Sequin in a Blue Room – In Conversation with Director Samuel Van Grinsven

24 mins read

Sequin in a Blue Room is released via Peccadillo Pictures on UK/Ireland & North American digital platforms from 9th April.

This article refers to ‘cottaging’, a gay slang term originating in the United Kingdom. Cottaging refers to anonymous sex between men in a public toilet, park or identified place.

Ask any gay man about their first experience of gay sex, and many will recount detailed stories of excitement, apprehension, fear and doubt. Their first tentative steps into a new sexual world shrouded in nerves, anticipation and hormonal energy. For many gay men of my generation, these first encounters were secret, clandestine and at times full of risk. For some, they revolved around a secret school romance kept hidden from public view. Others found themselves drawn to the local gay ‘cottage’ where promise, risk and heart-pounding tension lit up a wet Saturday afternoon. Of course, mention ‘cottaging’ to any gay youngster now, and the response is bound to be “Cottage…what?”. The very concept of sex in secretive locations like a public toilet, park or alleyway, alien in concept in our new online world.

Cottaging was full of risk, with men of all ages honing their seduction skills in the hope they would catch a bite. Success leading to a brief non-verbal acknowledgement and the hunt for a secretive location for sex. The end of any encounter, marked by release, satisfaction and a deep burning sense of guilt. Both men walking away, often never knowing the name of their sexual partner. Sometimes these meetings were scary and abrupt, the experience alone enough to make sure a young man never returned. However, occasionally these encounters also led to ongoing relationships, support or telephone liaisons. For many teenagers, these ‘cottages’ were their only option for physical release.

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The arrival of online gay dating and hook up apps such as Grindr changed this landscape forever. Many arguing that their arrival not only liberated gay communities but enabled stronger connections. However, have they really made the world of first sexual encounters any safer for young gay men? And do they still operate in a similar world to that of the ‘gay cottage’ they replaced? After all, surely, these apps continue to embody the clandestine risks of ‘cottaging’. Their platforms, filled with blank profiles, faceless pictures and bodily stats of pure invention. But unlike ‘cottaging’, we allow these mysterious people entry to our home, bedroom and social circle. The phone in our pocket, a gateway to sex, desire and attention; a gateway that once opened is difficult to close.

These questions, debates and thoughts find an urgent and timely voice in Samuel Van Grinsven’s new film Sequin in a Blue Room. His movie, a brave and bold exploration of gay sex in an online world. Focusing on the interface between youth, sex, reputation and control. The dangers posed for young people who are outwardly confident but inwardly immature, held within the journey of one young man in Sydney. The audience never learning his real name, just his online identity, ‘Sequin’. An identity wrapped in his ‘Twink’ appeal to those who vie for his attention.

To say Van Grinsven’s film is one of the most important gay coming-of-age films of recent years is an understatement. In my opinion, Sequin in a Blue Room is nothing short of ‘essential’ viewing; its importance in the canon of LGBTQ+ cinema, unquestionable as it opens up a timely debate around online hookups, sex and vulnerability. While at the same time exploring the urgency of a gay teenage need for security and experimentation. The hidden vulnerability of online teens, cloaked in a sense of invincibility and control. Here, the imaginary world of the ‘app’ presents a danger to both young people and adults as it weaves a net of convenience. The online world created, defying reality from pictures to age, bodily stats, and intentions. In turn, creating a world of power imbalances, control, obsession and hidden desire.

I recently caught up with director Samuel Van Grinsven to explore these urgent and important social themes. Our conversation digging deep into the impact of ‘Sequin’s’ journey and the online world reflected in his experiences.

” 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”

Samuel Van Grinsven

Hi Samuel, thanks for taking the timeout to talk to me about your new film Sequin in a Blue Room. I thought the film was unquestionably one of the most important gay coming of age films of recent years. Can you tell us about the film’s journey from page to screen?

I found and fell in love with the 90’s film movement of New Queer Cinema. The early works of filmmakers like Gregg Araki and Gus Van Sant brought an infectious freedom and youthful energy to the screen. Stories that were honest to where they came from, but unafraid to play with form and genre. Unashamed to be queer and not remotely concerned with being palatable. It was courage, on-screen; courage that I remembered feeling as a teenager coming-of-age.

Sequin in a Blue Room came from exactly that. 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. 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. An app where self-assured Sequin, the 16-year-old protagonist, comes face to face with a different set of challenges than our expectations predict from the tried and true genre.

Part of the reason Sequin in a Blue Room carries such power is newcomer Conor Leach’s central performance. How did you go about casting Conor? And was it challenging finding a young actor who could embody the complexity, innocence and confidence of ‘Sequin’?

Very challenging! Australia is still a largely conservative country in a lot of ways, and we certainly found that in initial responses to the screenplay. Of course, some of that was warranted. I am a new director, and to make a film like this requires a building of trust. We were lucky to be championed by some key actors and industry to find the right cast.

Conor had just graduated acting school in Melbourne, and this film was one of the first roles his agent had put him forward for. I actually looked at him and was not interested initially until his agent reached out directly and asked if he could self-tape. He did, and to this day, I have only ever watched the first two lines. He instantly brought self-awareness and power to Sequin that I think we so often miss when portraying young queer characters. When I look back on my own coming-of-age, I have memories of being surrounded by immense courage and conviction in queer identity despite the odds. Conor brought that, and it was instantly refreshing and challenging. He was on a plane to Sydney within a couple of days and offered the role on the spot.

Was it always your intention to create a bold, brave and challenging film that dissected the world of online gay hook up’s? And do you feel discussions on the vulnerability sitting behind ‘gay apps’ are long overdue?

You’re never entirely certain what an audience will end up finding challenging or bold in a film. You find it at different stages of the filmmaking process. There were scenes that hit hard onset; you could feel it in the cast and crew – a palpable tension. There were scenes that hit harder in the edit. There was a day I walked in to check on the editor, Tim, and he told me to sit down and watch a scene, but he was going to press play and head home. I did as he said and instantly understood why; he had just spent 8 hours editing a scene that is still incredibly difficult for me to watch to this day.

Yes, there is tough and challenging content in the film. But, I never set out with the intention to shock. That response from audiences is a response to honesty. I wanted to be honest about experiences in my community but also share some of my own truths from my journey as a queer youth. I think there are a lot of discussions overdue within the queer, and especially gay male, community. It’s been a fantastic experience to engage in those discussions with this film, be it in an audience Q&A screening, interviews or online.

I think that is also an interesting part of where we are currently in the history of queer film. In recent decades, queer stories that reach a wider audience are often concerned with looking outward. Be that biopics or historical dramas, we’ve been playing catch up. Finally sharing the stories that for so long we weren’t able to. But now, with more queer films finding an audience, we are seeing conversations that look inward. Stories by us, for us. That’s not only important, but it’s also exciting and necessary.

“When I look back on my own coming-of-age I have memories of being surrounded by immense courage and conviction in queer identity despite the odds. Conor brought that, and it was instantly refreshing and challenging.”

Samuel Van Grinsven

In opening this interview, I talked about the journey from secretive gay meetings in public places to hook up apps. Do you feel the landscape has really changed for young gay men in the risks attached to their first sexual experiences? And in your view, are these experiences still wrapped in secrecy, despite the progress made in social equality?

Thematically, that is an element at play in this film. There is a lot of queer theory written about this very subject. The idea of cycles of transgression that for many queer people, their first sexual experiences are acts of transgression. From that, a sexual pattern can develop where we may continue to seek out sexual experiences that are viewed as transgressive. That becomes an interesting theory when paired with the social progress of equality. It’s something I was questioning myself about the gay world immediately around me.

I do think a lot has changed; that doesn’t mean it’s a more positive experience for everyone, though. I’m in my late 20’s now, and there were certainly risks for me; I have spoken with people in their early 20’s 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.

Sequins journey embodies the excitement and false confidence many young people experience when first using an app in the safety of their bedroom. But, do you feel young people really understand the world they enter on creating a profile?

Young people, especially young queer people, are a lot smarter and more independent than we give them credit for. Firstly, we are talking about a generation of people who know how to use social technology better than any other. They can spot a fake, they can sense a dangerous situation, and they know what to look for. Is that always the case? No, but when tackling the writing of Sequin as a character, it was one of our key aims. To bring to the screen a 16-year-old young queer man who had the true agency and courage that you see in youth today.

That’s not what leads Sequin into dangerous situations. It’s the hubris of youth and his belief in his invincibility. In many ways, Sequin knows more about this world in the film than the older generations he interacts with. But it’s the selfishness and naivety of Sequin that is his downfall.

I don’t know of any gay man (including myself) who hasn’t used a gay dating app at some point. Do we, as a community, need to take the mental health outcomes of such apps more seriously? And should app developers be doing more to ensure the safety and security of those accessing their platforms?

Yes, more needs to be done. A part of that is looking at the underlying issues that are only heightened on these apps. That’s everything from racism to body shaming. We need to be more honest and active in fighting the fact that, for some reason, largely gay men believe it is okay to be more explicitly racist or sizest via their profiles on these apps than they are in real life. The outcomes of that are incredibly damaging.

Queer film and art is a part of pushing that conversation to the surface, and to do that, we have to show it honestly for what it is.

One of the fascinating discussions Sequin in a Blue Room raises is the use of terminology in sex (e.g. Twink). Do you feel that the gay community are at risk of labelling themselves based on sexual desires and preferences? In turn, creating sexual commodities rather than individuals.

That’s a tricky one. I think these terms are such a part of queer culture now that attempting to lose them is probably an uphill climb. I think we are already rapidly seeing a drop of terminology that is damaging, either to self-identity or to others. So there is a self-policing happening that is somewhat positive.

I also think you have to look at the most popular terminology for what it is and not be shy about it. Largely, these terms are used to speed up the process of casual sex via apps designed for exactly that. I don’t think you see these terms as prevalent in other apps that are more tailored toward relationships, for example. There is no denying that gay culture is openly sexual; these terms are authentically born from that, and I think there is enough awareness of that out there.

“We are seeing pop up online bars, queer gaming meet ups, watch parties and more live streams. Those spaces inevitably lead to new forms of social connections.”

Samuel Van Grinsven

It’s important to state that many people have a positive experience of online hookup apps and dating. But, do we risk losing the more personal approach of conversation, physical groups and connection in our ever-growing online world?

It’s a double-edged sword, the apps experience can and has been traced to closures of physical queer spaces that used to serve that purpose of community or meeting place. 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 points of connection and communication via apps. The two aren’t mutually exclusive.

A lot has changed in the western queer community in a very short space of time. Something I am passionate about here in Australia is the preservation of our physical history. That includes our gay bars, clubs, bathhouses and meeting places. It’s about viewing these spaces as more than just a physical version of their now online counterparts. These are spaces of our living history, of our survival and liberation, that we need to band together as a community to protect and share with new generations to help keep our story alive.

In a world where COVID 19 has dramatically altered the landscape of social connection and confidence, do you feel the use of hookup apps will also change to reflect this?

I think they already have. We are seeing pop up online bars, queer gaming meetups, watch parties and more live streams. Those spaces inevitably lead to new forms of social connections. I have also noticed a dramatic shift in people being comfortable with video calls, and dating and hook up apps have adopted that. If 2020 taught us anything, it’s how fast we can adapt. Because of that, I think there is a new genuine intimacy being found virtually that we used to think only existed in the flesh. Of course, it will go the other way once we are out of this, but I don’t see us letting that go entirely.

Finally, what do you hope people take away from Sequin in a Blue Room?

Firstly, I simply hope they are entertained and enjoy the film. Secondly, my hope is that people see a part of themselves in Sequin’s story. Be that the specificity of a digital queer coming-of-age or just that human story of searching for yourself in your youth and making mistakes of growing up too fast along the way.

Thank you so much for your time Samuel, and a truly stunning film. Sequin in a Blue Room is released via Peccadillo Pictures on UK/Ireland & North American digital platforms from 9th April.

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