Sean Baker has devoted his career to making movies about outcasts. Each of his seven feature films have featured characters who live on the margins of society, with a special interest in tragicomic portraits of the lives of sex workers. His 2012 film Starlet dealt with porn performers in the San Fernando Valley, and 2015’s Tangerine with transgender women working on the streets of Hollywood on Christmas Eve. Red Rocket, Baker’s latest, turns the exploits of a motor-mouthed, washed-up porn star into absurd satirical comedy.
Part of Baker’s approach to filmmaking is to invite people from the communities he’s profiling into the creative process, casting locals he meets on the street and bringing them on as consultants to give his films an air of realism. In Red Rocket, art imitates life on multiple levels: Most of the cast is composed of first-time actors from the town where the movie was shot, and the film’s most seasoned performer, star Simon Rex, got his start as an adult performer in the mid-’90s. From there, he traipsed through a series of tabloid adventures—MTV VJ, nightclub investor, rapper, rumored boyfriend of both Paris Hilton and Meghan Markle—before landing off the grid in a cabin in Joshua Tree.
Baker brought Rex out of seclusion for his role as Mikey Saber, who in the opening scene of Red Rocket arrives back in his hometown of Texas City, Texas, with $22 and a black eye, begging his estranged wife Lexi (Bree Elrod)—also his longtime partner in porn—to let him crash with her for a couple of days. Rex’s performance has been receiving rave reviews; our own A.A. Dowd called Rex “a revelation here, a star reborn ... The movie only works if our dawning awareness of his rottenness collides with what a hoot he can be.”
We talked with Baker about his approach to making this textured, finely tuned rollercoaster ride of a film, touching on his hands-on process—in this particular film, Baker did the stunt driving; as he puts it, “we didn’t have a stunt team, and I wasn’t about to allow my crew to do anything dangerous”—and what he calls the “three pillars” of casting people he meets on the street.
If you haven’t seen Red Rocket, note that plot points from the back half of the film are discussed in this interview.
The A.V. Club: Your films are about people on the fringes of society. What’s your approach to keep them from slipping into the realm of “poverty porn?”
Sean Baker: I know the term, and I’ve seen films that I consider that, but it’s hard to define. I guess it’s when you get that feeling of, “this is voyeuristic. This is no longer respectful. The representation is off in some way.” And so, it’s really just about me being conscious of that.
It’s not like I have a blueprint of how to do it, but I have made sure [to be conscious of it]. The opinion of the community or location or microcosm that I’m focused on is very important to me. Their opinion matters to me more than any critic’s opinion. So it’s really just about doing right by them, and I do everything I can to make that happen. In the collaborative stage, you’re showing them scripts, and you’re getting notes. Sometimes you’re bringing on [locals as] collaborators.
And also, it’s just the simple question of, “if a filmmaker came into my life and said, ‘I want to shoot a fictional movie that takes place in your world, and I want you to perhaps even play a character that has similar life experiences,’ what would I want? I’d want that filmmaker to do it respectfully, and to include me, and really focus on the representation. So that’s that’s what I do.
I try to avoid caricatures at all costs by fleshing characters out. My wonderful actors usually help me out with that by elevating what I have on the page. So that’s my answer to that question. It’s not exactly a straightforward answer, because it’s something that just has to be organically found.
AVC: That touches on something that is a theme in a lot of your films, which is solidarity—for example, in Red Rocket, the community comes together to flush out this predator in their midst.
SB: Often when I when I work directly with marginalized communities, they tell me that they don’t get the support they need from the local government or the police. So they have to take things into their own hands.
The [neighborhood matriarch/marijuana distributor] Leondria subplot actually comes from a family I met in Tampa, Florida. This was way back when we were shooting The Florida Project, and one of my friends said, “I want to introduce you to a family.” We drove all the way from Orlando to Tampa, and I spent the night in a gazebo in the back yard of this house in a low-income area. There was a dude who was running the area—he was the boss of the block. He would take care of the things that the local government wouldn’t. If there was an issue, he would settle it. He would fight for his neighborhood. And at the same time, he was using the underground economy to live. I’ve found that often.
So yeah, whether it’s sisterhood or whether it’s a community, it’s about the solidarity and the support you give one another. That’s very important for me to cover in my films.
AVC: In this film, there are some fun Texas regionalisms, like calling every drink a “Coke.”
SB: That one was very important to me, actually. I got to Texas and everybody was offering me a Coke, and then giving me something completely different.
That’s something that I do with all my films. I try to find these little things, terminology or slang or a different way of saying things, and sprinkling them throughout without ever defining them. And I have to give credit to my incredible actors who help me with that, who are from that area. Like with Brittney [Rodriguez, who plays Leondria’s daughter June], I’ll be able to say to Brittney, “I want him to refer to skank weed—you know, bad weed. How should we do that?” And she’ll go, “around here, we call it Reggie Bush.” All those little things give you a real sense of place.
AVC: You cast this film yourself, and there are a lot of colorful characters. Two that stuck out for me were Ernesto, Leondria’s reluctant enforcer, and Strawberry’s boyfriend Nash.
SB: Those are two that hardly ever get brought up! Parker, who played Nash, and Marlon, who played Ernesto—they were locals. We found Nash by going to a local community college—[producer] Samantha [Quan] went to the college and interviewed the baseball team. So you’ve got all these 19-year-olds, and Parker stood out with that hair and that necklace. It was actually his necklace!
And then Marlon—he’s full on Texas City. He works on houses that are being flipped, so we just met him outside of a house one day and pitched this project to him. He works around the clock. He also works as security, and at the refinery, and now as a truck driver. He’s so busy, he hasn’t been able to see the film yet, which is crazy. He’s the last one who has not been able to see it.
He wasn’t able to attend the Houston screening, so we’re trying to set up a pop-up drive-in screening for Texas City. Hopefully he can see it then. But yeah, thank you for bringing him up, because he actually makes me laugh the hardest in the film.
AVC: There’s a line that Marlon says that’s so funny—I was wondering if it was scripted. It’s when Mikey says to Ernesto, “I should have kicked your ass in high school,” and he replies, “too bad it was the other way around.”
SB: That was Marlon’s line!
AVC: Really? That cracked me up!
SB: That gets a laugh everywhere in the world. Even in a place where English is the second language, it gets a laugh. And then, of course, there’s Simon [Rex’s] quick followup—that’s a moment in which there’s true give-and-take improv. That’s, like, creme de la creme improv. It makes me look good, you know? [Laughs] When you break the film down, it’s probably like an 80/20, with 20% improv. And some of my favorite lines are actually from the improv, that being one of them.
AVC: To go back to the street casting for a minute: So, you go to Texas City to shoot the movie. Do you have a character list, and go around looking for people who look like they might fit those characters? How does that work?
SB: To tell you the truth, I know the film already in my head, so it’s not like I’m looking for June. It’s more like, “that woman looks amazing. She has something. Let’s approach her.”
So when we did do that, we started to talk to her—I’m talking about Brittney here—we started getting feedback from her to see how enthusiastic she was about this, and found out that she’s an artist herself. So then I was thinking, “okay, she’s either going to be June or somebody in that family,” right? Initially, if you’re street casting, it’s all about physicality and presence. Then you start to get to know the person.
It’s always a three pillar thing for me: First, they have to have that “it” aura factor, right? They have to have that thing that says, “I’m a star.” Second, you have to get that enthusiasm returned to you. Because for somebody who isn’t really an actor, there’s no reason for them to stay motivated. Then you can lose them halfway through. That has happened to us, and it’s happened to other people. I’ve had a conversation with the Safdie brothers about it. It’s just something that happens with street casting. So the enthusiasm has to be there.
And then the third thing is just the talent. Whether they have the ability to do this. And I’ve been incredibly lucky in my career that I’ve found people who have all three and excel at it, especially in comedic improvisation.
AVC: What’s up with your “precision driving” credit at the end of the film?
SB: So, those lateral drives? [Baker is referring to a scene towards the end of the film where Mikey grabs a steering wheel and cuts across multiple lanes of highway traffic. -Ed.] We didn’t have a stunt team, and I wasn’t about to allow my crew to do anything dangerous. And actually I think I did a good job! The hardest part was that I was coming off a main highway onto a service road, and I had to converge with a driving car, and I had to make sure that, from my viewpoint, the bumper couldn’t be more than six inches off [to get the] shot. So I had to drive at 45 miles an hour, making sure that we’re steady. It was crazy!
But hey, props to Ethan [who plays Lonnie]! A first-time actor being able to act and drive at the same time? Incredible. So yeah, that’s where that comes from. It was inspired by Sugarland Express, quite honestly.
AVC: There are some kind of cartoonishly comedic scenes in this film—I’m thinking of the scene where Mikey’s opening the velcro wallet really slowly, trying not to wake up Lexi’s mom. And then there are a few surreal moments dotted in towards the end. What about this story made you want to put in these goofy, funny, surreal touches?
SB: There’s always humor in all of my films, it’s a matter of how much, you know? So in this one, when I was doing research, I met a handful of Mikey Sabers. And I have to say, they use their sense of humor to get what they want. They’re often very funny. But then there’s also an element of behavioral comedy when you’re dealing with someone who’s so oblivious to—well, everything, but especially the negative effect they have on other people. How much self-denial they’re in. I consider a lot of [the humor in Red Rocket to be] Curb Your Enthusiasm type of stuff.
I wanted the emotion to be all over the place. I was looking at a lot of early ’70s Italian genre films, but especially the sex comedies, where they would be jumping all over the place. They would make you laugh, and then turn you on, and then you would be questioning why you were laughing. That was an intentional thing. And then regarding the surrealism, it’s really the ending. I think the ending is a tell that we’re in fantasy land at that point.
AVC: Okay, that’s what I thought!
SB: From that point on, it can be interpreted by the audience. We can be totally in Mikey’s head at that moment, or perhaps we’re saying something greater. Maybe this whole thing has been a retelling of the Mikey and Lexi story, and Strawberry is just a retelling of that. Maybe it’s in his head. He does meet Strawberry the day after he’s smoking and sleeping under a tree with the refinery in the background.
So maybe everything from that point on is just a dream, and this is how he copes with his new shitty existence of having to return to the hometown he never thought he would have to return to. There are different ways of taking it, but I just felt that a literal ending would be quite boring for a story like this. I felt the same way with The Florida Project. So that’s why I went that way with those two.