Sequin in a Blue Room is the exciting debut feature from filmmaker Samuel Van Grinsven. Having previously worked as a director in independent theatre, Van Grinsven co-wrote the film with Jory Anast and made it as his final Masters project at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School (AFTRS). The result of an intense collaboration with a small and dedicated crew, the film is an accomplished and gripping micro-budget coming of age thriller that marks the arrival of a bold new voice in Australian cinema. The film follows Sequin (Conor Leach), an independent, self-involved sixteen-year-old who explores his sexuality through queer hook-up apps. After being invited to an anonymous sex party known as the Blue Room, Sequin becomes obsessed with a man he meets in there, and in his efforts to track him down he falls into a seductive and dangerous mystery.
Sequin in a Blue Room has been generating attention both in Australia and overseas. Its Australian premiere is at Sydney Film Festival and it will have its international premiere at Outfest in Los Angeles in July. Ahead of its screening at SFF, I caught up with Samuel Van Grinsven and had a wide-ranging discussion about the film.
You made this project while you were studying at AFTRS. How did it come about?
I went into the Masters program sort of unexpectedly. I knew I was going to make my first feature and I went in with a completely different film. The co-writer of Sequin, Jory Anast, is based in LA. We’ve collaborated a lot in independent theatre, where she would write the shows and I would direct them. We decided to write something and originally it was a very different film. It was a different concept altogether, something that we’d had in the bank for a while and talked about every time we’d meet up. We started developing that script and at the same time I stumbled across this film idea which I knew revolved around this idea of the Blue Room. Then it all came really quickly: the way that the room would look, the way that it would feel, the rules of that space and then I couldn’t get an image out of my head which was a moment in the Blue Room. We started developing it and every time the two of us would talk on Skype, we would spend more time talking about that film than the original film. I was about midway through the first year of the Masters when I decided to make the switch. We had some team members on board and we kept the same team, including the producer Sophie Hatch. It really wrote itself after that. We wrote it really quickly and then went straight into production. It was a six-month turnaround.
Watching the film, it felt like something of a genre hybrid. Do you see it as a genre film?
Absolutely. I think what excites me the most about queer cinema right now is this real push toward: what’s the queer interpretation of genre? It’s just getting more and more ambitious, which I love. The film is hugely inspired by the New Queer Cinema movement, which is what I did my Masters research paper on. I focused specifically on Gregg Araki and Gus Van Sant, who are two of my favourite filmmakers. I was inspired by the absolute youth energy their films have and in the 1990s they were dealing with interpretations of classic American genre cinema in such an interesting way.
I wanted to capture that and investigate that, but by playing with a trope of queer cinema that I feel like a lot of people are getting tired of and has even become a staple of mainstream queer cinema, which is the coming-of-age genre. I wanted to take that and marry it with a thriller.
Do you have a particular favourite film of Gregg Araki’s and Gus Van Sant’s?
I love Gus Van Sant’s first film Mala Noche, I think it’s absolutely incredible. Obviously My Own Private Idaho too. For Gregg Araki, that’s really hard [laughs]… probably Totally Fucked Up.
You’ve spoken about how due to the political and social circumstances of the times, a large amount of queer films from the past and present have looked outward and are concerned with presenting an image of queer experience to the outside world and that with this film you wanted to look inward. Can you talk a bit more about that?
I grew up in the first generation of queer people to come of age with social media, so our experience of being queer is so vastly different to the generation before us. Gay rights liberation in the Western world has moved forward so quickly in such a short amount of time and I didn’t see that tension, that energy between two generations being reflected on film. That’s really where the backbone of the tension in the film came from, this idea of generational divide and when you have a single social app where all these vastly different experiences of being queer collide, what do you get from that?
For a teenager who’s sixteen, who’s not questioning his sexuality at all, he’s just exploring it, who’s incredibly confident and selfish, how does he react to people who have had a vastly different experience? How does he understand the rules and confines of certain people within the app that he meets? The Blue Room was really a physical interpretation of that as well.
The Blue Room is such a striking set. What were the visual inspirations for it?
I wanted Sequin to be put in a space that felt limitless. Starting with a colour, Blue was really important. It’s actually based on a specific shade of Blue: IKB 79, which is a shade of Yves Klein Blue. It’s sort of become mythical, this shade, because it doesn’t age. It has a special treatment on it where it doesn’t lose colour, so that particular colour and his series of works on it have become synonymous with eternal youth. What was interesting for me was that hypersexual spaces in cinema are often represented by red. There’s something about the colour red that for me is at once sexual, whilst also having a sense of danger to it and sexual positivity throughout this film was really important to me, so the colour blue and the blue room I wanted to feel not like some taboo dangerous place. It has an air of mystery and at times an air of shame around it, but I wanted the space itself to feel beautiful. Perhaps not safe, but that anyone who would enter it would feel endlessly curious, which is why it’s set up like a maze and doesn’t have an exact sense of direction. I didn’t want the audience to be able to map it out in their head. Something you can get lost in.
It’s also based off the long, important place that gay spas have in the history of queer culture, especially for men, as a place of safety. Those rules come from that: this idea of no names, no strings and being able to go somewhere and feel safe and explore your sexuality and be openly sexual without judgement and without repercussions. They still exist and they still play such a huge, important role in the sexual culture and the safety of a lot of queer people.
A criticism that occasionally gets aimed at Australian films is that they often have quite passive protagonists. One thing that struck me about this film is how active Sequin is as a character.
I hadn’t really thought about that, that Australian films often have passive protagonists.
I guess, characters that events just happen to. Whereas all the trouble Sequin gets into is almost entirely his own doing.
Yeah, absolutely. I think a lot of that came from something that me and the co-writer talked about early on, which is this idea that young queer people often grow up faster than their peers and their classmates, and with that comes this sort of young independence. That comes from my own experience as well. I grew up in a conservative part of Australia and when I wanted to go and explore my sexual identity, I often had to surround myself with people who were older than me. I found that it made me a lot more independent than the people around me and a lot more independent from my family. I think a lot of young queer people tend to move out of home quicker. All that definitely came out in the writing of Sequin.
We interviewed a lot of people who were our age, people that we know and some people that we don’t and that kept being a recurring theme in people’s stories. I guess it’s that sense of when you’re exploring something that you’ve been told is taboo, you have to actively seek it out. It’s not going to find you, because it’s been told for so long to live in the shadows. For me, that even came down to going to a gay club for the first time, or even the first time I went to a gay marriage rally. I was always actively seeking it out, trying to be a part of the community and trying to find my community. That’s definitely there in Sequin in the way that he propels himself constantly through this narrative.
Conor Leach gives a great lead performance. I was surprised to hear that it’s his very first acting role in a film, and that he hasn’t even been in a short film before. What was the experience like working with him?
It was incredible. The greatest experience I’ve had working with an actor. Just remarkable… he’s an absolute blessing. Casting that role was incredibly difficult. Early on in the writing process I was aware of what I would be asking of an actor in writing that role, what it was going to take and how difficult it would be. Sequin doesn’t talk a lot and he makes a lot of bold, active choices that you have to understand without it being spelled out for you.
We actually started casting the role of Sequin while we were still writing the script and we went through about four to five months of casting. We were maybe a month out from shooting and I had a shortlist, but I was definitely starting to get worried that we weren’t going to find the right person. Authenticity was also quite important to me. Even today, a lot of mainstream queer coming-of-age stories cast young straight men and I think you don’t always get to see that sort of natural femininity or different representations of masculinity in a lot of queer screen stories.
Conor’s agent reached out and said she had a good feeling about the film and had a good feeling about Conor for the film, and thought I should see a self tape from him. I said yes and I’d seen quite a few self tapes at that point. I watched the first two lines of his tape and I still haven’t watched the rest to this day. I called straightaway and we flew him up the next day and he was perfect. He changed the character in a lot of ways. It’s the most incredible feeling when you see someone just inhabit a role so quickly and you start connecting the dots. They were obviously there for who this character is, but it’s not until you see it physically personified that you go: Oh my God, that’s him.
How do you think the city of Sydney functions in the film?
Good question. At least 90% of the film is interiors, and I was really interested in an interior Sydney. Because the film is about hook-up app culture, with the men that Sequin is dealing with, a lot of stuff has to happen indoors and behind closed doors. There are a lot of scenes where characters are inside looking out, so for my cinematographer 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 scenes, so it’s taken away from costume, set design and grading. We wanted to make the blue room feel dreamlike and other-worldly, 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.
There were some nice Sydney details, like 1994 Mardi Gras shirt Sequin wears at Virginia’s house.
Yeah! Our costume designer William Tran brought that in early on. Sequin wears quite a monochrome wardrobe throughout the film, then certain characters come into his life that open his eyes up to the history and the legacy of the LGBTIQ community and that bright orange shirt starts to appear as part of his wardrobe. Even the year is kind of important in a way as well, because the early nineties is the period that most inspired the film. I think the character of Virginia really represents figures in our community who hold the stories. Something I long for more of is a dedication to preserving queer history, because things have happened quickly and because of the political nature of the last century a lot of that history has been lost. A lot of our stories have been lost because they were kept secret and when Virginia comes into Sequin’s life, they bring with them that storytelling and that passing down of information. That costume comes into the film at around the time that we meet them.
Within the particular genre elements in the film, I did like the humour that’s in there as well. I was wondering if you could talk about the opening title card that reads: ‘A homosexual film by Samuel Van Grinsven’.
I’m getting asked about that a lot more that I imagined, which is interesting. The answer is actually two-sided: it’s a reference to Gregg Araki, whose films in the 90s often started with statements like that. 1 The humour in Gregg Araki’s work is very self-aware. Also, the film explores a part of our queer community and specifically our gay community where labels are really important. With hook-up apps like Grindr, speed is a really important element and a way of making that faster is labels. You know: top, bottom, gay, straight, masc, femme… the list goes on. That is really a crucial part of the language in the film, especially the screen language of the graphics and the way that we display the digital world. Those labels are really present and that’s all inspired by reality. I liked the idea that the film needed to label itself as well. In that tradition of digital immediacy, the film labels itself right from the get-go; it tells you what it is, it tells you how it identifies and then you go into the rest of the film.
How did you go about designing the apps that are used on screen?
Our motion graphics artist, Chris Johns, did a really beautiful job. We wanted to push it and have fun with it and let the app sit inside the thriller genre as much as it’s a crucial part of the coming of age story. With that came the heightening of the digital design: the way it moves and the sound world of it was really important, and because there’s multiple phones used in the film and there’s multiple different social media apps, they all had to sound and feel different. There’s three different forms of vibrate used and the length of it increases in certain scenes. It’s one of those sort of subtle things that maybe ten years ago wouldn’t have an effect on an audience but now audiences are so clued in and that digital language is an everyday part of our lives, so we knew we could push it a little bit harder than we’d seen in other films.
We wanted to treat it equally, as an equal way of communicating, because for me it is, you know, the conversations I have digitally are for me are just as meaningful as the ones I have in real life. Audience testing became really crucial because you have to take into account that not everyone reads as fast. My generation is used to that communication and can keep up really quickly but it was important for us to screen the film to different age groups and test how far we could push it. In early scenes it’s slower, to sort of coach the audience into it. We had someone come and see the film recently who said you can’t go to the bathroom, which I quite liked.
Did the film evolve a lot in the editing process?
The first cut was three-and-a-half hours, so it came down a lot. A lot of that was really honing in on this idea of selfishness: constantly keeping the audience with Sequin and letting his selfish world outlook play into how long we hold shots, what we hear, the importance of other voices in the room and where his attention shifts. We wanted to bring that out in the motion graphics, the sound design and the pace of the cutting and that’s something we honed in on early and pushed every single week of the cut. The editor Tim Guthrie comes from a music background and that was helpful because there’s fifty minutes of music in the film, which was composed by Brent Williams. Because of the minimal dialogue and the sort of spaces Sequin is in, music was crucial and I think Tim’s background and his approach to rhythm was really beneficial.
The film was made very cheaply, for an amount which you could probably call micro-budget.
How was that experience?
It was hard. Everyone on the team has to take on four roles rather than one. But also, I wouldn’t have it any other way for my first feature. I mean, I’m saying that with the benefit of hindsight [laughs]. I’m sure at the time I wasn’t thinking that. I think that’s the beautiful part about independent cinema; you’re forced to constantly aim towards achieving these things that everyone tells you 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 and you have to sort of pull off the impossible. From that comes a really tight team and a team that are all on the same page. I wouldn’t change that for anything really.
What advice would you give to filmmakers who are looking to make their own low-budget features?
Bring your team on early. All of them, all the heads of department. Don’t settle. Yeah, I think that’s a big thing. Also know early on that having less money means everything will take longer. You have to account for that and you can’t lie or cheat around that, it’s just the reality. If you want it to be the way it is in your head, just be prepared for it to take longer.
Finally, the dreaded question: what are you planning to work on next?
I’m working on the first screenplay draft of my next feature film, with the same writer, Jory Anast. It’s another queer genre film exploring grief in a queer family dynamic.
I look forward to seeing it. It was great talking to you.
Thank you so much.