“Suitcase pimps live off female talent in the world of adult film”

Sean Baker is a unique figure in American cinema. His films are about the marginalized, the disenfranchised and the downright tragic, carefully framed with dignity, understanding and – oh, yes – cheerfulness. It’s a kitchen sink but not as you know. The kinetic, dynamic scoundrels that inhabit Baker’s midpoint aren’t fun characters, but they are frequently fun characters. In this spirit, the filmmaker frequents the communities he represents.

“I think my films are a reaction to what I don’t see enough of in film and TV, and also against the representation that already exists there,” says the writer-director. “I know that if I was portrayed as I see it, I wouldn’t be happy with that kind of portrayal. There is a stigma that applies – whether it is the underground economy, sex work, homelessness, drug use or just general poverty – to marginalized people. The more stories that are told about marginalized people, and the more stories that are told in a way that has universal themes so that people can connect with those stories wherever you are in the world, the better it is. ‘East. I think it just helps remove the stigma. How many stories have we seen about white suburbs, white metropolitan areas, or New York and Los Angeles? We’ve seen these people a million times, but we never see the others. I hope I am trying to change that.

Red Rocket, Baker’s seventh feature, is typical of the filmmaker’s milieu. Longtime fans will remember Take Out (2008), in which a Chinese immigrant has just one day to find the money to cover his smuggling debt, and Prince of Broadway, an immigrant drama Ghanaian selling counterfeits. in Manhattan. Tangerine, Baker’s breakthrough 2015 hit, is about transgender women jostling in Hollywood. Red Rocket was inspired by Baker’s research into the dark business of pornography for his 2012 feature Starlet and the industry’s “suitcase pimp” phenomenon.

“The fact that I’m making a film about this man means that, yes, there is some judgment. But above all, I try to remain objective.

“When I was on the set of Starlet 10 years ago, I remember my cinematographer at the time saying, ‘Hey, there’s a whole other movie with one of these guys. ‘” Baker recounts. “And I completely agreed. We were meeting these gentlemen. A handful of them who were considered suitcase pimps and suddenly realizing that there was even a term applied to them. And an archetype that exists And I realized after the fact, reading the story of Jenna Jameson, a porn actress turned superstar, that she mentioned suitcase pimps in her autobiography Her first boyfriend who brought her into industry was seen as a suitcase pimp.These men live off female talent in the adult film world, so they are often performers themselves, but they are also usually the boyfriend, partner, husband, the female talent manager. And that was an archetype that I was very interested in exploring one day and doing a study on the characters because I found them, and their way of thinking, very captivating and compelling. So, this idea was t just there on the back burner forever.

delicate line

As Red Rocket opens, Simon Rex’s Mikey Saber, a former porn star, flees untold terror to his hometown of Texas City. He’s pretty much getting on with his estranged wife, Lexi (Bree Elrod), and mother, Lil (Brenda Deiss), and local weed dealer Leondria (Judy Hill), when he falls for a 17-year-old donut shop worker named Strawberry (Suzanna Son). We say he falls in love: we mean he convinced her that she should run away to Los Angeles with him and become a porn star in his schemes.

We also had consultants on the film – five sex workers, four of whom were from the adult film industry – and each of them said, “We want her to have an agency.”

The film follows a delicate line, simultaneously ridiculing Mikey’s predatory male gaze while allowing Strawberry his own, albeit misguided, agency.

“I have to believe that’s the most honest way to approach the subject,” says Baker. “I mean, the fact that I’m making a film about this man, and this particular moment in his life, means that, yes, there is a certain amount of judgment. But I mostly try to stay objective. And I I had to make the decision to try to put the audience in their head a bit. And how do you do that without condoning their behavior? It was a balancing act. I knew that when you talk about this kind of subject these days, you are very aware of how it will be perceived in the many ways it will be perceived.From the beginning, we call it a rollercoaster of tone and ethics.That’s why we have a rollercoaster scene in the movie. It’s literally like a visual metaphor for what we were doing. We could have taken a simple black and white approach and made the main character a big bad wolf. We’ve seen that a million times. I wanted to do something much more complex because life is much more complex. And that also comes well, first of all Susie [Suzanna Son] se. His instinct is impressive. She was the one saying, “I want this character to be fully dimensional.” Maybe Strawberry uses Mikey as much as Mikey uses Strawberry. We also had consultants on the film – five sex workers, four of whom were from the adult film industry – and each of them said, “We want her to have an agency.” ”

Simon Rex and Suzanna Son in Red Rocket (2021)

tour de force

It’s a tour de force from Simon Rex, who got his start in show business as an adult entertainer in the mid-1990s before becoming an MTV star. Since then, Rex has been a nightclub investor, the star of the latest Scary Movie installments, a rapper and Paris Hilton’s boyfriend, before moving off the grid to Joshua Tree. Before Red Rocket brought him to Cannes, Rex was offered $70,000 to “lie about dating Meghan Markle”, his former co-star. He turned down at least two British tabloids. The talented ensemble around Rex, meanwhile, is typical of Baker’s casting process. Baker cast refinery worker Brittney Rodriguez while walking her dog in Texas City, where the film is set. The director met Brenda Deiss when she asked for jumper cables for her car. He found Ethan Darbone, who plays Mickey’s neighbor Lonnie, at the local community college.

“He was wonderful,” says Baker. “I mean, he was absolutely a pleasure to work with. I want to try to figure out how to work with him again. Because he’s not only professional and obviously a wonderful actor, but he’s also a fun guy to hang out with. He had no diva quality in any way, shape or form. We had him drive over to Texas because it was one of those productions where we had very little money and he was fed like pizza every day and he was okay with that. He was really patient working with beginners; he was always there for them. And his comedic improvisation is impeccable. And I relied on that. I said, you know, I encourage improvisation. And if you look at the script that we wrote, versus the final product, and break down the dialogue, you’ll see that it ends up being about 25% by the actors. And Simon delivered even more.

Filmmaker Sean Baker at his home in Los Angeles.  Photography: Emily Berl/The New York Times

Filmmaker Sean Baker at his home in Los Angeles. Photography: Emily Berl/The New York Times

hottest ticket

It’s been five years since The Florida Project, a kid-centric drama about long-term residence hotels in and around Walt Disney World in Orlando, became the Cannes Film Festival’s hottest ticket. This film earned Willem Dafoe an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Baker might have turned that success into bigger budgets and studio deals. In fact, Red Rocket, a contestant in the official Cannes competition last year, was made on an even smaller budget than its predecessor.

I want to be able to cast who I want to cast. Even after working with Willem, if it doesn’t fit the movie, I’d rather not cast an A-lister.

“It was more exciting to be back in the main competition,” Baker said. “It was surreal that I was competing against directors who directly influenced Red Rocket, like Paul Verhoeven and Bruno Dumont. I think I may have been in talks for big projects. But I didn’t never received any official offers from Marvel or anything like that. I’m not really sure. I kind of put myself in a situation where I talked about those kinds of movies. So it’s not like they’re knocking on my door. I think they know I want to produce on my own. And I want to own the IP. I want to have the final edit. And I want to be able to cast who I want to cast. Even after working with Willem, if it doesn’t fit the movie, I’d rather not pick an A-lister. And I know that obviously affects the box office, and that’s Hollywood at the end of the day. It’s all about of the lowest dollar. I think I’m appreciated in this world. It’s just not for me.

He laughs, “But I can’t wait to see The Batman this weekend.”

Red Rocket opens March 11

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