‘Sebastian’ Director Mikko Makela on Providing a ‘Frank and Honest’ Portrayal of Queer Sexuality in Sundance Pick (EXCLUSIVE)

Finnish-British director Mikko Mäkelä isn’t shying away from sexual content in “Sebastian,” which has its world premiere on Sunday at Sundance Film Festival.

“As was already the case with ‘A Moment in the Reeds,’ I wanted to provide a very frank and honest portrayal of queer sexuality,” he tells Variety, referencing his 2017 debut.

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“For so long, queer sexuality has been shied away from and censored. It has been such a balancing act for queer filmmakers and a very unfair one, because we want to provide representation for ourselves, but we also don’t want to alienate audiences and people who finance our films. Luckily, things have improved a great deal.”

In Mäkelä’s sophomore film – competing in Sundance’s World Cinema Dramatic Competition – aspiring writer Max (Ruaridh Mollica) leads a double life as sex worker Sebastian, hoping to use his experiences in a novel. But while Max tries to explore the emotional as well as the carnal, potential publishers push for titillating content.

Produced by James Watson for Bêtes Sauvages, “Sebastian” is co-produced by Aleksi Bardy, Ciara Barry, Rosie Crerar, Erik Glijnis, Severi Koivusalo, Leontine Petit and Dries Phlypo for Helsinki filmi, Barry Crerar and Lemming Film.

Mäkelä will reunite with Watson and Bêtes Sauvages also for his upcoming project “Elina,” a period drama about two sisters in 1960s Helsinki, dealing with mental illness.

Mikko Makela
Mikko Makela

“I have been so excited about this recent wave of Finnish cinema finding audiences [abroad] and, although my next projects are in English, I definitely see myself making films in Finnish. The most important thing is to be authentic,” he says. “We keep talking about the ‘authenticity’ of one’s voice and it seems to be the topic I keep returning to. Do we need to have a lived-in experience in order to write about something? Who has the right to tell a certain story? Are we allowed to just use our imagination or empathy instead?”

His protagonist, Max, tries to figure it out as well, all the while dealing with the ever-changing expectations of the marketplace.

“Of course there is a need for social media presence, for example. We all feel this pressure, especially indie filmmakers, because it can be a crucial tool. I saw that with my first film, which was a micro-budget production,” Mäkelä says. “When he feels he has finally found that authentic story, that he is writing the best work of his life, it’s not what they asked for. As filmmakers, we are faced with these discussions as well. Because if your work doesn’t get published, or seen, what does it do?”

Avoiding negative depictions of sex work was also crucial.

“Max also doesn’t want to tell another ‘sad sex worker story’ [in his book]. We can’t deny certain things happen, but he has also found so much empowerment from it until that point,” he says. “When I moved to London, I realized how many young queer men were involved in sex work. At the time, I found it quite striking. I wanted to approach the topic of it becoming more common and continue to interrogate any lingering stigmas around it.”

He continues, “One of the conflicts Max faces is that although his publishing house almost fetishizes the idea of that experience, he might not be comfortable being open about it just yet. There is this internal battle.”

Max’s encounters with clients – played by Jonathan Hyde, recently spotted in “The Crown,” and “Godland” star Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson – were “detailed already in the script,” says the director.

“I couldn’t just write: ‘They have sex.’ We had discussions about each scene, because it’s a story that’s so much about the power and potential of sex to inform one’s identity and the sense of self.”

Which is also why he sees “Sebastian” as an “affirming” journey.

“He is a resilient character, willing to put himself in situations that can be seen as traumatic or dangerous, but there is this thrill, too. There is a sense of exploring what has been a taboo and using the license of research to live out these experiences. He is able to own his new sense of self and be open about being a sex worker as well as a writer,” he says.

“So much of the story is told through how Max/ Sebastian is evolving as a character in these moments. Sex is such an integral part of our everyday humanity and the way we relate to the world, so why shouldn’t we give it the same cinematic treatment we do to other aspects of our life?”

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