Red Rocket Cast And Director Sean Baker On Crafting A Movie About An Endearing Scumbag [Interview]

Filmmaker Sean Baker has made quite a name for himself over the last handful of years, directing the truly memorable and acclaimed indies "Tangerine" and "The Florida Project." While he occasionally gets a big name on board such as Willem Dafoe, Baker has crafted these movies with bare-bones resources, and largely undiscovered and overlooked talent. Such is the case once again with his latest movie, "Red Rocket," which is very much in the awards season conversation as it expands into more theaters throughout December. 

Simon Rex was enlisted to portray a down-on-his-luck pornstar named Mikey, who returns to his small hometown in Texas as he attempts to get his life back together. This involves staying on his ex-wife's couch, with Bree Elrod filling in that role, while dealing pot to make some cash, which has him crossing paths with June, played by newcomer Brittney Rodriguez. Despite his selfish nature, Mikey's charms get him far with people, and he goes back to being a (relatively) big fish in a small pond.

I recently had the chance to speak with Baker, Elrod, and Rodriguez following the movie's Texas premiere. We discussed how donuts became a significant part of the film, why NSYNC's "Bye Bye Bye" became the movie's key song, what it was like for Rodriguez to cut her teeth on this movie, and much more.

(As a side note, this interview was conducted before Baker's notable social media activity following the Kyle Rittenhouse verdict, so I did not have the opportunity to ask him about the subject, or I most certainly would have.)

"I've never been on set. I've never done filming, nothing."

You guys made this movie during full-blown COVID. And last night you're at a packed Texas premiere, and now you're doing a bunch of interviews in-person. How does that feel, the dichotomy of all that?

Sean Baker: Oh, we were supposed to shoot in August of 2020 because of a false positive and us retreating back to LA for an entire month. We ended up shooting in September – early October. So we've been in it. I mean, at least I have been, I've been sort of... Whereas I know a lot of friends of mine, my parents included, have been isolated for a very long time. We've been out in the world. So to tell you the truth, it's when I hear people last night coming up to me saying, "This is the first film we've seen back in the theater for a year and a half". I'm like, "Wow, well, first off I'm honored that it's our film that you've chosen to watch", but also I realize that, there's been a lot of people who have been affected in a very different way. I mean, we were out there working.

Bree Elrod: Yeah. I think the filming during COVID was definitely precarious and it was one of the bigger things, events that I had done, obviously during it. I drove down from New York, from Brooklyn to Texas. We were getting tested all the time. We were just living on our own, we had our own pod and it was a very small set, but I definitely feel it added to the feeling of the film altogether. I think that just was a part of it.

Brittney Rodriguez: I can't even say, I don't know. I went from just being home to...about how long? So March, May? I met [Sean] somewhere around May.

Sean Baker: Oh, really?

Brittney Rodriguez: Yeah. Because I don't think it was March. I got laid off in March.

Oh, you got laid off before?

Brittney Rodriguez: Yeah. So, I'm a refinery worker, I was working at the refinery before I met him. And at the time I did meet him, I was laid off and I was just at home walking my dog. So, and this is around May type situation.

Sean Baker: The first location scout.

Brittney Rodriguez: And so we didn't shoot until late October. September-ish, September, October.


Brittney Rodriguez: So for me to go into this... the environment was to me completely, I've never been on set. I've never done filming, nothing. So everything about it was new. It was very safe. Like you said, we got COVID tested every day.

"I hate to admit this, but it wasn't actually in the script."

Why donuts? Donuts are an enormous part of the movie. Also where were those donuts from? Because, that's one of my favorite things in the world, and the whole time I was watching the movie. I was like, "Damn those look good."

Sean Baker: Oh, you can visit Donut Hole.

It was literally just their donuts?

Sean Baker: We had to order an additional thousand dollars worth because we shot over the course of four days there or...

Brittney Rodriguez: Something like that.

Sean Baker: So we had to keep a certain batch that worthy shooting donuts. We all said, "Hey, we're not going to eat donuts," said we're going to be healthy. But by the end of the last day, we were all devouring [them]. But it's Donut Hole. It's actually not in Port Arthur.

Brittney Rodriguez: It's in Groves. It's not Port Arthur.

Sean Baker: It's a geographical cheat. So, I hate to admit this, but it wasn't actually in the script. It was written for a food truck outside a refinery.


Sean Baker: Yes. And so my producer, Alex Coco and I, we were driving by Donut Hole and we slammed on the brakes. And we were just like, "This is too good to be true".

Even looking at that poster like, "Oh my God, what a happy accident that was".

Sean Baker: Works on many levels, not just the proximity. The colors, the maybe even you can read into it with the sexual connotation.

It also just felt very small town too, right?

Sean Baker: Yes.

Whereas a food truck feels a little more hip, the local donut shop feels very...

Sean Baker: I didn't really realize this until doing our location scouting. I thought LA and California was like donut central. No, there were more donut shops in Texas. So I felt, like this is also kind of a wink to one of my earlier films "Tangerine" that had pretty much the same sort of central location being a donut shop. So it worked on many levels.

So for you [Brittney], I don't want to give too much away because a lot of people haven't seen the movie, but you were the only one that doesn't put up with Mikey's s*** in this movie. Mikey, as much as everyone hates him, they also were charmed by him on some level. I know you said this character is very close to you last night at the Q&A. What is it about your character that would not put up with someone like Mikey right off the bat? What is it about you that resisted that charm?

Brittney Rodriguez: Oh, I guess it's just that part would just be my personality personally. To me, I felt his character came off as trying too hard. I didn't really agree with him. I'm more for something genuine, something authentic. And he didn't really feel like that to me. He definitely felt he was trying to win me over.

Bree Elrod: One of my favorite moments is when you're sitting there and he's just sitting there trying to tell you about his tooth, and he's like, "I got one in LA." And you're like, "Get the f*** out of here." That's one of my favorite moments.

Sean Baker: I think June represents the audience to a certain degree, just seeing through his bulls***.

"With this character, I definitely feel I pulled from my younger self."

Well, because he's getting a gold medal in the scumbag Olympics and for some reason, everyone else is just all for it, but literally from scene one, you're just absolutely not having it. You mentioned this is nothing you'd ever done before, you were street cast. This character's very much like you, you felt, but what kind of characters would you like to explore that are less like you? Have you thought about that a lot?

Brittney Rodriguez: When people see this, I don't want them to take away from it like, this is who I am and this is how I will continue to be. With this character I definitely feel I pulled from my younger self, which was way more... She's just a firecracker, my younger self. But now that I'm older, I definitely have an aspect of discipline to myself, which is something that I also brought to my character June. But nah, I'm human and I know how to be a human, I know how to be myself very well. I definitely think that I could play anything. Some things may not come as easy as what this came to me, but like I said, I'm human and I portray that very well. So I'm down for any challenge. It does not bother me.

That's awesome.

Sean Baker: I work with lots of first-timers and there are first-timers where I see, "Okay, they can easily parlay this. I mean, they are ready to go." In this film, it is completely Brittney and Ethan [Darbone], just from just seeing [them] on set and how much they already have learned about just the skill of acting. Helping me as an editor, I saw Brittney, repetition of actions to help the editor. All I can say is I can't sing their praises loud enough, but Brittney and Ethan are ready to go.

I've got to ask you another question. You've probably been asked it a hundred times and you'll be asked it another thousand times. Why did you land on that song? How on Earth did you land on that song?

Sean Baker: I wish it was like, this is in the script since day one, but no, it came about during production. It was because of Suzanna Son realizing that she is a wonderful musician and can sing and perform and she teaches piano. So when I learned this, I was like, we got to work this into the film and put her talent on display. All right. We'll have her sing a song. We have to have it contextually work with the movie, so we started this text thread on set. Everybody was involved. We had a list of songs, every song that had to do with letting somebody go or kicking somebody out. What were some of the songs?

Bree Elrod: Yeah. There was a Lilly Allen song about leaving and then there was "Hit the Road, Jack."

Sean Baker: All those. And then we just were like, "Well, the NSYNC is... I don't know if it's obtainable because it is so big, but it just fits on so many levels." Lyrically, it works perfectly. It's that right time, 19999, 2000, where I see Mikey and Lexi getting on that bus and going to LA for the first time, it's maybe their anthem at the time. Who knows? But, it was just then about going through my wonderful music supervisor who worked with me on "The Florida Project" and got me "Celebration." I'm like, "Now you have to get me something even harder."

"I think it was a real challenge and I think it made Simon really have to work."

I don't even know if there's a question here, but toward the end of the movie, there's one moment where Mikey kind of tries to do the right thing. You [Bree] had one of the best scenes I've ever seen of someone not saying anything on screen. I was waiting for you to say something and you said nothing. And I'm like, "Oh my God, that was awesome."

Bree Elrod: Thank you. Thank you so much. That scene was a challenge because I remember reading it being like, "[She] shouldn't say anything?" Then suddenly when we started doing it, I was like, "Oh, it's all there." I think what really just helped me connect to it is the breathing. Now when I watch it, I'm like, "Oh shoot, you can see Lexi's breathing change" and that informed the rest of the scene. What it's actually like to get that information as a human and what's at stake. Samy Quan was a producer and actor coach on this film, [he] really helped me kind of find my way into that. I think it was a real challenge and I think it made Simon really have to work.

I just recognized it so much because I'm so bad at those types of interactions. When I saw you just shifting on the couch, when he kept saying things, I recognized that body language and I just sank down in my seat, I was like, "Oh God."

Bree Elrod: [Laughs] Well, good.

You mentioned last night before COVID hit you were developing a much bigger movie

Sean Baker: When I say much bigger, much bigger for me, which is still below $10 million.

Is that something that's dead in the water? Can you talk about that at all?

Sean Baker: Oh yeah. It's about drug user activism up in Vancouver, and the harm reduction services they have there. They're about 30 years ahead of the US and they've been dealing with the opioid overdose epidemic in ways that we should be dealing with it here in the States. So it's a film about that, but it's also a film because it's about activism, I'm masking for hundreds of people to be marching and protesting. I can't do that until COVID is pretty much an afterthought. So it's going to have to wait. But the thing is that this is one of those things where we pivoted and made this smaller film, had all these limitations imposed upon us, but there was something that was so freeing and wonderful about it. I was intimate with this wonderful small crew that was like a family.

I'm definitely excited about doing it again. And we might even make a smaller film along the lines of "Red Rocket" before tackling that other one. Just simply because it put us in this really kind of a throwback. I've always been guerilla Indie. So it's a throwback to that. But it even felt like student filming in a way. There are a lot of student film aspects of this. I mean we were eating pizza, we didn't have any trailers, it was one of those shoots.

Bree Elrod: All hands on deck.

"Red Rocket" is in theaters now.