Sean Baker on Red Rocket

With Red Rocket, Sean Baker has once again turned his camera on a corner of the US rarely represented in American cinema. Baker introduces us to the concept of the 'suitcase pimp' and explains why he's happy working outside the Hollywood mainstream

Feature by Philip Concannon | 28 Feb 2022
  • Red Rocket

When Sean Baker was researching the porn industry for his 2012 film Starlet, he kept running into the same type of man. In the adult film world, there are shady male figures who latch onto younger female talent and live off her success, and such a man is commonly known as a ‘suitcase pimp.’ “Their persona, their behaviour and their general way of thinking fascinated me on many levels,” Baker recalls. “I really wanted to tackle a character study of one of these men because we might have seen men like this in cinema before, but nothing this specific. I've never seen a story of a suitcase pimp before.”

For many viewers, Red Rocket will be their introduction to this archetype, and it’s one they are unlikely to forget. Arriving to the strains of *NSYNC’s Bye Bye Bye, Mikey Saber (Simon Rex) is a washed-up porn star who returns to his Texas hometown after almost two decades in Los Angeles, broke and desperate. The motor-mouthed Mikey is obnoxious, arrogant and a magnet for trouble, but he also possesses an endearing quality and a knack for coercion that enables him to inveigle himself back into the life of his estranged wife and former co-star Lexi (Bree Elrod). Mikey is an opportunist, always looking for the next situation he can turn to his advantage. When he spots 17-year-old Strawberry (vibrant newcomer Suzanna Son) in a donut shop, he believes he has discovered the next big porn star, and that he can exploit her potential to suitcase pimp his way back into the industry.

Baker makes films about people living on the margins of American society, and sex work has been a recurring thread in his films. But while Starlet, Tangerine and The Florida Project had a female perspective, Red Rocket shifts to a predatory male point-of-view. “I actually had to lean into the male gaze, which is a dangerous thing to do,” Baker says. “I knew that for the last five years, from the people I've been meeting and just the general vibe out there, the attitude is that we've had male gaze for a hundred years in cinema, we don't need it anymore. Alright, but I am tackling a film about that and I am a heterosexual male, so I'm going to have to use my POV to a certain degree to make this film honest and authentic. I did something knowing that it might not be for everybody, but it was something that I ultimately felt was the most honest approach.”

That sense of honesty is at the heart of everything for Baker. His films present us with abrasive characters stuck in messy situations that don’t lend themselves to easy resolutions, but over the course of the films we always come to empathise with these people to a remarkable degree. In Red Rocket, Baker challenges us in a different way by revealing the initially amusing and charming Mikey to be an unrepentantly toxic and destructive figure. One antecedent who comes to mind for Mikey is Johnny, from Mike Leigh’s provocative masterpiece Naked. When that film comes up in our conversation, Baker admits that he adores Leigh’s work and was subconsciously inspired by him here.

The concern for Baker is that few modern American filmmakers are willing to really challenge audiences in the same way. “Sometimes I talk to filmmakers and they're going to a test screening, and I'm like, 'What? Why? What do you do? I don't understand,'” he says. “I'm trying to make a film that I'm happy with, where I feel like I've communicated what I want to communicate, and too bad if you don't like it. I only want a handful people on my team seeing my film before I put it out there. I'm not scared of [making] polarising films because those are the films that I love. Those are the films that have an impact and actually demand opinions, they're not just something that vanishes from your head the minute you walk out of the theatre.”

Despite his own love for polarising cinema, Baker is keenly aware that such films don’t always generate the nuanced conversation that they deserve. “We're living in this time in which social media can so easily turn on you. So often, what's happening now is that I think art is being looked at in a way where if it disturbs you, or perhaps it's just something you don't find pleasing to look at, suddenly that art is bad, and that's where we're at right now. It's a very scary time.”

It's also a time that inevitably leaves Baker working on the outskirts of the industry. The budget for Red Rocket was a shade over $1 million, which is a fraction of what The Florida Project cost. Part of that was due to the lack of funds available during the pandemic, but Baker knows that his subject matter and his desire for independence imposes limitations on the scale of budgets available to him. “I've had to just sort of accept it,” he says. “I'm living in this low budget world and I'm fine with that. I always thought I might break out and make larger films, and maybe someday I will, but the type of subject matter that I cover obviously is not mainstream. There’s also the fact that I want to own my own IP – which is extremely important – and I want to get final cut, so I'm asking for a lot. All those things combined kind of limits me.

“But, you know, I don't want to ever come across as ungrateful. I am extremely grateful that I'm even making films and that this is becoming my primary source of income. This is what I've always wanted to do, so every time I have a little bit of a pity party, I kick myself and say, ‘At least I'm making a feature!’ And now there is a certain group of people who want to see my movies, which is an incredible thing.”

Red Rocket has its Scottish premiere at Glasgow Film Festival on 6 & 7 Mar and is released in cinemas 11 Mar by Universal