If "America is nothing if not about categories," as social critic Hinton Als insists, then writer/director/editor Sean Baker has consistently mined those huddling under the "disenfranchised" heading. The American Dream has often slipped from his characters' grasps, so they seek respite in some sort of bargain-basement Heaven of their own making, at times sated by drugs, sex, doughnuts, Bingo, and a good dash of whimsey.
Baker's cri de coeur: "I'm always looking for authenticity in my films; they are based in realism."
Not surprisingly, his movies -- such as the must -- see Starlet (2012), Tangerine (2015), and The Florida Project (2017), plus his latest, Red Rocket -- are swathed in a gritty reality, each clearly aided by a cast of pros and non-professionals.
This formula seems to be working. According to IMDB, Baker's output has so far earned him 46 awards and 74 nominations, and those accolades grow daily, with his latest effort even being considered for a possible Oscar nom or two. (Note: Willem Dafoe got one as Best Actor for The Florida Project.)
Red Rocket, which has already made the National Board of Review's "Top Ten Film" list and won its lead (Simon Rex) a Best Actor Award from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, tells of a down-and-out porn star, Mikey Saber. We meet Saber as he skedaddles from Los Angeles, with his limp tail between his legs, back to Texas City, a small town he swore he’d never return to. Broke, battered, and with no prospects, he begs his drug-addicted wife (Bree Elrod), whom he’s ignored for over a decade, to take him in. With the promise of paying rent, he procures a place for himself on the couch, next to his weathered mother-in-law (the fabulous Brenda Deiss), who has a passion for TV court shows and crack.
Saber, a sycophantic scuzzball of an anti-hero if there ever was one, has only one goal in life: to keep himself alive and happy . . . and to return to porn as a big macher, no matter the cost to others. To get there, he'll even sell drug-free urine to construction workers. But then in the local Donut Hole, he runs into a 17-year-old high schooler nicknamed Strawberry whom he just might have seedy plans for. Oh, no! This doesn’t seem quite the path to redemption, but another seedy journey that causes Indiewire’s David Ehrlich to spout that here is an "utterly singular and weirdly lovable Red Rocket, a roman candle of a movie that wonders if America's pathological narcissism will ever burn itself out."
To find how the boyishly attractive Baker is dealing with this avalanche of acclaim and whether he's conquered all the insecurities that a graduate of New York University's Tisch School of the Arts might harbor, we Zoomed each other earlier this month,
"That's a good question, man. I thought it would," he laughed. "I thought those things would help. I'm seeing a therapist now for my 'impostor syndrome,' which has majorly kicked in right now. I don't know why. At least it happened after my seventh feature. I don't know. Maybe it's the pressure or the stress of expectations."
Well, at least you can afford a therapist.
Nodding, Baker agreed: "I have health insurance now."
So is it true that you thoroughly researched the sex industry for years and years for this project?
I wasn't entrenched for years and years. I mean there were moments, especially back with Starlet. . . . That's probably when we spent the most amount of time visiting sets, getting to know people within the industry, and keeping in touch over the last ten years.
Is your family happy that you are probably through with this subject matter?
Actually, my mother hasn’t seen this movie. I don't know if she will. I want to cut a PG-13 version of it. My father saw it and really . . . I don't know. But my father's a lawyer so he likes to . . . He can't compliment. (Laughs.) But I don't know if I'm done with the subject matter actually. I'm done probably focusing on the adult film world, but that’s just a small aspect of sex work in general, and I’m very still interested in exploring sex work and different aspects of it. So maybe that’s not done.
In one critique of your work -- and I don’t know how to put it -- but the writer was sort of upset you weren't homosexual. I believe they wanted to make you an honorary Queer, I guess, because of Tangerine. Clearly, your work has struck a note with the LGBTQI community. Do you find that an honor or what? If someone gave you a homosexual tiara, would you put it on?
Of course. Of course. Why not? (Laughs)
Red Rocket is now receiving rapturous reviews. Were you secure that you had a critical success when you finished editing . . . or did you need to see the audiences standing and applauding at the first few festival screenings.
I'll tell you a quick little story. I'll make it really brief. I’m sitting at Cannes. You know that theatre is so incredible. It's a beautiful, beautiful theater with great acoustics so you're just hearing the film. You're not really hearing the audience reaction. I couldn't really tell. I really couldn't really read the room. So, actually, to tell the truth, I was in my neurotic crazy self so I assumed we bombed.
Well, the end credits are rolling, and I lean over to my wife, Samantha Quan, who's one of the producers on the film, and I'm like "Listen! We're not gonna get an ovation. It’s fine. It's all good. I'm chill. I'm gonna deal with it. I'm not gonna flip out, but I going to have to deal with my actors. You know, they might not know how to take boos and things like that."
And literally for the two minutes during the final credits, I had this crazy Curb-Your-Enthusiasm-type conversation with my wife. Then the ovation kicks in, and I'm like, "Oh, is this a mercy clap?" So for the next two minutes, I'm assuming it's a mercy clap, and there’s even one moment where I actually even hugged Simon. I gave him a pat on the back as if better luck next time. Like next time we'll do it.
Then it started, and it kept going, and I was like: “Oh, this is good, isn't it? This is good.” So it was at that point I realized that actually we were receiving a lot of love. And from that moment on, it's been really wonderful. But then you know I'm still a crazy, neurotic director. I never know what to expect, and who knows what will happen when this film is released into the real world? This has just been the festival lot, you know.
Lucino Visconti utilized non-professional actors powerfully in La Terra Trema (1948). You do so likewise regularly. I was bit shocked when discovering much of your cast was plucked off the streets so to say. Especially the mother, Brenda Deiss. She's quite amazing. I wanted her in every scene. Did you have problems working with non-actors?
No. Actually, this cast was incredible. I'm so blessed that I found all these first timers who were not only enthusiastic about being in this small, little indie, but also about having their incredible talent. I mean they were all so talented. Brittney Rodriguez, Ethan Darbone. Brenda Deiss.
Plus, I also have my wife, one of my producers. She was actually also the coach for the first-timers on the film. She started with me on The Florida Project, working with the two children and the moms. We then realized this was a great relationship we got going and that she could be there for the first timers and make them comfortable and almost be their maternal figure while I'm all focused on other things.
So that's been helping a lot. Just so you know, and I'm serious about this, sometimes they're first timers that you look at, and you have a relationship with them, and they know, "Okay, this is a one-off. This is the only film I'll probably ever be in, and that's okay 'cause I have a whole other life." But then there are some first timers where you can see them on a Hollywood set the next day, and they’re being able to do it and be professional and pull it off, and Ethan Darbone and Brittney Rodriguez are ready to go. They were so incredible. Their skill level is already there.
Many directors as they go on -- Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock -- get out of shape. Is it because your wife's on the set that you are so fit? And do you plan on coming out with a Sean Baker Bakes lifestyle book? How to Direct and Keep Your Abs.
(Laughs) Just look. I have to do camera operation, too. You're holding a big camera. . . and Von Trier supposedly does . . . He gets in shape before his shoots because it's quite physically taxing, and especially when my films are always on location. They're not on a nice, comfortable set. We are dealing with the real elements. So I think it's always better to stay physically healthy, especially now, especially with COVID. You know, I think COVID if anything has made me even hit the gym more and pop my vitamin D's.
By the way, is it because of cable TV that audiences are less afraid of seeing penises?
Uh, that I don't know. (Laughs) Yeah, I . . . uh . . . I've heard there's a lot of male nudity now and in some of the series, but I'm not sure how people are going to react because you know you don't see a lot in U.S. cinema these days.
I remember interviewing Peter Greenaway, and he at the time was one of the only directors showing male genitalia. Others shied away, so you might be putting the flag down again like the first man on the moon. You might be popularizing male genitalia for this generation.
I approach it like this. I try to balance it out. You know, if I'm going to be showing female nudity, I'm going to show just as much male nudity, and so that's my approach. And yeah, I'm trying to think of other films that have come out recently with full frontal male nudity.
You're a pioneer.
If a film gets nearly unanimous raves like this one seems to be getting, and let's say it doesn't do big box office, does that hurt your next film in raising money?
I really don't know. I'm still at a budget level where hopefully I'm able to get a budget for the next movie. I'm working way down there. So I look at the careers of like Jim Jarmusch and Spike Lee and Lars Von Trier, and their focus is just about making a good movie, putting a good movie out there, and putting their hearts into a film, and they don't focus on the box office. Now I know A24 may not like that but still you need to focus on the quality of the work and then just hope that you know the box office is there.
There's Oscar nomination chat about Red Rocket. Is A24, your distributor, coming out with an awards campaign? Are you nervous about that? Are you are going to be sitting with your therapist the morning of the Oscar announcements?
No. No. No. No. Look I think if. . . if . . . I know there's a a focus on Simon right now, and I think that's a wonderful thing. He deserves it. His performance is incredible. And hey! If he can go all the way, let's watch him take that ride, and I'll be there to support him. As for the second part of your question, no! I'm definitely not . . . That's definitely not on my mind when it comes to making movies.