For Sean Baker, filmmaking is an opportunity to delve into facets of human experience that aren’t typically showcased on the big screen. Since his debut feature, 2000’s Four Letter Words, Baker has immersed himself in real locations, often casting locals in the roles alongside bigger name actors. His last film, The Florida Project, was a deeply captivating—and tragic—look at children growing up in motels outside Disney World. The movie was highly decorated, particularly in critics groups, and earned Willem Dafoe a supporting actor Oscar nod, but Baker’s plans for his next project, a film about the opioid crisis, was derailed when the pandemic hit.
So Baker pivoted back to an idea he and his co-screenwriter Chris Bergoch had a few years back and penned the script for Red Rocket, in theaters December 10. The Texas-set story follows a washed up porn star named Mikey Saber, played winningly by Simon Rex, as he returns home and attempts to restart his career by courting a young woman named Strawberry. Baker and his small crew shot the film last fall for a relatively low budget.
“This production was so small—tiny!—because of all the limitations imposed upon us by Covid,” Baker recalls, speaking to Observer over Zoom. “I had to make this film for a quarter of the budget of my last film, The Florida Project, but there was something so liberating and free about it that honestly if I don’t make [my next planned project] I’m going to make another small film like Red Rocket. It was so nice and intimate and freeing. It felt like a return to my real, real indie roots. Almost student-film roots.”
Here Baker discusses the inspiration for Red Rocket, casting Rex and what it was like filming in a small Texas town during the pandemic.
Observer: Was there a particular person or experience that inspired the character of Mikey?
Sean Baker: Not one person in particular, but a handful of men we met who were like Mikey Saber. My co-screenwriter, Chris Bergoch, and I were doing research in the adult-film world for a film called Starlet, which was the film we made before Tangerine, and we noticed this archetype. There’s that slang term applied to them that we even have in the film: suitcase pimp. It doesn’t represent all men in the adult-film industry, but it’s definitely a particular type: male talent who are known for living off of female talent in the adult film world.
Getting to know them was very interesting. I was of two minds with these guys because on the surface level, in order to get what they want, they have to be hustlers. They are very charming and entertaining and even funny. I remember hanging out and laughing, having fun with them. And then at the end of the night I would be driving home and thinking about everything I’d just heard and questioning why I was laughing. Why was I hanging out and socializing with these men? Lots of the things they told me were pretty reprehensible. I was very torn and I thought, “That means there’s something there I should explore because I have not seen a character like this on film and TV before.” It was a challenge to tackle a character study of one of these men and put the audience in the same position I feel I was in when hanging out with them. It’s an uncomfortable space to be in.
It’s very conflicting as the viewer. Mikey is so compelling to watch, but he’s also an awful person.
Exactly. There were certain character traits that I saw in all these men. They’re extremely narcissistic. Extremely unaware of the negative effect they were having on other people. Seeing themselves as the victims of events. And also having this incredibly idealistic optimism about their own future. Which I never understood because they just kept getting themselves into one mess after another. It was this complex psyche that I found fascinating.
Why did you set the story in Texas?
If you Google where adult film stars come from the top three states are Ohio, Texas and Florida. So it was one of those three. But I also wanted to set it against the oil and gas industry. It was important for thematic purposes, linking it to the theme of division that I’m exploring with the characters. Also, on a visual sense shooting against those refineries of the Gulf was incredibly visual. You have the smoke stacks, the flare stacks—the heavy industrial backdrop adds a lot. And then of course there’s a lot left to interpretation. People have asked “Is the environment a way of seeing Mikey’s toxic masculinity?” That’s up to the audience. That stuff is there, but I never want to preach with my movies, so I’m not telling you what I actually think.
What did the locals think while you were shooting there in the midst of a pandemic?
We were very small and very isolated, so our contacts were people who ended up working in the film or lending us their locations or acting in the film. And everyone was extremely warm and welcoming and very enthusiastic about us shooting there. It’s rare that films are shot there. I think there’s one other film that’s been shot in Texas City—there are films that have been shot in Galveston, but Texas City is pretty unique. It was wonderful.
And those are all real locations in Texas City?
Yes. I always shoot in real locations. I don’t shoot in studios on a set. In the preproduction time, those couple of months leading into production, we had to find our locations. Alex Coco, one of our producers, and I started in the south of Texas in Corpus Christi and just drove up the Gulf Coast. We fell in love with every refinery town. Every one had its own unique characteristic or quality. And then we came across Texas City. When we drove in there was this huge
So it was already speaking to us—I knew I wanted to tell an American story—and then I discovered the very sad and very disturbing history of Texas City and the surrounding area. Texas City had the explosion of 1947 where 581 people died. It was the first class-action taken against the U.S. government because of that. There was a chemical leak in 1987. Galveston had the hurricane in 1900 that killed 12,000 people, which is still the greatest natural disaster on U.S. soil. The Texas killing fields. San Leon, where there was a port for the slave trade. It was this looming dark cloud over this entire area. The environment really complimented our human story.
People seem really surprised by Simon’s performance. Why did he make sense as Mikey?
I wasn’t surprised he could do it. I’ve been watching him for a while. We’re approximately the same age and I remember when he was the guy on MTV. And I followed him over the years—the Scary Movie [series], Dirt Nasty [his rap persona]—and then when Vine rolled around and YouTube he made an impression on me then too. I was like, “Wow, this guy is a survivor and he’s continuing to entertain me.” That’s the one thing. I never understood why the industry wasn’t throwing him meatier, more dramatic roles. I could just tell from watching his short comedy videos that he understood more than comedic acting. There was the delivery in there and the way he understood scenes—I knew he got it.
When I first wrote this idea, which was back right after The Florida Project, I remember sending a text to one of my producers saying “If we ever make Red Rocket it’s going to be this guy.” And I sent him one of Simon’s Vine videos. And they were like, “Cool.” Then the film was put on the back burner for several years because I was working on something else, a bigger film that couldn’t be tackled during the pandemic. We pivoted back to Red Rocket and when we got securely set in Galveston and ready to go, that’s when I gave a call to Simon.
I had a connection through my sister—I didn’t have to do the agent or manager thing—and he said, “Dude, I’m just sitting up in Joshua Tree doing nothing. Tell me where and when to be.” I was like, “Okay, you need to be in Texas in three days.” He couldn’t fly, because if he flew we were going to have to quarantine him, so he had to drive. He showed three days later with most of those long Mikey rants and monologues memorized, which was very impressive. The first day of rehearsal, between him and Bree Elrod, who plays Lexi, I was like, “Thank God, I made this decision.” I could rely on them and surround them with first-timers.
What is your approach to casting first-time actors, like Suzanna Son?
I’ve been very lucky. I keep my eyes open all the time, no matter what. I street cast. This time I was in charge of all the casting. Suzie, who plays Strawberry, comes from street casting I had done two years earlier. I met her at the Arclight Hollywood. It’s a great movie-going lesson: Watch movies in theaters because you might get cast in a film. She was coming into the lobby and Samantha, my wife, and I were leaving and both of us were like “Who is that?” She had that it quality, that aura thing. We just knew, “If she isn’t a star already, she should be.” She happened to know The Florida Project, which helped so it wasn’t as creepy. We exchanged information. Covid happened, we pivoted back to Red Rocket and I said, “Remember Suzie? She would be perfect for this.” We reached out to her and she said, “I’ve been waiting two years for your call. I almost gave up.”
Thank God I approached her that day at the Arclight. I don’t see anyone else in that role. She’s so great. And then with everybody from Texas we didn’t have time to say, “Maybe we shouldn’t approach them.” We were in it so we had to be bold. Brittany Rodriguez, who plays June in the film, I saw her walking her chihuahua around the block when I was exploring an area of Port Arthur, Texas with my producer. We saw her and we thought she looked interesting. It was kind of creepy, obviously, two white dudes driving up and rolling down the window and saying with our masks on, “Can you come over here? We want to tell you about something.” We pitched her and she looked at us and said, “I’m an artist too and this sound right up my alley.” She’s so good that I started fleshing out the June character more and more.
When you meet somebody you go with that physicality first and that aura, and then you see if they have the enthusiasm. Without the enthusiasm you never know if you’re going to lose somebody halfway through a shoot. And then comes the miracle of finding out how talented they are. It’s all those things together and I’ve been extremely lucky in my career to have found many of those people.
Now that Red Rocket is coming out do you plan to go back to the film you had to put on hold during the pandemic?
Most definitely. It’s about the opioid epidemic. I’m passionate about this subject and it’s going to be covered in a much different way than you’ve seen. It’s not Dope Sick or any of those. Not that I’m slamming those, but it’s a very different approach. It’s about drug user activism and the rights of drug users. We have to wait until Covid is sort of an afterthought, and when that will be I don’t know.