What making ‘Red Rocket’ in Texas taught Sean Baker. And what audiences might take away.

The new film is about an aging porn star who moves back to his hometown along the Texas Gulf Coast.

By Laura RiceDecember 8, 2021 10:11 am, ,

Filmmaker Sean Baker says when he decided to make a feature about someone from the adult film industry, Texas quickly rose to the top of the list of potential locations.

It happens to be that adult film stars, if you look at the demographic breakdown, they come primarily from Ohio, Texas or Florida,” Baker said.

He settled on the Gulf Coast after a visit to the area.

“Red Rocket” opens in theaters on Friday, December 10 and starts showing in Texas on December 17. The film is set in Texas City but was also shot around Galveston and Beaumont. Oil refineries provide the backdrop and locals, including first-time actress Brittney Rodriguez, help make up the cast.

“Before [I] jumped into the Sean Baker film, I was a refinery worker,” Rodriguez said. “I did scaffolds and I did installation in the refineries.”

Baker has worked with non-actors as collaborators in previous productions including “Tangerine” and “The Florida Project”.

“He’d be like, ‘well, what would you say, how would you say it?’” Rodriguez said. “So a few different things I was able to kind of just, ‘man, I’d say like this.’”

Simon Rex and Brittney Rodriguez in "Red Rocket".

Baker shot “Red Rocket” during the pandemic with a small crew fueled by a lot of pizza. He compared the experience to a return to student filmmaking and says it taught him something about his own filmmaking goals.

“They say in Hollywood, you just got to keep increasing your budgets and getting bigger and bigger and try to get those A-listers so you can get that Oscar. And I’m like, ‘nah, you know, that’s not really me,'” Baker said. “This film cost a quarter of the budget of my last film. And I’m OK. Like, as long as — whatever is right for the film.”

Though “Red Rocket” is by no means a bright and glossy tourist ad for the Gulf Coast, Baker says it’s the opinion of the locals that means more to him than critics or even the average moviegoer.

If a filmmaker approached me and said, ‘I want to make a film about your life and your – perhaps even cast you to play a character in which, you know, has similar parallel experiences…’ I would like that filmmaker to do it in the most respectful and responsible way possible,” Baker said. “So when I’m in Texas making this film, it’s about finding the human connection. It’s about… treating my characters with dignity and loving my characters. Because everybody I met in Texas, I love.”

“Red Rocket” includes nods to some of the darker moments in the area’s history – including the 1947 Texas City explosions that killed close to 600 people.

“There’s this dark, looming sad history of that area, I think in many ways complemented what was going on with the personal stories in the film,” Baker said.

But “Red Rocket” is also deeply funny. We laugh both with and at the main character Mikey Saber, played by former MTV VJ Simon Rex, as he navigates his reintegration into his hometown.

Baker says the idea stemmed from a project he and co-writer Chris Bergoch began over a decade ago. He remembers interviewing adult film actors and not feeling sure whether they were the heroes of their own stories.

“I was entertained, I was hanging — when I was hanging out with them, I was laughing and I was part of that conversation and then I would go home and be like, ‘what was I just partaking in?’” Baker said.

In “Red Rocket”, Baker says he wants audiences to have those same questions. He says he’s presenting a character study and he’s not out to teach a lesson – even though he finds people often search for those, including his last film, “The Florida Project”.

“[People will ask,] Well, what’s the takeaway here? Your last film was about hidden homelessness, what are you trying to teach us about now?’ And I’m just like, I’m not. I’m just presenting a character, and let’s explore this character together,” Baker said.

Another complicated character in the film is Mikey Saber’s wife, a former porn star herself, played by actress Bree Elrod.

“I really wanted to try my hardest to represent the, you know, the sex industry and the community in a way that I felt like was honorable. And so I did a lot of research,” Elrod said.

She says she watched porn, porn documentaries and also studied addiction.

Courtesy of A24

Bree Elrod and Simon Rex in "Red Rocket".

Though Baker says he didn’t set out to teach any lessons with “Red Rocket”, two of his actresses agree there are still worthwhile takeaways.

Rodriguez shared her thoughts directly with Baker:

“So I know you say that you don’t do your movies to try to teach people anything,” Rodriguez said. “But I can definitely appreciate your movies because I feel like it’s like it’s putting a conversation on the table that makes it easier to be talked about. So thank you.”

And I think that’s really special because it maybe will connect us with each other a little bit more,” Elrod added.

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