Interior. Leather Bar

Strand Releasing,

James Franco,
Travis Mathews

Travis Mathews

Van Lauren,
James Franco,
Christian Patrick,

Colin Chavez,
Travis Mathews,
Brenden Gregory,
Brad Roberge,
Robbie Acklen,
Nick Buda,
Julie Diaz

Unrated, 60 minutes

Leather Sex As A Storytelling Tool
by Michael D. Klemm
Posted online October, 2014

2013’s Interior. Leather Bar, a provocative, short film by directors James Franco and Travis Mathews, defies easy categorization. On one level it purports to be a film that re-creates 40 minutes of S&M imagery that was cut from William Friedkin’s 1980 thriller, Cruising. It quickly becomes apparent that it is also a documentary about the making of their film. But the lines between reality and fiction begin to blur when it also becomes obvious that everything is staged, much of it is scripted and the actors are, in fact, being directed.

Cruising was a controversial 1980 film by the director of The Exorcist and The Boys in the Band. It starred Al Pacino as a cop who went undercover in NYC’s leather bars to find a killer. Activists who were outraged, over the perceived negative portrayal of the gay community, protested and disrupted the shooting of the movie. Friedkin then had to deal with the film ratings board, and was forced to trim 40 minutes from Cruising in order to escape getting an X rating.  This footage was never shown publicly and is reportedly lost. Interior. Leather Bar's opening titles announce that directors Franco and Mathews have set out to re-imagine this lost footage. They accomplish this with great skill; the big question puzzling many viewers is… why?

If this was all that the movie had to offer, Interior. Leather Bar would be a pointless (albeit intriguing) exercise. Since the Cruising “footage” takes up only ten minutes of the hour-long film’s running length, we are also taken behind the scenes into the making of Franco’s latest head-scratching foray into queer cinema. Our tour guide, Franco’s old acting school chum Val Lauren, is straight. He is playing Pacino’s character from the original Cruising. While ostensibly the film’s star, Lauren is clueless what the movie is supposed to be about but he is here because he believes in his friend’s “vision.” 

Lauren is clearly uneasy with the film’s subject matter, and co-director Travis Mathews reveals that they always planned for his discomfort to be a big part of the movie. He is a confused fish out of water and adds ample amounts of comic relief - just look at the shocked expression on his face while he watches the filming of a man’s bare ass getting paddled. Exasperated after the explicit morning shoot, Lauren confronts Franco. He warns him of possible repercussions from making this naughty movie, and reminds him that he is about to star in a Disney flick.

Lauren’s agent calls and he is even less enthused. “I know you’re at the Franco faggot project today,” his message begins. He warns Lauren that everyone is going to think it’s pornography and “you will be in it.”  His wife, on the other hand, seems cool with it and she just wants him home in time for their 8 o’clock dinner reservations. The assembled actors are both gay and straight, and many of them are here for the experience and the chance to work with Franco. There is tension as well as testosterone on the set. The straight actors talk about being okay with kissing another guy (if it’s right for the scene) but having real sex on camera is out of the question. The gay ones are all hoping that that they get to see Franco naked (they don’t - Franco is one of the cameramen filming the Cruising scenes).

One thing that all the actors have in common is that they all have no idea what the point of the film is. Franco doesn’t seem to either. The audience shares Lauren’s confusion every time that Franco tries to explain the movie to him. “Fuck scripts!” he announces at one point. Even so, he has a number of interesting things to say (all the more so because Franco is straight) about his reasons for making this film. “Every fucking toilet paper commercial has a man and a woman living in a house together!” he rants, hating that he was brought up to think in terms of “straight-normative behavior.” Why is graphic violence acceptable on the screen but not sex? He thinks there should be more sex, and all kinds of it, in the movies to rock everyone out of their comfort zones.

As for the explicit S&M sex in their movie, Franco just thinks of it as a “storytelling tool.” For him, his film is all about facing what you are uncomfortable with. Friedkin, he explains, took Al Pacino to a “dark, deep, evil place” while he sees the same character going into a place that is “beautiful.” Forget the norm. A theme that was also explored in the recent Getting Go: The Go Doc Project surfaces here when the two directors talk about gay marriage and getting assimilated into straight culture - Mathews worries that this could mean “erasing all the radicalness and the queerness” from gay people’s lives. Franco and Mathews were destined to be collaborators on this film. Franco wanted gay sex in his movie and Mathews pushed the envelope in his documentary series, In Their Room, and in 2012’s I Want Your Love by including un-simulated sex - blurring the boundaries between porn and narrative film. Mathews has stated in interviews that he likes to use sex as a way to explore relationships and character development. Again, sex as a “storytelling tool.”

The re-created footage, I have to say, is exceptional. It looks like the bar scenes from Cruising, (blue lighting, lots of smoke, lots of writhing, dancing leather men), while also being taken up a notch higher. Lauren doesn’t look much like Pacino but he is wearing the same black tank top. Like the original, the music is loud and the cutting is frantic. The credit for how good this looks goes to director Mathews. As the shoot is being set up, he tells the actors that it is all about the looking, the cruising, the eyes. People weren’t buried in their cellphones in 1979 and so he wants them to look at all the other men in the room. Everything is carefully planned. He shows a young man how to mime snorting poppers. He choreographs a heavy bondage scene with the help of an experienced Master who lends authenticity to the shoot. This hot leather Daddy helps a claustrophobic extra to relax while he straps a leather hood over his head, and later he makes major eye contact with the Pacino character when the camera rolls. The mood is electric, often porn-explicit, and sometimes it’s just very sexy too. Leather sex isn’t as shocking as it was 35 years ago (to straights and mainstream gays alike) and the Cruising interludes are hot

The question on everyone’s mind is why an actor like Franco, who enjoys his fair share of mainstream success, is so interested in gay sexuality if he’s straight. He’s played gay more than once. That doesn’t mean anything but – if anyone hasn’t been keeping track - he was James Dean in a 2001 TV movie; he was Harvey Milk’s lover in Van Sant’s Milk (2008); he played gay Beat poet Alan Ginsberg in Howl (2010); he directed himself as gay poet Hart Crane - and fellated a prosthetic penis - in his film thesis, The Broken Tower (2011); and he directed his friend Val Lauren as gay actor Sal Mineo in Sal (2011). Many reviewers - including gay ones - have questioned Franco’s reasons for making the film. What’s the deal with this guy anyway? In interviews, he talks about having wanted to pay homage to some of the film classics from the 70s. And so he picked…. Cruising?

Whatever the reason, Interior. Leather Bar is a fascinating – and exasperating - experiment. The filmmakers ask a lot of questions and, while the answers aren’t always forthcoming, the short film offers much food for thought. It’s probably good that they kept it short, but the film could easily have supported a longer running length. A little more discussion about the controversy surrounding the original Cruising, and why it is still polarizing today, would have added more interest, but the emphasis in Interior. Leather Bar seems to be more about filmmaking as a creative process. (My own complicated thoughts about the original Cruising, along with more historical background can be found by clicking here.)  I, myself, actually enjoyed their “lost” Cruising footage as a guilty pleasure. According to Franco: “Everybody fucking watches porn. They just don't want to talk about it.”


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