Photography BERT SPANGEMACHER
Interview JUSTIN ROSS

Travis Mathews’ Discreet is Difficult, Disturbing, and Necessary

4SEE sits down with the indie filmmaker and director Travis Mathews of acclaimed films such as Interior Leather Bar, which he coproduced with James Franco, to shed light on his process, the difficult job of being a filmmaker, and the politically charged setting that led to his film Discreet.

As one of the progenitors of mumblecore movement in filmmaking, Travis Mathews is adept at putting the audience up close and personal with his actors. And Discreet is no exception, but unlike some of his previous films such as I Want Your Love, which have ventured towards portraying authentic and intimate sides of life that we feel privileged to get access to, Discreet has follows a darker shadowy path. In Discreet Travis generates intimacy, even when it is uncomfortable.

Discreet follows the very personal journey of self-exploration and unfolding (read: unravelling) of a young man, Alex (played by Jonny Mars), who is retracing his steps while trying and often failing to come to terms with his past and facing gargantuan uphill battle to find a place for himself in rural Texas.

The script for Discreet came together as Mathews spent time in rural Texas, unwittingly immersing himself in the political epicenter of a growing populist movement that would variously come to be described as alt-right. The dark and damning effects of this pervasive mentality are manifest not only in the film’s setting in rural Texas, but also through the circuitous and often desperate attempts by its protagonist Alex to come to terms with a deeply embedded sadness and isolation.

It is this anxious mood that permeates the film throughout, a droning, humming soundscape amplifying the whole experience of foreboding, but it is also the tensile strength that drives it along. In an era where we are confronted with an increasingly polarized world, Discreet shows us what it is like when the internal world echoes, mirrors, and multiplies the panic of the world around us.

We caught up with Travis and producer on Discreet and husband João Federici while they were in Berlin to premiere the film. Travis delves behind the concept of Discreet and touches upon its poignant, personal depiction of an uneasy place and point in time in American society.

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Q: How has your film been received so far, are you pleased with the audience reaction?

I’m happy with people having what seem to be pretty strong responses one way or another. I don’t think many filmmakers look for a vanilla, middle of the road, tepid kind of response from the work that they do, but I feel like what I’ve done in the past and certainly with this movie are things that generally ask people to either get on that ride or they are not going to get on that ride, there is not really a lot of middle ground. We have been seeing that with the reception [of this film, Discreet]. But a lot of the people that I look to as cinephiles, or publications that I really want them to get it, are getting it. And I feel good about that.

Q: Tell me about how the film came about, what led you down this path?

I was in development and pre-production on another film that was a three-year process after [my last film project] Interior Leather Bar, where I wasn’t getting paid and it was all of this heavy lifting to get the film made – there was all of this grant money and investors and it was kind of being poised around me as the film that was going to be a little bit of a crossover film for me. It was going to attract a larger audience, but there was money involved and bureaucracy involved that slowed it all down and then we were going to shoot it in central Texas. We were a week out from shooting and something happened with the lead actor, and the movie fell apart. And as soon as it fell apart – and I had been in central Texas for a while prepping for this movie and driving around in that van that is in the film, that was the van I drove for pre-production on the other film – I was reminded that part of what I like about being a filmmaker is being able to do things boldly, where things are kind of immediate, and decisions aren’t being made by a committee of ten different people. It is more about me and one person I trust, that kind of thing.

And so I kind of took the temperature of what was going on around me in central Texas and my own personal experiences and what felt like this rumble of palpable anxiety in the air, and this looming fear, dread, violence, of (not to get too deep into the analytical intellectual stuff), but the patriarchy and the generational angst that they are not going to be bearing us fruit in generations to come. This sense of this straight, white, male, conservative rural mentality that was terrified of losing power and in that terrified of being emasculated and having to cede power, share power, lose power. And there was this feeling of a sort of last effort of brute masculine strength, and that these alt-right, fringe people were willing to do anything in order to maintain power. I felt like I was hearing on the talk radio, and just being in rural Texas, it was almost like a Faustian deal that had been made among these conservative white men. They would forego morality and any sense of respect or law, and do the most perverse things, all in the name of maintaining power. They package it differently, but that was the deal they had made.

I wanted to channel that energy, plus the closeted homophobia and racism that I was seeing on all those [dating] apps, and men hiding behind all these sort of black boxes that just said ‘discreet’. I was obsessed with this black box that was a black hole kind of.

I wanted to mix that together and have that channeled through a character that could be a sort of time-stamp on the zeitgeist. And I wanted people to be dropped into his frame, for better or for worse, that involves trauma, and involves memory and it involves some non-linearity and some of the more surreal elements in the film are in an effort to be there with him in that space that he is experiencing of what is harmful and what is a healing tool and what’s a good relationship and what’s a bad relationship. The confusion that he was feeling, I wanted the audience to be also dropped into that space.

And we thought we would be living in a post-Hillary world, like most people [did at the time]. We thought this was going to be a new era of progressivism and a new awakening of an enlightened moment. We thought, when we were in Texas and I was assembling my team, that we were putting a button on this horrible moment that we just narrowly avoided.

The body that is floating away at the end of it. We, all of us within our team, have different ideas about who is literally in that body bag, but I suppose this was sort of a poisoned toxic mix that needed to come to an end and go away and that is how we saw it. An era of this alt-right insanity that was coming to a close and not ascending to greater levels of power.


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Q: How do you think that changes your own reading of the film now in this post-election Trump presidency.

What is great about premiering at Berlinale and having a lot of other festivals coming up is that it gives me a megaphone to talk about this and to also talk about the politics of the time that we are living in now and how, whether you are a filmmaker or an artist or you are somebody who just sits at home and watches TV all day, there is something that everyone can do. It is not the time to be silent and it is not the time to isolate. So I keep trying to encourage people to take care of themselves in the process, but to not hide.

Q: What about the virtual relationship with his online companion Mandy from YouTube, it felt like on the one hand this could be an empowering and restorative element in Alex’s life, but as it turns out he takes it too far and it ends up leading to further troubles or bringing up some of his more disturbing characteristics. 

T: I’m not normally somebody who does deep dives into YouTube and subcultures there, but when I heard about ASMR…

Q: What is ASMR?

T: You need to know about ASMR! It stands for Audio Sensory Meridian Response, but if you look it up and you look at some of the videos by some of the key people in this community, they are these videos that are not exclusively, but largely made by women, and they never go anywhere inappropriate or sexual, but it always feels a little bit innocent, but also creepy. They have these 3D microphones that they put on either side of the camera like she [Mandy] does in the film, as if they are with you. They whisper and make noises into the microphone and it is meant to put people to sleep as a relaxation tool. A lot of people use them as therapy for PTSD as well. I wanted it to be this marriage of sound and removed intimacy that he stumbled up that felt like one of the first things that actually worked for him and give him some sort of piece through the repetition of sound and how that interacts with trauma and calms him. But he has such fragile defenses and such arrested development issues that his ideas about relationships and his idea of this relationship with her is almost like that of a child in terms of what he thinks is there and what is really there. I wanted her to echo a sort of in the womb voice that he maybe didn’t get.

Q: How was it working with your now husband João on this film? It was exactly four years ago that you met here in Berlin?

T:We met here at Südblock actually. I have a famously bad memory, but I remember well how we met! [laughter]. It was a programmers’ afternoon cocktail reception. Some filmmakers were there, but it was mostly programmers

J: That’s right. I’m the director of MIX Brazil film festival and so I was here as I’ve been doing for about ten years to scout movies to bring to São Paulo for our festival in November. So I was doing my job.

Q: Congratulations! And now you are also working together?

T: Yes, on Discreet he is a producer, and he is an actor (he plays Miguel). In a former life he used to be an actor in Brazil and did some commercials and soap operas there.

J: Actually I graduated in drama, but after some time I started to work more in production. I produced a lot of plays for theatre before and some movies. And also this big festival that is now in its 25th edition this year in São Paulo. We have a lot of common ideas about projects and I really liked Travis’s work before I met him and after I met him even more [chuckles].

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Q: I want to get back to the film for a second and I was curious about the choice to outfit the main character Alex with these bright white sunglasses. They seemed to become an integral part of his character and I noticed that he took them with him everywhere he went.

T: The sunglasses were something, and this is one of the reasons that I love filmmaking, they were one of those spontaneous things that you can find, everything from clothing to locations to equipment, that sometimes it is something that you would never have been able to predict. Jonny Mars who plays Alex showed up to one of our pre-production meetings and he had those on and it was such a striking “look at me but don’t look at me” kind of impression that they made because they are white. I liked them on him and so I decided this would be part of his costume or his armor. I also like that they seemed a little bit ’80s and I like that his whole thing is just a whole hodge-podge of things that have been found. I didn’t want him to look ‘hipsterish’ and we were careful of not doing that. So I felt like his armor or his costuming was an assemblage of different things and not a particular design aesthetic.

J: I felt like he could hide some of his feelings behind those glasses.

T: Yes, sure they were to hide behind, but then they are also white which says ‘look at me’.

Discreet premiered at the 67th Berlinale Film Festival in February in Berlin and is currently touring festivals across the world, most recently appearing at the San Francisco Film Festival in April. It will also be featured at MIX in São Paulo later this year.

Cover frame: DOLCE & GABBANA DG1288