James Franco is giving mixed signals. He's been a part of successful movie franchises, was Oscar-nominated, hosted the Oscars, had an extended run on "General Hospital" and made an art film about it that premiered at this year's Tribeca Film Festival. Now he's teamed with gay art-porn director Travis Mathews to direct "James Franco's Cruising," inspired by William Friedkin's controversial 1980 gay murder mystery "Cruising."
The film, which Mathews just delivered to Franco as an initial cut, was shot over two days. Elapsed time from first conversation to first edit: two months.
"He straddles this superstar summer movie blockbuster celebrity life, and on the other hand he does these very low-budget art films," Mathews told Indiewire. "There's the people who know him for his blockbusters, but there's a different population that knows his gallery shows and that he makes semi-esoteric gay content."
Franco's work includes the five-minute homoerotic short "The Feast of Stephen." The film that Mathews and Franco are creating together is an examination of people trying to make sense of Franco as star figure -- as well as a documentation of Franco's attempt to produce a film that re-imagines the lost 40 minutes of "Cruising."
"Cruising," based on the novel by Gerald Walker, stars Al Pacino as a police detective who goes undercover in the gay S&M sex scene to investigate the serial murders of gay men within the subculture. The production, which shot in New York City, was picketed by gay rights groups nervous about the film's depiction of gay men. (Those protests are documented in Jim Hubbard's short "Stop the Movie (Cruising)".)
According to Mathews, Franco wanted to update the film, but he couldn't get the rights. As Mathews' gay art porn/drama "I Want Your Love" was getting press attention, Franco's people emailed Mathews to ask him to talk about the film. Within 24 hours, they were talking.
"He knew he wanted real gay sex in it," Travis said. "His people went looking for a filmmaker who had filmed real gay sex, and I suspect someone who would complement his vision. We talked about why we would be interested in still looking at this film. We talked about his interest in the film and his interest more broadly in so many gay-themed stories and visionairies. He's worked with so many in front of and behind the cameras over the years."
Mathews, who plays himself and directs, and Franco, who also plays himself and produces, decided to document the recreation of the 40 minutes that were lost from the film after an intense battle with the MPAA to change its rating from X to R.
"[Friedkin] cut the film down at his own expense," Mathews said. "Recently, when he was getting ready to do an anniversary edition, Warner Bros. told him that the footage was destroyed. It's possible those 40 minutes implicate Pacino's character in the gay S&M culture. That was the place we started from as a launching point: James Franco's version of those lost 40 minutes."
To learn more about what those 40 minutes could contain, Mathews spoke to two extras. "These guys were real New York gays, patrons of bars like the one in the film. The production was so concerned with the protesters that the extras would be picked up by buses to be taken to the set at an undisclosed location."
As for Mathews' own opinion and recollection of the film, "The interesting thing about that movie is it gets short-circuited a bit too quickly in people's eyes. If you forget about the whole murder mystery backstory and you just look at the bar scenes, I think it's quite an insightful, important document of an important subculture, right before AIDS hits, in 1979 New York."
Mathews' experience on "James Franco's Cruising" left him feeling inspired. "We didn't have the luxury or the curse of all this time. No time to worry or ruminate, just enough time to do the minimal amount of planning to make sure it all happened. It was great for me to see that I worked well under those conditions. I love that blurry space between something that's staged and has a certain level of scripting and direction. It made me want to revisit a bunch of different projects that I had thought of and reimagine them in a way that would be less of an arduous pre-production/production process."
Mathews hopes to debut the final cut in early 2013. An installation version of the footage will play at a group show in a gallery beginning September 12.