For better or worse, you will hear about Red Rocket. From who? It’s a coin toss between a raving cinephile and a sanctimonious pop culture prognosticator behind a line in the sand. But make no mistake, they’re talking about the same movie.
Provocation has always been on the frontlines in Sean Baker’s work. Seven features deep, the writer, director, producer, editor, and casting director is known for portraying the unsexy realms of America’s working class (and, more broadly, the human condition) in full color, earning newfound acclaim with Tangerine and The Florida Project. Diving headfirst into beauty and darkness, he takes an uncensored approach, more interested in the cinematic search for truth than catering to the faint of heart. He tells stories about people on the fringe, bruised characters too complex to simply love. Or––in the case of Mikey Saber––hate.
The bubbly, airheaded ex-porn star (played by an electric Simon Rex) at the center of Baker’s new film is as despicable as a swindling, down-on-their-luck suitcase pimp might seem. And as incredulously charming. We meet him when he returns to his industrial hometown, Texas City, Texas, where his embittered wife Lexi (Bree Elrod) refuses to give him a second (third? fourth?) chance. That is, until Mikey’s shameless persistence wins out.
Soon after, he meets Strawberry (Suzanna Son, whom Baker found in a movie theater lobby, in her debut role), a spunky 17-year-old girl working at a donut shop, and they embark on a bizarre love affair that’s as comical as it is disquieting. We got on a call with Baker to talk about his magnetization to touchy subject matter, how the film was made, and the rollercoaster experience he had at the Cannes premiere.
The Film Stage: You made Red Rocket with a skeleton crew on a guerrilla-style shoot over 23 days. What was the makeup of that crew and how strictly did people adhere to roles?
Sean Baker: Okay, I’ll break it down for you. The camera department was Drew Daniels, his first AC, his second AC. Then we had Chris Hill who was doing gaffer/grip. He was one person doing both the gaffing and the gripping. So, that’s four. Then, you have Alex Altman who is sound, so that’s five. Then you have my sister––her name is Stephonik––she’s doing production design. Those are essentially all the roles, that’s it. Everybody else was a producer who was wearing many hats. So, I have six there.
Then you have our four producers. You have Shih-Ching Tsou who acts in the film. She plays Miss Fan at Donut Hole and is also one of the producers. She also did continuity and costume design. Then you have Samantha Quan who did coaching on the film. She did makeup, and she did basic producing. You have Alex Saks who did COVID compliance, catering, and basic producing. And then you have Alex Coco who essentially filled every other fucking role [laughs]. Everything from location scouting with me to location management to casting, I mean like crazy. Oh, I forgot to say Shih-Ching was in charge of casting some of the extra roles. So, I was primarily casting but she was doing some of the extras. So, that’s it. And then our actors. Oh, we had one PA who came and went, came and went. That was essentially it.
You’ve garnered a reputation for achieving a depth of authenticity in your films. Like in the way you only use real locations, or cast people you find online or in the street. In that sense, it often seems like the stories you tell spring forth organically from your real life encounters. Is that true? And do you direct other creatives on your team to apply that same mentality to their work? Is everyone looking for things that are already in place?
Most definitely. The way that Shih-Ching always starts off with her costume design––she also did it on Tangerine––was, you know, she talks to the actors first. And she’s like, “As we’re fleshing these characters out, let’s see what you have in your wardrobe.” And, so, there’s that. Then with locations, it’s all about that. Locations can become a character. And being on location in the environment you’re shooting in, so much is revealed to you. Like, for example, I primarily did the location scouting with Alex Coco, who’s one of the producers on the film. And I had a food truck written in for where Strawberry was going to work. It was a food truck outside the refineries. But when we were driving through Port Arthur and we went into Groves––Groves, Texas, that’s the name of the town––and saw Donut Hole it was like one of those moments.
You know, we slammed on the brakes, we were like, “Oh my god! This couldn’t be more perfect. This is like one of those things that was sent from the film gods.” Not only the proximity to the refineries, the fact that you can get the refineries right there in the background. But there’s also a parking lot that works perfectly. There’s also the colors. There’s also the sexual connotation that comes with donuts. And then there’s a link to one of my previous films. It was so perfect on every level that it was just like, “Let’s just pray we get the owners of this establishment to agree to allow us to shoot.” And they did, and they were wonderful. Obviously, that then develops and then you suddenly start writing that into your script and then you write donuts into your script a little more. You change things. So you can see how it organically evolves.
I heard through the grapevine at Cannes that Suzanna Son broke her leg celebrating a few days before the premiere after seeing the final cut for the first time. What happened there?
Yes! I wanted her to see the film for the first time on the big screen, but that wasn’t possible. So we sent her the link. And supposedly, halfway through the film, she was really liking what she was seeing, she was really digging it, so she put it on pause, got up, and did a little dance, and I guess slipped on the floor and went right down and broke her foot [grimaces]. So, she had to do the red carpet with the boot and everything. At least it happened from her joyous excitement of the film.
But, if you were at the premiere… okay, so [laughs]. Tell me whether or not you picked this up at all: I was convinced it bombed. I really was, and I’m not joking, not embellishing. My wife, Samantha, who’s here in the other room, she was right next to me. And, you know, the ovation doesn’t start until after the credits, and we have credits with no music. You know, hearing crickets? We were literally hearing crickets! And because of the wonderful acoustics of that room, I did not get a sense that the audience was digging it, and especially because the audience didn’t have a reaction the way we subsequently had in New York and London, where it was, like, crazy.
So, I remember for about two minutes––and this is such a Curb Your Enthusiasm moment––I was just leaning over to Sam going, “Okay, look, um…it didn’t go over well. We’re not getting an ovation, but it’s okay. I will be chill. I won’t freak out. Uh…it’ll play better in the U.S. It’s not a failure. The big deal is that we’re going to have to talk to Simon and Suzie and Bree after this, because it’s their first time and they don’t understand, they might be upset, you know, they might feel really bad. We’re going to have to talk to them. We’re going to have to figure that out.”
You know, this goes on for like two minutes. Then the ovation starts, and you know what? I thought it was a mercy clap. For two minutes. So, if you look at the video where I hug Simon. You were right there, and I don’t know if I was showing this on my face, but when I was hugging Simon, I give him one of those pats on the back like, “Better luck next time. We’ll do better next time, man. Sorry it didn’t work.” And then I was looking around––after two minutes of being in this uncomfortable place of, “Stop pitying me. I know we failed.”––and I said, “Wait, is this good? Do they like it?” And my friend was like, “Yeah! Yeah! It’s good!” And it kept on going for another three minutes, and literally my world flipped. I went from feeling utter failure to feeling success in about three seconds.”
So you did finish the edit three days before the premiere?
It was pretty tight. I think whoever gave the three days number is talking about us tweaking the effects. We have a lot of hidden effects in the film, a lot of cleanup. So, It was really just about getting it to the proper place to be presentable. And then after Cannes we did a few more tweaks.
Things that would be noticeable?
No, I think only I would notice. A line or two that had been forgotten that we put back in, you know, but nothing significant.
When you’re editing, is it just you alone in a room or do you have people working with you?
No, no. That’s the wonderful thing about digital editing these days. You know, I can edit in my bedroom, which I do. Then, of course, there’s taking it to be mastered at Photo Chem and that whole ordeal. But I’m just editing on 1K HD proxies on my Macbook Pro, and yeah, that’s it.
I saw where you mentioned the film being influenced by The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and 70s sexploitaiton films. What were your comedic influences?
Yeah, a lot of the Italian sex comedies of the early 70s, they’re not really well known in the U.S. at all. They don’t get much play over here. But that’s why we thank Ornella Muti at the end of the film. She was in a lot of those. And she is very much like, well somewhat an inspiration for the Strawberry character. So, there’s that. But also I would say, like, anti-hero comedy that we don’t see a lot of anymore. Just obnoxious characters through film history. I’m thinking of Kurt Russell in Used Cars. Characters who are just fun to watch but they’re hustlers.
And then, I always encourage improvisation, comedic improvisation. So I allow my actors, if they want to be funny, to go for it. And obviously I already knew Simon had that, that he could do that. And, so, you know, using him as inspiration, too. I mean, a lot of his humor, especially from the Vine years and his YouTube stuff. It’s just kind of him being an obnoxious dude, and that’s what we were going for with this film. So, he could just lean into that.
What draws you to such dark, controversial topics?
Maybe because they are controversial. And what makes them controversial. There’s obviously something about these subjects. They’re very divisive subjects that people have strong opinions about. You know, obviously a lot of the subject matter I cover has stigma attached to it by our society. And in some way––I hate to actually put it out there but––I’m subversively trying to chip away at that stigma. By having these everyday, universal stories applied to, perhaps, these controversial subjects. And I’m talking about sex work and drug use and other things our society looks down upon in a way that I feel is unfair. So, I’m trying to approach them in a way that’s different from the way that Hollywood has been tackling these subjects for the last hundred years. So, there’s that.
And then also I have personal connections, you know? My next film is going to be on drug user activism and I consider myself a drug user activist. So, it’s really about that, too. The hidden homelessness situation of The Florida Project was essentially an issue that I did not know about, and I didn’t think anybody knew about. So it was something that I really wanted to draw attention to. So, it really depends on the film. But I do take it as a challenge, too, sometimes. Like, for this film, knowing that I’m tackling an anti-hero who is essentially recruiting a younger woman for the adult film world. That’s obviously going to make, well, it’s provocative! The concept itself is provocative. So, how do I tackle it in a way that is challenging and just isn’t a simple big bad wolf and little lamb story?
Instead, make it more complex, you know? Explore that moral grey. You know, the moral grey thing is probably the answer to your question, because I don’t see it tackled anymore. We’re black and white, good and bad. Here’s good. Everybody’s good, everybody’s saintly. There are no flaws, no change. It’s just, “These are the characters we feel safe watching on film.” Okay, really? Is that where we’re at? Isn’t that sad? Isn’t it sad that we can’t have dark characters anymore? We can’t have villains, unless they’re completely, like, Darth Vader. So, I’m interested in exploring truth in the human condition, so that’s a lot more complex.
Also, I was going to get back to your comedy question because there was something else. I’d have to say behavioral comedy is probably my biggest influence. And dynamics, interactions between people. I find a lot of humor in that, because I recognize myself. So when I watch the films of Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, especially early Ken Loach. I don’t know if you remember the soccer match scene in Kes. One of the funniest scenes I’ve ever seen, because that coach reminds me of the crazy coaches I had in high school. It’s like, “What are they doing?” [Laughs]. They’re taking this so seriously and it’s just, like, a bunch of kids. I just find that so funny, because it just shows us how ridiculous we are as human beings, as creatures. Anytime I see a behavior that shows that to me, I find comedy in that behavior.
Red Rocket is now in limited release.