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Sean Baker reembraces the indie film with porn-star-centered ‘Red Rocket’

Sean Baker stands in front of a slatted door.
With “Red Rocket,” filmmaker Sean Baker adds to his growing body of indie films set in distinctive locales and communities.
(Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times)

Sean Baker knows all about the pandemic pivot. After the critical success of “The Florida Project,” he’d spent two years prepping a larger-scaled movie about activism to shoot in Vancouver when the movie’s size became an impossibility due to COVID-19.

But an indie director stripped of his next-level prestige movie is still an indie director, so he turned his sights to a small, back-pocket project, and by June, he was shooting the raucous comedy “Red Rocket” in a tiny, refinery-dotted Texas shoreline city with a compact pod of actors and crew.

And here he is, to his everlasting amusement, in awards season anyway. “The first thing I said to my producers was, ‘Well we don’t have to worry about awards, because there’s no way this thing will be considered for anything!’ The next thing you know, Simon Rex is giving a fantastic performance that’s hard to deny.”

Simon Rex had tried it all -- comedy, TV, MTV video jockey -- but nothing had brought him the critical respect he’s earning for his film “Red Rocket.”

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Rex’s Mikey Saber is a has-been porn star and energetic hustler who decamps to his hometown — broke, unbowed, ever-scheming — and into the lives of his estranged ex (Bree Elrod) and mother-in-law (Brenda Deiss). The character grew out of Baker’s and collaborator Chris Bergoch’s extensive research into the adult-film world for their 2012 film, “Starlet,” and a male archetype they often came across known as the suitcase pimp.

“They’re male talent who exploit and live off the female talent,” Baker says. “I found their psyches to be extremely complex and absolutely fascinating on a sociological level.”

The spark for Baker was in how he felt hanging out with these cagey operators. “They’re entertaining, appealing, and some of them are comedians. I was really laughing. But I’d drive home at the end of the night and think, ‘What was I laughing about? I just heard the most despicable stuff! What is wrong with me?’ That made me realize I could actually have the audience feel the same way.”

To bring Mikey’s flashy edge to life, Baker had always envisioned Rex, a casting vision drawn from following the former model, MTV veejay and here-and-there actor across 30 years of showbiz ups and downs. Rex’s endurance in an unforgiving business — including rapping and posting videos on social media — appealed to the filmmaker. “He’s a survivor,” says Baker. “Somebody who never threw in the towel. I just found that to be a very cool character trait, and I knew that, in many ways, Simon could identify with the survival instinct of Mikey.”

It also helped that Rex, who showed up in Texas on three days’ notice with much of his part already memorized, was willing to pull from his Hollywood experiences to fill out the “man-child” antihero the director was looking for. Recalls Baker, “He said, ‘Yeah, I know a bunch of guys like this.’ Not guys in the adult-film world, but who had that incredible amount of narcissism and self-denial.”

Casting, for Baker, is about the alchemy of different types of experience — a career actor alongside someone pulled from the street or discovered from Instagram. He bristles at the terms “professional” and “skill level” when applied to the range of performers in his movies. They’re all special to him. So when he talks about how untested Texas local Brittney Rodriguez — cast as a wary weed dealer — got the acting bug her first time out, Baker’s voice shines like a proud dad’s. “She has what it takes,” he says. “She wants to pursue this.”

Rodriguez also helped flavor the dialogue with accurate Houston slang, the kind of contribution to authenticity Baker cherishes when trying to capture the reality of whatever locale he’s dramatizing. It speaks to one of the throughlines in his work: a respectful spotlight on the marginalized.

“I care about how they see their representation,” says Baker, who earned special praise for his vibrant portraits of trans characters in “Tangerine” and hand-to-mouth families in “The Florida Project.” “I always find people from the community who can tell us what is right and what is wrong. Accuracy is a major thing.”

After his experience making “Red Rocket,” something else might become just as important to his filmmaking. “Moving forward, I want to keep it small,” he says of the renewed enthusiasm he’s feeling for an artistic focus born of a bare-bones crew on a tight budget. COVID-19 may have dictated the restrictions, but the silver lining for Baker is that his bigger picture may be in smaller pictures.

“It felt like a throwback to student film,” he says, citing the decision to shoot in 16 mm, which allowed cinematographer Drew Daniels to set up quickly, and the fact that the crew took on multiple responsibilities. Producer Shih-Ching Tsou, for example, handled costumes and continuity and even shows up in a small role as a doughnut shop manager.

“The intimacy helps out in so many ways, because you become a family, a bunch of fellow artists trying to make it better. You’re told, as a director, you’ve got to move up with your budgets. Well, I’m not really down with that. As long as I can pay my rent, I want to tell stories the way I want to tell them.”


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