James Franco Gets Inspired by Cruising

By Heath Daniels

Originally published on Advocate.com August 22 2012 1:08 PM ET

More than three decades have passed since gay activists in New York, fearing the perpetuation of negative stereotypes, united to protest the filming of William Friedkin's Cruising. The graphic psychological thriller, which starred Al Pacino as a cop investigating a series of murders in Manhattan and finds himself lured into the underground S/M subculture, remains a cultural touchstone. Some gay men feel it does not accurately portray a segment of the LGBT population, while others view it as a glimpse into a scene that has somewhat vanished or been mainstreamed. For example, the city's Meatpacking District is now a fashion destination. Now James Franco and director Travis Mathews, whose no-holds-barred erotic drama I Want Your Love is currently a hit on the film festival circuit, have teamed to create an art project about the 40 minutes of footage that was excised from Friedkin's version and has since disappeared. Mathews speaks with The Advocate about how the two men found inspiration in Cruising, the possibility of protests, and why Franco is so fascinated with gay men.

The Advocate: James Franco’s Cruising is inspired by the controversial 1980 Al Pacino movie, Cruising. What exactly does “inspired” mean in this instance?
Travis Mathews: We are reimagining 40 minutes of footage that was cut from Cruising. The footage was lost after [Cruising director] William Friedkin had to cut it out to secure an R rating. When he went back to put it in for the 30th anniversary [DVD release] he was told it had been destroyed. That was where we started. But James Franco’s Cruising is primarily about the making of the 40 minutes of film that was eventually lost. No one will confuse it for a remake.

Is it correct to assume Franco is playing himself in the movie? Who is playing Al Pacino?
Franco is playing himself. I’m playing myself. Val Lauren gives an amazing performance as … I hesitate to say he’s playing Pacino because it’s more than that, but the short answer is yes, he’s interpreting that character and doing something all his own.

Which scenes in Cruising inspired you the most?
The bar scenes. If you edit all of those scenes back-to-back and eliminate the other dramatic elements in the film, it’s a nonjudgmental snapshot of a particular gay New York subculture in 1980. It’s part of what makes the controversy [about the S/M bar scenes] so fascinating from my 2012 perspective. As a whole it’s problematic, but in isolation I think those bar scenes are actually an important document that’s never given much credit.

Cruising is a remarkable time capsule of pre-AIDS gay life. For a film that was so controversial when it came out in 1980, do you think gay men look back at it now with some nostalgia?
Yes, totally. Pre-AIDS nostalgia has been dominating gay life in a lot of ways over the past five to 10 years. It’s starting to feel a bit uninspired to me, but I get it, and I’m not immune to the appeal. 

Your films are known for their sexually explicit depictions of gay male relationships. How much should we expect to see of James Franco in this new film?
I saw that Perez Hilton posted something that made it sound like people would be seeing James’s penis or whatever … but that will not be happening. It’s an art film. He makes a lot of art films. He makes a lot of big studio films. This is one of his art films.

As you said, William Friedkin had to eliminate 40 minutes of sexually explicit footage to secure an R rating for Cruising. Do you anticipate any similar problems with James Franco’s Cruising?
We’ll have a couple of versions. One that is dirty and one that is dirtier. But neither ventures into seriously hard-core territory.

James is no stranger to playing gay roles in films like Milk, Howl, and The Broken Tower. Many people are speculating about why he seems so attracted to gay subject matter.  Do you address that in James Franco’s Cruising?
Completely. When I initially talked to him about the project, I was very up-front that I was excited to be involved with him and to collaborate on something. But knowing the volume of work he has done in the past that is queer-related, I felt it was something we needed to address head on. We needed to weave that into the actual production which we have.

Do you think he worries that doing all these independent, experimental films will negatively impact his Hollywood career?
You’ll have to ask him, but I have a lot of respect for his courage in taking a pretty unorthodox path.           

In 1980 many gay rights advocates claimed that Cruising was antigay because it featured gay men being brutally murdered and focused on the scandalous aspects of the S/M community. Do you anticipate any similar reactions to James Franco’s Cruising?
I anticipate some discussion about it and some people saying, “Who does he think he is to represent us?” But I think that’s all good.

This project came about really quickly. In July you posted on your website that you would be collaborating with James Franco on a “homo-sex-art-film.”  James Franco’s Cruising is premiering in September. How did you crank this out so quickly?
I don’t think either of us has slept.

Where will the film premiere?
In New York during Fashion Week. A feature-length version will be playing festivals next year.

Your recent projects, In Their Room, I Want Your Love, and now James Franco’s Cruising, have all focused on gay men, naturalistic storytelling, and graphic scenes of sexuality. Are these themes that you will continue to explore?
I need to finish editing In Their Room-London. I would like to continue that series as long as I can. I want to go to some less obvious places where gayness and masculinity are different from what I regularly see and experience. But I think I’m almost done with graphic sexuality. I just don’t want to get bored or pigeonholed with it. There’s so much that can still be said with sex, but I don’t want to make a career of it.

You just directed a film with an Academy Award nominee.  Is this your first step toward a more mainstream career?
God, I hope not.