Refineries and Suitcase Pimps: Riding the Red Rocket With Sean Baker
The filmmaker talks about poverty porn and real porn
By Richard Whittaker,
6:00AM, Sun. Dec. 5, 2021
There's Hollywood, and there's the San Fernando Valley. Both are home to film industries, although one has the Oscars and the other has the Adult Video News awards. When Sean Baker wrote his new film, Red Rocket, the Valley's porn biz was at its heart - even though he made the movie in the decidedly unerotic fumes of the Texas City refineries.
Red Rocket centers on Mikey Saber (Simon Rex), a bombastic fading porn star, utterly lacking any self-awareness, who washes up on the porch of his former onscreen partner and estranged wife, Lexi (Bree Elrod). His puppydog charm lets him worm his way back into her life, even if smarter figures like dope dealer June (first timer Brittney Rodriguez) are less enchanted by his antics.
The followup to his award-winning 217 feature The Florida Project, it's informed by the porn business, rather than focusing in it. Baker credited longtime collaborator and cowriter Chris Bergoch with introducing him to people in the industry, “but then after a while, with social media, it got easier to reach out through DMs.” That early research fed into his first film. 2011 SXSW selection Starlet, “which the adult film industry seemed to appreciate, and they didn’t have an issue with, so that helped me.”
It also didn't hurt that he was a critically-lauded director who came at them honestly and earnestly, and the industry responded. “You see it in Boogie Nights" he said, "People in that world have that desire to work in the mainstream. So if you’re reaching out from the mainstream, you’re welcomed. They want to talk.”
Austin Chronicle: The film is set and shot in Texas City, but the shadow of LA and the porn industry there is always in the background. What was the research process?
Sean Baker: It was really about spending a lot of time with the adult film performers, and going to sets, and asking a lot off questions. Sometimes even going to parties and just observing. We had five consultants on the film as well, four of them from the adult film industry, one sex worker from outside the industry, so they very much helped with the authenticity. They called me out a couple of times on the script. “That wouldn’t happen, He would not refer to himself as an agent.” That sort of thing.
AC: On the other side, how do you make a film about a community like Texas City or Kissimmee without making it feel like poverty porn?
SB: I don’t know if there’s any specific answers to that question. It’s a balancing act, basically fleshing characters out enough, telling a story that’s universal enough, where you avoid those pitfalls. It’s really about allowing these characters to be fleshed out enough that they’re not just caricatures.
And humor is a big thing. You see a lot of films that you might label poverty porn, and they almost revel in their misery, and it becomes part of the style. I think what we try to do is have that proper balance of comedy and pathos that represents real life. And when you represent real life it takes you away from that simplistic poverty porn approach.
If that term comes from anywhere, it comes from British social realism because sometimes British social realism falls into that - sometimes. But then there are masters like Ken Loach, who knows how not to do that, and I look to those filmmakers for inspiration.
AC: So what was it about this community that made it the environment you wanted to shoot in?
SB: We were searching for a refinery town. We went right up the gulf, and fell in love with almost every city we came across, but when we landed in Texas City it was the one that spoke to us.
AC: What made it stand out?
SB: On a visual level, we knew that we could turn the camera in any direction and get and incredible shot. The refinery itself is a weird spiderweb of rusted metal and pipes, and you have the steam and you have the flare stacks. It’s quite an overwhelming environment. And meeting people in the area, and that house we shout at, these wonderful, specific locations.
But also learning about the history cemented it for us.AC: I did appreciate the reference to (notorious body dump site) the Killing Fields.
SB: That’s a real place, in between Texas City and Galveston. It’s just one of those dark chapters in the history of that area that I found fascinating. I didn’t really know much about that area until we landed there and started exploring and discovering it, and that was a major part of deciding to shoot there, this layered, very dark and sad history of that particular place and the surrounding towns.
AC: The characters have their own histories, and Lexi’s history with Mikey is rarely stated, but more explained through their reactions, and especially how she responds to the trail of chaos he leaves behind.
Bree Elrod: I think that’s the beauty of the script. It was written in a way that gave me a way to get into her. There wasn’t a ton of big, long, “Lexi yelling” monologues, so you have an opportunity to have those internally. In her internal monologue, there’s so much happening, and yet there’s no lines to that, and that’s the challenge for an actor, to not overly show what’s going on, but to live in the moment and breathe in the moment. It’s really just about breathing, and I think in those moments I really found out so much about Lexi, and Mickey, and their history. That monologue in the kitchen where he’s just going on and on, you get a sense of what their history must be like, and even her saying “I have a feeling there’s a lot more to this story,” she knows him, she’s on to him. They grew up together, they moved to LA together, they have this chemistry and this history.
AC: On the other hand, June sees through Mikey right away.
Brittney Rodriguez: This was my first time ever doing something. Simon would work with me and go, “It’s good. Just let me have it, I can take it,” and he’d reassure me that it’s working and doing the job. And then I couldn’t really look at him as just Simon. I had to be able to see him as the character he was, and I had to ask, how would I really react to someone like him in this kind of situation.
BE: I think Britt did just such a good job in reacting honestly to the situation that was in front of her. With a lot of first time actors, there’s a nervousness, there’s a fear, and it was really fun for me in the scenes that we shared to just really let go, really get into it, and just start improvising.
SB: And I’ll say that, with Brittney and Bree, we had a loose enough schedule - it was still very tight, and we were shooting during COVID so we had to keep going - but we did have a loose enough schedule where I was able to add additional scenes what I wanted to see more of. And it just so happened that these two were giving such amazing performances that we started adding scenes, fleshing the characters out. So that backyard scene where it’s just Lexi and Mikey staring out, and Lexi says, “My mom calls that Old Smokey,” that came because we wanted more moments between the two of them, more quiet moments, more that fleshed out their relationship.
AC: Simon seems so perfect for Mikey that it’s hard to imagine anyone else as him, but when you started writing the script, what was Mikey like? Because, as Simon plays him, he's so perfectly oblivious to his own destructiveness, and it takes a long time to really grasp how unlikable and dangerous he is.
SB: That was it, and the great thing was that Simon got it. I was going for all those characteristics, from the narcissism to complete ignorance of the toxic effect he has on other people, to this weird optimism about the future, even though he’s had stumble after stumble, he got all these things. And being a man child too. I said that to Simon, right off the bat. “You probably stopped mentally growing at 15.”
These characteristics came from the archetypes I found in the adult film world, these suitcase pimps. That was all on the page, and Simon was great about understanding it right away. And even though he didn’t know specifically any suitcase pimps, from being in the world of celebrity and Hollywood for the last three decades he knew enough of that sort of person.
Red Rocket opens in Austin Dec. 17. Read our review in next week's issue.