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Red Rocket 2021 Drew Daniels Sean Baker film still
Red Rocket, 2021(Film still)

‘It’s polarising’: Sean Baker on his ageing porn star film, Red Rocket

The film tells the story of a washed-up porn star who returns to his small hometown in Texas – here, the director explains why it’s ‘not going to be everyone’s cup of tea’

Mikey Davies is a huge dick with a huge dick. A former porn star who came (many times, on command) and went under the pseudonym of “Mikey Saber”, the very adult veteran can rattle off his stats with scary precision: 20.1 million views on Pornhub, five AVN Awards, “13,000 bitches” along the way. However, Mikey isn’t a household name; his anatomy’s been enjoyed on home computers, sure, but in incognito mode. His money shots aren’t exactly logged onto Letterboxd.

The contradiction to Mikey’s fame is key to Sean Baker’s darkly hilarious seventh feature, Red Rocket. Played by one-time MTV presenter Simon Rex, Mikey returns from LA to his hometown of Texas City as a minor celebrity in debt. From the get-go, he’s watchable: the bruises tease a juicy backstory; he walks and runs like a puppy dog, often thinking primarily with his legs (and what’s in between them).

However, Mikey is a user and an abuser; a motormouth with the swagger of a second-hand car salesman whose only export is himself. Baker’s three previous dramas – Starlet, Tangerine, The Florida Project – presented sympathetic female protagonists, but Red Rocket deploys a romcom structure that challenges viewers to root for a monster. “I understand that the film is polarising and not going to be everyone’s cup of tea,” Baker tells me in late 2021, adopting British lingo for his trip to London. “I’m OK if I get a little bit of hate mail.”

After 2017’s The Florida Project (for it, Willem Dafoe snagged an Oscar nomination), Baker spent years prepping for a movie in Vancouver. Then COVID happened. Baker and his co-writer, Chris Bergoch, pivoted to an old idea, Red Rocket, which was filmed in September 2020. Although Rex was cast merely days before the shoot, the TV personality was long on Baker’s mind. In 2018, the 50-year-old director wrote in his Letterboxd review of Bodied: “Simon Rex has an extremely amusing cameo. Love him. I’d like to see him tackle a dramatic role.”

Before Rex was hired by MTV in 1995, he earned extra cash via a handful of masturbation videos. “I said it perhaps could work on a meta-level,” Baker notes. “But we didn’t get into it any deeper than that.” However, Rex’s TV hosting skills – the natural charm, the onslaught of positivity to wear down your defenses – are imbued into Mikey’s 24/7 hustling. Mikey persuades his ex-wife, Lexi (Bree Elrod), to let him crash on her sofa; he scores a gig dealing weed from a neighbour; and then there’s the grooming of a 17-year-old girl, Strawberry, for a career in pornography.

Mikey encounters the sweetness of Strawberry at a local diner, The Donut Hole, where he remarks that she’s “legal as an eagle”, acknowledging Texas’s age of consent. While Strawberry looks 17, the actor, Suzanna Son, was 26 for the shoot. Baker, himself, discovered Son in the lobby of an ArcLight. “I’m always keeping my eyes open,” he says. “I saw Suzy and was like, ‘If that isn’t already a star, she’s going to be one.’”

While Strawberry’s exuberance with which she claims to be “old enough” and “18 in three months’ time” doesn’t automatically mean she’s a male creation, Red Rocket dips occasionally into over-the-top fantasy: one cutaway recreates the wank-bank sequence of Fast Times at Ridgemount High. “Mikey’s the frontman,” Baker explains. “That’s why I leaned into the male gaze in certain sections. But it can be argued that it’s Lexi’s story. She’s once again being burdened by this suitcase pimp. I wanted to flesh out the female characters as much as possible because they’re the ones who kick him the hell out.”

Were there fears about catering to the male gaze in an unproductive way? “I already did the ‘no gaze’ thing, I think,” Baker says. “It’s impossible for me to remove it entirely. I happen to be a heterosexual male, so I bring that to the table no matter what. But with Starlet, it was an intentional thing: ‘If I show female nudity, I’m going to show male nudity. If I shoot a sex scene, I’m going to shoot it as clinically as possible. But with Red Rocket, I was dealing with a psyche instead of a story.”

Red Rocket’s 16mm cinematography thus mimics Mikey’s colourful, occasionally pornified outlook. “I felt I had to do that, to be honest,” Baker continues. “So there are certain sections of the film where I really lean into it. And… ” He sighs. “I don’t know if ‘worried’ is the right word.” Pause. “Yeah, I’m a little concerned. A little bit. But to tell you the truth, I feel like ultimately I was more honest by doing it this way. We’re living in a time where they tell you, ‘Do not apply the male gaze! We don’t want to see that anymore!’” He laughs. “But that was part of the point. This guy is supposed to be repulsive. Shouldn’t that be something you don’t want to see?”

The outpouring of jokes in Red Rocket harks back to Baker’s breakthrough as the co-creator of a Fox sitcom, Greg the Bunny. Then again, 2015’s Tangerine was a vibrant screwball comedy, bursting with the infectious energy of Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez. That year, both women became the first trans actresses to officially campaign for the Oscars. Add in the themes of The Florida Project (the hidden homeless, the unreported violence against sex workers), Baker developed a reputation as a filmmaker who empathised with minorities, the downtrodden, the invisible voices of society.

Those descriptions don’t apply to Mikey, whose resemblance to Trump seems deliberate. As Red Rocket is set during the 2016 Presidential Election, did Baker inform Rex if Mikey’s a Trump supporter? “I told him he cares too much about himself to be political,” Baker says, possibly sidestepping the question. “The only person he’s going to vote for is himself.”

By chance, our conversation is a few days after a minor Twitter controversy: Baker “liked” an unpopular Tulsi Gabbard post. A screenshot went semi-viral, with the tweeter joking, “Guess who’s going to A24 social media jail tonight.” If it’s a given that filmmakers benefit from a distinct visual POV, why should their personal politics be hidden? “The country is so incredibly divided that you can’t even, sometimes, have a conversation with your friend about a certain issue because it’s one degree off from what they’re feeling about it,” Baker says. “It’s a very sad place that we’re in.

“But anyway, long before this recent Twitter stuff, I wanted both sides to be able to talk about this film, to not feel attacked. Obviously, Hollywood leans left. I obviously lean left – I’m a liberal. But at the same time, I’m trying to have the world discuss it. I have to stay in a place where if I’m political, it’s up for interpretation, and it allows one to apply their own politics to the story. It allows you to see different POVS, and hopefully understand different POVs.”

Has there actually been any right-wing reaction? “I’m not sure yet. That was revealed to me much later with The Florida Project. I started to hear that both the right and left were appreciating and seeing different things in it.”

So far, Red Rocket has garnered positive reactions. It’s also, like Mikey, a film you love to hate – or hate to love. At the London Film Festival, I met a filmmaker queuing up for their second viewing; after not quite getting it the first time, they felt compelled to give it a second watch. “I think that’s often saying that you actually do like it deep down,” Baker enthuses, “and whatever that deep-down, inner sense is, it’s pulling you back into the theatre, because it’s saying, ‘Come on, give this another chance!’ That happened to me with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. I’m happy that that’s working for some people.”

If this unnamed person checks out Red Rocket a third time, they might uncover a further layer: it’s actually a time-travel movie. “I have Easter eggs that definitely get you thinking that Strawberry is a complete fantasy, and is Mikey’s way of coping. Or she’s a retelling of the Lexi story and the way their relationship was fleshed out. That stuff is in there!”

Baker’s next movie, the one halted by COVID, is a romcom tackling the opioid crisis. (Baker told the Guardian in 2017 he’s been clean for two decades but “lost a lot of time” to heroin addiction.) “It’s about drug user activism up in Vancouver, and the harm reduction world they have there,” he says. “I spent two years there (after The Florida Project). I got entrenched. It was the most rewarding time of my life.”

However, a smaller, Red Rocket-sized project could emerge first. “I was worried about going into Red Rocket because it was a quarter of the budget of my previous film,” he admits. “But it once again proves that you can do something small, and still make it look big. It was very liberating and free.”

Red Rocket is in UK cinemas on March 11