Here’s an interview with San Francisco filmmaker Travis Mathews, the writer-director of Discreet. Mathews has also directed Do I Look Fat?, I Want Your Love, Interior. Leather Bar. and the In Their Room documentary series. The San Francisco International Film Festival (SFFILMFestival) is hosting the U.S. premiere of Mathews’ newest film Discreet, which debuted at the Berlinale.
The Movie Gourmet: SFFILM is giving your U.S. premiere the prime Saturday 9 PM slot at the Castro. Must be a good feeling.
Travis Mathews: Two of my earlier films have been screened at the Castro in the Frameline Festival, but not at the San Francisco International Film Festival. I can tell you that it’s pretty awesome. It’s my favorite theater in the world.
TMG: Where did you find Bob Swaffar, and just how tall is he? [Bob Swaffer plays John, the child sexual abuser, in Discreet.]
Travis Mathews: He’s really, really tall. 6′ 7″, I think. At least 6′ 5″. I found most of our cast at an open call in Austin – which is its own interesting experience. Bob is a gentle, wise man who makes pottery. I had already decided that his character would not speak.
TMG: Did you see a menace in Bob?
Travis Mathews: No. I knew that menace would be created by the editing and sound design, and that the menace would be projected (on Bob) by the audience. It’s like a Rorschach Test.
TMG: And where did you find Joy Cunningham? She’s great in a brief scene as Alex’ mom Sharon.
Travis Mathews: She’s a friend of mine, a lesbian married to a great woman with a couple of great kids. At the time (of shooting Discreet), they were renting out the house where Sharon lives (in the movie). Joy is a comedic actress. She had never done drama, but I knew that she’d be great. She and her wife Gretchen, they were invaluable when I was writing the film, giving me notes on the screenplay.
TMG: You’ve made a revenge film where the final act of violence is off-camera. It’s kind of anti-Peckinpah, with none of the customary splatter for the genre. What informed this choice?
Travis Mathews: In previous films, I’ve explored the opposite and showed more, especially raw emotion. This time I wanted to play with withholding instead of showing. That was part of the fun in making Discreet. We did a lot of test screenings and the audiences told me, “yeah, I already knew that” or “this wasn’t clear”. That helped with the editing choices of what to withhold.
Travis Mathews: I didn’t want to be so clear who was in the body (the body bag floating down the river) at the end. I have an idea, but it is elliptical. I don’t want to be “I don’t know – who did YOU think it was?”. But it (the ambiguity) strengthened the movie.
[Note: If the body isn’t the most obvious character, as I’d thought, then it’s got to be…Holy Toledo! This movie would be even darker than I’d recognized!]
TMG: Why did you have your characters carry out clandestine acts next to a freeway, when we would expect you to have set them out in the woods where no one could see?
Travis Mathews: I was in Texas for a long time on another film project. I was driving around the same van that Alex drives in Discreet. I became fascinated by the freeway structure in Texas. So many are built almost like roller coasters for reasons that seemed arbitrary. It’s a like a Texas show of strength: We have the tallest freeways! So I found it both absurd and fascinating. I wanted them to be a man-made monster in the background. A freeway is in the background of every setting except Joy/Sharon’s house. It made sense.
TMG: What’s the distribution plan for Discreet?
Travis Mathews: It’s being released (theatrically) in the UK and Ireland. We’re playing the festival circuit (here in the U.S.) as part of our strategy to get distribution. It’s a tough movie. I know that’s it’s not a commercial movie in several respects. I hope that people see it – it is a film that lingers, as it did with you.
TMG: What is your next project?
Travis Mathews: I will be a little coy here. I’m working on two projects. One is a remake of a 1970s film. The other is an original with horror elements. I want to do a horror movie, and Discreet is inching me toward the genre.
TMG: Will these be films that you both write and direct?
Travis Mathews: Yes.
TMG: One last question – and it’s about Interior. Leather Bar. Do you really believe, in your heart of hearts, that Friedkin had to cut an entire FORTY minutes of gay sex from Cruising?
Travis Mathews: Maybe not all gay sex, but forty minutes of what someone found too sexual, too violent or too something. Maybe 37 or 42, but about 40 minutes, yes.
On Sunday evening at 6 PM, Travis Mathews and author Karl Soehnlein will be speaking about art in the age of Trump, including Discreet, at Dog Eared Books, 489 Castro Street, San Francisco.