Last October, award-winning gay filmmaker Travis Mathews (best known for his ongoing video web series "In Their Room") had the good fortune of being in Hamburg, Germany at the same time as Andrew Haigh, director of the hit gay romance "Weekend." Haigh was staying in a brothel-turned-hotel that dripped with enough sexual charm to demand a cheeky photo shoot and a quick chat about two of their favorite subjects: gay sex and movies.
Indiewire asked Mathews, who is currently raising funds for his third in his "In Their Room" film series, "In Their Room: London" on Kickstarter, to expand his thoughts on shooting explicit sex.
So let's talk about sex (baby). As recently as last night, I was introduced to someone who asked me what kinds of movies I make. I always pause, because depending on the audience the response sometimes varies. Gay art movies? Indie stuff? Mumbleporn? Okay, I never say mumbleporn. But I do regularly get asked if I consider my work porn and I tend to shy away from an answer. The truth is I really don’t think it’s porn at all. For me, porn is made with the single-minded aim of getting you off and that’s never a primary aim when I’m filming.
After a long pause, I told her that I make movies (documentaries and narratives) that focus on gay male intimacy. And at its core, that’s really the throughline in my work. This often means that some form of sex is involved, but not always. My first documentary, "Do I Look Fat" (2005), focused on a group of gay men bravely discussing the ways that they see themselves and their bodies and their relationship to intimacy. There's not a hint of sex in this film, but the personal stories are candid and uncensored.
I continued to focus on intimacy with "I Want Your Love" (2011) and "In Their Room" (2009-present), even if the approach has been different. As I started to make work that involved sex and naked bodies, I was clear from the start that these would be representations that — to the best of my ability — didn’t harm people with how unrelatable and unattainable they were. Just as with "Do I Look Fat?," my hope is that gay guys watching any of my recent work will have moments of “I feel that, too” or “that’s happened to me” in a way that’s inclusive and comforting, while still entertaining.
I’m also unapologetic about showing nudity and gay sex while turning the volume up on the often raw words that come out of these guys’ mouths. Frank and offhanded talk about eating ass, getting crabs, fucking your best friend… it all warms my pervy heart because it’s what so many gay men do/have/will talk about at some point. I want gay men to relate to these stories. Furthermore, sex is where we’re often our most vulnerable and “naked." From a strictly story or character-study perspective, there’s so much to be gleaned from how someone hunts for, engages in and reflects on sex. It’s rich material that can turn you on, but I always think of it as a missed opportunity to start and stop with the obvious, unless of course you are making porn.
With the "In Their Room" series, I go into the bedrooms of gay guys and record them doing all sorts of things from the everyday to the erotic. How and why they engage with the stuff in their bedrooms fascinates me and as the series ages I’m looking forward to seeing all of these artifacts as time capsules. For example, there’s not a single smartphone in "In Their Room – San Francisco" (2009) and no one is on Grindr or Scruf. There is, however, a lot of tattoos and a lot of American Apparel underwear. After recording them “playing themselves,” I interview them about any number of things that revolve around intimacy. I love it because any moment can turn from sweet to hot to hilarious to tender on a dime.
From the onset, I envisioned "In Their Room" as a multi-city series, with the aim of traveling to increasingly disparate places. The first two episodes focused on San Francisco and then Berlin (2011). Now, with the first preview screening of my feature film debut, "I Want Your Love," opening East London's Fringe! festival on April 12th, I’m planning on making London the third installment in the series. My teenage anglophile heart is all unicorns and rainbows about this!
It’s important to stress that while I love making this series, I think of it as more than just my “interesting project.” To the best of my ability, I’m documenting parts of modern gay life and all the ways that we — as gay men — look for, find, celebrate and struggle with intimacy.
Video: Bryan Darling, exclusive clips courtesy NakedSword