Sex work and the city: Mikko Mäkelä on his intimate meta-narrative Sebastian

The story of a budding author turning to sex work to research his first novel, Sebastian poses many provocative questions about the creative process and queer life in London. Director Mikko Mäkelä joined us from Sundance.

24 January 2024

By Sam Wigley

Sebastian (2024)

On one level, Sebastian – the second feature by Finnish-British director Mikko Mäkelä – is a graphic study of the life of the eponymous queer sex worker in modern London. One level up, it’s about a promising young novelist, Max (also played by Ruaridh Mollica), crossing the line into sex work as he researches the lifestyle of Sebastian, his fictional protagonist.

Another level up still, the meta layers proliferate. It’s a film by a second-time director about a first-time novelist that works through many big questions about the creative process: who gets to tell whose stories? What lengths should creatives go to for authenticity? And those explicit sex scenes inevitably raise parallels in the ethics of performance between sex work and acting – Ruaridh playing Max playing Sebastian playing a string of no-strings lovers for well-heeled clients.

Set in the world of publishing and journalism – Max holds down a ‘permalance’ gig at a literary magazine, is preparing for a big interview with Bret Easton Ellis and has just had a short story published by Granta – it all makes for a self-reflexive brew as heady as the altitudes in Sundance, where Mäkelä’s film has just world premiered. Finnish-born Mäkelä has lived in London for a decade, making his low-budget debut, the gay romance A Moment in the Reeds, in 2017. He joined us on Zoom from his hotel room in Sundance to dig into Sebastian’s onion-like structure.

Mikko Mäkelä
© Danny Lowe

There’s lots in Sebastian. It’s about the creative process, and creatives drawing on their own experiences, and sex work. What was the first element to form in your head? 

I was very interested in looking at a character for whom sex work was more out of choice than for lack of them. And also looking at sex work as increasingly just another option in London’s gig economy. But that was intrinsically tied to that question of the creative process. In my work, I keep returning to the idea of looking at a writer’s life and their work, and that interrelationship, how we shape the narratives we tell, but also how the narratives we choose to tell end up shaping us.

There’s a lot of interesting detail in the film around what it’s like to be thinking through one’s first novel and researching it. How much of that relates to your own experiences starting out as a filmmaker?

I think it’s impossible now to create work without thinking about those questions. When you’re going to funders or publishers, we’re always faced with the question, what’s your personal connection to the material? Why are you the person to tell this story? So it’s a question that we all grapple with, but there’s also the danger of it becoming quite limiting as well. We wouldn’t want to end up in a situation where the only stories we can tell are documentaries about ourselves. We should be able to also use our imagination and empathy, which is really the foundation of storytelling.

There’s also a knowing reference to a novelist’s “sophomore slump” in it. With this being your second feature, did you feel you were struggling with expectations – your own or other people’s – in making a second film?

There’s that cliché of the difficult second album. You think that the first film is difficult to make, but then the second one is still even harder. My first film was a very micro-budget, no permission, no-questions-asked piece of work, that was done completely without any institutional support, and just out of a sheer willingness to tell that story. 

Sebastian has been my first time going through the more traditional development process and financing on a completely different scale. It’s been a really great experience, because BFI have championed the project from the beginning, and then we found other great partners in Screen Scotland and the Finnish Film Foundation to support the film. But of course, going from something that cost 30,000 to 2.5 million is a big step.

The film is very careful not to be judgmental about sex work. How did you navigate that, and how did you do your own research?

I had a lot of conversations that I can’t go into so much, because of the sensitivity and confidentiality of the people. And I studied the cruising websites to understand the ways in which people talk about the work and market themselves. We’ve seen many great films about sex work where sex work is presented as a consequence of trauma. I really wanted to approach it as something that can be empowering, but also not being blind to the risks that people take and potentially dangerous situations that people go into.

Max is a very resilient character, who is able to think through his perspective as a writer and is also able to distance himself a little bit into becoming an observer of his own life.

You mentioned other films about sex work. Were there any in particular that were touchstones for you?

François Ozon's Jeune & Jolie (2013): "Definitely a film that was on my mind”

In the research for cinematic references for the film, it was really difficult to find anything that was similar to what I was hoping to see, which I hope says something about the film being something quite new. But one classic that I really enjoyed when I saw it is François Ozon’s Jeune & Jolie (2013) – a very intriguing portrait of someone for whom sex work is not something done out of monetary need but for whom it’s also about a journey of self-discovery. That’s definitely a film that was on my mind. 

More so than other films about sex work, I’d say that more important reference points or inspirations for me were a couple of other films that look at the making of art in a playfully meta way: Olivier Assayas’s Non-Fiction (2018) and particularly Clouds of Sils Maria (2014). The way those films deal with ideas relating to artistic production and comment on the vicissitudes of the film and publishing industries is something that I would love for Sebastian to be in conversation with.

The sex scenes are very explicit, but they feel very honest and realistic. You’ve also got that key scene when Max’s mother tells him she’s read one of his stories and is quite horrified by the content. It begs the question, did it prey on your mind how your own family might react to some of the scenes in this film?

That’s a question that any artist, depending on their background, might ask: how will the work that I make be received by the people around me? And there’s also a question about generational gaps and attitudes. That’s a very important scene for me, as I wanted to present a contrasting view to where Max’s best friend Amna is talking about how important it is to be authentic and write something real; it’s because of that intimacy and truthfulness that it works for her. So to understand Max’s dilemmas, I thought it was very important to hear that opposing question: why do you have to write something so personal?

It’s a very textured performance from Ruaridh Mollica as Max/Sebastian. What were you looking for when casting that role? What did you see in him?

From the first tape, I saw such an intensity and rawness to the performance but also a vulnerability. He’s quite an internal character; he doesn’t give much away. He’s not wildly, loudly expressive. So I was very much looking for someone who was able to really communicate and capture that inner life in the smallest of gestures.

In other films about sex workers, there’s often a bit where they meet their first ‘ugly’ client, and you’re made to feel a bit repulsed by their bodies on the protagonist’s behalf. I liked that in Sebastian there was none of that; it seems very positive about different types and ages of body. 

Absolutely. I think to look at sex work honestly, we really need to also ask the question about representation of the clients, and who are these people? Why have they chosen to engage a sex worker, and what are their needs, and who are they as human beings? It was so important to represent characters with a real humanity to them.

There’s a bit where the magazine editor says she prefers to have queer writers writing about queer authors. Do you agree with her?

I think it speaks to the overall question of the film. How closely does our experience need to align with the subject at hand? It’s very case by case, and it depends so much on context. It’s absolutely essential to feel some connection to the material, whether it’s actual autobiography or whether it’s an emotional connection or connection to a theme. But it also relates to the conversation that we’ve been having around casting for queer roles. As long as we haven’t quite redressed the imbalance against queer actors getting to play queer parts, or queer writers finding platforms, I think it’s certainly important to continue to provide those opportunities.

You moved to London from Finland for university and have lived there for a decade now. Was there a particular feeling about the city that you wanted to get across, something about its character that you were eager to show?

Maurice Pialat’s À nos amours (1983), which Max goes to see at the cinema

This film is so much born out of the city. I was never able to imagine anywhere else. I really wanted to capture what it means to be a young, queer east Londoner, trying to find your way in the city and looking for your voice. We’ve seen so many depictions of New York as the place of opportunity, but I feel like London is very much a place for a character who is ambitious and wanting to make something of themselves. So I wanted to depict a city where you feel that, while life is tough, anything is possible to achieve.

I’m always intrigued when there’s a scene in a film of the main character going to see another film at the cinema, and what the choice of that film might say. Max goes to see Maurice Pialat’s À nos amours (1983). What does that reference mean for you?

I saw the film for the first time when I was writing Sebastian, and there was something that really spoke to me about the character of Suzanne (Sandrine Bonnaire) – the way she is finding herself and almost communicating through sex, and relating to people through her burgeoning sexuality, and wondering about her own emotional life and her attachments to people. I adore Pialat’s cinema.

Sebastian, backed by the BFI Filmmaking Fund with National Lottery money, screened at the Sundance Film Festival.

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