Red Rocket Director Sean Baker on Depicting Poor People While Avoiding the Trappings of ‘Poverty Porn’

"When it comes to characters, as a storyteller, you have to have empathy or what are you doing?," said the writer-director in an interview with Jezebel

Red Rocket Director Sean Baker on Depicting Poor People While Avoiding the Trappings of ‘Poverty Porn’

“My own politics [aren’t] important here,” Red Rocket director/co-writer Sean Baker said earlier this year during the Cannes Film Festival press conference that accompanied the premiere of his fifth feature. But for someone who isn’t particularly interested in talking about his politics, Baker is more than happy to discuss the politics—and their implications—within his new film.

Red Rocket is the latest in Baker’s string of films that examine lives typically absent from Hollywood stories, following 2015’s Tangerine and 2017’s The Florida Project. This one takes place in a depressed community in Galveston, Texas, where former porn performer Mikey Saber (in a career-best performance from Simon Rex) returns to crash with his ex, fellow porn refugee Lexi (Bree Elrod) and her mother Lil (Brenda Deiss). Mikey is as charismatic as he is amoral, seeking to exploit every situation and person he comes across for his own gain. Quickly, a 17-year-old who works at a donut shop and goes by the name of Strawberry (Suzanna Son) becomes one of those people. Mikey strikes up a relationship with her, deciding that getting her into porn (the industry that both he and his wife have fled, seemingly penniless) is his ticket out of Galveston.

Baker said that Mikey was inspired by the “suitcase pimp” archetype he witnessed while researching his 2012 film Starlet—the type of guy who’s somewhere between a hanger-on and a manger for a woman in porn. As Baker explains in the Red Rocket press notes: “Their lives are all about exploitation and using the women they’re with. The women make thousands while the men are making hundreds at best. So they have to live off the women, financially. There’s a self-denial, a holier-than-thou attitude, an obliviousness, an ignorance that these guys have.” Red Rocket luxuriates in a moral gray area because Baker believes that it’s more truthful to how actual people live their lives. Whenever I’ve heard Baker discussed by people who have worked or dealt with him in the industry, the word “nice” comes up repeatedly to describe him. This checks out. I found Baker to be intellectually generous. While some directors are uncomfortable revealing too much about their intentions and would rather let their movies play as people interpret them, Baker gamely discussed the issues informing his depiction of poor people and sex workers, MeToo, and the concept of poverty porn. All that and more is in the transcript of our conversation below, which was edited for length and clarity.

JEZEBEL: So often when I read people writing about your work, it’s described as depicting lives on the fringes. Do you agree with that?

SEAN BAKER: To a certain degree. There is that [idea] that’s like, “Sean’s focusing on marginalized people and marginalized communities,” and yeah, to a degree, I guess. But it’s never, let’s say, a full-out intentional thing. It’s not like I’m looking for the next microcosm to focus on, or like, “Where’s the underrepresented community that I can make my next film?” It’s never like that. It’s an organic process that usually comes from me just interested in either an issue or perhaps a location, or perhaps I’ve heard stories from just doing research. For example, that’s how Red Rocket came about: Doing research in the adult film world way back when I was making a film called Starlet, finding an archetype, and wanting to really tackle that as a character study, because I hadn’t seen it before. So there’s also that: what I haven’t seen before or what I’m seeing too little of in U.S. film and TV. Essentially, what I want to see more of.

I also think that it’s kind of telling to say “on the fringes,” because that indicates a fixed perspective. The types of characters who populate Red Rocket make up a large part of America, and I don’t think they’d consider where they are to be “the fringes.”

True. And part of the reason that they are on the fringes and are unrepresented is because they’re not being represented. I think the more that our stories are told about people on the margins, the less they will be on the margins simply because hopefully, it’ll lead to a greater acceptance, a greater interest, a greater empathy.

I think the more that our stories are told about people on the margins, the less they will be on the margins.

It seems like such an obvious thing to do, really. Have you ever thought about why you’re an outlier despite simply being invested in the creative imperative to tell stories that haven’t been told?

No, I don’t know, actually. I really don’t. I think the U.S. film and TV industry, we’re focused on the coasts. We’re often a little lazy. It’s not so comfortable to shoot outside of the TMZ, and that’s why we built Hollywood, because it’s a town in which you can have studios. All your talent can come here and do it. For me, filmmaking is about exploring the world, it’s about telling stories. It’s hearing stories from cultures throughout the world. That’s what interests me, not just these fabricated stories from our two biggest cities. But hey, I don’t want to slam others. I mean, that’s just my approach. I think most films, in which there’s a personal vision, are usually reactions to what the director isn’t seeing enough of or something the director wants to see more of.

I know that you have very consciously avoided talking about politics, let’s say with a capital P, in reference to this movie. But I wonder if you see the movie nonetheless as political or apolitical?

I was thinking about the same question actually this morning, and it’s a tricky one, and I think it has to do with the time we’re living in. Maybe five years ago I would’ve said, “Yeah, it’s political.” Now, I don’t know, I don’t want to proclaim it, because we are incredibly divided right now, and I think part of art is bringing people together. In many ways, art can lead to discourse and discussions and people with different opinions being able to express their opinions without feeling they’re going to be ostracized or canceled, whatever term you want to apply to it.

With this film in particular, I’m sort of stirring that, meaning I’ve planted seeds that I think are politically ambiguous enough where you can apply your own politics to it. Mikey can be Trump. If you want him to be Trump, I have put plenty of shit in there to allow you to see Trump in Mikey, but I’ve also heard people say Clinton. People think that she’s a liar, whatever. I think [co-writer Chris Bergoch] and I molded this in a way where, again, you can apply your own politics, your own ethics to it. And that’s important for me, at least in this time.

When I think about the politics of the movie, what I think about is the greater vision of shedding light on lives that are unseen. If politics are, at their root, power, you are effectively distributing power with your own purview.

I like the way you’re looking at it, actually. That’s much more meaningful to me than actually pointing fingers at one administration or another.

Simon Rex and Sean Baker Image:A24 (via Cinetic Marketing & PR)

Did MeToo at all influence the depiction of the relationship between the 17-year-old Strawberry and the 40-something Mikey?

Probably not, because I probably would’ve approached it a little more with kid gloves or walking on eggshells if I did allow it to. I had to bring the blinders down like I do with every one of my films and just go for what I feel is ultimately the most truthful. If I started to play into that in any way, and what I mean is just start to sugarcoat or be less, I don’t know, honest in my depiction just to appease certain people who might be too sensitive to the subject or not want to see the subject depicted this way, I feel I would be doing more harm as a filmmaker. I really wanted to stay, again, very truthful.

So no, it wasn’t an incredibly conscious thing, but it was also something that we knew. We were shooting in 2020. It was a very different thing than shooting this film in 1992 or in the ’70s when this was almost a norm. So yeah, it did have a 2020 lens, but again, it was about tackling these complex characters in a complex way. We had five consultants on the film, four of them from inside the adult film world and one sex worker from outside of the adult film world. And the Strawberry character was the most important. I mean, we already kind of understood Lexi’s arc and yes, they did comment on Lexi’s story, but they were actually more focused on how we were going to depict a young woman who is contemplating going into that industry in a way that would be truthful: not slamming entirely the industry, not making her the little innocent lamb. We had to make her more complex than that.

I think this kind of complexity is respectful to your audience’s intelligence, if not challenging by presenting moral ambiguities.

I don’t want to preach. I definitely don’t want to preach, and exploring that moral gray area is very interesting to me because I think we all live in a moral gray. There are people who just want to be self-righteous and be like, “Oh, not me. I’m perfect.” But no, that’s not true. Everybody has their flaws. That’s very important for me to explore in a truthful way. It’s hard because you never know. It’s a balancing act. You’re creating this character and this is fiction. It’s film. It’s fake. Everything is fake about it. So you’re constructing this in the most objective way possible, but you don’t know. You don’t know until the final day of the edit whether or not you’re comfortable with that balance.

Exploring that moral gray Area is very interesting to me because I think we all live in a moral gray.

I assume that you consider yourself an empathetic filmmaker.

Oh, of course. I mean, I fall in love with every one of my characters and usually, I’m working with incredible actors who have fleshed these characters out even more than I had on the page. So honestly, how can I not strive to make them as three-dimensional as possible by trying to understand their lives more? So, yes, I would say so. When it comes to characters, as a storyteller, you have to have empathy or what are you doing? You’re just putting caricatures out there that are not providing any sort of insight or depth.

So then to what degree does the question of, “Is this exploitative? How far out can I go before this becomes…bad,” play out in your head?

I have to ultimately go with my gut. Of course, it plays out. Like I said before, it’s really a balancing act that happens during the writing during the actual production, and then ultimately in post. So, you know, yes. I’m very conscious of it. I think ultimately it’s about sort of accepting that and then how to do it in a way that is respectful to others, responsible, etc.

Have you contended at all with the notion of “poverty porn” and how it does or does not apply to your work?

Obviously, I’ve heard that criticism of other films and sometimes my films. It’s more complex than just a term. You know what I mean? It’s hard for me to really break it down, except for the fact that, as we just said, there’s a conscious battling against that. I’m not taking you just to this blighted area, just, “Let’s bring you on a tour of this blighted area.” No, that’s not what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to flesh out characters within, and perhaps characters who are doing their best to survive in this crazy country, in this country in which there is a major class divide. I think most of the problems that we have in this country right now come down to class, meaning economic division between people.

People are like, “Oh, I don’t want to see anything. This is poverty porn if we look at anybody who’s below the poverty level.” What? Does that mean that nobody below the poverty level ever gets a story that is told about them or their world? Really? Okay. Well, I think that’s actually more classist and I actually think that that’s even more biased. But at the same time, I have to say that I have seen movies that I do consider [to be poverty porn]. Not a lot of them, but I have seen that. I’m not saying that it doesn’t exist. It exists.

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