Sean Baker on Red Rocket, Casting Simon Rex, and Making Movies in Polarized America

Sean Baker likes to turn his camera on the people and places Hollywood usually ignores.

In films like “Tangerine,” the story of a transgender sex worker that was shot with an iPhone, and “The Florida Project,” a look at an unemployed single mother and her young daughter who live in a rundown motel in the shadow of Walt Disney World, Baker has made a career of dramatizing lives lived on the economic margins. “Red Rocket,” his latest effort, is no different. The offbeat comedy centers on Mikey Saber, a down-and-out adult film star who returns to his small Texas hometown after washing out of the industry. There, he sells weed as a side hustle, while attempting to seduce a 17-year old donut shop worker who he wants to transform into a porn actress. A meet cute, it decidedly is not.

The film debuted to raves at the Cannes Film Festival and premieres in theaters on Friday, where it may be a tough sell for adult audiences, which aren’t exactly packing cinemas these days. But commercial considerations aside, it may be Baker’s strongest and most assured effort yet, a film that’s funny, disturbing and revels in existing in a moral grey zone. It’s also a showcase for Simon Rex, a faded MTV VJ who Baker rescued from career purgatory by giving him the role of Mikey. On a chilly Tuesday, under the heat lamps in the courtyard of New York’s Ludlow Hotel, Baker talked about casting Baker, making the movie during COVID, and the challenges that the indie film world faces in the pandemic era.

What was the inspiration for the film?
I met a handful of Mikey Sabers when I was making my film “Starlet.” It’s an archetype essentially. There’s a certain type of guy in the adult film world and they even have a slang term to describe them, “suitcase pimp.” Even though this is a niche part that’s buried within a niche part of sex work, it’s still very interesting and something I haven’t seen depicted before. I wanted to explore that. They had a psyche that I thought was so complex and made me question myself for hanging out with them. They’re essentially pimps and yet they win you over, because they have persona that’s entertaining and funny and designed to charm you. I was laughing along hearing their stories and then I went home and started to think, “oh shit, this person has really had some negative effects on people’s lives.” I wanted to put the audience in the same mindset that I was in, which was this roller coaster of emotion.

You shot this during the pandemic. Had you been planning to make the film before COVID hit?

No, I was developing a film that was much larger up in Vancouver, which became a passion project of mine and then COVID killed that. I was sitting in my L.A. apartment with the borders closed. I was mourning the temporary death of that project when my producer called me up and said, “I think I can find you a little bit of money to make a movie right now.” I asked how much and he said a quarter of the budget of “Florida Project” — every time you think you’re going to move forward and it’s a total step back. But I just decided, why not? We don’t even know the future of the film business at this point. If I have an opportunity to do anything, I should grab it.

What was the other film you were planning to make? Will you make that next?

We want to get back to it, but unfortunately I think that COVID has to be an afterthought and who knows when that is going to happen. It’s a bigger film, in the $12 million range. It’s a film about drug user activism. It’s like “Milk.” Imagine “Milk,” but about drug user activists. I’m asking the U.S. audience to forget about COVID right now, which is a major thing. Everyone is thinking about themselves and no one wants to think about the rights of drug users, because there’s so much stigma around that.

Why do you edit all your own films?

I have to edit my own films. If I was a studio director for hire and I handed in my footage, I would be fired on the first day. They’d be asking, where’s the coverage and what are you doing? I feel like the editing is 15% of my directing. I find the film ultimately in the editing.

Were there movies that inspired “Red Rocket”?

I was watching a lot of early ’70s Italian genre films, sex comedies and erotic dramas. Their approach to large age gap relationships, Lolita type things, I found to be quite bold and tonally all over the place. They’re not treating them just as morality tales. They’re trying to turn the audience on and turn the audience off at different points. It’s not just a big bad wolf, little lamb story. It’s not so black and white. I also looked at “Sugarland Express,” which I had not seen for 30 years, and I fell back in love with it. It’s hard to say it’s my favorite Spielberg, because he’s made so many masterpieces, but it may be the one I’d return to more than any other. The way he shot that Houston landscape influenced “Red Rocket.”

This may sound strange, but was “Eastbound and Down” another inspiration? Kenny Powers returning to his hometown after leaving for bigger and better things seems analogous to Mikey Saber’s journey in “Red Rocket”?

It wasn’t really an inspiration, but I do remember using that during an initial pitch. I said at the end of this long Zoom call that at least the fans of “Eastbound and Down” will like this movie. The way they approached the Kenny Powers character was similar, but we didn’t want to be as broad.

I went to a screening of “Red Rocket,” and a journalist later tweeted that it’s surprising that it’s the movie this year that’s not titled “The Worst Person in the World.” Joachim Trier beat you to that title. What do you think of that type of reaction?

That’s great because that person had that reaction to it. I’ve been getting a lot of reactions to it. I’ve been getting people who say they were rooting for Mikey and they don’t know why and they feel like the worst person in the world themselves. There’s no doubt that I’m aware of the fact that guys like Mikey have had extreme negative effects on people, but I also find it fascinating that they’re unaware of it. They’re in self denial. That makes it even more disturbing.

At the same time, Mikey is a hustler. He’s always selling. I would think that shares some similarities with the indie film world.

I’ve been dealing with hustlers all my life. I used to be a default hustler back in the day. When there was that IFP market, I would be outside with flyers. I love exploring the mentality of somebody in survival mode, especially in the U.S. where you have to resort to underground economies.

Most of your movies take place on the economic margins. You can feel every dollar that your characters spend, down to the last cent. Is that important to you to show?

Most definitely. I’m not in the most secure place myself right now, but I remember when I was not able to make rent. I remember those times in your twenties and thirties and you’re scared. You’re down to your last five dollars. That’s a reality for a lot of people. But that becomes a trope in these movies that I would like to get away from. Maybe in the next film we’ll talk about crypto or something and not show someone hiding a wad of cash in the VCR.

Why did you decide to set “Red Rocket” during the 2016 election?

To amplify the themes I was tackling, like division and politics in general. We were always a divided country and this two party system, which I despise, has been always keeping us polarized, but there was something about that election where because of Trump’s presence in it, it became in my eyes very much like a reality television show. I don’t think anybody was tuning in to find out what the candidates’ opinion on a policy was. It was more about who is going to give each other an evil eye. It’s only gotten worse since. I want to keep it ambiguous enough where audiences can apply their own politics to it. That’s important to me not to just be preaching to the left. In Hollywood, we’re mostly left and it’s so easy to do that. You’re not even talking to anyone else outside your eco-chamber. I hope both sides can discuss and see and debate their politics within this story.

Is that kind of conversation even possible? If you go on social media, the left and right seem very far apart. Is it naive to think that a film, any film, can bridge that gap?

I don’t know. I don’t know. Probably. And it’s upsetting to me. I’m friends with extremes. I’m friends with the most progressive of the progressive left. I’m friends with actual Trump supporters. We’re all U.S. citizens. We’re all trying to survive in this country, and I think this divide for me is becoming more and more troublesome. Who wants that? We want to be able to talk and discuss and now it just seems like there’s outrage if someone is one degree off of someone’s political views. You’re into this one liberal Democrat, but not into this other liberal Democrat. How dare you? It is bothering me. But at the same time I understand that I’m not a politician. I’m a dramatist and a filmmaker, and I just have to keep my politics to my films. I need to be a little more diplomatic and hopefully create something that can appeal to people with different viewpoints and ideologies.

Well, depicting a relationship between an older porn star and 17-year old girl doesn’t seem all that diplomatic. People are going to have very polarized views of that kind of relationship.

I’m trying to have the best of both worlds. I’m trying to keep us on that roller coaster, that balancing act.

What made you think of Simon Rex for the Mikey Saber role?

I saw potential in him for forever. I remember him on MTV, and I remember him resurfacing in the “Scary Movie” franchise and then again with Dirt Nasty. He always delivered. I could tell he had the potential to be a dramatic actor because he understood delivery and timing. He seemed like a survivor. The industry never gave him a meaty role, but it’s not like he gave up. He’s had peaks and valleys of celebrity and he could have thrown in the towel, but he didn’t.

Simon Rex isn’t exactly a movie star. Are you pressured to cast more established actors?

I am. Sometimes agents are like why don’t you want to meet with this guy? And my response is I I love him or her, I just don’t have a character that fits them. I wish I could write them, because I’d make a more valuable movie, but I don’t want to force it. I look up to directors like Paul Thomas Anderson or Spike Lee who understand how to put A-listers into their films, but it’s not me.

It’s been a brutal period for adult dramas at the box office. Are you worried about the future of these films?

I’m very concerned. I wish I were Nolan or Tarantino, and I could do more to get the message out, but I do what I can. I want people to go to theaters if they feel safe. They need you right now. We lost 1,000 independent theaters during the pandemic and we are going to lose more movie palaces. We shouldn’t lose them just because we have a more convenient way of watching things. Streaming is not a better way of watching things, it’s just more convenient.

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