James Franco Goes from Gingham to Leather with Latest Film

James Franco isn’t in Kansas anymore—or in Oz. The Disney star went way over the rainbow this time and landed at Outfest Los Angeles last July with a mind blowing film about gay cruising entitled “Interior. Leather Bar.”

The Oscar Nominated actor has directed, produced, and starred in a series of gay themed indie films in the past few years including “The Feast of Stephen,” “Howl” and “Sal.” For this project, however, the actor stated that he “wanted to go to a place of uncertainty . . . on a trip to the queer-side,” and “. . . explore the beauty of queerness, beautiful because it is counter to everything normal.”

After seeing last year’s award-winning gay film, I Want Your Love, Franco recruited acclaimed filmmaker Travis Matthews to collaborate with him on his next project.

In this 60 minute talking heads, behind the scenes flick, the co-directors chose a deconstructive approach to view gay sex through a heterosexual prism. As a vehicle to explore this topic, Franco and Matthews chose to recreate the lost gay S&M footage from William Friedken’s 1980 “Cruising” that was cut in order to avoid an “X” rating.

“When James first contacted me about using “Cruising,” as a text for this project, I knew some people would be upset at us for revisiting a controversial flawed film with negative representations of gay men,” said Matthews. Regardless of the possible fallout, Matthews moved forward. “We had to be courageous about the choices we made and not get lost in how other people may respond to it.”

Franco plays the producer provocateur who prods his actor/friend Val Lauren into accepting the role of Al Pacino’s reluctant cop character, who in the original movie infiltrates the leather scene in order to catch a serial killer.

Lauren admits on camera his dislike for the project, claiming he doesn’t understand its purpose. The actor is repeatedly forced to negotiate his sexual boundaries during on and off camera scenes as back room action happens all around him in a fog of dry ice against a black backdrop.

Franco and Matthews cleverly play with this deconstructive style of filmmaking by mixing it up with conventional behind the scenes reality devices in order to keep us guessing what’s staged and what’s real. “I enjoy working in this creative docu-fiction space,” confessed Matthews.

Straight and gay actors were cast to play various cruising characters in the bar scene in an attempt to get them to discuss how far they will go on camera. According to Matthews, most of the behind the scene discussions were prodded by him and in some cases even scripted, such as the heated cell phone exchange between Lauren and his agent. “Are you on the Franco Faggot project?” his agent snaps.

Half the fun of watching the film becomes figuring out what is authentic and what is not. The exaggerated reactions of Lauren and Franco to the feigned S&M paddling scene is clearly an act because we’ve seen harder spanking in “Mommie Dearest.” The point of creating these mock scenes is to take people out of their comfort zones, not necessarily to shock them.

The directors’ main objective was to stimulate dialogue about the conditional boundaries that straight and gay men put upon themselves. They wanted to take the boogey man out of the S&M/leather closet because they see this aspect of gay subculture becoming extinct.

As a preface in the film’s opening, they discuss how gay marriage will eventually assimilate gays into heterosexual conformity, eradicating radical queerness from our unique identity.

To accentuate that queer defiance, Matthews and Franco don’t shy away from showing explicit sex scenes—another one of Matthews’ visual trademarks. Two partners in real life make intimate love, including fellatio, on screen. It’s tender, but it didn’t feel pornographic because the directors dissected their movements. Lauren comments that the lovers were “sweet” with one another, as his “Al Pacino-esque” character begins to arc. Lauren, like the Pacino character, begins to ponder the magnetism of cruising.

In reality, we only see a few minutes of the recreated “Cruising” scenes with Val, which are very erotic and tantalizing.

Spoiler Alert: Sorry, guys, even though the “Oz” star appears in the film, we don’t get to see Franco’s frankfurter. He saves that explicit fellatio scene for the 1970s looking porn stars with overgrown biker moustaches. In this film, Franco’s more of the man with a camera behind the leather curtain.

Some critics have blasted Franco and Matthews for not being provocative at all. They accuse the filmmakers of kicking the queer apple cart just for the sake of knocking it over. They charge the directors of being self-indulgent, claiming the film would not have garnered the attention it has, had Franco’s name not been attached.

The fact that Franco has partnered with one of today’s foremost, groundbreaking filmmakers and then takes on this divisive topic is both admirable and bold. He’s obviously making these films because he’s got something to say but he can’t say it in the mainstream, commercial arena. With his fifth gay themed indie film under his belt, Franco has seen life from both sides of the yellow brick road, and apparently, he likes what he sees through the viewfinder.

Interior. Leather Bar will open in major cities in selected theatres this fall.

By Joseph Castel