Movies

Sean Baker On ‘Red Rocket’ And Its Looming Specter Of Donald Trump

A lot is being made about the porn aspect of Sean Baker’s Red Rocket – and with good reason, as star Simon Rex is fabulous as Mikey Saber, a former Los Angeles-based porn star who, down on his luck, has to move back home to Texas City, Texas. (South of the Houston area, right near Galveston.) But it seems like the whole concept of Mikey is, sort of, a red herring. In that we are introduced to this extremely colorful, very entertaining character who kind of serves as our guide into the inner workings of Red State, America. When I bring this up to Baker, he confirms I am not wrong, but admits if he just comes out and says that it will sound like he’s preaching.

Set during the lead-up to the 2016 election, it’s not exactly subtle how often the former president shows up in Red Rocket. From speeches on in the background to ever-present campaign signs, Trump plays a surprising role in setting the tone of this film.

Talking to Baker – who, between Red Rocket and his prior film, The Florida Project, has a knack for depicting a certain slice of America – he sounds sincere that both sides of the political spectrum need to start listening to each other. When I mention that’s a nice enough sentiment, but it was one side that, you know, tried to overthrow the government — so, all that led to a pretty interesting discussion…

As far as Texas authenticity, I love the part where Mikey is asked if he wants “a Coke” and he’s handed something that’s not a Coke and he just drinks it.

Thank you! You’re the first person to bring that up. And that’s one of those little local moments of detail that I felt necessary to be in the film. And I think it was the collaborators who really helped, meaning my actors, who were giving me these little tidbits and these little things to go with. So that was, yes, that was a very intentional Texan reference.

Between this and The Florida Project, I am so curious how you get this correct. People living in small towns. I know these people in real life and your movies feel really realistic to me.

Well, I think it’s really just about allowing the characters, well, striving for the characters to be as three-dimensional as possible. I think that’s the thing. I think a lot of U.S film and TV, when it’s taking place outside of the metropolitan areas, we lean into caricatures. I mean the industry’s representation of people outside of metropolitan areas. And so I tried to avoid the caricatures as much as possible.

I speak from having family members like this, but sometimes people are those small town caricatures in real life. So that’s what seems difficult.

We know that sometimes stereotypes and cliches are based in some sort of truth, but what I try to do is just embrace the character entirely, like flaws and all. Having a fully fleshed-out character means having all of those things that we sometimes don’t see applied to characters like this. Meaning that I feel, especially now in 2021, we’re having the tendency to sanctify a lot of, or put on a pedestal a lot of these characters, make them saints.

Or if this character’s doing something, well, the director must also be in favor of what this character’s doing.

Oh, yeah. That’s a whole other thing. Depiction equaling condoning. But no, no, I mean more along the lines of just not being afraid to… Sometimes characters, especially these days, if you’re depicting somebody who is struggling or living in poverty or just marginalized to any degree from society, we seem to want to always make them a perfect character. Make them a saint. And I think actually that is hurtful in some ways. It’s not being honest. And it’s also not allowing the audience to connect. I know when I see characters that have flaws, that remind me of myself in some way, even if I can’t identify with their situation, I can see the common character traits. And I identify with them more. It becomes easier to connect with them.

I have cousins who lived in a trailer park. And when we’d go visit them, you know what they weren’t doing? They weren’t talking about how they live in a trailer park. They have their own gossip. They aren’t talking about how they can get ahead. They have their own world.

One hundred percent. That’s something I avoid intentionally.

And Red Rocket does it so well. They have their own problems. They’re in their own world. They don’t care about us.

So, the trick becomes: if you do want to get some exposition across to the audience to explain the situation or the plight just a little bit more without having this very surface, as you just said, very unrealistic discussion of their predicament – because that never happens, you have to figure out other little ways of sprinkling it in. For example, the two moms [in The Florida Project] having to move rooms because it’s a local mandate that you can’t be in a room for more than 29 days? It’s giving little moments like that to help explain to the audience, as much as possible. Because I hate… You know what? I can’t stand movies that, like, start with a definition. I can’t stand movies that explain slang. I like when it allows the audience to really make that decision. If I’m an audience member and I’m intrigued enough and engaged enough, I’ll go home at the end of the night and I’ll Google what “suitcase pimp” means. You know, Chris and I, Chris Bergoch, my co-screenwriter, we’re always very intentionally trying to avoid those pitfalls. But thank you for pointing that out. Yeah, that’s important.

Well, yes, I know people just like this and they talk like they do in your movies. So that’s why I always appreciate what you do.

Yeah, it’s small talk. I mean it’s about what we all talk about. Food, weather, pop culture, and a little bit of politics.

Speaking of politics, obviously, our former president plays a role in this movie. I saw a quote from you, I think it might have been from Cannes where you said it was a surprise that he won. And the week of that election, I was not surprised.

Oh, you weren’t? Okay.

The week of. I knew it was phony, but I could see why the things he was saying might appeal to someone who was struggling. And I feel like your movie does a good job of depicting that. You have his speeches playing in the background. There are Trump signs everywhere. Am I over-reading this?

We try to touch on that desire for change from, again, perhaps those marginalized red communities, but that’s very subtle. I also try to stay politically as neutral as possible because one of the themes I’m tackling with this film is division. So the last thing I wanted to be is incredibly divisive with this movie, because I want both sides to talk about it. And yet the subject matter of this movie is divisive, so I’m being a little hypocritical. But no, I mean, a lot of people have pointed out that they see Trump in Mikey, and it’s a hundred percent legit.

Oh, really? I didn’t at all. Is that real?

It’s not intentional, but I can see why, because we have definitely planted those seeds throughout.

Okay … yeah? I see a little bit of what you’re saying?

But yeah, but I also see what you’re saying. He’s also apolitical. There were, in earlier drafts of the script, we didn’t make him political. He didn’t take a side. However, he was the only one who saw potential in Trump. Meaning he recognized whatever was that quality, and perhaps it’s even that hustler quality, or perhaps the quality of drawing people in the way that a celebrity – I mean, I’m sorry, a reality star would. You know? He has that.

I mean, celebrity works. Trump was a celebrity.

Yeah, but he also wasn’t a politician. And I think that’s what was very intriguing to many people. I always think of that election being the first election that people were tuning in for, for almost all the wrong reasons. People really weren’t tuning in to find out what the policy proposals were from the candidates. They were looking for a little bit of drama, a little bit of comedy, you know? And so it was really about that. It was really about how that election changed the landscape of why people were actually tuning in, what they were tuning in for. But also it was a very polarizing election and one that has had ripple effects ever since. We’ve continued to have everything politicized. Everything is polarizing. So I think I set it against that time to sort, again, complement themes. I never wanted to make direct, in any way, any allegorical connections or anything like that. It was more about allowing the audience to apply their own politics to it…

I don’t think someone in Texas City is going to look at that and go, “Ah, here’s a Hollywood guy making his case against Trump.” I think they’ll see it a whole different way than maybe I see it.

I certainly hope. I certainly hope so. Yeah.

At Cannes you said, “We have a great division in our country, so we have to enable both sides to discuss things.” And our current president says the same thing. But at the same time, one side did try to overthrow the government and that’s hard to ignore.

Yeah, but you ask the other side and they say that’s not true. I had friends who were at the Capitol that day and didn’t even know that was going on. So there’s always, unfortunately, only two ways of seeing things right now, and that’s what’s really pissing me off. We have this two-party system. I was living up in Canada where, just for a year, two years prior to COVID, and just talking to people about their choices when it came to elections. And even though nobody is fond of their politicians, but at the same time, they at least talked about the fact that they had more of a choice. It didn’t feel like it was just this game of one or the other and hating everybody from the other side.

So, based on that, I’ve read a lot of interviews about this movie. Simon is amazing in it, but most delves into the more porn star side of things. For me, the way it hit me, it’s almost like you get this flashy, fantastical guide from the porn world who is really interesting to take us into this world and see what’s going on in a red state. I’m not saying that was your intent…

I do.

Okay.

I do. But if I get too analytical on this and start telling people my thoughts and what I actually see of it, I’m just preaching.

I don’t think you’re preaching. I think you’re giving us an extremely interesting character and then you take us into what’s going on in the other America, basically.

Yeah, I do.

So I’m not off base.

No, you’re not. No, not in any way. And if you do rewatch it, you’ll see our choices of the clips from that summer, how the election was being covered at that time, and also just the stuff that was happening in the news. I’m doing my best to kind of show both sides with this being as subtle about it as possible.

And I’m ruining that for you.

A little. But it was a very trying time. Not only did you have Trump’s major, just omnipresence, but you also had what was going on with Clinton and her emails, and you had the incredibly sad and tragic shooting in Dallas that led to sort of the opposite of the Defund the Police campaign there in Texas at the time. Which led to an uptick in enrollment. And then I also wanted to point out with Ted Cruz talking at the RNC about perhaps we don’t have to vote for Trump. “There are other choices within our party.” I found all that stuff very, very interesting and stuff that I wanted to just subtly sprinkle in there, so that things weren’t so black and white. I don’t know if you noticed, there are also little Easter eggs in there. Like the ex-boyfriend’s family, when they beat up Mikey? It’s a few frames, but if you notice, they are Clinton supporters. There’s a Clinton sign on their front porch.

I did not notice that.

Yeah. I tried to mix it up a little bit because things aren’t black and white. Things are very gray. And I’m exploring the moral gray with Mikey, so I wanted to explore the gray area.

Well, the Clinton thing is interesting because people forget that, what, something like 47% of Texans voted for Joe Biden. That’s a lot of people.

Yeah, exactly. Exactly. And yet we seem to just point our fingers at the red states thinking they’re 100 percent on the right. You know? At least I feel that way coming from liberal Hollywood and reading leftist news.

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