the middle of nowhere Ohio to edit the film in my boyhood bedroom. I worked 12 or 14 hours a day to go through all the footage from multiple cameras and line everything up.
I realized pretty quickly there was a richer narrative present than I even expected, and I was going to push to make this into a feature.
How did your parents feel about you editing a celebrity gay leather bar movie in their house?
They loved it. It was so much like being in high school again with me always in my room with the door shut and my mom always asking what I wanted for dinner.
If my 16-year-old self would have known that I’d be working on this with my family’s enthusiastic support… my mom was really the first audience for this. I’d edit a section, mom would go get her glasses and her soda and I’d have her take a look. She had some good notes.
How did you reference Cruising in the film?
One of the things I knew about Cruising was its history as a lightning rod for a lot of people, and it still is, for its representation of gay people.
I still think if you just look at those gay bar scenes alone – forget the murder stuff, even forget Pacino for the most part – it really is an interesting and important document of NYC gay, leather subculture right on the brink of AIDS.
A lot of that comes through because, according to reports from people who were on the set for the bar scenes, Friedkin encouraged the extras to treat the space, which was a real gay S&M bar, as if it were any old night. So people were drinking, people were smoking, people were smoking weed, doing poppers, and by a lot of reports, there was real sex happening. I think that’s why those scenes have a documentary feel to them.
A UK limited edition DVD will be available from 9 December. It’s the the most luxuriously packaged LGBT release featuring a beautiful soft touch slip case and UK bonus extras including a short film by James Franco ‘Feast of Stephen’ and interviews with both the directors: Franco and Mathews.
London cinema-goers can see the film at Hackney Pictures on 9 December with a Skype Q&A with Mathews or on the same day at Greenwich Picturehouse. A screening on 15 December at the ICA on the Mall, central London, will show it as a double bill with William Friedkin’s Cruising and a recorded introduction from Mathews.
Watch the trailer here: