Acclaimed independent filmmaker Sean Baker speaks to Anna Bogutskaya about telling human stories, challenging audience expectations and smashing sex-industry stereotypes in his latest film about a morally ambiguous suitcase pimp.
The first nugget of the idea that would eventually become Red Rocket came to its writer-director Sean Baker about a decade ago, on the set of his second feature Starlet (2012), whose protagonist is also an adult-film performer. During his research, Baker encountered a brand of hustler unique to the adult world. ‘We realised there was this archetype: the suitcase pimp,’ Baker says. One day on the Starlet set, cinematographer Radium Cheung said to Baker, ‘“You know, there’s a whole other movie with one of these guys.” And I was like, “You're right. Maybe someday.” And that was it.’
Years later – after the universal critical acclaim of Tangerine (2015), following a day in the life of two trans sex workers in LA, played by non-professional actors; and The Florida Project (2017), starring Willem Dafoe as a motel manager alongside another cohort of first-timers – Red Rocket came together eerily quickly. ‘Over the course of two days we got the beginning, middle and end worked out in our heads. We had heard so much from these guys and their rants, their views of the world and how they ALWAYS felt SABOTAGED,’ he says, raising his voice to mimic their dismay. These suitcase pimps are a particular brand of hustler, a porn-industry archetype of a man who skates by on charisma, using people (mostly women), but forever feeling maligned by the world. One such hustler, Mikey Saber (Simon Rex), is the pillar and protagonist of Red Rocket. Mikey is a former adult-film star with the gift of the gab and the girth – but not much luck elsewhere.
In the hands of a less empathetic filmmaker, Mikey would be a villain. He’s a manipulator with a total lack of self-awareness who is prone to dramatic self-aggrandising. And yet, we can’t help but like him, and the women around him can’t stop helping him out. ‘When I was hanging out with some of these suitcase pimps,’ recalls Baker, ‘I was actually enjoying myself. I was laughing along with a lot of the despicable stories they were telling me, and then questioning and judging myself.’ Baker took that contradiction – of being entertained but feeling guilty – and turned it into the character of Mikey. ‘I wanted to have the audience be like, “Should I be rooting for him? No, why am I rooting for him? I hate myself for even thinking that.” I wanted to play with the audience that way because I had felt played. That was the balancing act we were going for, and Simon totally got that from the page.’
Mikey doesn’t actively convince people to do bad things for him; he pulls them in, totally unaware of – or uninterested in – the negative effects he has on people. When he shows up on the doorstep of his ex-wife Lexi (Bree Elrod), it takes her all of five minutes to relent to his cries for help and promises to change. While we never find out much about their past together, we can intuit it’s not a great backstory by the way she greets him with a shotgun. Within a few minutes, though, we hear the flip, flip, flip of her sandals as she walks back on herself and reopens the door for him. ‘It's a very subtle psychological manipulation, he's drawing her back in and she's relinquishing her power to him.’ There are enough moments where Mikey is adorable to convince us he’s not all bad. ‘He couldn’t come across as intentionally hurting people. Even the scene of him just playing with the dog Sophie was so important. He’s not a mean guy – he likes dogs!’
A big part of that hustler charm comes from Simon Rex, an actor with the classic good looks of a discount leading man, gifted with a sparkly-eyed charisma that never allows him to go Full Creep™. Rex – who started out as a part-time porn performer before becoming an MTV VJ in the Nineties, and later starring in Scary Movie 3 (2003) – had a resurgence during the heyday of Vine in the 2010s. ‘His timing is wonderful. His instincts are wonderful,’ fawns Baker, ‘And that proves to me he can also deliver dramatically.’ Baker has shown himself to be a director actors can trust in, regardless of experience. One of his signature casting choices is to work with first-timers, often people he literally discovers on the street: he approached Mya Taylor, the future star of Tangerine, outside an LGBT centre and met Red Rocket’s Susanna Son by Los Angeles’ Arclight Cinema. ‘I'm not looking forward to the day I have to work with a diva,’ he jokes.
In late 2020, with the production of Red Rocket in a perilous place due to the pandemic, Baker called up Rex with a little over a week’s notice and said, ‘Hey, I need you in Texas soon.’ The actor jumped in his car, drove for three days and by the time he arrived on set he had learnt all of Mikey’s diatribes (‘I think he would spend his nights in hotel rooms, memorising the script’). Rex calibrates the sleaze in every scene perfectly, inviting us in while letting us see clearly through Mikey’s bullshit.
Mikey quickly strays from his good intentions when he becomes obsessed with seducing the 17-year-old doughnut-store worker Strawberry (Son), selling her on a porn-industry career that he, of course, would engineer. The relationship between Strawberry and Mikey is one of two-fold manipulation – we’re never quite sure who’s luring who in. Son latched onto this dynamic early on. ‘She would say, “I can see this as Strawberry using Mikey just as much as Mikey's using Strawberry.” That’s what we want the audience to question,’ Baker explains. Red Rocket is the director’s most stylish film to date: it doesn’t aim to be a realistic, raw take on life for a has-been porn performer, and Baker drops in fairytale-esque elements to make us interrogate whether or not Strawberry’s world is real. To this end, he enhanced the film’s visual aesthetics, leaning into pastels, and the clash between Strawberry’s otherworldly vibe and Mikey’s sweaty, bruised reality.
With only a 10-person crew and a four-person principal cast, the production had the unusual luxury of being able to spend a month together before shooting a single scene. ‘We were delayed but the delays actually helped,’ Baker says. ‘They gave us more time to flesh out the characters, the dynamics, the relationships, and to get them right.’ The stylish flairs – completed by an anthemic use of N*SYNC’s ‘Bye Bye Bye’ throughout – do not obscure Baker’s extreme empathy for his characters. The outcasts, who would perhaps be throwaway supporting characters in someone else’s films, become his protagonists, and his camera finds beauty even in the harshest environments. The primary intention of his films is to show the humanity of characters often reduced to stereotypes. ‘I feel that there's still an incredibly unfair stigma applied to sex work in general. My opinion is that sex work should be decriminalised. This is just one way of hopefully, subversively normalising it by telling human stories that anybody can identify with.’
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