Red Rocket – Sean Baker: “The death of cinema? It’s bullshit”

Independent films, the sex industry and streaming platforms: meeting with director Sean Baker.

After Tangerine and The Florida ProjectSean Baker returns with the flamboyant Red Rocket, a comedy darker than it looks and which tells the trajectory of Mikey Saber (the impressive Simon Rex), a fallen and broke porn actor who returns to his native Texas to live with his ex-wife and his stepmother. Right in Cannes 2021 – where Red Rocket was in the Official Selection – we met the director on a terrace at the Palais des Festivals.

Red Rocket works a bit like a magic trick: we follow a guy who is basically a piece of trash but impossible not to find him sincerely charming…

Oh, I’m glad you told me that! Say The Florida Projectmy previous film, was clearer in its subject than Red Rocket, which is deliberately in a gray area. But that’s where cinema is the most interesting, isn’t it? It’s hard not to laugh watching Mikey. He is a narcissist who is unaware of it. There is something childish about it, and the whole point for me was to press on it to allow the viewer to empathize with it.

And Simon Baker is…

(He cuts us) Insane. I’ve had my eye on him since the early 90s. I always thought he had huge comedic potential. I followed him when he started getting movie roles and he made me laugh out loud with his six-second videos on Vine. And one day, I come across Bodied, by Joseph Kahn, which takes place in the world of rap battles. It jumped out at me: he was ready to take on a dramatic role. When I wanted to do Red Rocket, my wife reminded me that he would be perfect for playing Mickey. The Covid had just started, we had to shoot quickly. I called him, he said: I have my ass screwed in Joshua Tree, nothing to do, the role looks great. I’m coming “.

Then the film was made in a hurry.

I had been working on a completely different film for three years, we were going to set up our cameras in Vancouver and there, boom, the Covid and the confinement! The borders are closed, everything falls apart. But I have in the back of my mind the idea of Red Rocket, a lower-budget project with a small cast, feasible despite health constraints. So this film was kind of born by accident. The project was to talk about the sex industry through a character who is morally ambiguous, but who is so likeable that you can only get attached to him. In the United States, we are very behind in the way we treat sex workers. Some think they are the expression of freedom, others find it patriarchal exploitation. The truth is surely in the middle, so you had to show both sides.

There are only three American films in the Cannes selection this year. What does this say about the state of independent cinema in your country?

How complicated it is and obviously the Covid has been quite a thorn in the side. But I remain deeply optimistic: I hate when I hear that cinema is dead, that there are no more authors, that it’s the last generation of real filmmakers… It’s all bullshit. On the other hand, what worries me is that now the money is on television. Directors that I love with all my heart – I won’t give names – will shoot series or mini-series because they have no choice. You have to live well, feed your children… I understand and I would certainly have a completely different perspective if I had kids. But it makes me so sad… Me, what I want to see are the films of these filmmakers! What they do with these long formats does not interest me much, it is also rare that a series attracts me. What can you accomplish just in the time of a film? This is the question that drives me. So I’m optimistic, and at the same time practically every time I talk to a director, he tells me that he’s going to shoot a series for HBO… (Laughter.)

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But it’s also because some are tired of fighting to finance independent films. It must wear out in the long run, right?

Oh but completely. However, there has been a revolution in recent years: we have the iPhone. You can make films for practically nothing. And those who say otherwise are lying. In addition, digital has made unbelievable progress. On Red Rocket, we had to use it a little for the night scenes. We couldn’t get what we wanted on film. So we tweaked the image a lot and quite honestly, no one notices that it’s not film. And if we can do that, frankly, there’s no excuse not to shoot your little indie film.

It’s a little more complicated than that, isn’t it? Obviously, the iPhone is a valuable tool, but you still have to add a lot of expensive accessories and special lenses to it to produce something visually correct. What you had done while turning Tangerine.

But no, it is not compulsory at all! Do you remember Dogme95? They were mini DV tapes. They didn’t have special lenses. They just turned on the camera and sometimes the audio was even picked up by the onboard mic.

So it’s that budding directors don’t dare to use technology in a more raw, more spontaneous way?

It always feels like more is needed, but that’s an illusion. I have a friend who told me in the early 90s that he wasn’t going to make a movie until he had a multi-million dollar budget at his disposal. And guess what? He’s in his fifties and he still hasn’t made a film. I want to tell young directors to go there, not to wait desperately to be financed. If after two months no one gives you money for your project, go ahead, do it with the means at hand. The mayonnaise may take a while to set, but you’ll get the recognition you deserve if you do a good job.

Red Rocket: a great political film carried by Simon Rex [critique]

Have streaming platforms made things easier for independent filmmakers?

It’s good for visibility. But it also has a lot of disadvantages. When a film is only released on a platform or at the same time as the cinema, it serves both the film and the director.

That is to say ?

It doesn’t have the impact of an exclusively theatrically released film. The trick of day and date [sortie simultanée au cinéma et sur plateformes ou en VOD], I don’t get it. That does not make any sense. We could very well exploit a film in the cinema for six weeks or three months for those who are interested. It’s about respecting the work and the moviegoers. And too bad for those who do not want to come to the theater. Who cares that they have to wait a bit? The question of VOD or streaming availability should only arise after the fact. I know I sound like a dinosaur saying that, but there’s no reason not to present your work in a beautiful setting.

There are still films that would never see the light of day without the platforms. I am thinking in particular of Malcolm & Maryimpossible that it comes out in the cinema.

It’s 100% true. That’s why I say that there is also good in the fact that Netflix offers so much money to young directors. It’s incredible. But if I don’t, it’s because I want to keep the rights to my films. I don’t want to give them to anyone. And so I consciously choose not to do a $100 million movie because I would lose control.

Red Rocket, currently in theaters.

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