High school and hook-up apps go hand-in-hand in provocative queer feature Sequin in a Blue Room, from cinematographer Jay Grant, an adventurous exploration of technology and young sexuality, and winner of the Sydney Film Festival’s 2019 Audience Award.
Interview by Dash Wilson.
Sequin in a Blue Room is a film to remember. Produced on a minuscule budget and having won the Audience Award at the recent Sydney Film Festival, this independent feature is a highly-accomplished queer coming-of-age tale and a true breath of fresh air on the Australian film scene.
Played by Conor Leach, in his feature film debut, Sequin is a precocious sixteen-year-old boy who hunts through the world of a hook-up app in an attempt to track down a mystery man. Whilst utterly fixated on this man, Sequin embarks on a journey of self discovery that is as dangerous as it is exhilarating. Co-written and directed by Samuel Van Grinsven, this no holds barred film has been building significant buzz on the local and international festival circuit.
We talked to up-and-coming cinematographer Jay Grant about his brilliant work on the film and how this impressive project came about.
AC – Sequin in a Blue Room has been a major success, recently winning the Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature at the Sydney Film Festival and is about to show at the Melbourne International Film Festival. How did you get involved with this project. Had you worked with any of the producers or creative team previously?
JG – Sam Van Grinsven (director) and I were both doing our Masters in Screen Arts at AFTRS. We connected quickly through a shared passion of similar films and film language and had teamed up on multiple short films for course work leading up to Sequin in a Blue Room. Sam had mentioned early in the course that he was developing a feature with a friend of his from California (Jory Anast, co-writer) as his masters final project and that it was going to be a coming-of-age thriller. By mid second semester I was presented with a screenplay treatment for Sequin In A Blue Room and was immediately drawn in by the thriller aesthetic.
Nicholas Gascoine (gaffer and photographer) and I were mates beforehand, having worked on a few jobs together before the film. I was a big fan of Gascoine’s photography, approach to lighting, interest in storytelling and just really enjoyed working with him so I pretty much asked him for the biggest favour I’ve ever asked anyone. To come on board as gaffer for a no budget, independent feature film being shot over five weeks.
AC – Was there ever a discussion on what camera and lenses shoot with? What factors did you take into consideration when choosing your equipment, both aesthetic and financial?
JG – Because it was such a tight budget for a feature it made sense to use AFTRS equipment where possible. The school had just stocked up on ARRI Amiras, Sigma Cinema Zooms and a Zeiss LWZ 21-100. We used the Sigmas and the Zeiss for a couple of reasons; the clinical look of these lenses felt precise for this modern story set within a digital age.
Van Grinsven and I had established the majority of the film would be on sticks. He wanted a lot of coverage so for the sake of efficiency zoom lenses made sense for quicker set-ups and not having to reposition the camera as much as we would if we used fixed lenses. I wanted to use a creeping zoom-in for particular scenes to bring subtle but tension building movement to a largely static visual language.
AC – What was your collaboration like with the production design team during pre-production? Can you talk about the ‘look’ you were working toward and what you set out to achieve? What references were you working from?
JG – I didn’t have huge involvement with production design; Anna Gardiner (production designer) and Van Grinsven had all of that under control. There were a few things like the three of us seeking minimal and empty locations during our location scouts to create Sequin’s mostly clean, cold, modern story world as well as a substantial space for the ‘blue room’.
Gardiner supplied me with several different thicknesses of plastic for a test shoot, making sure we had the right plastic for the blue room’s curtain maze that would work with our lighting set up and cast the right type of silhouettes, but still allow us to see some detail of the people behind the curtains. Gardiner, Gascoine and I also had to make sure practical lighting was dressed seamlessly, yet accordingly, in spaces like the blue room and drag queen’s apartment.
AC – How much CGI and digital work were you preparing for in post-production?
JG – Van Grinsven had spoken a lot to me about how the motion graphics would work on screen during pre-production, which is why the squared off static look really worked for this film. We wanted to avoid the frame fighting for attention with the motion graphics as that’s where a majority of the dialogue is delivered.
AC – There were many memorable scenes in this film; do you have a favourite shot or sequence? Why?
JG – The visual centrepiece of the film is the first time Sequin (Conor Leach) visits the blue room. It is, without a doubt, the most complex scene or sequence I have shot to date and I am most proud of it.
However I would have to say the most memorable scene for me is Sequin’s encounter with the character D (Damian de Montemas) at his apartment, and the way Damian is silhouetted in a close up when Sequin enters. It’s the most intense scene of the film and was the most simple yet effectively lit scene for me. Gascoine bounced an ARRI Pup off the mirror in bathroom which spilled out into the hallway.
While we started to work on lighting D, we switched off the lights and after a moment realised he just looked scary as hell in a silhouette… while simultaneously withholding from the audience that it was the same man who had initially lead Sequin into the blue room upon his arrival… until he steps into the bathroom light revealing himself to the audience. When D is finished with Sequin, Sequin is left in this glaring light reflecting off the bathroom mirror, heightening the sense of harshness and vulnerability Sequin had endured in that traumatic moment.
AC – The subject matter of Sequin in a Blue Room is quite intense and realistic in many ways – particularly in regards to the Australian queer and independent film scene. Was this something you were drawn too, and what was the vibe like on set?
JG – I was definitely drawn in by the subject matter. For me, the greatest thing about filmmaking and as a viewer is the opportunity and privilege of gaining insight and a deeper understanding and appreciation of culture, movements and simply a life you will never live. One becomes curious to know more and in having the opportunity to vicariously experience. Because of the sensitive and intense nature of the film Van Grinsven and Sophie Hattch (producer) were thoughtful of the actors and it was always a closed set.
AC – How did you work to achieve and maintain the ‘directorial vision’ of a film, while still imparting your own unique perspective as a cinematographer?
JG – Van Grinsven presented me with films and scene references from filmmakers like Greg Arraki and Xavier Dolan, among others. I broke the film down into sequential storyboards so we could reference the framing while shot-listing. He was clear about wanting to go for a largely squared off, static, mid-close-up, close-up style of framing. I was presented with an extremely clear vision and set of visual guidelines from the start which I found really helpful throughout production. I guess the way I was able to impart my own vision was by using the lighting style I felt suited the story. Obviously signing off with the director.
My gaffer and I had a meeting at the Art Gallery of New South Wales and scanned paintings for lighting references. He pointed out some of Rembrandt’s work and I was really digging the high contrast look, how the light drew my attention to the subject and how rich blacks embodied the frame creating a spotlight effect on the subject. I saw this dark and impactful style of lighting working well to display Sequin’s selfish and obsessive perspective while helping drive our imagery further into the thriller genre.
AC – Can you speak briefly about your own crew in the camera department? Had you worked with any of them before, and what was your working relationship with them like?
JG – Our first assistant camera and second unit cinematographer, Carina Burke, had assisted me on a couple of my Masters short films. Burke and I had a solid working relationship by the time we stepped onto Sequin In A Blue Room. Not only did she do an awesome job on focus but she kept the camera department running smoothly, freeing me up to focus on creative with Van Grinsven. It was my first time working with our second camera assistants and for the most part they were in-experienced but seriously keen to learn. Burke really took her time to help them out by teaching them tips and tricks through out the shoot. The same way Gascoine was teaching me about lighting throughout the shoot. Everyone was learning from everyone. The enthusiasm and support was infectious, and cool to see.
AC – How involved were you in the post-production process? How did you approach colour-grading? Were you trying to achieve a particular look?
JG – I wasn’t involved in the grading process due to other work commitments but I had always strived to achieve the look in-camera as much as possible. For instance, the D scene I mentioned before was shot with a tungsten light but I offset my white balance to 4300 instead of 3200 to bake a warm, almost orange look into the picture. I used this technique a few times throughout the film depending on light sources and their colour temperature.
Another thing I was really aiming for was that ‘Rembrandt look’; rich blacks embody the frame. I embraced an under-exposed look while shooting, particularly in Sequin’s bedroom and tin various apartments. I relied constantly on the Small HD false colour throughout the shoot for exposure and it was pretty common for my gaffer to say “Jay, there’s a lot of purple.” I was always conscious of where the audience’s attention should be drawn to and that everything else around Sequin is essentially meaningless because of his constant obsession and engagement with his phone and his pursuit.
AC – Looking back on what you, and the director and producers, had originally set out to achieve, do you think you succeeded? In hindsight, what might you have done differently?
JG – I do believe we succeeded in what we set out to achieve. What really blew me away was how, like many films, Sequin In A Blue Room found a new form of life during post-production. Van Grinsven and Tim Guthrie (editor) made some harsh but ultimately powerful decisions to let a hefty amount of scenes fall on the cutting room floor for a punchier more engaging film, and Brent Williams’ (composer) score set the perfect tone for this story. Looking back there’s a bunch of small things I would change with the cinematography, like a tiny bit less headroom, camera positioned another foot to the right et cetera. I feel that will always be the case and all I can do is use this knowledge for the future.
I’m extremely proud of what we achieved with essentially no budget for a feature film and I think we had a simple yet effective approach visually – portraying Sequin’s perspective and story perfectly – that was achievable within our tight budget, schedule and the support of an insanely dedicated cast and crew.
AC – Finally, what are you working on next?
JG – I’m currently in the early stages of pre-production for a short film I’ll be shooting with my mate Sean Clancy Donavon (writer/director) later in the year. It’s a raw and hallucinatory story of moral obligation and responsibility, set in the snowy mountains. Watch this space!
Jay Grant is a freelance filmmaker based in Sydney.
Dash Wilson is a movie reviewer and film-lover based in Brisbane.