Sequin in a Blue Room – Neil Baker talks to writer and director Samuel Van Grinsven

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

Ask any gay man about their first experience of gay sex, and many will talk about the excitement, apprehension, fear and doubt of their first encounters. For many gay men of my generation, first meetings were secret and full of risk, often kept hidden from public view. Some of us flirted with the social danger of a local gay cottage or cruising on a wet Saturday afternoon. In contrast, others resorted to clandestine meetings away from any public view. In the years since, gay confidence has grown, but has the risk of cottaging or cruising diminished in the new online world of gay hookups and dating?

Cruising was inherently risky for teenage boys who were only just finding their feet. In secluded areas or rundown toilet blocks in the heart of town, men of all ages hoped they would catch a bite, leading to a brief non-verbal acknowledgement and a quick sexual release. These meetings could be scary and abrupt but also full of addictive adrenaline and risk.

The arrival of online gay dating apps such as Grindr marked the beginning of the end for many local gay cottages and cruising grounds, with many arguing the apps freed gay men from their years of hiding. But is this new digital world any safer for young gay men? After all, many of these gay apps are full of blank profiles, faceless pictures and unknown identities.

Samuel Van Grinsven’s Sequin in a Blue Room explores the digital world of teenage gay sex by bravely and boldly examining one young man’s quest for anonymous sex and pleasure.

The result is an urgent and timely coming-of-age film that isn’t afraid to explore various issues facing young gay men as they dip their toes into the online world. Here, the vulnerability of our teenage protagonist is cloaked in a youthful shroud of invincibility as he enters a digital Sydney sweetshop full of enticing new tastes.

I recently caught up with director Samuel Van Grinsven to explore the urgent and important social themes held in Sequin in a Blue Room.

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 about 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 hook-up 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?

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 from Melbourne acting school, 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, which 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 dissect the world of online gay hookups? 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.

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?

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 is 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 20s now, and there were certainly risks for me; 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.

Sequin’s journey embodies the excitement and false confidence many young people experience when first using an app in the safety of their bedroom. Do you feel young people really understand the world they enter when 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?

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 are 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?

That’s a tricky one. I think these terms are such a strong part of queer culture now that attempting to lose them is probably an uphill climb. I think we are already rapidly seeing a drop in 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.

It’s important to state that many people have a positive experience with online hookup apps and dating. However, 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 app’s experience can and has been traced to the closures of physical queer spaces that used to serve the purpose of community or meeting places. On the other side, the positives of identity and sexual exploration that come 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 hook-up 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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