I have never seen anything like William Means’ Blue Square Heart. It is a film about declaring who you are at all times while re-examining your past pain and trauma. Bolstered by a vulnerable and go-for-broke performance from Baltimore-based drag queen Sextia Neight, Means’ film is disruptive and in-your-face but is rooted in jagged heartache. There is freedom in throwing yourself into performance, art, and movement, and that notion is bloody alive in Means’ spectacular film.
Blue Square Heart might shock some audiences. We open on Diane, a single mother taking her artistic, young son, Jake, to a therapy session. In this uncomfortable meeting, Jake admits to a therapist how he experimented with an older boy, and this woman encourages Jake to give his pain a shape and a color. Whenever he sees this blue square, he has to train himself to fight it and, ultimately, kill it. We then flash forward a few decades later to a grungy club where a batch of queens are getting ready for their performance. These queens will not be performing Britney Spears or Ariana Grande, so bachelorette parties should check themselves at the door, thank you very much. Jake’s drag alter ego, Feryl Crowe (AKA one of the best drag names ever…) is set to take the stage, but when a heartbroken Diane shows up minutes before Feryl goes on, it throws the queen for a loop.
When speaking with Means, he is very open about his own experiences that inspired Blue Square, and his honesty is refreshing. Gay and queer people have an ease when talking about these things, so the conversation was honestly one of the highlights of this entire season. Means put so much of himself into the script, and his passion truly shines through.
“I thought this film was not going to exist for a long time,” Means admits. “The simple seed of the idea was, to put it bluntly, that I had gay conversion therapy when I was eight years old. The opening prologue is ripped almost verbatim from my childhood. I went to grad school at the American Film Institute, and some people would put their trauma on screen in a very unappealing way. When I was a young kid, I experimented with the boy next door, and it was at the age where no one knew what they were doing. It was pure experimentation, and in the midst of my parents’ divorce, I told someone and they brought me to a therapist. It wasn’t this sinister camp or a church. I ended up growing up thinking there was something wrong with me. I was praying to God every night hoping to take my gay thoughts away. It wasn’t until college that I was unapologetically into boys, and the blue square thing was one hundred percent from reality. I drew it as a villain and I realized that I had this therapy. I kept writing different different script ideas, and that blue square dialogue continued to pop up. There was a version of it where two middle-aged women were sitting poolside with one trying to cure the other, but once it came time to introduce the idea, it didn’t work.
The latter half of the film came from when I went to a drag show at a diner in Washington D.C. around midnight with some of my roommates. It was this tiny gathering. After a few queens performed to something “normal” like “Firework,” another queen came out dressed as a horrifying Donald Trump and wipes his ass with the American flag on stage and starting stapling money to himself. I followed this queen for a few years. Somehow these two ideas came together. Part of it, film was my creative outlet, and my family would ask me why I insisted on making things that were so gay, gross, and graphic. A lot of it was letting out the things I wanted to say, and then I found this form of drag. That’s the most extreme way I could express it, and I bridged them together.”
When Diane takes her seat, she is plunked down front and center–the other audience members are even curious to who this woman is. Feryl meets her in the bar and warns her that the show will get very dark, but Diane insists on staying. She’s never seen her son perform, and her eagerness is almost disarming. Every parent should be supportive of their child, and she is simply trying to stand by that credo. Does she know that Feryl is going to staple her tips to her body…or hurl herself onto some rainbow-tingled fluorescents…probably not.
“The opening was the part of my life that I never thought anyone would ever find out about,” he says. “As a kid, I wrote it in a journal when I was having big reactions to it. I ripped the pages out and burned them, because I was so scared that someone would find them. It was this feeling that this thing had to stay so hidden. I especially thought that the last person I would talk about it with would be my parents. I was so self-deprecating, because I am not into emotional torture porn. I wasn’t going to make a repressed ballerina story.
I knew that if I was going to tell this story, I wanted it to flip on your expectations that it will be a sad story. I didn’t want to make a heavy drama, and I wanted to throw it into the freedom and the fun that is the escape of a gay club with your shared community. What happens when the person you are most afraid to express yourself in front of enters that safe space? I have a good relationship with my family nowadays, but I kept wondering what they would do if they were pinned to their seat. I told Jessica [Lea Risco] that Diane is feeling sorry for herself because of her break-up, and she’s probably already been to two bars already. I wanted the show to be so shocking that it felt as a train wreck. But also, I wanted it to serve as a reverse gay conversion therapy. You are sat down without being able to move and indoctrinated with acceptable behaviors for society. I don’t think Diane was unlearning her biases, but I wanted it to feel like the flip side of the opening. We put her in a chair like the therapy session in the first scene.”
When I mention that I admired the choice that Means stayed away from the trite choice of Feryl and Diane arguing on stage before his performance, he responds simply. Shouldn’t we be drawn to why characters do the things they do rather than judge them or write them off? We should be fascinated with what Feryl does on stage, and then want to dig into his past to learn more. How else can we gain more empathy?
“That is a part of filmmaking and storytelling that is very important to me,” Means says. “I am really drawn to characters that are considered “fucked up” or offensive or degenerates. I want to see what the heart is behind them, and I know that it comes from this core feeling that was left from this therapy. They tell us that we are going to hell and what we do is a sin, and I know I am not that person. I can’t look at somebody else that offends me or makes me mad and think they are a piece of shit. I want to know what’s going on there. I needed to put that into the film. There are a lot of people who would make Diane a villain or make the therapist very sinister. Everyone needed to seem to live in a grey area and they needed to be complex. What really put roots in my brain as a kid is that the person I spoke with seemed to warm and welcoming, and she genuinely thought she was doing what was best for me.”
Will people be shocked by Feryl’s act? Probably. But then listen to the hordes of fans hurling money in the stage’s direction. They understand that Feryl is expressing a part of herself that she needs to get out. There is more to the blood on stage.
“I’ve had a few people read the script and they questioned whether I was condoning self-harm or mutilation. One of my good friends’ mothers watched it and she told me how much she loved it, but she looked at stuff that is going on in her own life with people she knew who did that and empathized with Diane. This is really about how Sextia as a performer and Feryl as a character reclaiming or taking ownership of pain.”
Will Diane ever go back to see Feryl perform? I almost didn’t want Means to answer the question. He wasn’t definitive, but he has suspicions.
“That’s a good question,” he ponders. “I would like to hold the space that she will, especially if he has a show that means a lot to him. I could see, though, her asking him to see pictures after the fact. Or maybe just have Feryl talk to Diane about the show he just did. She could nod her head and say, ‘That’s nice.’ Maybe she will see a video on an iPhone. You know, from a distance, so she doesn’t have to go back in the room again. For me, the tension of the ending was like a bomb going off and dealing with the repercussions. When a bomb goes off, world peace isn’t declared–that’s not how human relationships work. But I am hopeful that Diane would ask about it again.”