Sean Baker on Red Rocket and Why Art House Movies Deserve an Extended Theatrical Window

Red Rocket opens inside a cramped cross-country bus, as Mikey Sable (Simon Rex), a down-and-out adult-film actor, awakens upon reaching his destination. After years of middling success in the porn industry’s production capital of L.A.’s San Fernando Valley, Mikey is back home, and no one wants him there—himself included. His return to Texas City, an industrial town on Texas’s Gulf Coast, unfolds to the soundtrack of N’Sync’s “Bye Bye Bye,” jolting the audience’s attention within the film’s first few minutes.

Like the male protagonists in Martin Scorsese’s early movies set in Little Italy, Mikey is the archetypal American hustler working on the margins of society and the formal economy. He has deep roots in his hometown, but an ambition better suited to greener pastures. His entire life feels like a long con, success something he can talk himself into instead of working for. Broke and back in Texas City, Mikey asks his former partner Lexi (Bree Elrod) if he can stay with her for a few days, maybe months, while he gets back on his feet. But after starting to date Strawberry, a precocious teenager he meets at a local doughnut shop (Suzanna Son), Mikey sees his new relationship as his ticket out of Texas and back to L.A.’s glittering adult-entertainment industry.

Writer-director Sean Baker never intended Red Rocket to be the follow-up to his 2017 breakthrough film, The Florida Project, the movie that solidified his status as a contemporary American auteur. He was at work on a more personal project, a drama to be shot in Vancouver, until the Covid-19 pandemic scrapped those plans. As the world shut down in March 2020, Baker decided to move forward with Red Rocket instead, a film he could shoot with his trademark resourcefulness: on a tight budget with an even tighter crew. The finished result premiered in competition at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival and will hit screens this December. Boxoffice Pro spoke to the filmmaker about the movie’s careful approach to controversial themes—and his belief that independent films deserve just as much of a theatrical window as major studio tentpoles.

Consistent themes in your work are underground and alternative economies, how people on the margins get by. This film tackles that by looking at the falling arc of a career in the adult-film industry. How did you come to this story?

This came about through research that I was doing with my co-screenwriter, Chris Bergoch, in the adult-film world almost 10 years ago. It was for a film I made before Tangerine, called Starlet. We got to know people within the adult-film world—there were lots of cameos in Starlet of adult-film performers, both male and female. It was through meeting them that we met this archetype—that I didn’t even know was a real thing until I met a handful of these guys—of these “suitcase pimps,” and realizing there was even a slang term that applied to them. Of course, this doesn’t apply to all male talent in the adult-film world, but there are these dudes who live off the women in the adult-film world and take advantage of them. That’s how they survive in that world. I was intrigued because I saw similar characteristics in all these guys, they basically thought the same way. Their thought process, I found to be extremely complex, problematic, disturbing. Something I couldn’t wrap my head around. I guess it was a desire to tackle a character like this and put the audience in the same mindset that I was in while hanging out with them. To describe it to you very quickly: I was entertained, I was laughing, I was having a fun time hanging out with these guys. Because on the surface level, they’re entertaining, appealing, and funny. But after a while, what they were saying would sink in and I would be very torn, and just not knowing how to handle what I just heard and questioning myself. Why am I laughing at this stuff? Why am I finding this so entertaining? I wanted to apply that to the audience and have them feel the same in this film.

And of course, there is a Lolita element to this story, in having this suitcase pimp pursue a high schooler. For Lolita to work, you don’t have to like or condone its protagonist—but you have to like spending time with him. The book does a lot of work to get there. In a film, that work comes down to the performance of your lead actor. On paper, Mikey Sable is a terrible person, but Simon Rex’s magnetic performance is what drives this movie. How did you know he was the right person for the role?

I knew it would have to be somebody who has that charming appeal and is also funny. because that’s what these guys are on the surface level. That’s how they draw people in, how they connect with people. That’s how they get what they want. They’re low-level pimps—they have to have that persona. Simon being a comedian and an actor, I knew he had the comedic chops. I’ve been watching him for so long, we’re approximately the same age, I know about all the peaks and valleys of his career. Every time he came back into the spotlight, I felt proud of him. Because he was a survivor. This guy is going to keep doing it until the industry truly pays attention to him. I was always baffled by why the industry didn’t give him more meaty roles, more dramatic roles. He was somebody I had always considered for this role, simple as that. I think it was the Vine days; if he could make me entertained in six seconds, I knew he was able to entertain me for two hours.

You’ve explored sex work before. Here you take a look at themes of exploitation and coercion in sex work, although the sex between characters is presented as entirely consensual. You never judge your characters’ sexuality. That’s another aspect that makes Lolita work: You don’t have to agree with the love story, but you have to believe it. In movies, whenever you have a messed-up romance, like in Vertigo or Badlands, it only works if you buy into the love story. You achieve that in Red Rocket, but getting there means you, as a director, have to be morally detached from Mikey’s manipulation and instead focus on the chemistry between characters. How did you go about balancing that tone?

I didn’t want to paint a black-and-white, Big Bad Wolf and Innocent Little Lamb story. That would be so easy to do, and it’s been done a million times. We all know that life is more complex than that. I worked with consultants on this film, too, from the sex-work and adult-film worlds. One of their big notes for me was that I should have the Strawberry character have agency, be intelligent and present in making her own decisions and enjoying the consensual sex they were having. Now, she happens to be unknowingly being semi-recruited for the porn industry; that makes the situation more complex. But on a surface level, I wanted to make her character a realistic teenager who is intrigued by this world. That balance starts in the screenplay, but it really solidifies in the edit. I’m also the editor, I consider that half of my directing work. Finding that balance in the edit is the most important thing. It’s also elements like finding my Simon and Suzy who had a great chemistry and who are two professionals and are able to really give multidimensional performances that aren’t just black and white.

Settings play such a big role in your films—the motel in The Florida Project comes to mind—and in this film you introduce a historical setting. Red Rocket is set during the 2016 presidential election, which felt like an ensemble of hustlers willing to say anything to gain power and advance their own careers. The film never hits you over the head with this comparison, but like that election, in Red Rocket it feels like Mikey’s con is about to collapse at any second—but he will say and do anything to keep it going. How did you come about setting the film at that particular time?

It wasn’t there when we initially broke it. We initially broke Red Rocket right after The Florida Project. It wasn’t introduced [into the screenplay] until later, when I was able to see that election in hindsight. It was applied when we decided to pivot and make Red Rocket in that March–April 2020 period. I was tackling the theme of division. I see our country as extremely divided right now. I look back at that election as the election that sort of started it. We’ve been divided for a while, obviously, but there was something that made it very public in which everything became politicized. That election was so much like a reality television show in which everyday people who normally wouldn’t get involved with politics are suddenly glued to the coverage of that election because, guess what? One of the candidates was a reality television star. It really drew the public in and then suddenly everything became politicized. I can’t even talk about Covid right now with friends, because we might have a slight difference of opinion on something, and suddenly they see you as “somebody on the other side.” I hate that; I really don’t like where our country has gone. But I didn’t want to preach to the choir either. I obviously lean left, you can see that with all my films, but the last thing I wanted to do is make this an even more divisive vehicle out there. I was tackling this theme, but I wanted to do it in a way where it was ambiguous enough where both sides could discuss this film. Both sides could perhaps even apply their own politics to the film. That was important to me, too. I’ve had people come up to me and say, is Simon supposed to be Trump or Clinton? I’m not sure. And I love that. That means I am riding that line in a way that is not alienating.

This movie talks about the porn industry, which has been at the forefront of every disruption. Porn kept cinemas alive after the suburban flight, before the multiplex had caught up to those audiences in the suburbs, and it kept cinemas in cities alive for decades. It kept this magazine in business for at least a decade, our most important advertiser during the sexploitation era. They led the charge to home video, premium cable—

—they swung the pendulum to VHS over Beta!

—and they played a similar role with DVDs before transitioning to PVOD and SVOD. Right now, that business model in the adult industry seems to be broken by two things that theatrical distribution and exhibition are currently debating: ubiquity in streaming platforms and disrupting the price-value relationship. If content is everywhere, and free and easy to find, that changes its value. When I was 12 years old, finding a Playboy behind the dumpster was like finding the Magna Carta. Twelve-year-olds today have no problem finding adult content, and its value to the consumer is totally different. Do you see any parallels between the adult industry and where we are with theatrical distribution?

We saw this happen with music, we saw it happen with the porn industry: If you give something to the public for free, suddenly it changes their entire relationship with that product. It’s like they expect it to be free from that point on. Which is really sad. It’s setting up the wrong precedent. I believe that day-and-date led to that. The streaming services are just continuing to perpetuate that. I want art to be available to everybody, but there are ways of rolling out a film, by exposing it in stages to the public, that can elevate the film’s importance. That’s the point of marketing, to elevate something, to heighten its perception among the audience.

I’ve always been a fan of the longest window possible before home entertainment—and this is where people slam me for being elitist or whatever—but I’m not saying they can’t see it. I’m just saying that home entertainment, for me, is an afterthought. As the creator of this film, I would like people to presence it, first and foremost, on the big screen. That’s the way we shot it; we want it to be seen in a theater. Then you have those people who say, “Oh, but I have my home theater that has a big screen and good sound.” So it’s not just that aspect to it, it’s about making it an event and being in a room with strangers in this communal experience of experiencing the same piece of art with other people. That does change the way that you absorb it, the way that you think about it, the way that you react to it.

Slowly rolling it out to audiences also has an effect on that reaction. If you’re paying for that premium experience of going to the theater, you pay a little bit more. If you want to wait a month buying it on PVOD, maybe pay a little bit less. And if you wait a few more months, you’re eventually getting it for free down the line with your Netflix subscription. That was always a model that worked. Now what’s happening is that films are becoming more like series, series are becoming more like films, and they’re all becoming throwaway products.

Not that I’m looking for recognition, but it’s definitely throwing the auteur right out the window, because we’re seeing and talking about things just as “Netflix movies.” We don’t hear who the directors are. We don’t know who the actors are. It’s just a Netflix film, and there’s a new one each week. For me, it’s stripping away the significance of this art form.

Suzanna Son in RED ROCKET. Image courtesy of A24.

When we look at the release model right now for most specialty and art house movies like yours, it’s as if you guys are being given a three-week window to try to make as much money as possible, instead of slowly finding and developing that audience in a model that had previously worked for decades. Does that new paradigm of “three weeks and out” place undue pressure on you for the types of films you get to make?

I think so. If you make a genre film, it’s different. If you make an A24 genre film, which is like a slight art house horror like Midsommar, It Comes at Night, or Lamb that falls into genre, that stuff you can throw out there because you know the audiences will come to the multiplexes for that. For a film like mine, which is not fully genre, it’s that old-school dramedy thing. It’s an old-school classic character-study thing, the thing that we used to see all the time and now we don’t see as much of. That is why I’m very happy that A24 is giving Red Rocket a platform release, which I think is the best way to roll out a film like this. It allows word of mouth to gain traction. Who knows if there are still sleepers out there or if sleepers can actually still exist. You would know better than me. Is that still happening?

I think we’re learning that. But I don’t have to look that far to see titles like Room, from your distributor, A24, with a very difficult subject matter, grow to Academy Award status. What Neon did with Parasite, a Korean-language title, allowing a film to find its audience in movie theaters, maybe not everyone in every city at once, but eventually. Of course, I have a bias, but I agree with you that theatrical exhibition makes sense for specialty and art house films as much as it does for the big popcorn movies.

I totally agree with that, 100 percent.

As we’re coming out of a devastating pandemic for movie theaters, what does it mean for you, as a filmmaker, to have a film that will play a part in the movie theater recovery effort?

I’m just incredibly grateful. I’m grateful that there are still theaters, I’m glad there are still people working in theaters, and I’m glad there are still audiences wanting to see films in theaters. I’ve been going since day one, the day they opened back up. I went all the way out to Thousand Oaks to see a matinee. I’ve been back for a while, but I know some audiences that haven’t. Sometimes I get messages saying, “I saw your film at a film festival the other day, and it was my first time back in the theater for a year and a half.” I’m always so grateful because I’m sure they had to battle their comfort level to get back out to a theater, and the very fact that they’re doing that for my film means so much to me.

The people who are back at theaters right now, they’re loving film. There’s that vibe that I get in the auditoriums when I’m there. People are truly celebrating something that we almost lost. It’s that cliché, you don’t know what you got until it’s gone. That certainly kicked in for me, because now I’m going to the theater for everything. I see things that I normally would not have seen in the past. I’m talking about some of the big franchise stuff that perhaps isn’t my thing. I can still of course appreciate it, but now I’m all in because I want to support the industry and every aspect of the industry. I want to support the art houses, I want to support the chains and studio films, because, ultimately, we have to give them their due. Those big franchise films are the films that are keeping the theatrical business moving forward, alive and thriving.

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