Travis Mathews is a San Francisco based filmmaker whose movies focus on the emotional and intimate lives of gay men. With both a masters in Counseling Psychology and a background in documentary film work, his films take a humanistic and natural approach to their subjects.
In 2009, Travis began a series of shorts titled In Their Room. These short documentaries feature gay men in their bedrooms talking about sexuality and intimacy. The first of them was filmed in San Francisco, and later ones will include Berlin, London, and other international cities. His first narrative feature, I Want Your Love, has its premiere at the London Fringe Festival this week. I caught up with Travis just as he was heading out for London for the premiere of his film.
The Rumpus: Tell me about how you got the idea for your series of shorts, In Their Room, where you interview gay men in their bedrooms.
Travis Mathews: So much of how I started doing this came from a place of frustration. I was tired of not seeing representations of the particular gay world I was part of or witness to. It also felt like a natural bridging of my psychology background and interest in documenting my own community.
When I started the San Francisco episode it was one of those few times in my life that actually felt magical, like there was no doubt about what I was doing. Because I can generally be pretty hard on myself and my work, it was a great feeling to tap into. I felt like I was seeing all of these small, but fresh and modern, narratives that were peeking out from all the banal everyday stuff I was filming with these guys. It was from that that I got inspired to write I Want Your Love.
I also saw that the series had potential as a template to show different demographics or cultures. I filmed a couple of women, but I haven’t made the leap to do a straight, lesbian or trans episode. Instead, I’ve been focusing on different cities around the world. How cool would it be to see how gay men in disparate cities hunt for, find and lose connection with each other at this point in time. That’s my thinking behind it.
I did a Berlin episode in 2011 and now I’m going to London to do the next one. As the series continues I’m hoping to get funding in order to go to less western gay hubs, places that would take more time to gain trust and find the right people. Rio, Istanbul and Tokyo are on my list. I’m meeting with a producer while in London about going to Paris next.
Rumpus: In visiting people’s rooms for your documentary series, what have you learned that you didn’t expect?
Mathews: We’re all more similar than I ever realized and the world is shrinking fast. It’s comforting and a little disconcerting at the same time.
Rumpus: What first drew you to documentary work?
Mathews: With documentary there aren’t the long setups that go along with narrative work so things tend to move fast and be more spontaneous. I love that. I love following around the action and not being totally aware of what’s about to happen; it’s exciting. But I’ve always wanted to tell stories and help people to tell their stories -hence my short-lived stint as a psychotherapist. Ten years ago when I started making movies, documentaries also made better sense than fiction because the prosumer cameras weren’t quite up to speed for fiction. People are a lot more forgiving with documentary, and the run-and-gun style that I like worked well with these cameras.
Rumpus: You have a master’s degree in counseling psychology – how does that affect your documentary work, and how did you get into both fields?
Mathews: It affects it a lot. While I was graduating I thought I was going to be fulfilled doing private practice part-time while doing movie work part-time. It made sense on paper, and the stories I continue to want to tell are heavy on psychology, but I’m not a great therapist and I didn’t think I could handle it for the long term. I also felt compelled to double up on movie making even as I was getting a degree in something else and I’d never gone to film school. I’m self-taught and it’s been as much as blessing as a curse at times. But mostly I’m grateful for not having gone. I’ve seen people get out of film school and they’re a little paralyzed by the protocol that they’ve learned. I know that if you really want to make a movie there’s little reason not to anymore. You just work with what you have to work with and get good people around you. You just have to want to do it badly enough.
Rumpus: What’s your intentions for your work? What kinds of stories do you hope to tell?
Mathews: The through-line with everything I’ve made is about gay male intimacy. Sometimes that’s sweet-hot-tender-playful and other times it’s plain messy. I like seeing and hearing someone going just that little bit further than you might expect. The therapist part of me thinks that there’s comfort and healing and community that comes from seeing depictions you can relate to. But it has to be entertaining and not too earnest or you just lose people.
Rumpus: If your next feature is a narrative, do you think you’ll ever return to documentary work, or move more towards narrative films?
Mathews: I think my work -and the same of a lot of other filmmakers right now- is pretty blurred on the narrative/doc spectrum. Maybe it’s just a trend, but it feels right to me and I don’t really think I need to choose one over the other. I definitely enjoy the run-and-gun style of documentary and after having done I Want Your Love, which was the opposite of that, I know I want to keep that alive. In an ideal world where I had the money to just do what I want to do I think I’d be working on In Their Room as a very long-term project that I return to between more narrative work.
Rumpus: Whose work do you admire in the film community?
Mathews: As someone who’s a contemporary and orbiting a similar gay community as me, I would say Andrew Haigh. I feel like I have a lot to learn from our friendship and the way he’s approaching his movies and career.
Rumpus: Is there anything you want to do in terms of representing gay men in film that you feel gets underrepresented or brushed over?
Mathews: I just feel like we’re in a place in time where the stories we’re telling about ourselves can be a bit more complicated and modern while relying less on tried and true tropes and stock characters. We’re strong enough as a community now to admit that we’re more than victims or superstars.
It’s also important for me to show “real” men as opposed to some Adonis ideal. Often the guys in my films are hot, but rarely because they’re married to the gym. It comes out more from seeing them be so candid.
Rumpus: How do you feel about the term “pornographic” when used in relationship to your work?
Mathews: I usually avoid calling it that or getting defensive about it. But honestly, I don’t think it’s porn. To me, porn has the single purpose of getting you off. And when I film that’s not the first, second or third thing I’m thinking of. There are so many ways to look at character and story through sex and sexual situations. I’m interested in that and so my movies often have sex in them. But if people call it porn, that’s fine too. I only care as much as it becomes an obstacle, but so far that hasn’t been the case.
Rumpus: Someone was talking about your new film, I Want Your Love, calling it the “gay Shortbus”. How do you feel about that?
Mathews: Well, I thought Shortbus was pretty gay! But anyway, I’m happy with any comparisons or to just be in such good company. I think Shortbus is very true to John’s community in New York and I think my film is like that for San Francisco.
Rumpus: Your first feature is about to premiere – what was the process like getting to the end?
Mathews: This depends on the day you’re asking me. There’s lots of peaks and valleys in making a movie and doing anything like this for the first time is going to involve a certain level of crazy. I learned quickly to leave my ego at the door and get the best people around me to help. You know, with my documentary work, I was used to doing most everything myself, but with a narrative you just can’t. It’s a good exercise in giving up some control and being flexible. You can’t be precious or rigid or it just falls apart. I’m excited to take everything I learned -which was a tremendous amount- on to the next project. I’ve written a feature for Brontez -who is in the feature- that I love and can’t wait to start planning for.
I Want Your Love opens the London Fringe Film Festival this Thursday, April 12th.