On Feb. 16 of last year, Travis Mathews—the openly gay 42-year-old director best known for his 2014 James Franco docu-fiction Interior. Leather Bar.—spoke in a “Sex in Public” panel at Austin’s Outsider Fest, an annual gathering dedicated to non-conformist LGBTQ artists. After the panel, the Ohio-born director remarked that he’d noticed many local guys on hookup apps hiding behind blank profiles or using images of their torsos cut off at the neck.
“I expected to find closeted guys on the DL,” Mathews says, “but I wasn’t prepared for the degree of racism, internalized homophobia and the general fear of being seen, that was rampant. What fascinated me most were the profiles labeled discreet.”
That March, Mathews hung out with local gay director PJ Raval at South By Southwest—Austin’s international interactive, film and music festival—and by summer, Mathews found himself still residing in Austin, enduring its 90-degree days while driving around in a borrowed, un-air-conditioned van and listening to far-right talk radio.
“There was an unhinged desperation in these voices and the rumbling sounds of what I’d later know to be the alt-right movement,” Mathews says. “Violence against some ‘other’ seemed imminent, and if these conservative voices were to be believed, justified. White, rural America was prepared to make their country great again.”
Mathews had made a name for himself through his unflinchingly intimate and sexually explicit films. His In Their Room series presented interviews with partially clothed queer men daydreaming in their bedrooms. His 2010 film I Want Your Love sympathetically depicted a night of sex between friends, ex-lovers and roommates as their artistic pal prepares to leave San Francisco. But his 2014 film, Interior. Leather Bar. took a decidedly darker turn.
Ostensibly, the 2014 film depicted a group of people recreating the 40 minutes of sexually explicit footage cut from the controversial 1980 gay slasher film Cruising, but in actuality it delivered a psychological portrait of a straight actor forced to confront his own discomfort over playing the lead in a gay pornographic film. In the movie, Mathews used prolonged close-ups of his actors’ faces, focusing on their trembling eyes and silent expressions as they grappled with the meaning of appearing in a transgressive film project.
Transgression is precisely what Mathews excels in, and yet, his films don’t deal in cheap provocations: They use neither shock nor innuendo; they don’t have easily identified heroes or villains; nor do they rely on the all-too-common trope of queer-bashing. Rather Mathews’ films defy categorization, presenting a nuanced, multi-layered view of gay lives that are more revealing and less ideal than the pin-up muscle jockeys constantly sold to us in alcohol and underwear ads.
Mathews’ most recent film, Discreet, premiering next week at the Berlin International Film Festival, shows the director at the height of his powers. It begins ambiguously with the sound of frying bacon, an image of an Asian woman holding the sides of her head and, eventually, a body being wrapped in garbage bags. From there, the plot gradually unfolds in a slow burn that will linger with viewers long after its final frame.
The film follows Alex, a drifter who cruises Texas’ oversized highways in a dusty blue van while listening to right-wing talk radio. (Sound familiar?) Over the course of the film, Alex spends time with John, an older, despondent man with a nervous twitch; he arranges discreet hookups in local sex spots; and eventually he connects with Zack, a teenage employee at the local donut shop.
To reveal anything more would give away the film’s deep and unsettling turns. Its stark images of the desolate Texas landscape and resonant soundscape reflecting its central character’s dark psyche weave a beguiling psychological thriller with superb cinematography and a tightly edited script that always reveals more than what immediately appears.
The gay social app Hornet helped fund the movie as a way to foster Mathews’ unique talent and help him find a wide audience. “Gay film has a hard battle growing,” Hornet President Sean Howell says. “How does something like LGBT film, which has a shrinking audience in-theatre—because indie theatres are closing—find new ways of reaching folks?”
“Hornet was instrumental in the film coming together,” Mathews says. “Sean in particular put a lot of trust in me as a filmmaker and never tried to micro-manage the process. It’s been a great partnership.”
We interviewed Mathews in the week leading up to Discreet‘s Berlin premiere.
Would you say your films are getting progressively darker? It seems like this film is much darker than I Want Your Love and even Interior. Leather Bar. This film also seems to have less explicit sex. Why is that?
Well, yes. But there’s a purpose to the darkness. I have my familiar interests around masculinity and intimacy in the film, but I felt it was important to step away from the bedroom and look more broadly at what was happening around me. Not sure if you’ve heard, but the house is on fire. I wanted to write something reflective of this kind of “nation on the edge” anxiety we’re all feeling. I honestly can’t imagine making movies now that disregard the authoritarian march to power happening in America and around the world. There’s a kind of urgency in the air that most of us are not accustomed to feeling, and many of us want to act on this urgency, right? Actions feel good.
I’m a filmmaker, and I need to stay sane, so I channelled these feelings and observations into a movie. Just as importantly, the film gives me a small megaphone to remind people that a) this isn’t normal, and b) everyone can do something: Make movies, demand policies from your senators, start a community group, or give money to organizations under fire. Find your thing, but be active in resisting this disaster. For sure, this is not a time to isolate or remain quiet.
So, yes, I made a movie that I’m proud to be talking about today and premiering in Berlin just a few days from now. The challenge with Discreet was to create a minimalist thriller that reflected our time without turning it into something didactic and preachy. We all have Facebook feeds for that.
I was in Central Texas during the summer of 2015 when I started writing. If I had been anywhere else, this would have been a different story. I set out to make a film that explored the ways in which populist insecurities about losing power intersect with—and inform—individual views on masculinity and sexuality. Alex, the hero in the film, is a distillation of this caustic soup. He’s unwell, to put it mildly. One of my producers describes him as the 21st century Travis Bickle, and there’s some truth to that.
The film is also much more surreal and non-linear than your previous films. It kept reminding me of David Lynch films in the way that its stark landscapes stood in contrast to an impending sense of menace. What were your cultural influences while creating this film?
I love hearing the Lynch reference. We talked about Lynch a lot in post, during the edit, but thankfully we found him in the movie and didn’t set out to make a David Lynch film. Originally, the points of reference were more about people going mad—Polanski’s apartment trilogy, surveillance, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
But we live in a science-fiction reality now that invites a dizzying and surreal reflection. Our government is actively trying to confuse the populace about what’s real, and they’re doing it by inciting a death and destruction narrative. I think all of this flexing of nativist muscles is really a show of deep weakness and insecurity. They’re hitting us with a degree of brute force that’s measured in relation to how scared they are. Straight white men see how demographics and culture are shifting away from their self-interest, and I fully believe that they would prefer to see the world go down in flames—as a show of muscularity—than to concede, compromise or acquiesce to anyone. It’s sick. It’s a monster willing to eat itself, and that’s the evil at the heart of Discreet.
While I was writing, I binge-watched How to Make a Murderer. Many of my initial dream locations came from freeze-frames in that series. The rural community it depicts has a perverse loyalty to maintaining power at any cost, even at the risk of destroying lives. It’s a theme echoed in Discreet.
Unrelated to movies, I was obsessed with the freeways in Texas. Beyond being synonymous with America, the Texas freeways (the interchanges especially) always seemed unnecessarily jumbo-sized. As someone who lives in San Francisco and hasn’t owned a car in almost 20 years, I’m sure it was amplified for me, but it all seemed a little ridiculous. Because Alex is a drifter who lives out of his van, always on the road, it made sense to pay more attention to the freeways in the film’s world. Here are these man-made monsters, an expression of Texas muscularity, that Alex can’t get away from. In almost every location in the film, the freeways are always looming or threatening to strangle.
How does the term ‘discreet’ apply to your main character? I ask because he doesn’t seem to be discreet himself, even though he participates in those sorts of hookups from time to time. On the contrary, he seems to take big dramatic actions that endanger himself and others.
Without giving away spoilers, there’s a lot of trouble to be had with most things “discreet.” I think of it as the black box someone hides behind, or the story that’s never shared. With these things, there’s always something that you don’t want someone to know, or to see, or to understand, and it’s central to Alex’s struggle. His big dramatic actions are also in response to the toxic, isolated world that he struggles to overcome. A community of people with discreet actions rely on each other to stay safe; Alex is trying to dismantle that.
Travis Mathews’ Discreet premieres next week at Berlinale.