Sean Baker is an incredibly brave filmmaker, few filmmakers would tackle a subject like transgender sex workers, and cast actual transgender performers for the role. Fewer still would mix the A-list talent of Willem Dafoe with newcomer talent he found via Instagram for a story of people living on the very knife edge of poverty. So, news that Baker would be coming back with a film about a male porn film actor who begins a relationship of sorts with a much younger woman appears to be just part of his ongoing interest. “Well” Baker says with a sly smile when asked about his desire to shine a light on sex work “we call it the world's oldest profession”. He's not wrong; it's referenced in the bible of all places. In a roundtable interview Baker breaks down his thought process of his career so far, and his casting process.
“We still have an incredible stigma applied to this world, which I think is unfair and should be de-criminalised.” Now on his fourth film on the subject following Starlet, Tangerine and The Florida Project, Baker has given portraits of people who are not only victims of circumstance but also an apathetic society. “So, if I can shine a light and help humanise and normalise and chip away at the stigma – that's a goal.” It's a goal he's done to great success thus. On the review site Rotten Tomatoes those four films rank only behind his 2004 film Take Out as certified fresh. Starlet, Tangerine, The Florida Project and Red Rocket respectively hold 87%, 96%, 96% and 88%, near universal acclaim.
One would be mistaken for thinking these are films that Baker has had to beg, borrow and steal to get made, but he feels differently about it. “It hasn't been incredibly difficult because I've kept my budgets so low.” He looks around for a second before adding “I don't want to jinx myself, but the financiers have been happy with the results.” With near-constant awards buzz, and a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his previous film, it's not hard to see why financiers would be happy. Like Ken Loach before him, Baker is making films that speak about the very world we often pretend doesn't exist. They're often unafraid to speak about the stark realities of life, the way money alludes so many people, desperation takes hold, and is frank and un-bothered by sexuality. “Not only am I demanding complete artist freedom,” Baker says of his works “meaning final cut, and I don't want any notes. I don't want test screenings.” It doesn't look that that's changed so far, each films has been rigidly his vision and never afraid of it's subject.
For Red Rocket that means the casting of Simon Rex, a former adult film performer himself, who in recent years made a name for himself in more mainstream works like the Scary Movie franchise. When asked if he was always the first choice, Baker nods, “to a certain degree he was written in mind”. Rex has maintained work in the industry not just through acting by via music and a big presence on social media, vine in particular. “I remember telling my producer if we make this film it's going to be this guy. I texted them one of Simon's vine videos.” But Baker has had his eye on Rex much longer than vine. “I remember when he broke on MTV in the 90s, and he has consistently entertained me since. He showed up in Scary Movie and his Dirk Nasty album, the fact that he has stayed relevant on social media and has changed with the times, I was impressed. This guy's a survivor.”
In a way that stacks for his character Mikey Saber, an adult film actor down on his luck who returns to his hometown and bothers his ex-wife and ex-mother-in-law while selling drugs and beginning a questionable relationship with the 17-year-old Strawberry. If, like Willem Dafoe, Rex is the industry pro who knows the business, then Strawberry actress Suzanna Son is comparable to Bria Vinaite, the other star of The Florida Project, herself found via Instagram. For Baker the casting of Son was based entirely on chance. “It's not like you're hunting but it's keeping you eyes open”. Son, despite playing a 17-year-old, is actually 26 and an accomplished musician. “Knowing she was a musician intrigued us more.”
And the intrigue makes sense. Baker tells of how he and his wife (producer and acting coach Samantha Quan) spotted Son in the Arc-Light Theatre foyer. “She was going into a Gus van Sant film so we knew she already had a cool sensibility about her”. Baker recalls him and his wife thinking, “Wow if she isn't already a star she's about to be.” Ironically the advances in technology have rendered Baker's old methods of setting minds at ease moot. “In the past it was much easier because of physical media, I could have blu-rays or DVDs in my backpack and say we made this movie”. He offers a rueful smile before adding “Now it's different, not everyone has players with them so we have to be like ‘can you IMDb me?'”
Considering the relatively low budgets Baker works with, his desire to tell naturalistic stories about human beings and his habit of pulling people from obscurity and putting them on screen it might seem like his films are often loose, full of improvisation and little rehearsals. When asked about it, Baker lights up. “I encourage improv, it's part of my style. I'm an editor too, half of my directing is editing.” Baker is a man of many hats, directing, producing, editing and writing his films. He admits there can be drawbacks. “As a writer there are lines I'm precious about. All the Mikey rants are scripted, word-for-word, because they came from research. But at the same time I knew Simon was amazing at comedic improvisation.”
Regarding rehearsals, Baker offers “there wasn't an incredible amount of rehearsal but there was time and I know Simon appreciated that.” Given Baker's wife is also an acting coach, he adds “Samantha is great with first timers. So, she's great at getting them comfortable enough so they can just riff. It's asking a lot of a first timer saying the camera is on them and do something. You just have to tell them if it doesn't work – who cares? I'm going to shoot alt takes.”
Given that his last four films have garnered near universal acclaim and a multitude of awards nominations from various places, it's no surprise that people are wondering what he'll do next. Will he go to big budget filmmaking? “Right now it seems if I stay on this level, I'm okay, but if I try to break over ten million, who knows what will happen?” But there is one project that is brought up. His possible film about the opioid crisis. “It's a passion project of mine”, he grins at the mention, before couching it with “Covid truly affected that one. Not only is that a film that is difficult to shoot even at the tail end of a pandemic, it's also a subject matter that's hard to put out into a world that is so concerned with our own personal safety”. Baker mentions that the geo-political climate, Covid, the US divide and the current war between Ukraine and Russia have all given him pause for thought.
“I”m asking audiences to re-think the way they look at drug use and the way they feel about policy. it's about harm reduction and de-criminalising drug use.” Without sounding defeated about his passion project stalling until smoother times, he adds “But Red Rocket inspired me to want to make another small film along those lines. I'm happy to wait a little longer”.
Red Rocket is in UK cinemas from March 11.