James Franco in a gay art film? Most of you will likely stop reading right here, go straight to Google Images and type in "James Franco gay art film photos naked." As well you should. But before you do, take a deep breath and keep reading. Because this isn't just some fleeting Franco folly. The Tisch grad's collaboration with "mumbleporn" director Travis Mathews is actually more than just an excuse to see Franco cavorting with a leather-daddies, and a very well-done and thought-provoking exploration of gay underground culture and Franco's own interest in queer issues. For James Franco's 40 Minutes, the two imagined the deleted 40 minutes from William Friedkin's controversial 1980 film Cruising, which starred Al Pacino as a cop who went undercover in New York's gay leather bar scene to investigate a series of murders. The result, a documentary-esque making-of film -- which is streaming exclusively in the dressing rooms at CoSTUME NATIONAL's new 150 Greene St. flagship as part of their "NEW NO DARK WAVE" group show featuring James Franco, Aaron Young, Frédéric Beigbeder, Daniel Firman and Tobias Wong, which Natacha Polaert curated -- will be on view at the store until Oct. 15th. A longer, feature-length version will make the festival rounds later this year. Franco told PAPERMAG, "We wanted to revisit [Cruising] for many reasons, one of which was to celebrate the unapologetic queerness of the material, the anti-normative stance that the men in the old leather bars embraced." We chatted further with filmmaker Mathews about teaming up with Franco, making a film within a film and the lost art of cruising. Above, find an exclusive teaser and, below, stills from the film. Oh, and spoiler alert: Franco doesn't get naked. Sorry.
So how did the project come to be in the first place? How did you and James team up and come up with this idea?
James was interested in doing an art film that would in some way reference Cruising. And he also wanted there to be gay sex. And I had just finished a pretty long film festival tour with my first feature film I Want Your Love. It has real sex in it that's woven into the narrative. So James' assistant contacted me and said, "Would you be interested in working with James on this project?" When we started talking it became a much more collaborative process. James basically asked me to take the weekend to see if there was anything having to do with Cruising that was exciting and inspiring for me. One thing I didn't realize was William Friedkin, the original director, had to go back and forth with the MPAA to get an R rating. And he had to cut 40 minutes out of the film.
So I thought, "why don't we do something that's like 'James Franco's re-imagined 40 minutes from Cruising.'" There are a few reasons why I wanted to do that. One was because we had such a small amount of time and such a small budget and I thought that if we tried to do anything that was super polished and was trying to be authentic people would be like "this is fake." Rather, we wanted to let people know from the beginning that we're constructing this. And that's why we focused our film pretty intensely on the cut scene. The actor Val Lauren, who plays the Pacino character, is a real friend of James, and he was very much not wanting to do this project, but was very much on board because of James. And it became clear that we were going to be creating this interesting parallel between the story of the original Cruising where Al Pacino goes into the underbelly of the gay world of New York and Val is going into this film. He's going on this set in a very arbitrary way like Pacino in the movie. He's forced to engage with and experience a very homosexual space.
Did you initially ask Val to be in just a straight-up remake? And then when he sort of had his concerns then the idea for doing the making-of concept came about?
No we wanted to do [a making-of] before even meeting Val. You know in the beginning of the piece when you see us running around in the hotel, and we're all being introduced, that was really the first time I met Val. When he comes in there he had already read the treatment, and in that treatment it was basically what you see in the film but like different elements where Val was actually more involved. So it was kind of amazing when we first met him and we sat down, he was everything I was hoping him to be as an actor and a person, with his resistance. And he basically was like "I read the treatment, I'm going to tell you right now, I'm not going to do this, I'm not going to do that, don't even ask me to do that." And I was like, "Yes, yes, yes, perfect."
That moment where he and James are having that heated talk about Val feeling uncomfortable making this film is so incredible. Was that really from a script?
I had written the script and the dialogue for both of them and it was one of the strangest things I have ever had to write, because it was before I met James. Here I am writing dialogue for him being so self-reflective, and I didn't even know him. And then I handed it to him. I mean, he was open to whatever but at a certain point it just made more sense for me to show them bullet points, then ask them to put it into their own words and feelings..
Why do you think James wanted to do this project?
I think he wanted to make a queer movie. And I mean that in the broader sense -- not just a movie about gay guys. I think he wanted to make something with a queer sensibility. The very first conversation we have in this film, is him talking about gay marriage.
Right, the mainstreaming of queer culture and why it's not entirely positive.
Yeah, and how there's the potential to really erase a lot of queer culture and ways of making art by a wave of gay marriage and assimilation. For me, it kind of sets the stage for the viewer that you are going to be watching an attempt to make something that's queer, and not mainstream.
And there are obviously so many levels to making a movie about making a movie. Did it get confusing sometimes with the actors or was it all quite seamless?
It was kind of fun to be involved in a shoot where it wasn't always completely clear to us even how much was an acting moment and what was a real moment. A lot of that was in place even before we even got on set. I wanted to create this weird sort of real and unreal dynamic, half of the guys in the film are straight, half are gay.
The shots in the beginning of the guys cruising at the camera are amazing. Was it as simple as just telling them, "Cruise the camera"?
Yeah, I just asked them to cruise the camera. I wanted to show 2012 guys and their interpretation of cruising because I feel like in a lot of the ways in the gay community the idea of cruising is sort of a lost art. Everybody has their phones now, it's not like how you would go to the park or go into the bar and a lot of serious cruising would happen.
Some of these guys were like, "What do you mean? I don't know what cruising is," and I thought that was interesting. And then I just thought it would be fun to have a collection of guys cruising the camera. Just the way in which they interpret what that means.
So what else are you working on?
Well, I'm pitching a drama TV series that's about outsiders who live in small town America. I'm working on that and I also did this other project called In Their Room in different cities showing different guys in their bedrooms. It's a series I really love. I filmed one in April in London that I'm going to be editing that in November. I'm just kind of seeing what happens with this film and what people think.
What have been some early reactions to it?
It's been positive. I feel like there are people who are a little bit confused, like, "Oh I thought this was going to be this," but most of the people that I've shown it to have basically said, "Thank God it's not what I thought it was going to be." I think there's also going to be a group of people that will probably be disappointed that it's not just like James Franco having sex for 40 minutes. You can't give everyone what they want.
You can't please everyone. Did you ever discuss James being in it more or was that just not on the table?
I think he's in it just the right amount. Any less and people would have constantly been looking for him in the frame thinking "Where's James Franco?" and any more would have distracted from the Val narrative that's really the heart of the film.
Stills from James Franco's 40 Minutes courtesy of James Franco and Travis Mathews.
Images of the installations, © Kenny Komer