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Travis Mathews Talks Tackling Disability and Sexuality In His Upcoming Feature ‘Oscillate Wildly’

Travis Mathews Talks Tackling Disability and Sexuality In His Upcoming Feature 'Oscillate Wildly'

Travis Mathews is at work on his feature length follow up to his much-discussed Sundance breakout and collaboration with James Franco, “Interior. Leather Bar” — and the project sounds fascinating. 

A recent winner of the SFFS/KRF Filmmaking Grant, the narrative film — titled “Oscillate Wildly” — follows a young gay man with mild cerebral palsy who is forced to confront his disability when first love challenges his sense of what’s possible. Mathews’ “Leather Bar” collaborator Franco is on board as the film’s Executive Producer after Mathews told him about the project during a press junket for their previous film. 

“I’d become familiar with Travis’ naturalistic approach to male intimacy and was curious to see how he’d approach a story involving disability and sexuality,” Franco said in a  letter of support. “I was moved and impressed with his story and found myself relating in ways that were unexpected.”

We sat down with Mathews and several of the disability consultants he worked with on the film — Andrew Morrison-Gurza, Nick Melloan-Ruiz and Andy Arias — to talk about what we can expect from the film, which begins filming this summer in Austin.

Tell me about “Oscillate Wildly.” What’s it about, and why did you feel like this was a story you wanted to tell?  

Travis Mathews: I wanted to do a narrative feature that pretty much adhered to the structure of a classical 3-act drama, but with unconventional characters grappling with themes present in all of my work: the outsider’s outsider, male intimacy and challenges to traditional notions of masculinity. All of this was circulating when Andrew-Morrison Gurza (now one of our key disability consultants along with Nick and Andy) reached out to me nearly three years ago, and out of the blue. He was looking for a director he could trust to tell a candid and naturalistic drama that intersected sexuality with disability, and in ways that weren’t pandering or overly sentimental. Basically, as a gay man with cerebral palsy (CP) he was tired of feeling invisible.

“Oscillate Wildly” is in many ways a story of first love and how it challenges our hero’s guarded sense of what’s possible. He’s a hot-headed young gay man with mild CP, living alone in a working poor part of Austin, Texas during a scorching hot summer. The romance comes unexpectedly, then forces our hero to reconcile the ways in which he’s let his disability define him.

I listened to a lot of The Stooges when I was writing “Oscillate,” imagining our hero moving through his days naturally embodying the spirit of a real punk. I say real, because today’s idea of ‘punk as fashion accessory’ doesn’t even register with him, it’s more about the way he engages with the world. After years of systems failing him, he’s learned to stay guarded, and not without a fair amount of attitude. Seeing him soften enough to allow love into his life is something I’m excited to translate to the screen.

I initially wanted to tell this story because it wasn’t one I had heard or seen before. The invisibility piece resonated most. Somewhere over the past couple of years I realized that I’ve essentially been making movies for my teenage self who struggled with isolation and my own brand of invisibility living in rural Ohio. The emotional content of what Andrew shared felt both familiar and newly contextualized.

What was it like to reflect on your own life and experiences as you consulted on the script?

Andrew Morrison-Gurza: It was interesting for me to look at pieces of my everyday life as a Queer man living with Cerebral Palsy.  I kept realizing throughout this process that I had yet to see my story, my journey with the intersections of queerness and disability on the screen.   It was exhilarating and terrifying; exhilarating because Travis genuinely wanted to bring an authenticity to this narrative, and listened to us closely along the way.  He made sure I knew that my story mattered here. It was terrifying because I had to dig deep within myself to answer one of the pivotal questions in this film: “How does disability really feel?”  It is such a rarity that disability is ever broached in queer context, especially in the mainstream culture, and so I felt a responsibility to be as honest and as a raw as I could when I shared so that the community could really connect with the reality of disability.

Nick Melloan-Ruiz: For a really long time I closed myself off from my own experience of being disabled, especially as an adult, because I could deny it. With this project I had to ask myself how has my life been influenced by having cp. I couldn’t put it aside and act like it wasn’t an issue.  

It’s made me stronger and able to not be shamed as a PwD (Person with Disability). Just the fact that I’m not afraid to bring it up and sort of control the conversation is something I wouldn’t do in the past.

James Franco, who is executive producing, calls it a “unique and thoughtful approach to a story we’ve never seen before.” What do you think he means by that, and why has it taken so long for a story like this to be told?

NMR: It’s a classic story.  It’s a story of first love/romance but the characters haven’t been seen before.  This is a story of 2 people living their lives who happen to meet.  People with disabilities are often desexualized and those without disabilities don’t often see those of us who are as having full lives so I think that’s part of the reason these characters haven’t been seen before.

AMG: It’s also special because you see how the two characters navigate and weave their disabilities around their identities as gay men. You get to watch as they fall in love and struggle in that, as everyone does.

The approach to this film is thoughtful in that it highlights not what disability is supposed to look like or could look like, but rather Travis, the team and myself have attempted to show what disability really is – to really unpack the emotions that live within the boy in a chair or on crutches, and how they deal with them.

I think that it has taken such a long time for this type of story to be told for a number of reasons.  I think that queer culture has no jumping off point to discuss disability, or the disabled body in all its forms. The script asks you to consider that, and I think that is a conversation that scares people. Nobody wants to say the wrong thing or misrepresent people with disabilities, so what tends to happen is they don’t represent them at all, or simply rely on old tropes to make their point. This story turns all that on its head.  

How does “Oscillate Wildly” stand apart from other stories that have dealt with disability?

Andy Arias: It’s honest and raw. There is no pity or obvious heroes in this film. They are just real people living their life in their own truth in the moment the best way they can.

AMG: It’s different in that no one overcomes anything. The story focuses in on what it feels like to be a gay man living with a disability, and fall in love with another man with a disability. Whenever do we see that?  Usually if we see representations of disability on-screen, we are shown the struggle that an able-bodied partner has in dealing with disability.  This story shows two men with disabilities trying to embrace their disabilities in a culture that hasn’t yet accepted them, while also learning to let someone else in, and how scary that can be.  I like that it touches on the fear that PwDs feel entering relationships with one another.  We very rarely see that.

Travis, you’ve been known to address male intimacy with a kind of raw honesty that sometimes has involved explicit sex, can we expect more of that with “Oscillate Wildly”?

TM: I may have doubled down on these themes with “Oscillate,” but there won’t be explicit sex in the film. It actually never seriously occurred to me, and part of that was because it just didn’t seem necessary. The male intimacy and raw honesty was already developing on the page with these characters. Being explicit would not only distract and alienate certain audiences, it would limit who has access to the film, and that’s something I think a lot about with this story.

As gay men with cerebral palsy, what kinds of dating or hookup challenges do you sometimes face?

NMR: You always have to gauge how much you tell someone before you meet them.  That can be common for everyone but people who don’t have disabilities can continue to hide aspects of themselves upon meeting someone where I can’t hide my physical disability.  Because this is my own experience I don’t see it as a big deal but for someone who has no context it can be disconcerting. I’ve had a lot of times when I’ve had to explain myself where I don’t think others do.  I’ve had to explain to get someone on board to have sex with me.  I’ve had really awkward moments of things being said like–“what can you do?  or “I wasn’t aware of your condition.” or even someone leaving as soon as I opened the door.  

AMG: Where do I even start?  I think that some of the biggest challenges for myself as a wheelchair user are access to queer spaces and the fear that the community has around PwD.   So many spaces where gay men meet are not accessible to those living with disability. If you can enter the space, then you are faced with attitudinal barriers. You constantly have to convince other men that you have a sexuality.

When someone does want to be with me, I often wonder: Why are they doing this?  I constantly consider the feelings I have when someone wants me, just as much as when they don’t.  I always hope they will see all of me and stick around long enough to see more, but there is always the fear that they’ll suddenly think I’m too much work.  Sometimes, my own self-perceptions about gay culture, and whether or not I am performing it right, are my biggest obstacles.

Are there any specific widely held misconceptions about cerebral palsy that felt important to address in “Oscillate Wildly”?

AA: One of the biggest misconceptions that this film dispels is the fact that disabled people are innocent victims. Disabled people are lovers, bitches and have struggles like everybody else. We are not superheroes for what we go through we are just other people that are able to handle a lot more adversity.

NMR: I feel like one of the biggest misconceptions is that your physical disabilities coincide and go hand in hand with your mental abilities.  So then people are really surprised when you are “just like them” and know what’s going on the world.  People are also surprised when I can go ahead and do something, like a dance class or yoga class, in my own way.  

There are so many times in the course of a day where I have to choose how to respond to situations and what lens am I going to see or hear this through.   Sometimes people assume I’m drunk by my gait.  Sometimes people say things that I don’t even know how to take.

What’s next for the film?

TM: I’ll be leaving my dear city of San Francisco in a little more than a week to continue prepping on location in Austin, where we’ll be filming soon. Our crew is a who’s who of the best from both cities, a really talented and dedicated team that I’m thrilled to be working with on the film.

You’ll be hearing more about our cast and the actual production soon, but in the meantime, I’d love to hear from others and invite readers to follow along on our website where myself and the team will be regularly updating into production.

Check out the film’s website here.

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