Breaking the ice with sex in Texas

Red Rocket director realises dream of bringing his underdogs to Cannes

by Richard Mowe

Red Rocket director Sean Baker: 'We have a great division in our country so we have to enable both sides to discuss things'
Red Rocket director Sean Baker: 'We have a great division in our country so we have to enable both sides to discuss things' Photo: Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
When director Sean Baker watches a movie he prefers to be challenged. “I want to think about a film and if it is too literal it stops me thinking,” he said with a flourish as he premiered his latest project Red Rocket at the Cannes Film Festival to a buzz of approval, not least from jury president Spike Lee who was on his feet to clap enthusiastically at the end of the screening. Time will tell if this could this be a pointer to Saturday’s awards ceremony.

The notion of challenge invests Baker’s own approach to filmmaking first noted in Tangerine (about transgender sex workers in Los Angeles) in 2015 and three years later in The Florida Project, which won Willem Dafoe a best supporting Oscar acting nomination.

Baker has been a leading light on the indie circuit, specialising in narratives that give voice to society’s underdogs. In Red Rocket, set in Texas City, he provides a gift of a role for Simon Rex (a former adult actor) who plays a washed up porn star planning his next film and trying to get his life back together.

Red Rocket team in Cannes, from left, Simon Rex, Sean Baker and Bree Elrod
Red Rocket team in Cannes, from left, Simon Rex, Sean Baker and Bree Elrod Photo: Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
With a background of Trump’s America, Baker not only directed, but also edited and co-wrote the script with regular collaborator Chris Bergoch. Baker told a media gathering that he did not want to put his own politics in the film. “We have a great division in our country so we have to enable both sides to discuss things. I’ve tried to be honest and straightforward and not use manipulative styles to describe a character. These actors really humanise the characters.”

Baker is fascinated by the thriving underground economy in one of the richest countries the world. “Why is that economy happening? It is worth billions of dollars and one of the main strands of it is sex work,” he suggested.

He hired a retinue of sex workers and adult film performers to advise on the authenticity of the script. “We wanted to hear from them and they were shown an initial script. They gave us notes that were incredibly helpful,” said Baker.

The energetic no-holds barred physical encounters between Rex and his estranged wife (played by stage actor Bree Elrod) on a closed set were carefully choreographed. “Even the sexual positions were scripted so they knew what they were getting into. Each sex scene has its own energy and we shot them early on in the schedule. You couldn’t hope for a better ice-breaker! I ended with ten minutes of sometimes hilarious sex between them, whereas I only actually wanted a few seconds or so,” added Baker.

Simon Rex in Red Rocket
Simon Rex in Red Rocket Photo: Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

For Rex it was a surprise last-minute assignment although Baker had wanted to work with him for some time. “Sean called me and asked if I could be in Texas in three days. I had to drive there because if I had flown I would have had to quarantine for a week. The lack of preparation kept it all raw in a way.” As for being drawn on whether the sizeable appendage on view in the more intimate scenes was his own he wisely suggested that he preferred to keep any penis issues as “a mystery”.

Rex admires the way Baker depicts the kind of poorer communities often ignored on screen. “He shines a light on dark subject matter and makes these people real and likeable,” said Rex. Red Rocket, in common with Baker’s previous films, uses many non-actors in supporting roles and he also allows his professional actors considerable room for improvisation.

Baker believes his careful choice of locations means the surroundings become a character in the film. “When we landed in Texas City we knew we had found our location. It used to be heavily industrialised and it has a rich history. Despite the disasters it has endured, it is a city that cannot die and that became one of the themes of the film. It happened just before Trump’s election and watching the way he spoke about it in hindsight was fascinating. Whatever side of the aisle you are on we did not see the Trump win coming. It was a major twist, almost like a movie twist. Looking back on that innocence was a fascinating way to place the film.”

Bree Elrod goes from stage to screen in Red Rocket at the Cannes Film Festival
Bree Elrod goes from stage to screen in Red Rocket at the Cannes Film Festival Photo: Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
The atmosphere on location was very much that of a family affair with the cast and crew all staying the same bed and breakfast. Unfortunately Baker succumbed to a false positive test for Covid which caused a delay of a month in the shoot.

Despite the positive vibes so far in Cannes, Baker knows he is tackling tough subjects. “There are themes and images that could trigger certain reactions. I tried to adopt the way the films of the Seventies approached such matters, rather than shying away. The film could be divisive and I may get some hate mail … but for me that’s OK as a result.”

On the Cannes experience in which he finds himself competing for the Palme d’Or and other prizes with 23 global contenders Baker describes himself as “nervous and neurotic … this has been a dream of mine for ages".

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