No, James Franco does not appear naked or make out with men. No, the full 40 minutes of recreated S&M leather bar scenes edited out from the 1980 Al Pacino thriller Cruising are not shown. Yes, there is onscreen gay sex. And yes, there is more to it than just gay sex.
Interior. Leather Bar., a simultaneously cerebral and carnal inquiry into homophobia and sexuality, garnered a ton of buzz based on its explicit content and the star power of Franco. But that hype has also resulted in distractions and disappointment, due to erroneous expectations about the film.
Codirector Travis Mathews, on the line from San Francisco, clarifies Franco (who continues on his journey to become the queerest straight actor in Hollywood) and him never intended on recreating the full 40 minutes of Cruising and have been trying to steer the conversation away from that.
In fact, the main narrative arc follows an actor Val Lauren, who is straight but also recently depicted Sal Mineo—one of Hollywood's first out gay actors—in James Franco's biopic. Interior. Leather Bar., a 60-minute documentary and fiction hybrid, captures Lauren struggling with his confusion about what the film is about and his ambivalence about the sexual content. He discusses things with fellow straight actors on the set, and also, by phone, with his friend and his wife.
Lauren's hestitation (Travis says he didn't know when he was acting or when he was being honest) was far from isolated. Travis regrets that he didn't film what happened when actors responded to the open casting call.
"All that they knew was that it was something involving James Franco and a gay leather bar," he says. "And so they all showed up, not knowing what was going on or what they would potentially be auditioning for. And when I explained the project, a lot of people walked out. And then a lot of guys had all sorts of questions all over the map, and a lot of it was around explicit content, what they would be asked to be possibly participating in, but more than anything being in close proximity to."
He says he ended up placing the straight extras in different parts of the room, according to how comfortable they were with gay sexuality.
This social experiment in exploring homophobia opened up dialogue between Mathews and audience members.
"What's been interesting is I've had straight men approach me, mostly privately, either through email or after screenings, and telling me…they didn't really expect to be challenged about their own internalized homophobia or the way in which they engage with masculinity, homosexuality, and that's been super rewarding for me to have those conversations. Most of these are straight men who would probably consider themselves already pretty liberal minded, and then in watching the film, realize that they have their own level of discomfort that is maybe not so dissimilar to what Val is going through."
Mathews says that the film has been criticized for being "too much about the straight man's experience". However, he calls that perspective "narrow-minded" and limited, and that any discussion about such issues can't be held "in a vacuum of just gay people".
The film briefly touches upon about fears that the assimilation of gay rights movements by the mainstream might result in the erosion of queer culture. But ultimately, the entire project itself points to the future of queer culture, with a range of people participating in it, regardless of sexual orientation.
"I would call this a queer film because…for me the whole film is playing with boundaries, even down to the form it takes, whether it’s a doc or whether it's narrative is playing with boundaries," he says. "And what's scripted and not scripted is playing with boundaries. But it's also playing with boundaries around sexuality, around creative freedom, and around censorship, and where those lines are drawn. And for me, the idea of something being queer is that there's a kind of…refusing to settle with a clear label and living in a kind of a more slippery space. And that's very much what I wanted to accomplish with this film."
Interior. Leather Bar. plays on May 10 (9 p.m.) at the Rio Theatre as part of the DOXA Documentary Film Festival.