Writer-director Samuel Van Grinsven’s seductive, visually striking debut feature, Sequin in a Blue is the compelling story of Sequin (Conor Leach) a gay teenager exploring his burgeoning sexuality in the digital age, who is obsessed with an anonymous hookup app and the no-strings encounters he arranges through it. When he finds his way into the mysterious Blue Room, an alluring IRL anonymous sex party he immediately falls hard for a captivating stranger (Samuel Barrie). Fixated on the young man, Sequin becomes determined to find his way back into The Blue Room to see the him again, putting himself in increasing danger. World premiering at the Sydney Film Festival in 2019, where it won the Audience Award for Best Feature, the film’s festival run included LA’s Oufest and TIFF Next Wave.
With Sequin in a Blue Room available on demand in the UK now from Peccadillo Pictures, ahead of its US release on May 17th, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann had an exclusive conversation with queer filmmaker Samuel Van Grinsven about being inspired by the New Queer Cinema movement, the intersection of digital technology and young gay men, only listening to lines of his lead actor’s audition tape before casting him, and his admiration for Hong Khaou’s Lilting.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: What kind of research did you do with your co-writer Jory Anast and how did the stories you heard influence the screenplay?
Samuel Van Grinsven: “Jory and I have known each other since we were teenagers, so there was a fantastic shared history for the two of us to draw from in telling a story with a teenager at its centre. In the early stages of script development, we spoke with as many people as we could within our community about their experiences coming-of-age in what has been a rapidly changing time socially and politically as queer people. What we found were striking similarities. From growing up faster than their peers, to seeking out intimacy and relationships with those older and more mature than them. There are some scenes that are closely based on those conversations, as well as entire storylines that stemmed from my own experiences.”
It’s a queer coming-of-age film, but Sequin doesn’t seem to be conflicted about his sexuality and his father is accepting of him. How intentional was that and without the tension that we’ve often seen in queer storylines on screen emerging from those aspects, what else did you want to explore?
“Very intentional! I was initially hesitant to make a coming-of-age film as my first feature. Growing up as a queer teenager in a largely conservative part of Australia, the few queer films that ever reached my screens were often coming-of-age stories. They were the mainstream ones, and at the time, any queer film that achieved mainstream success often did so because it was palatable. In approaching my first feature film, my first instincts were to avoid that space, to find another genre that had fewer queer voices, where something new could be added. As I delved deeper into development and research I fell in love with the 90s movement of New Queer Cinema. The early works of now established directors like Gregg Araki and Gus Van Sant.”
“These films brought an electrifying freedom and youth to the screen. The characters were honest to where they came from, and their stories unafraid to play with form and genre. Unashamed to be queer and not remotely concerned with being palatable. It had such a profound influence on me because it was the most raw and truthful depiction I had seen of my own experience of being queer. That’s where the film came from—an attempt to capture the unique confidence, agency, and tensions of a queer teenager in the digital age—an attempt to see my experience reflected on screen. It’s a coming-of-age story that is not remotely concerned with coming out. Where sexual discovery is not only easy, but accelerated. Where vastly different generations and experiences of being queer collide within a single hookup app.”
What are your thoughts on the intersection of digital technology and queer sexuality?
“It can be a double-edged sword, people trace a lot of negatives to the prevalence of app culture in the queer and especially gay male world. Everything from the closure of historic queer spaces to a growing generational divide in our community can and has been blamed on digital dependency. On the other side, the positives of identity and sexual exploration that comes with these apps can’t be disregarded. I would also be the first to say that I have had transformative moments of connection via apps. Moments of communication with every ounce of honesty and authenticity as a connection in the flesh. The two aren’t mutually exclusive.”
I was impressed with the way the film conveys the digital world; the design of the ANON hookup app chat function and the way it was shown on screen and the tension that you managed to create through Sequin’s use of it was so effective. What did you want to achieve with that element of the film?
“The digital world in the film is exactly that, its own world. I have always found it dishonest when modern day film depicts current day youth and don’t treat the online world as a crucial form of communication. It didn’t feel possible to tell a story of queer sexual discovery without it. We worked with the incredible digital designer Chris Johns to create multiple social apps that appear alongside the actors on screen. The main one being a fictional app titled ANON. It’s a hookup app, not unlike our real world equivalents, except ANON is strictly anonymous in its presentation and rules. In approaching the design, we wanted to give the app similarities to our shared experience of these apps, but heighten it. Placing the app’s movement, colour palette, sound and vibration in the thriller space. It allows the app to grow alongside the tension in the film, making it not only a function of communication on screen, but also a function of character and tone.”
The film features some brilliant work by your cinematographer Jay Grant, can you give us an insight into your collaboration with him on the overall look of the film and how you wanted to shoot The Blue Room itself?
“At least 90% of the film is interiors. Jay and I were interested in an interior Sydney. Because the film is about hookup app culture, with the men that Sequin is dealing with, a lot of scenes have to happen behind closed doors. Characters are inside looking out, so for my cinematographer and I it was about exploring what Sydney looks like from the inside out.”
“Also, it was really important for me not to have blue sky in the film. For the majority of the film we strip all blue out of the scenes, so it’s taken away from costume, set design and grading. We wanted to make The Blue Room feel dreamlike and otherworldly, both to the characters and to the audience. When you’re starved of a certain colour for so long and then you’re immersed in it, what effect does that have on the audience? It was interesting to explore that.”
I was impressed with what you achieved on screen with what I’m sure was a modest independent budget, it never felt as if your ambitions or imagination was thwarted because of money; did it force you to be inventive?
“The film is actually my graduate film from AFTRS. It was a micro-budget and that was hard. Everyone on the team has to take on four roles rather than one, but I wouldn’t have had it any other way for my first feature. I mean, I’m saying that with the benefit of hindsight! I’m sure at the time I wasn’t saying that, but I think that’s the beautiful part about independent cinema; you’re forced to constantly aim towards achieving what everyone tells you will require a bigger budget, more crew, and more time. It makes you all work so much more intimately together, because everything is a challenge. Everything is a true collaboration, because you’re really relying on everyone’s particular skill set to pull off the impossible. From that comes a really tight team and a team that are all on the same mission. I wouldn’t change that for anything.”
Tell us about Conor Leach who is excellent in the film. Why did you cast him and what was he like to collaborate with?
“Finding Sequin was one of the most difficult aspects of making the film. The character is specific, but the role is also understandably confronting for a lot of young actors. I am a new director, I didn’t have a track record to prove I could pull off this film, so understandably a lot of agents and artists were hesitant. Conor’s agent had recently signed him fresh out of acting school and on instinct she sent me an email saying she had a good feeling about this film and about Conor for this role. Having a lot of trust in instincts, I asked to see a self-tape.”
“To this day I have only ever watched the first two lines of Conor’s audition. In an instant he captured the self-awareness, quiet confidence, and the cunning energy of the character. We flew him up to Sydney a couple days later and I offered him the role on the spot.”
We see Sequin dressed in his sequin top at various points throughout and it’s almost like a costume that he puts on to play a role, then there are significant moments where he takes it off. It’s almost a character in itself, and you light it beautifully. What’s the story behind it?
“The sequin shirt was a part of the script from day one. Funnily enough, in pre-production and on set, Conor and I decided never to discuss our own understandings of it. I told him to approach it like anything else in his process and to find his own backstory for the costume as part of his character development. On the last night of filming we finally shared our take on the shirt with each other and the differences were hilarious. To his credit, Conor’s was much more playable for the character.”
“From my perspective, the sequin shirt has never been real. It is a visual metaphor for the loss of innocence. The scenes it appears in, the moments where it is removed or stained or damaged are all tied to that loss or the perception of that innocence in the eyes of the other characters.”
I liked the intergenerational dimension of the film, what did you want to explore there?
“A lot has changed in the western queer community in a very short space of time. That doesn’t mean it’s a more positive experience for everyone though. I’m in my late 20s now and there were certainly risks for me, and I have spoken with people in their early 20s who experienced the same risks in new ways. That’s the interesting tension point Sequin in a Blue Room places itself in. A unique period of time in which vastly different experiences of being queer collide within a digital platform.”
There’s some danger inherent in Sequin’s behaviour, but most of us have put ourselves in situations that in hindsight feel pretty risky. How did you go about establishing the tone; did you want there to be a cautionary tale aspect to the film or for it to be more neutral?
“That was a real balancing act at every stage of the process. Our aim as a team was to create a coming-of-age sexual discovery film that was sexually positive but didn’t shy away from the realities of this experience. When it comes to sexual discovery, there is a thin line between sex and fear. That line is universal, a spectrum we all have all experience of. That’s the truth I was looking to capture. Different audiences take away different meanings from that truth.”
The film isn’t that explicit but it feels like we see more than we do which I think is always a great achievement with sex and horror. Give us an insight into your approach to shooting the sex scenes, working with the actors on them, and how you wanted the sex to look in the finished film.
“It’s a delicate process, and one built on trust between not only the director and the cast but as a team. In approaching the sexual content, the writing was the most important first step. Any sex scene that was going to be a part of this film was only going to be there because it served a story and character purpose. That same mindset moved with us into the writing of every sexual act or description in the screenplay. It then moved through to the choreography, in collaboration with the actors. Sex for the sake of sex on screen is actually boring to an audience in a narrative sense. If the film feels as though it is more explicit than it actually is, it’s because the sex is story and emotion driven, which is closer to the audience’s real experience of sex.”
Which filmmakers do you particularly admire and were there any specific films, artwork, or photography that you were influenced by for this film?
“Sequin in a Blue Room was inspired by Gregg Araki’s Teen Apocalypse Trilogy and the early works of New Queer Cinema. Outside of film references, I was really inspired by the photography of Matt Lambert and visual art by Yves Klein.”
Finally, what’s your favourite piece of LGBTQ+ culture or a person who identifies as LGBTQ+? Someone or something that’s had an impact on you and why?
“If I am ever asked to recommend a queer film, I always say the same one; Lilting by Hong Khaou. I saw it in my first year of film school and it has never left me. The central performance from Ben Whishaw is one of the best I’ve seen.”
By James Kleinmann
Sequin in a Blue Room is released via Peccadillo Pictures on UK/Ireland digital platforms from April 9th 2021. The film is released in the US & Scandinavia from May 17th 2021. For more visit: SequinInaBlueRoom.film