This week sees the return of the Fringe! Gay Film Festival to East London. From the 12th to the 15th of April a wide range of films (new features, experimental shorts, premieres) are showing alongside a host of parties, shows and events. This year’s opening film was I Want Your Love, Travis Mathews’ (In Their Bedroom – Berlin) poignantly affecting and intimately explicit debut feature. It stars Jesse Metzger as Jesse, a love-lost San Francisco performance artist about to leave his life and career frets behind for a fresh start in Ohio. We see him hang out with friends, and follow how their lives reflect, and differ from, Jesse’s as they prepare to throw him a leaving party.
There’s an easy charm to the story of this group of amiable guys. Mathews films in a close, intimate way that allows revealing insights into their easy-going personalities. The characters feel real, unaffected by some of the over-familiar clichés that more mainstream gay cinema offers up. The performances – especially Metzger, as Jesse, and Brontez Purnell, as one of his witty friends – are pitched perfectly and entirely natural. The real sex peppered throughout the film acts more as culminations of built-up feeling than a way to shoehorn overt sexuality into the story.
Mathews emphasizes atmosphere throughout. Some segueing shots are delicately composed to establish an evocative sense of place and time of day: the harbour at dawn, hazy afternoons chatting in shops, empty streets at dusk. You get a feeling for a rich, charming San Francisco that chimes with the film’s plot arc: why does Jesse need to leave when what he has here is so close-knit? What is it that he needs to change in his life? I Want Your Love offers up these questions, and plenty more, for its audience to mull over while depicting 21st century gay relationships in an honest, open way. In a small way, I Want Your Love is an affectionate retelling of Maupin’s Tales of the City in microcosm for the now.
I spoke to Travis last week about I Want Your Love, the Fringe! and his feelings about his work...
Craig for The Film Experience: I Want Your Love is great. A splendid addition to not just gay cinema, but invigorating filmmaking in general; and early word is hugely positive. You must be very proud.
TRAVIS MATHEWS: Aw, that's really nice of you to say. I'm proud to have just survived it, let alone come out with a movie that I'm excited to share with people. Making features - I'm learning - is like running a small business...
The best thing you can do is surround yourself with talented people who believe in the project and are the best at whatever their part is. I'm maybe most proud of the people I brought together.
Craig for The Film Experience: Both I Want Your Love and your earlier mini feature In Their Room – Berlin are playing at Fringe! What does it mean to you to have such a vibrant, forward-thinking new festival select your work for exhibition?
TRAVIS MATHEWS: I think that's exactly right – “vibrant and forward-thinking." I'm seeing a lot of small queer festivals – and film series like Queer/Art/Film in NYC – popping up that share an interest in curating fresh, relevant work to young people. They take their movies seriously while also being inherently alternative to the more established, and often safe, mainstream queer festivals. It's exciting to be part of Fringe! for all these reasons.
I Want Your Love was selected as the opening film. With all the hard work put into your films over the last few years, and having shown them elsewhere, is there any aspect of having an audience eagerly wait your film to start that still makes you nervous?
Uh, yeah. Completely. It's always nerve racking, especially when there's a Q&A to follow. None of these stories come directly from my personal life, but I'm all over them. Asking people to watch something that's so very personal and revealing can be momentarily crazy-making, but it's also equally gratifying. I've learned to be better about separating me from my movies, but it's still hard at times.
So, just how tricky is it to get something like this, a truly independent piece of filmmaking, off the ground? Especially something with real sex involved?
This is my first feature narrative so I don't have anything to really reflect on and compare with, but I think my experience is something of an anomaly. I met Jack Shamama at NakedSword (who produced the film) at a perfect moment when they were looking for erotic content that was an alternative to porn, and I had just finished the first draft of the I Want Your Love script. Things fell into place rather quickly in terms of our partnership. But the work involved – especially when you're dealing with a micro-budget – is nonstop. The good thing about working with little money is that I've learned a lot about the entire process of making a movie. It's going to make me a better director next time.
After films about San Francisco and Berlin – and thanks to the recent successful Kickstarter campaign – you are now making In Their Room – London. Why London next? And not, say, New York or Paris?
Well, I have a most excellent reason to be in London with Fringe! showing two of my films. But I also have an eternal soft spot for London. I've been a self-proclaimed anglophile since adolescence. I even had the NME delivered to my door back in the day; an expensive obsession with Britpop! The androgynous play with sexuality and overall ease with experimentation that I heard and saw coming from the UK was an important guidepost as I was sorting myself out. It boiled down to a promise of a faraway place, very unlike rural Ohio, where I could be gay and also have this very cool urban lifestyle. I am, however, meeting with a French producer while in London about doing a Parisian episode.
Your background in documentary is evident in the film, but what of your Masters in Counselling in Psychology? Did that come into play when you had to approach participants for your film?
I think you can see my interest in psychology throughout my work. I've always wanted to help people in telling their own stories and it's the lesser heard stories that are deeply intimate or revealing that interest me most. They're also the stories that viewers most relate to, or the ones which stick with them the most I think. But I'm also a pretty nice guy with good intentions. I respect the people I film and I think people sense that fairly quickly. That's essential to getting anything that corners intimacy and honesty.
The actors in I Want Your Love feel very comfortable with one another – in the dialogue scenes especially, not just in the obviously intimate scenes. Is it important that they know each other well prior to filming, or does an element of distance help create drama/tension?
It was important to cast guys who I felt would find some kinship with their scene partners. Some of them already knew each other, but for those who didn't my hope was that they'd feel like they were meeting an old friend or lover. I thought about this a lot when casting. This was especially important with Ben and Jesse. When we all got together the week before shooting there was work-shopping and rehearsal, but I also had them go on dates and hang out 1:1. I don't know what they actually did, but I instructed them to talk little about the movie and just get drunk and flirt with each other.
I Want Your Love crosses boundaries between narrative, documentary and pornography. How do you feel about people actually using the film as an enhancing aid, so to speak, in their own sex lives?
More power to them!
By their very nature your films are bound to raise a few eyebrows – and perhaps shock some people. But have you had any negative reactions from the gay community/gay groups?
Not as of yet! I've been happy to get emails from guys saying that it was comforting or even healing for them to see "real" guys talking about or expressing themselves in ways that reflect their own lives. It means a lot to me to hear from people and it reminds me of why I'm doing this.
Prominent gay directors John Cameron Mitchell (Shortbus), Ira Sachs (Keep the Lights On) and Andrew Haigh (Weekend) have all praised your work – I Want Your Love especially. Did you seek out much guidance or advice from your contemporaries?
Definitely. And I continue to do that because it's still a lot of uncharted territory for me. I knew from the outset that I needed as much support as possible to make this happen.
One of the many compelling aspects that stood out was the sense of exterior sound, of life happening around the characters (traffic, voices-off, general white noise). Was this evocation of external atmosphere intentionally crucial to the world of the film or did it arise via happenstance while on location?
None of it was happenstance. Virtually all of the sound and music you hear was added in post. Even if we didn't leave these apartments all that much I wanted the feeling of the city to be all around them. Some of it is generic "city" but there are a lot of San Francisco-specific sounds that are in there, like our transit system.
On your promotional visit, are you scouting for participants for In Their Room – London? This must be the perfect opportunity.
Yep! I've already started talking with a handful of guys. Im staying for a full month, and when I leave I’ll have shot everything for In Their Bedroom - London. I'm planning on editing it over the summer and having a finished episode by the fall.
So, what else are you excited about seeing and doing at Fringe!? Is this an ideal opportunity to be an audience member as well as promoting your film?
Part of the fun of being in a festival is just the opportunity to binge on movies for a stretch. Fringe! has curated a great group of movies, especially for such a short window. I'm looking forward to seeing A(sexual) and Wakefield Poole's Bijou -which I've only seen shitty clips of online. There's a lot of good stuff playing.
NSFW teaser for In Their Room...
I Want Your Love and In Their Room – Berlin are showing at the 'Fringe! Gay Film Festival' running from April 12th through 15th. More info here.