James Franco’s new art film Interior. Leather Bar., directed by him and filmmaker Travis Mathews, is all about gay sex, and Franco’s damn proud of it.
Premiering at this week’s Sundance Film Festival, the gay S&M film reimagining 40 minutes of footage rumored to be taken out of William Friedkin’s 1980 drama Cruising blurs the boundaries between observer and observed, truth and fiction, delight and pain.
Just check out this seriously NOT SAFE FOR WORK exclusive clip from the movie, below, featuring Franco — playing a version of himself — flinching as a man is pleasurably beaten off camera. Later on, talking to Val Lauren, the movie’s lead, Franco totally sounds off on acceptance of straight societal norms. “Every f—king love story is a dude that wants to be with a girl, and the only way they’re going to end up happy is if they walk off into the sunset together,” he says. “I’m f—king sick of that s—t. So if there’s a way for me to just break that up in my own mind, I’m all for it. … Sex should be a storytelling tool, but we’re so f—king scared of it.”
EW talked to Franco about Interior.Leather Bar., and for a separate story, about kink, the documentary he produced about a San Francisco-based BDSM porn company, also premiering at Sundance. Not much was off limits for the Oscar-nominated actor, known for his multiple degrees, his creative projects, and movies spanning the gamut between serious drama (127 Hours), stoner comedy (Pineapple Express), sex and violence filled comedy (Harmony Korine’s upcoming Spring Breakers), and big-budget fantasy (Disney’s upcoming Oz the Great and Powerful).
Hearing an actor enamored by girls and guys the world over talk frankly about sex, gay sex, and bondage was, honestly, completely refreshing. You can almost hear boundaries splinter and crack.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: There’s been a lot of controversy surrounding Interior. Leather Bar., 60-minute film you’ve co-directed, premiering at Sundance. It’s shocking, in a way, for American audiences to see sex, and gay sex, explored bluntly.
JAMES FRANCO: I really liked certain aspects of the old movie Cruising, with Al Pacino. I know there was controversy when it was made. Friedkin, by putting a serial killer in the gay community, he sort of implied that sort of lifestyle led to murder and other horrible scenes. It was at a time the gay rights movement was just getting on its feet. There were a lot of protests. Years later, decades later, it transformed, because none of the leather bars where it was shot exist anymore. It was a portrait of a time now gone, before AIDS. The movie, in later years, was accepted, and they did a special presentation of it at Cannes recently. I was interested in a lot of things with that original movie and didn’t want to remake the movie.
What else prompted you to jump into doing a movie about this community, the gay S&M scene? Travis Mathews’ own movies focus on gay men.
I felt it was really hard to find people engaging with this material in an exciting way. … There was a lot there that was still kind of censored. Not [just] censored by a ratings board, and it has been, but also by economics, that no one is going to make these movies and distribute them in certain places. I wanted to engage in that without holding back, and find a way in. It was a gradual process to find what the way in would be. Along the way I was introduced to Travis and Travis’ work, and very quickly realized that the project would be served by having an equal collaborator, someone who had more experience than me in this sort of material. In some ways, he was my guide.
You’re a huge mainstream actor, you star in big budget movies, you’re considered a handsome leading man, and yet you also have this heavily artistic side that pushes you to take on controversial material. How did this hybrid identity affect Interior. Leather Bar.?
My history and my place in mainstream cinema helped us shape the approach we were going to take. That’s why I’m in the film playing myself, a version of myself. It frames the context of this movie and this material. There are documentaries about pornography. I just made one, kink. The approach we took was not to really get into the ins and outs of pornography. It was really juxtaposing mainstream cinema and different kinds of representations of queer cinema.
In the Interior. Leather Bar. clip we’re premiering on EW.com, you flinch at the beginning, watching a heavy-duty S&M scenario. Had you seen any porn being filmed, in person, before Interior. Leather Bar. and kink?
I actually had seen some before. Before I did Interior. Leather Bar., I had seen some porn being shot at the kink.com facility in San Francisco. And when preparing for a role I did a long time ago called Sonny [in 2002], in which I played a male prostitute, I observed a guy prostitute on a date and he took me along and let me watch. I was probably 22. If I was flinching, it probably had something to do with the BDSM. There’s a guy named Master Avery, and he was spanking some other guys with a paddle. He was doing it a lot, so one of the guy’s asses got really bruised. So I was probably reacting to that.
You play a hybrid role in Interior. Leather Bar. as actor, observer and director, but you’re always observing the sex, never participating in it yourself. Which would definitely grab people’s attention if you did!
I play a dual role in this project. I co-directed and designed it with Travis, but I’m also in front of the camera, and my presence in front of the camera is an important component of the movie. Maybe the sequel, I engage in the sex. It wasn’t my job to do that in this piece. In some ways, that would put too much focus on myself, I think, the focus I was actually having sex in front of a camera. That would take all the attention. It’s about me and it’s not about me. It’s about me lending my history and my place in movies to a project that may otherwise not get the same amount of attention. It’s enough for me to be the observer in this.
What’s interesting is your history with being sexual in other films. I saw Spring Breakers premiere at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, and you play this funny gangster guy who has realistic looking sex with two female characters in the movie.
I did a project with the artist Paul McCarthy: a piece called Rebel for MOCA in L.A. If you know Paul’s work, the videos end up with everyone naked. We were recreating very screwed up versions of scenes in Rebel Without a Cause. He immediately had his pants down, and I was riding on his back, and told him to squeal like a pig. And we ended up wrestling and he was naked the whole time. I don’t have really that many inhibitions anymore, after doing that with Paul. I’m just very conscious about how sex is used in a project I do. With Spring Breakers, it’s not like I was having real sex.
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