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An American Carol: Sean Baker on Red Rocket

Simon Rex stars in “Red Rocket” as an all-American go-getter, a former porn star who returns to the town he grew up in order to find some type of big break. Rex’s wily character Mikey pushes his way into the lives of his ex-wife Lexi (Bree Elrod) and her mother, crashing at their Texas home while trying to find a job. He gets starts making some selling weed for a family friend named Leondria (Judy Hill), and gets a ride into town thanks to his starstruck neighbor Lonnie (Ethan Darbone). But Mikey feels like he’s hit the jackpot when he starts having sex with Strawberry (Suzanna Son), a 17-year-old donut shop employee that he thinks he could make into the next iconic porn star. 

The film was written by Chris Bergoch and Baker, based off an idea that Baker says existed five years ago, and inspired by research for an earlier film. Baker is also credited as the movie’s casting director and precision driver. interviewed Baker about the making of “Red Rocket,” dashing his own dreams of directing a “Fast & Furious” movie, his favorite movies of 2021, and more.  

Has the film settled in your brain more since when it premiered at Cannes this past year? Have you learned more about the movie that you made? 

Um, yes. I think for me, often I’m discovering my own film with the audience, as time passes. So, I don’t have anything specific for you, but you have time to gather your thoughts and perhaps articulate your thoughts better than you could right in the beginning. And it’s also been interesting to finally get confirmation about what people actually think, what general audiences start to think. I’ve been reading Letterboxd reviews—I scan them—and it looks pretty positive, for the most part. 

Are you surprised by anything you have been reading in the Letterboxd reviews? 

Not really, I actually thought it would be a little more polarizing. Right now it’s definitely leaning toward the positive. I thought there may be a few … given the subject matter, automatic rejection. But there’s been a handful, but for the most part, no. Quite positive.

When you were writing it and making it, were you thinking about it in that way—that this is kind of provocative, and if you did mess it up, it could have been especially disastrous? 

Yes, you do have to keep that on your mind. You also have to, with everyone one of these films that I make, there’s always the chance that you are dealing with subject matter that can be handled the wrong way, and representation can go off the rails. But there’s also that moment—and I talked about this with “Tangerine” actually—you just have to put the blinders down. And you have to move forward, and then you can pull the blinders up after, but you can’t really be thinking about that stuff. It’s definitely going to be affecting your decision-making. We live in a time where it’s hard not to be effected by the world’s sensitivity, and social media has given everybody a platform to be outraged. So it’s changed things, definitely. But there’s no way to make one of these movies with that on your mind, while you’re in production. Otherwise you would second-guess every move. 

What made you believe in this story, especially when you and Chris were writing it; when you had the blinders on?

Well, I broke the story five years ago, actually before this new wave, before #MeToo, before the internet outrage. So I believed in it from then [laughs], and I just kept believing in it, no matter what was going on socially. I think it was just that, believing it then and already having it blocked out. Because five years ago, when we were coming off “The Florida Project,” everybody was asking as they always do, “What’s next?” And so you start entertaining a bunch of ideas. “Red Rocket” was one like that, because it was based on research we had done on “Starlet,” I already knew beginning, middle, and end. It got worked out very quickly, and even the B plots with the Leondria family, that was figured out during “The Florida Project” too, because I had met a family in Tampa, Florida that I modeled the Leondria family around. It was all there, five years ago. It was just about fleshing it out now. 

I didn’t want to shy away from the harsher stuff, the Mikey rants, the Mikey monologues. That stuff was actually in my head for many years, because I’ve heard many of those monologues. I was basically the Lonnie character listening to the stuff, when I was hanging out with these Mikey Saber types. They’re exhausting, they are motor-mouths. You are just getting inundated with their crazy thoughts, and you know what I mean by crazy, I’m making light of it. But their different way of thinking. So I was very much like that Lonnie character, just being assaulted to the point of exhaustion, I could only hang out with these guys at the most for a couple hours. It was sensory overload. 

What kind of relationship do you have with Hollywood? Does being in the A24 family help you feel a certain way in Hollywood? 

I’ve always had this outsider thing going on, even after moving here. I was in New York for most of my adult life, with friends of mine saying, “You’re only going to be able to make any progress in your industry or in your art if you get out here.” And I was resistant forever, until I literally had a TV show that was being shot here, and had to move out here and fell in love with it. But still, have you ever seen that old French documentary about Cassavetes? It’s pretty cool, you can see it on YouTube. Just following him cinema verite style, I believe he was making “Faces” at the time. He’s living in Hollywood, he’s driving up and down Mulholland Drive, but he still feels so outside the system. 

I think that’s how I feel. I’m here in the city, I’m part of the DGA, I go to events, if I get invited to a party, I go a party. But I feel very much of an outsider. And now I’ve reached the point where I’m not very interested in being accepted any more. I’ve found my own route, and the agencies only started paying attention to me, after “Tangerine” … no, it took Willem Dafoe being nominated (for “The Florida Project”) where they would email me and say, “You want to meet up with one of our clients?” Kind of too late guys! That person is too famous for me! I kind of find this niche, where also the movies I want to make are actually not following the … I love PTA, and I love Tarantino, and Spike Lee. But I’m not interested in casting the A-listers in my films, that’s not the route I’m taking. Yeah, that makes it much harder financially. But I don’t have kids. 

I wonder if the kids factor would change it for you. 

Oh, I think it would. I think a lot of things would change if I had kids. Who knows if even the subject matter of my films would be the same. I actually think about that a lot. And people ask me, “Would you have made this film if you had kids?” I’m not sure. Obviously it’s something I’ll never know. 

Did you have to get any clearance or blessing for Mikey’s “Fast & Furious” joke about Paul Walker dying? 

No, we didn’t. I think it’s just fair use because he’s a public figure. 

I read that you wanted to do a “Fast & Furious” movie, and I was thinking that Vin Diesel will absolutely not let you do one now, because of that scene. 

Oh my God! You’re right. I didn’t even think about that! I didn’t even think about that. See! I shoot myself in the foot all the time. [laughs] That’s hilarious. I guess not. And I was kind of serious about that—people always ask me if like, I could do a franchise, which one would it be. Well, originally I was totally … I had the same idea as Tarantino with “First Blood,” down to Adam Driver playing the lead. Minus the Kurt Russell as the sheriff, that’s the only thing. I was actually really going to pitch a different take on “First Blood,” one that’s not patriotic and flips the narrative and is actually slamming the government for the way we treat vets and everything. So that’s dead because Tarantino went on podcasts, and it’s gonna look like I’m ripping off Tarantino if I do that. That’s not happening. And then somebody said, “Would you ever do a franchise?” And I said, “Yeah, ‘Fast & Furious’ would at least be fun.” 

I think you’re gonna have to do some rectifying. I was watching some Simon Rex movies last night, “Scary Movie 5” and “An American Carol.” 

“American Carol”?

It’s this anti-Hollywood spoof by David Zucker where Simon Rex has a small part, as a presenter at a movie awards alongside Paris Hilton. 

Oh, this is the conservative film that Zucker did. Oh my god, I have to see this. 

It’s on Tubi. Did Simon’s history as an actor interest you when casting him? Or were you looking at him more as a blank slate?

The movies, not really. I did know him from “Scary Movie 3” and “Scary Movie 4,” but it was really just his persona and how he remained in the game. And we are about the same age, so I remember him breaking out on TV very well back in the day. And I remember the scandal that happened after that, and then of course him resurfacing with the “Scary Movies,” and his Dirt Nasty thing years later. But I have to say, it was probably the Vine years that really got me hooked. I was thinking, he’s been consistently entertaining me all these years, and this is pretty interesting with an older dude who is over the age of 35 embracing a new medium. I always appreciate that, when artists embrace new platforms. He was on Vine, he was doing his YouTube thing, podcasting, and it was then that I was like, “This guy deserves a really good break.” And honestly, I thought about him five years when we broke the story. But then it was put on the back burner and we went to develop another film. But he didn’t know that we were thinking about him for five years, he knew about it at the last minute. 

Have you been able to watch many new movies this year? 

Yeah, actually I have. No matter what’s going on, I always try to make time for new films. And I’m also an Academy member, so I’m on the international committee. 

Anything you think is particularly underrated that you’d want to tout at the year-end? 

“Jockey.” I think it’s underrated and I hope that gets a lot of attention. And then just … I’m not going to say my favorite because I’d get in trouble, being an Academy member, but I can say I really loved “Titane” and “Benedetta.” And [Paul] Verhoeven has had a big influence on my career, and life. At 16, when I saw “Robocop” it was life-changing. But discovering his earlier films, what they call sexploitation movies, which really aren’t, “Turkish Delight” obviously had a big influence on this film. And to see that he’s still doing it, with the degree that he did with “Benedetta,” is incredible, and impressive. 

Is it inspiring to you as someone who is also going to push some buttons? 

Yeah, it is. And also, he’s an artist who is still very strong, and is still sticking to his or her vision. I think that’s amazing at that age. That’s, y'know, what I’m looking to do. Like Tarantino has always talked about a strong filmography, and that’s very important to me. 

"Red Rocket" is now playing in theaters.

Nick Allen

Nick Allen is the former Senior Editor at and a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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