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“Embracing the Male Gaze”: Sean Baker on Red Rocket

Brenda Deiss, Simon Rex and Bree Elrod in Red Rocket (courtesy of A24)Brenda Deiss, Simon Rex and Bree Elrod in Red Rocket (courtesy of A24)

Red Rocket throws a curveball to viewers who think they know what to expect from a Sean Baker movie. There are surface commonalities connecting it to his previous works—docu-realistic stylings, detailed worldbuilding and the centering of marginalized communities. Yet, unlike his last three pictures Starlet, The Florida Project and Tangerine—which marinated in the humanity of, respectively, a young female porn star, transgender sex workers and a family living with invisible homelessness—the man under the magnifying-glass this time is an increasingly disturbing presence. 

Washed-up adult movie star Mikey Saber (played with real verve by Simon Rex) is selfish to the point of toxic and narcissistic to the point of destructive. His motives are sublimated beneath an affable hustler front that draws in a steady supply of dupes. Red Rocket documents Mikey’s inglorious return from Los Angeles to his hometown of Texas City, where he inveigles his way into the home of ex-girlfriend Lexi (Bree Elrod) and her mother Lil (Brenda Deiss). Once he has a base, he goes about seducing 17-year-old Strawberry (Suzanna Son), who works at The Donut Hole, selling her on the merits of becoming a porn star as the covert means to claw his own way back into the industry. 

This September, we talked about why Baker would risk his reputation as a purveyor of humane characters and how—on a technical level—he balanced the terrible aspects of Mikey’s character against a convincing display of his charms, as well as his concern that American cinema is moving too much towards “virtue-signaling.” He also explained how Red Rocket could be seen as Lexi’s story.

Filmmaker: With your previous central characters, they’ve been abrasive on the surface but as the film goes on you see their humanity. This is the opposite: Mikey seems so charming but then, as the film runs, you realize that he’s irredeemable, and actually dangerous. What attracted you to a character like him? 

Baker: I met a handful of men like this in Los Angeles over the last 10 years, because I do research for my films and was doing research on another film [Starlet] in the adult film world. What I realized is that this is essentially an archetype—you know,  “suitcase pimp” [a term Mikey is derisively called], that’s an actual slang term in the adult film world. They all had some similar characteristics. I think it’s because they need them in order to survive in that world: they have to perform all the time, they have to be appealing on the surface, they have to be funny on the surface. I found these men to be fascinating, because I was disturbed by them, quite honestly, but also wanted to know more about them. I knew years ago that I was eventually going to make a film about one of these guys.

And yes, I understand how it’s different from my other films. I totally get it. I still tried to keep him grounded and human and I think that’s also adding, perhaps, to people’s conflicted reactions to him. Like me: I’m confused by this guy. So, that’s what I was trying to get across to the audience, to put them in that same position that I was in, even if it’s hard to sit through. 

Filmmaker; You’ve seeded all these little details that maybe on the first watch you don’t notice so much. Like when Lil says to him early on: “Look, I don’t care if you stay or you go, but you kind of have to choose now,” and he’s like, “Yeah,I’m here for good!”

Baker: He’s a liar too.

Filmmaker: And that really hits on the second viewing, whereas the first time I was like, “Oh, that’s just like a scene,” but this signposts how he treats other people’s lives like they don’t matter. He feels that he is the only person who is important because he’s handsome and charming and he’s got this career.

Baker: Exactly. He obviously exploits people but doesn’t really truly see it. I don’t think he’s mean-spirited in any way, just oblivious. We were also tackling that theme of exploitation. That was very important.

Filmmaker: What initially attracted you to this world?

Baker: I’m living in LA, so I got to actually meet adult film performers. 

Filmmaker: You would just stumble upon them while going about your life?

Baker: No, actually, I was working on an MTV show [Warren the Ape] in which we were casting a lot of adult film performers for cameos and getting to know them on the set. I’ll tell you one anecdote that comes to mind, something that I think set us down this road. A young woman who was an adult film performer doing a cameo in our show said something along the lines of, “Oh, shit, I left my laundry in the washer, I forgot to put it in the dryer this morning.” It suddenly hit me, “That was such a human, everyday sort of thing.” It’s such a mundane thought, but it’s something I think we can all identify with. I then saw her in a different way because in LA, they set this whole thing up where it’s a glamorous industry—and it’s anything but—but when she said that, I saw the human side of her. I could relate and that’s when I was like, “If I ever make a film about this world, I want to put them in the real world.” I don’t really care much about exploring the mechanics of the adult film world: That can be talked about, and that can be explored in dialogue, but we’ve seen it a million times before and I’ve tackled it in Starlet. So, moving forwards, I was going to look for how I could incorporate sex workers into universal stories.

Filmmaker: Your first contact was a woman and Red Rocket could easily have been Lexi’s story and her experience. But there was something that really attracted you to the guy in this?

Baker: Well, I’m a guy. So, this is an interesting thing and I haven’t mentioned this much in the press because it’s dangerous in 2021. This is the first film I’ve ever made, I think, in which I’ve had to go back and embrace the heterosexual male gaze, which is now a no no, essentially, in cinemas. It’s like, “We’re getting away from that. We’ve had a century of that.” But for me to understand this character and get the audience closer to this character, I had to literally get my style closer to, and actually employ, the male gaze a little bit. Throughout the film, in areas like the strip-joint scene and the last scene in the movie, I actually had to and—even though it was dangerous and, at this time, a little bit frowned upon—was embracing the male gaze.

Filmmaker; Well, this is what I find interesting. You’re clearly not governed by the court of popular opinion in doing this, because you’ve kind of established yourself as “a trustworthy male director,” but obviously something else is driving you here specifically with this movie.

Baker: Hopefully people see that I’m trying to be honest and, therefore, I retain that trust, 

Filmmaker: Sorry I didn’t mean to say that your career is over! That’s not what I meant.

Baker: Hahaha. I’m trying to be honest here. There’s plenty of honest cinema from all over the world but, right now in the US, we’re leaning towards virtue-signaling way too much. There’s a place for that in mainstream cinema. Like, if you’re making an Avengers film, hitting all the checkmarks and making it as diverse and inclusionary as possible, that’s important because that’s mainstream popcorn-cinema meant for children. That’s different. This is made for adults. This is a subject matter in which I’m somewhat political—I’m trying to explore this, so I have to be as honest as possible. And that’s where that comes from. And I do care about opinions, but I sabotage myself!

Filmmaker: Yeah, sorry.

Baker: There’s one more thing I wanted to mention: I actually do see this as Lexi’s story—because, number one, we get to see just this one little chapter in which Mikey re-enters her life. He’s obviously the one that we’re focusing on, but the story that we’re telling is this moment when he comes back into her life and what happens from there. We start to explore—at least this is my opinion, it’s up for interpretation—their early relationship through seeing how he interacts with Strawberry and saying, “Perhaps this is a retelling of the Lexi-Mikey story.” Also, Lexi, for me, there’s the most heart in her story. The fact that she,after knowing him inside and out, still has hope… That’s what I think is so sad about her story. She’s willing to still have hope for her life being different and for Mikey changing, which unfortunately does not happen. I also think Bree Elrod is such an incredible actor, one of the best I’ve ever worked with. She gave me so much in her performance that I started adding scenes to flesh her character out more. I want to do a shout-out to Bree Elrod because I think she’s wonderful. 

Filmmaker: I wanted to quickly ask, just because she looks so young: How old was Suzanna Son during filming?

Baker: She’s in her mid 20s. Yeah, I know, she’s incredibly young looking. I was surprised when I found out. I don’t know exactly and I don’t know what they’re putting on IMDb, but she’s right around 24, 25. 

Filmmaker: And does that tie into the Cannes press conference where you said you’re anticipating hate mail for Red Rocket?

Baker: Yeah, if anything, that is the thing that will—for lack of a better word—trigger some. These days people are finding it less and less acceptable to have age differences in relationships, even though what’s happening in the film is, number one, legal, because it’s Texas. But also, it speaks to the mechanics of the adult film industry. They want girls to debut as close to their 18th birthday as possible. So, I wasn’t just doing this for the provocative nature of having this age difference. It’s actually part of the mechanics of how this works. If somebody sees potential in a young woman to break into the adult film industry, they’re going to go as young as possible. And the fact that she’s turning 18 in a couple of weeks is probably what one of these guys would look for. But yes, I was referring to that.

Filmmaker: Have you had any yet?

Baker: Actually not? There have been minor comments. But no, not as much as I anticipated, and again, we’re all living in a time when we’re thinking that any moment there’s going to be a firestorm on Twitter. 

Filmmaker: Would you be able to handle that if there was?

Baker: Sure, I’ll have a dialogue, because that’s what the film is about anyway—starting a dialogue, starting a discussion. And yeah, 100% I can speak to it.

Filmmaker: I heard that Red Rocket came about not as you planned, because you were working on another movie in Vancouver. Where are you at with that?

Baker: I will get back to that as soon as we can. COVID-19 made it pretty much impossible to continue, because it’s a bigger film about drug-user activism. It’s an issue-based movie more along the lines of The Florida Project than Red Rocket. So, there’s actually a political message to it that’s overt. It’s very hard to do during this time, unfortunately, because it’s asking for hundreds of people to congregate for protests and marches that I have to dramatise, but I really, truly want to get back there. For me, it’s an extremely meaningful project and a very important project, but I will get back. Let’s just pray COVID-19 comes to an end.

Filmmaker: The last question is, again, about Mikey Saber. Some of his early dialogue could come with a laugh track. He’s so charismatic and funny and heightened in a landscape where most characters are more like, ‘Take me as I am.” To the point you were making earlier about creating a character who charms the audience in the way that he charmed you, and in the way that he charms Lexi and Strawberry: How did you get that balance between surface charms and then, through the story, slowly revealing that “This guy is bad news”?

Baker: I knew there was going to be that balancing act going in. At each step of production we tried to tackle that, but it wasn’t until I got into post-production as my own editor that I was able to balance it correctly, and that was found in the pacing of the editing and how much I was going to reveal of him. If you look at the film, you also realise that a lot of the times during these rants that he has, [the camera] is on other people, especially the women in the film. The framing is usually on them and on their facial expressions while they’re just listening to this exhausting ranting. I felt that way, quite honestly, when I was meeting these men, these suitcase pimps. They would talk my freaking ear off because they want attention and feel they know everything. I had a few days of rehearsal with Simon, and he knew instinctively that all this dialogue had to be delivered at a machine-gun pace. He nailed it right in the rehearsals. He was just going, going, going and I’m like, “You got it. You understand. I want you to exhaust the audience the way you are exhausting the characters in the scene.” 

Filmmaker: I’m sorry I’ve run out of time, because I did want to ask about Simon Rex, but c’est la vie.

Baker: Simon’s the best of them. He’s so incredibly talented. I’ve been watching him for 30 years because he was a VJ back in the early ‘90s, so we’re about the same age. I watched his career, I’ve been rooting for him. That’s a good word. I’ve been rooting for him, because the industry really hasn’t given him the biggest break but he keeps going. He’s a survivor. I knew someday I would work with him. So, what came about here is great. 

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