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Red Rocket director on casting Simon Rex, discovering Suzanna Son, and reimagining *NSYNC

Red Rocket director Sean Baker discusses Simon Rex, Suzanna Son and using *NSYNC's Bye Bye Bye in surprising ways

Red Rocket Sean Baker

Sean Baker is known for his portrayals of Americans living in poverty, including sex workers, in films such as Starlet (2012), Tangerine (2015) and The Florida Project (2017). His latest film, Red Rocket, is no exception. It concerns Mikey Saber, a washed-up porn star who returns to his small home town in Texas and moves back in with his ex-wife and her mother.

Simon Rex, who was struggling to find acting work when Sean Baker contacted him for the lead role, has received much critical acclaim for his portrayal of Mikey Saber. He has won the Best Lead Actor awards at the Indie Spirits and LAFCA and the Virtuoso Award at the SBIFF. He was nominated for 15 more Lead Actor awards by various critics group, including the Gothams and the Dorians.

Suzanna Son plays 17-year-old Strawberry, who works at a local donut shop. Mikey starts grooming her and convincing her that she can make it in the adult film industry. Son is a singer-songwriter, as well as actress and her version of *NSYNC’s Bye Bye Bye from Red Rocket has found success.

We met up with writer-director Sean Baker to discuss the casting of both Rex and Son, his use of 16mm film to shoot Red Rocket and why *NSYNC ended up playing such a pivotal role in the film.

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TDF: I have to start by asking about the casting of Simon Rex. Did you write the character with him in mind and what on earth made you think of him for this movie?

Yeah, to a certain degree, Mikey Saber was written [with Rex] in mind because I remember the story was broken just after The Florida Project (2017). We thought we might make Red Rocket right after The Florida Project and I remember texting my producer; ‘if we make this film, it’s gonna be this guy’ and I sent him one of Simon’s Vine videos. They laughed and were like; ‘oh ok, cool…yeah’ thinking it might be a little bit of a strange casting choice. I kinda had a feeling that he was right for the role, even back then. He (Rex) didn’t know about it right up until production, four years later, when we were actually pulling the trigger on this project.

We’re about the same age, I’m a little bit older, but I remember when he broke on MTV in the ‘90s and he has just consistently entertained me throughout the years, honestly. He showed up in the Scary Movie franchise, and then his Dirt Nasty album. The fact that he stayed relevant by accepting new platforms, like when social media rolled around and he became a presence on Vine and YouTube and Instagram, I actually was impressed. I said; ‘this guy’s a survivor and he knows how to keep going and he’s appealing to younger generations, which is important.’ 

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So, it was around the Vine years that I said ‘this guy deserves more, Hollywood isn’t actually treating this guy right because he’s proving himself and he deserves meatier roles, more dramatic roles.’ So it was around that time that I said; ‘someday I’m going to work with him.’ And hey, it worked out!

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TDF: You do a lot of street casting, you discovered Suzanna Son at a cinema and asked her to audition. When you do that, what is it that you see in people on the street that makes you think they could work for a film, and Suzanna specifically?

It’s not like you’re hunting, like you’re seeking people out, but keeping your eyes open. I’ve always been a cinephile and intrigued by what makes a star. What that quality is that people look for in the actors they want to see on the big screen. I just keep my eyes open and when I see someone and think; ‘I find that person intriguing, I would like to see that person on the big screen for two hours.’ Hopefully I’m thinking like a general audience.

Now I’ve done this a few times, it’s become a thing where I’m keeping my casting hat on all the time. When I come across somebody like Suzanna, it’s my responsibility to take that plunge and test the waters. We were at the Arclight Hollywood, we saw her from across the lobby and my wife and I said ‘wow, if she isn’t already a star, she’s about to be, there’s something about her.’ You have to be like; ‘can you IMDb me? OK, Google me, we’ve made other movies.’

Suzanna was going into a Gus Van Sant film, so I knew she already had a cool sensibility. We mentioned The Florida Project to her, she’d heard of it, she then did her research and called us up and said; ‘I’m definitely interested in working with you guys.’ We had to say ‘we don’t have anything now, we just want you to be on file.’

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For the next two years, we followed her on Instagram and I remained intrigued. We understood that she was also a musician, which intrigued us even more and then when Red Rocket was finally greenlit and we were finally moving forward, that was the easiest casting ever. We didn’t have to think twice. We just said; ‘Strawberry is going to be Suzanna, that girl we met at the theatre two years ago.’ So that’s how it can work out.

It’s different with every individual. Brittney Rodriguez, Ethan Darbone – both of them were chance meetings – we again, just felt that thing about them. That they had a wonderful physicality, persona and enthusiasm and that could translate to being an amazing performer. And it worked out!

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TDF: You create films that feel quite loose and natural – is there any improvisation at all and do you have much time for rehearsals?

I encourage improvisation, it’s part of my style, because I’m an editor too. Half of my directing is editing, so with my editing hat on, I’m like; ‘give me alt takes, give me more, give me different things to play with in post-production, I don’t want to be married to just one line.’ Of course, as a writer too, sometimes I am precious about certain lines and some of it is exposition.

All the Mikey rants in the movie are scripted from beginning to end, almost word-for-word, they’re scripted because those came from my research about these men. But at the same time, I told Simon, ‘I know you’re amazing at comedic improvisation, so lean into it. If you feel you can throw a joke in the middle of that, or word something slightly differently, feel free.’ We would do many different takes, giving me different choices.

There wasn’t an incredible amount of rehearsal, but there definitely was time for that to happen and I know Simon appreciated that, he wanted that time. My wife, who is the acting coach on the film, her name is Samantha Quan, she’s wonderful with first-timers. She helps put them in a place where they feel comfortable enough to just riff.

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It’s asking a lot, for a first-timer, to be like; ‘hey the camera’s on you, do something!’ You have to make them feel safe and tell them; ‘never be embarrassed, throw out a joke, if it doesn’t work, who cares! I’m going to do so many alt takes on this, I’m the editor, you can trust me.’ So, we get to a place where everybody can just feel free to improvise and when it happens right, it’s magic.

You had people of totally different levels of experience in that last scene, for example – you had all those first-timers, you had Bree Elrod who plays Lexi in the film, who is a seasoned theatrical actor, whose career experience is very different from Simon’s. All these different levels of experience, skill and comfort and it all came together, because everybody felt comfortable with one another and that was magic for me. I was able to get everything we wanted, just by these people being themselves.

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TDF: You’ve shot in many different formats, including iPhones, what was it about 16mm that fitted this project for you?

Like almost every format choice over the years, there are many different reasons. This one had to do with the compact nature of the 16mm camera, the fact that it required less crew, the fact that we could move faster, the fact that it’s slightly cheaper than 35mm. 

Then there was also the aesthetic, scanning 16mm these days at 4K is very similar to what we saw as 35mm back in the ‘70s, the grain structure is similar. I also had the opportunity to shoot on 16mm anamorphic lenses, which is extremely rare, we might be the only feature film to have been shot on true 16mm anamorphic.

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There have been other films that have used FrancoScope, for example, which Gaspar Noe uses, which is a 35mm anamorphic lens on 16mm through an adaptor. I’m not the first one to make a 2.35 (aspect ratio) 16mm film but we are the first ones to use these Panavision lenses and I think it gave it a very unique look, it really harkened back to widescreen cinema from the ‘70s. I was definitely influenced by films from the ‘70s, so trying to capture that aesthetic was very important to me. 

So there were many reasons, and I’m really happy we did it. I enjoyed myself with the 16mm. For young filmmakers who are questioning whether they can afford 35mm, I highly suggest, if they want to shoot film, look into 16mm. It’s blowing up right now, Kodak is saying that they’re having trouble keeping it in stock. Which is inspirational to me, to know that there are younger filmmakers who are embracing 16mm – that’s a wonderful thing.

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TDF: Bye, Bye, Bye by *NSYNC appears several times throughout the film, in all these different forms. What was it about the song that made you think it was a perfect fit for the film and was it always there from the script stage?

The presence of any song didn’t come up until very late in the game. We were about a week out from production. I discovered that Suzanna Son was a wonderful musician and we wanted to highlight her talent in the film, so we wrote that scene for her. For the next week, there was a text thread going around the crew, where we were trying to figure out what the perfect song would be. It needed to be lyrically fitting, contextually fitting.

One night, I was driving around the refineries (which appear in the film) by myself, which I would often do for inspiration and just to clear my head at night. It came to me and I thought; ‘Wait, why haven’t we thought of Bye Bye Bye yet? It’s the biggest and the best and the most iconic, I’m gonna go for that one.’

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But we couldn’t secure it until post-production, so it was a risk, it was a real gamble. We had to shoot a safety back-up of her performing one of her original songs, just in case we didn’t get the rights. But my wonderful music supervisor made it happen and all five members of *NSYNC signed off on it and it’s become this anthem, which I can’t see my own film being without. I can’t imagine it existing without Bye Bye Bye.

Red Rocket is in UK cinemas from March 11.