American director, producer, screenwriter and editor Travis Matthews has made quite the name for himself over the course of his career, and last year intrigued critics at the 2017 Berlin Film Festival with his most impressive film to date; Discreet. Matthews has become prominent in the realm of documentary filmmaking, of which form remains evident throughout his latest film depicting an America blindfolded. He directed alongside James Franco on his previous feature-length project in 2013 “Interior. Leather Bar”; which re-imagines the lost forty minutes of William Friedkin’s 1980 film Cruising. As an openly gay filmmaker, Matthews has been able to explore LGBT concerns over the course of his career, but arguably does so with Discreet more boldly than ever before. The film stars Jonny Mars as Alex, a drifter who discovers that the man responsible for destroying his childhood is alive upon his return home. He proceeds to calculate his revenge while still dealing with internal conflicts of acceptance and repression. Sitting down with Matthews, we begin to discuss what makes Discreet such an engaging, powerful, and political piece of work:
The opening consists of such a juxtaposed collision of images; bacon, wallpaper, a dead body. How did you decide to begin the film this way?
I wanted people to know immediately that they were entering a movie with experimental features. The bacon sizzle introduces the use of ASMR sound as a major access point into Alex’s psyche, and I like to think of the whole movie as an ASMR video in its own way.
Childhood experiences of sexual abuse are the roots from which Alex (Johnny Mars) has grown, and this is very much a character study. What compelled you to portray such a character?
The genesis of the film was to create a character who was confused and traumatized by something – a cabal of aging white men with a perverse kind of power they cling to with Faustian means – as a metaphor for the monster that is the modern-day Republican party in the US. It is needed to be rooted in something this awful and that began from a young age.
He is a figure of impermanence; no real home and in a permanent state of transience. Do you feel that there are many people out there like Alex? Forever present but never visible?
More and more so. Isolation and invisibility among men, especially men who are pushed out of breadwinning roles they may have been promised as children, is on the rise. I think that suicide rates among middle aged white men is one of the leading killers now.
He is intent on surveying ordinary life, is this to try and capture normality, and in that escence achieve it?
I think it’s more about control, and in recording it, as Mandy suggests, it makes it somehow exist and be real, less in his head. There’s a game of mastery that is seductive to Alex and hence his attraction to Mandy’s way of seeing the world.
Mandy (Atsuko Okatsuka) plays an ASMR star in the film, of which Alex becomes obsessed with, and provides very interesting commentary on the dangers of the ‘youtube sensation’. Would you like to discuss your intentions here?
ASMR is a strange sound/video culture that was originally popularized with people who suffered from PTSD. This was my initial interest in utilizing it/her. But it’s a subgenre of Youtube culture that I find paradoxically very intimate and alienating at once; child-like and sexualised as well; removed and connected. I thought it represented Alex in many ways and felt like a world he’d be fascinated with.
Do you feel that the presence of online media is seen as a comfort to people like Alex, or something that is quite deceptive and toxic?
It’s how you use it. The deeper we go into the film, and Alex’s psyche, the more confused he gets with messages of good/bad or healing/destructive and they all become blurred together for him. I wanted this to be somewhat reflective of our time of “fake news” or post-facts, which is depressingly only getting worse.
The name of the film, “Discreet”, can be best used to describe the sexual encounters of the protagonist; very underground and shut off from wider society. What inspired you to explore this very hidden community of people?
I was in pre-production on another film, living in TX for some time, and i noticed how these messages from right wing propaganda with rigid, xenophobic and racist rhetoric about what it meant to be “a man” was influencing the ways in which gay men interacted and also hid their sexuality. It was a starting point, exploring the reasons for and dangers of discretion.
This is a film subverting, challenging and addressing notions of masculinity. If you wish for your audience to come out of the film having learnt one thing, what would you wish it to be?
It was meant to be a time stamp on a moment in time, a full sensory experience, one that reflected the anxiety and confusion of the age we’re in and the ways in which aging, straight, white men will go to Faustian lengths to maintain power, irrespective of how perverse, illegal or destructive those lengths might be.
The sounds of sizzling bacon etc. are a very interesting choice. Would you like to comment on your artistic decision of their inclusion?
It comes back to the role of ASMR. Sound was always going to be an essential component to the story, especially as we go deeper into Alex’s head.
In the vaguest of terms, Discreet is a revenge-thriller that conforms to no revenge-thriller currently out there. What are your influences on the film?
Haneke, Lynch, Carpenter and Hooper.
Some of the imagery conjured here is rather terrifying, do you feel that Discreet could be considered a Horror film of sorts? Some scenes certainly possess an unhinged, Lynchian vibe?
It’s been described. I think by Jonny Mars, as an “internal horror movie”. It’s its own strange beast, but I think it’s apt.
Last of all, how was your experience of the 67th Berlinale? Did you see anything while you were there that you particularly enjoyed?
Call Me By Your Name gutted me at an 8am screening and I’ve seen it twice since.
Thank you ever so much for your time, Discreet was without a doubt one of my highlights from the festival and I applaud you for making it.