Sean Baker specializes in spotlighting populations that don’t often get much screen time — and letting the audience be the judge of them.
His newest A24 film, “Red Rocket,” which blasted into theaters last week, offers up a slice of life in a more rural, low-income and conservative part of the country, with the run-up to the 2016 election as its backdrop.
In the film, Mikey Saber, played by former MTV VJ and “Scary Movie” star Simon Rex, returns to his small hometown in Texas. There, the one-time porn star resurrects old feelings, grudges, and habits — like mooching off his estranged wife and her mother under the guise of being a changed man.
“Red Rocket” was nominated for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes festival. But even the film’s acclaim doesn’t make Mikey a hero, says Baker.
“Obviously, there is a certain amount of me judging Mikey just by making this film about him at this time in his life … even though I try my best to be nonjudgmental and no matter what character I’m presenting,” Baker, 50, told the Daily News.
“How I go about doing it is presenting these characters like Mikey in a ... very straightforward way without condoning or condemning any actions, just almost allowing the audience to really apply their own ethics.”
Allowing himself to judge his characters, he explained, “would be preaching and that’s the last thing I think movies should be doing.”
What Baker is doing is shining a light on those often marginalized in society — and on screens big and small.
“Tangerine,” his acclaimed 2015 film, put transgender sex workers center stage. “The Florida Project,” which was named one of the top 10 films of 2017 by the National Board of Review and American Film Institute, focused on young families on the brink of homelessness on the outskirts of Walt Disney World.
“My films are just a reaction of what I’m not seeing enough of coming from U.S. film and TV,” said Baker. “Underrepresented communities, cultures, microcosms, even locations like this.”
The director, who was born and raised in Summit, New Jersey, wrote the script with Chris Bergoch, with whom he collaborated on “Tangerine” and “The Florida Project.”
Though filmed late last year amid the pandemic and the presidential election, the idea for “Red Rocket” had been marinating for Baker and Bergoch since work on their 2012 film “Starlet,” about the friendship between a 20-something and an elderly woman.
“We found this archetype in the adult film world. Just spending time on the adult film sets and getting to meet people in that world. … We met a handful of Mikey Sabers, let’s just say that,” recalled Baker. “And they all seem to have a very similar way of thinking, similar character traits. … The industry actually dubbed them this slang term, ‘suitcase pimp.’”
The label, which is used to describe Mikey late in the film, is “male talent who lives off a female talent in the adult film world,” though Baker noted not all men in the trade are like that.
“I was engaged and entertained and even amused hanging out with them, because they have that on the surface level … but then I would go home, and I would think about what they said to me. And I’ll be like, ‘Why was I laughing?’ … Some of these stories were really horrible. And they’ve had very negative effects on other people.”
Baker is now leaving it up to the audience how to regard Mikey.