Entertainment & Arts

‘Red Rocket’ Director Sean Baker On His Indie Career And The Stress Of Stretching A Budget During COVID: “All That Manic Energy, Somehow, Was Captured”

Sean Baker used to be the indie world’s best-kept secret, until 2017’s The Florida Project—a study of a struggling single mom in the shadow of Disney World—took the director first to Cannes and later to the Oscars, after Willem Dafoe was nominated for his role as a kind-hearted motel janitor. The career boost was short-lived; as Baker prepared to shoot a passion project about drug activism, the COVID pandemic forced him to pivot to something smaller—much smaller. Ironically, the result, Red Rocket, is one of his best-received films to date, telling the story of hustler Mikey Saber (Simon Rex), who returns to his ex-wife in Texas and obsesses over the teenage jailbait, Strawberry, who works in the local donut shop. Here, he discusses his 20-year journey…

Simon Rex, right, is an aging porn star with designs on local teen Strawberry, played by Suzanna Son.
A24

DEADLINE: How did The Florida Project come about?

SEAN BAKER: That one was specifically to do with an issue that I did not know about: the hidden homeless. And it was my co-screenwriter [Chris Bergoch] who basically gave me an article and said, “This is your sort of subject, is this something you’d be interested in tackling?” He also happened to know everything to do with Disney as well—he’s a Disney fanatic. So, when he presented it to me, I thought, “Oh wow, this is very special, I didn’t know this was happening, I didn’t know there was a hidden homeless population.” So, it’s a little bit different from my other films. Maybe it’s more in line with Take Out, if anything, and the [new film] that I’ve had to put on hold because of COVID, which was to do with drug-user activism, which is a specific cause that I’m passionate about and wanting to shine a light on. [Pause] Sometimes my films start that way: issues come to my attention that I feel have not had the attention they should. Other times it could be a story that I’ve heard about that I think is quite intriguing, or it could be inspired by a character that I’ve met, like Mikey Saber in Red Rocket. Red Rocket comes from the fact that I’ve met a handful of Mikey Sabers and I’ve said, “There’s this ‘suitcase pimp’ type that I want to tackle in a character study.”

DEADLINE: Did the success of The Florida Project get you the kind of budget you wanted?

BAKER: I thought that it was finally going to allow me to jump way up into the $10-15 million or whatever bracket. But then COVID happened. I could only get $1.1m. I couldn’t get a cent over $1.1 million. And I was so pissed, I was like, “Every one of my peers is jumping up to, like, $30 million, or S100 million,” and I had that pity-party thing where I’m like, “What am I doing wrong?” But then I thought, “Y’know, who cares? I’m just going to do it anyway. I guess this is my career—I just have to keep accepting these things.” So, I accepted the $1.1 million, but I said, “I don’t want this thing to look smaller than Florida Project, so it at least has to match it in scale. We’re going to shoot 10 people, we’re going to shoot it non-union, and we’re not going to deal with agencies.” All the extraneous fees that elevate these budgets, I’m going to get rid of. So that’s how we were able to do it for $1.1 million. I don’t know, man. I hope that this one finally opens doors.

DEADLINE: So Red Rocket was a full-on COVID production?

BAKER: Yes, it was. Everybody had their own COVID compliance rules, but we settled on the Directors Guild rules for COVID compliance. Which essentially meant a certain amount of tests a week, working in a pod, and playing it safe. And thank God, nobody got sick. We were just thrown right in. We didn’t have much time, and I think that energy played out in so many ways, from our locations, to our actors, to—literally—the energy captured on celluloid. We were shooting on the eve of the [2020] election, and on top of that, of course, there was COVID. We were living in fear. So, I think that all that manic energy, somehow, was captured.

DEADLINE: You could have called it Suitcase Pimp but you chose Red Rocket, which apparently is slang for a dog’s erection. What’s the thinking there?

BAKER: Well, y’know, it’s a joke. For those people who do know the slang term, I guess it’s saying that this is a comedy, that there’s humor here. Look, I’m being pretty non-judgmental of Mikey in the film. I don’t use music to manipulate how you should be thinking about him, I pretty much present him objectively, without condoning or condemning. I guess the title is my one judgmental comment on this character: I’m basically calling him a dog who’s constantly erect. That’s that. But the title can be interpreted many different ways. Obviously, we’re dealing with a red state, if you’d like to look into it that way. Some people think that Strawberry is the red rocket. I mean, it can be left up for interpretation. I like titles that are that way.

Elrod
Bree Elrod is the ex-wife who gets revenge.
A24

DEADLINE: There’s also a lot of ambiguity in Mikey’s story…

BAKER: I was playing with a bunch of themes, and one of the themes is reality. I mean, you could see the whole entire Strawberry plot being a figment of his imagination. Perhaps it’s his way of coping with his new shitty existence—maybe he’s just sitting under a tree, smoking weed and dreaming about this girl. Reality does become a thing that I think the audience needs to question. Even taking it as far as the coverage of the election: the way they’re absorbing the election coverage, they’re absorbing it the same way they would a courtroom reality show, or perhaps the news, or an infomercial. It’s all the same.

DEADLINE: Red Rocket further displayed the talent you showed in Tangerine for street casting. Is it now in your nature to look at people in the street and wonder if they might be useful to you?

BAKER: That’s another one of those things that I consider, as an independent filmmaker, I can handle on my own. It’s not a control thing—I’m the one who’s ultimately deciding on who’s cast and who’s not, so why am I not just casting the whole thing anyway? So, yeah, I do. I keep my eyes open for anybody who has that “it” factor, that energy, or that aura. Whatever that that star-making thing is that you can’t really define. [For Red Rocket] I saw it in Suzanna [Son], I saw it in Brittney [Rodriguez], I saw it in Ethan [Darbone]. They pop out, and I say to myself, not only can I see them being on the big screen for two hours, I would like to see them on the big screen for two hours.

DEADLINE: What are you doing now? Obviously, it’s not the best time to be making plans…

BAKER:  Yeah. Even with the rollout of this film now, we don’t exactly know how this new variant’s going to affect it. I want to get back to the film that I was developing for a couple of years [before Red Rocket] as soon as possible, but I think COVID won’t allow it, unfortunately. It’s too big of a movie. It’s like Milk: it’s about activism, so I need hundreds of people to be on the street, marching and stuff, and that can’t happen. I don’t want masks in there, I don’t want to confuse issues, so I’m going to have to wait until the pandemic is under control. In the meantime, I may make another, smaller film.

DEADLINE: How small?

BAKER: Not as small as Red Rocket. That was too small. It has to at least be $3 million, so people can make money off of it and so that we’re comfortable and not eating pizza all day and having our lead actor drive himself to set. You know what I mean—there has to be more comfort. So maybe $3 to $4 million, but on the same scale. I’m still exploring topics, and the one that I’m leaning towards is even more of a left turn or a curve ball than Red Rocket. There won’t be one sunset in the movie, let’s just say that. Not one sunset.

DEADLINE: What made you want to become a filmmaker?

BAKER: It was actually my mother, who took me to the local library when I was about six years old. It was out in central New Jersey. As part of a children’s program, they would show clips from the Universal monster films. Now, looking back, the fact that this was in the ‘70s means they must have either been shown on Super 8 or 16mm, I’m not sure which. I remember them showing a montage of the most famous scenes, so you had Dracula rising from the grave, and you had the climactic scene from The Creature from the Black Lagoon. But it was a scene from James Whale’s Frankenstein that got me—the burning windmill sequence. I remember the images of Boris Karloff’s face and the internal mechanism of the windmill. Those images just seared their way into my brain. The next day I said to my mother, “I want to make films.”

DEADLINE: What did you do about it?

BAKER: I went through the whole cliché thing that you hear from other filmmakers of my generation, where you’re making your little homemade movies on Super 8 until your family gets a VHS camera. I was the AV guy in my high school, basically in charge of making the video yearbook and all that stuff. And then I had my sights on film school, because, by that time, I was falling in love with film. Especially Hollywood film, because Spielberg was such a big part of my childhood.

DEADLINE: Why Spielberg?

BAKER: When I was a kid, probably all my knowledge was only Hollywood blockbuster stuff. But near the end of high school, I was able to start branching out a little bit more. This was pre-internet, so it wasn’t easy, but I started exploring foreign cinema, independent cinema. And it was at that time that I was at the end of high school, probably junior and senior year, that Spike Lee and Jim Jarmusch had blown up to the level where I started recognizing American independent film as something very different and very enticing.

DEADLINE: Where did you want to study?

BAKER: I had my sights set on USC, UCLA or NYU, but it was really NYU because of Jim Jarmusch and Spike Lee. So, I did an early admission thing there and got in.

DEADLINE: You made your first film, Four Letter Words, in 2000. What inspired you to go straight into features?

BAKER: That came about—again—because of Spike Lee. I was like, “When did Spike Lee make his first film?” I think he made She’s Gotta Have It at the age of 27 or so, and I was like, “I’ve got to beat Spike.” So, my whole thing was to make a film by the age of 25, and that’s essentially what I did. Fresh out of film school. I didn’t even know how to do it. It wasn’t like NYU told you how to do this. NYU has probably changed a lot, but when I was there it was essentially like, “You’ve graduated, good luck.” There were no job fairs, there was no connecting you to the industry. So, I just stayed in New York and said, “I’m going to pursue the same career path that Jim Jarmusch and Spike Lee did. I will somehow find enough money to make my first feature film.” At the time, I was working for a publishing company that allowed me to shoot a commercial for them, so I was able to shoot a commercial for them that made it look like I could direct a commercial. It was a slick little children’s spot, shot on 16mm, and I was able to take that and then shop it around to get more work. We weren’t making much, we were making bottom-of-the-barrel commercials. We were trying to scrape together $50,000 and eventually we did.

DEADLINE: What did you do with that money?

BAKER: We bought all of the raw stock off of [Terry Gilliam’s] 12 Monkeys. That’s really aging myself, right, because that was 1995, I believe. My friend was working on that film, and he said, “There’s all this raw stock of this really fast 35mm film—it’s 5298, 500 ASA, brand new.” So, we purchased all this film, and it sat in my freezer for over a year. I think that was what made us shoot the film, because we had purchased all of this raw stock. Short ends, essentially. You could only shoot a couple minutes at a time.

Sean Baker
Sean Baker at the ‘Red Rocket’ photocall in Cannes.
Vinnie Levine/MEGA

DEADLINE: What kind of film did you set out to make?

BAKER: My first film was going to be just what I think most first films are, a way of looking at my own life, which is a very French New Wave idea: do what you know, do a personal film, first and foremost. And that’s what I did. I made a small film that looked at the lives of suburban youth, focused primarily on the male psyche. It was very much like a … I don’t want to say a Kevin Smith film, but we are both from New Jersey, and so maybe we have similar sensibilities. He wasn’t on my mind, to tell you the truth. The people who were on my mind were definitely Jim Jarmusch and definitely Spike Lee, but by the time I made the film I was out of college, and I had been exploring foreign cinema, so Mike Leigh was especially on my mind while I was making it. Naked had a big influence on me. So, we made this little film for $50k on 35mm, and, yeah, I know it’s very different from the films I’ve made since, but I was just getting it out of my system. It was all based on stuff I had heard from friends, from acquaintances from high school, and it was just about the way that guys talk—y’know, locker room talk.

DEADLINE: Why did it sit on the shelf for so long?

BAKER: I was in my 20s, I did not have my life together in any way, shape or form. I mean, I still don’t, obviously. [Laughs] But I was using drugs in my 20s, and that’s what really slowed things down. I didn’t finish the film for a few years. We finally did and it was a terrible version—it had a Rashomon-style, three-story structure, and it didn’t work at all. That’s when I decided to go back to film school, because my life had gotten so out of control that the television show that I co-created, called Greg the Bunny, I essentially got fired from because of my drug use.

DEADLINE: What was Greg the Bunny?

BAKER: It was a comedy show. It’s all over YouTube. It was essentially a puppet show but with puppets in the real world. An Avenue Q sort of thing. In some ways, I think we actually influenced Avenue Q, because we started before them. It was a show that we started on Public Access and it got picked up by IFC, and then it went to Fox and then back to IFC and MTV. It had several incarnations over the years. It didn’t make us rich—well, it didn’t make me rich—but at the same time it kept me in the industry. It actually taught me a lot about comic improvisation and how to get that out of my actors. A lot of the stuff I ask for in my films these days stems from my time on Greg the Bunny.

DEADLINE: What did you do after you were fired?

BAKER: I spent an entire year alone at my parents’ place. I was, like, 28 years old, and I just had this film sitting there that was horrible. My friends were taking off. I was doing absolutely nothing. And then I decided, “Well, I guess I have nothing else to do but to go back to school.” So, I went back, because I had graduated just before the digital revolution. I had been cutting celluloid when I graduated college, so I had to go back to learn non-linear editing. That’s where I met [producer] Shih-Ching Tsou. I decided at that point I was going to recut Four Letter Words in a linear style on the Avid, using that project to learn the Avid. And it actually ended up working out quite well because it was finally the film that it was supposed to be—plus I had learned the Avid and I had met Shih-Ching Tsou. The film then got to South by Southwest, out of nowhere and I’m like, “Oh wow, the film I made four years ago is suddenly good enough for South by? OK, good.” I got off of drugs and my life was getting better. It wasn’t like Four Letter Words opened any doors, but it was nice, and it was out there, and it started my journey.

DEADLINE: Your next film, Take Out cost even less, didn’t it?

BAKER: Shih-Ching and I, who were partners at the time, were like, “What do we do here? We have no money, we’re barely paying rent, but there’s this Dogme 95 thing going on that says to us, ‘Hey, we don’t need any money. We can just pick up a video camera and shoot.’” And that’s what we did. We picked up a MiniDV camera and made Take Out for $3,000 and that’s what really changed everything. Because not only did it set us down a road in which we were exploring subjects that were different from our own experiences—other communities and social and political topics—it also gave us the liberty and the freedom to just go so independent. I mean, Shih-Ching and I were the only two crew members. And we made this thing for $3,000 and it got our name out there. We didn’t understand the film festival circuit yet. We were lucky with SXSW with Four Letter Words, but we didn’t understand the circuit and how it works.

DEADLINE: What do you mean by that?

BAKER: We didn’t know that you have to submit to the top and work your way down. We got into Slamdance with Take Out, but our European premiere was in—of all places—Fribourg. Because we literally just opened up the International Film Festival booklet at the time and saw Fribourg. We were like, “Oh, fondue. Let’s go there, that’ll be fun.” When we were there, people were like, “Your film is really good, why didn’t you premiere at Berlin?” And we were like, “We didn’t even try.” They were like, “What!?” At that point I realized that we had to understand the circuit. I was like, “From this point on, I can’t make another film without understanding how to get our films out there.”

DEADLINE: Looking at Take Out, it does seem that you have a very keen documentary eye, but you’ve always resisted going that route. Why?

BAKER: I think it’s because, ultimately, I’m a dramatist and I do want to control the story. I love documentary, and I watch documentaries all the time, I’m very inspired by them. But there’s the time factor, and there’s the commitment, and there’s the very sad reality that documentaries don’t make any money—at all. There’s no way I could support myself. It would even be harder to support myself as a documentarian than as a narrative dramatist filmmaker. So that’s why I’ve resisted that, though, obviously, as you can tell and as you mentioned, I use a documentary technique.

DEADLINE: How did Take Out come about?

BAKER: Shih-Ching and I were living above a Chinese restaurant in New York City, and we shared the stairwell with the deliverymen. And we realized—because Shih-Ching knew Mandarin, and she could speak with them—that a lot of them were undocumented. So, we started saying, “Maybe we should take on a New York story here, see the lives of all these New Yorkers through the glimpse of a door opening, through the eyes of a delivery man. Seeing into everyone’s worlds for just a moment.” Originally, we thought it was going to be something like … remember that [1995 Wayne Wang] film Smoke? Something like that, which would give us these little glimpses of different people, with a huge ensemble cast. But then when we started getting into it, and started speaking to these men, we began to understand more about what it’s like to be an undocumented immigrant in New York City, living below the radar.

DEADLINE: How much of it is based on fact?

BAKER: At that time there was a major case involving a woman named Sister Ping. She was considered the number one smuggler on the East Coast, what they call a “snakehead.” She lived in Chinatown, and she was responsible for thousands of undocumented immigrants coming in from China. We were reading everything we could and interviewing everybody we could, and the film took on that whole subject—the plight of an undocumented immigrant dealing with a smuggling debt. That was the backbone.

DEADLINE: Where did you shoot it?

BAKER: In a real Chinese take-out that was operational at the time. We didn’t own it, we couldn’t own it, and we couldn’t control it. I mean, for $3,000 we had to just let life happen and document it. But we also had actors in the moment, basically portraying characters in a story, so there was that hybrid thing going on all the time. We would have customers come into the restaurant and order, we’d have cameras in the back, and they wouldn’t even be aware of it. Our actors would be interacting with them, and they wouldn’t even know it until we chased them out on to the sidewalk and said, “We’re making an independent film—we’d like you to sign this release so we can put you in it.” So, it was very much like that, a combination of Candid Camera and documentary—complete hybrid filmmaking. As you can probably tell, I’m dedicated to shooting on film, and I like things to look bigger and more controlled. But, to tell you the truth, when I look back at Take Out, I thank God we didn’t have the money to do anything but that. Because that film needed to be MiniDV, it needed to have that raw, street-level style, and it was really the limitations that were imposed upon us that made that film what it is. It was a real learning experience on many, many levels.

DEADLINE: What kind of things did you learn?

BAKER: Take Out taught me a lot about the research process and the time that it takes, the time that you have to put in, so for [my next film] Prince of Broadway we spent a lot of time in that world. We spent months—months—in the wholesale district [of Manhattan]. Because we had to win the trust of these undocumented African immigrants who were selling counterfeit goods—if we came across as cops, or even as annoying journalists, they would have wanted nothing to do with us. While we were interviewing the community, we kept being told that there was this one man by the name of Prince who would work with us, because he wanted to be a star, essentially. We finally met this guy and he was like, “If you make me the lead of your film, I will show you the real African experience of Manhattan, I will help you with casting, and I’ll help you with the locations—everything.” I walked away that day thinking, “Oh my God, this is one of those miracles: we’ve just found somebody who we’re going to collaborate with who is essentially going to become our star.” And that’s what happened.

DEADLINE: How did you pay for it?

BAKER: Because I was now sober, I got accepted back on to Greg the Bunny for one or two seasons, and that really put money back into my pocket. I scraped together $47,000. Over the next eight to 12 months, while I was off making money in order to make this film, Prince just kept calling me, saying “When are we going to make this movie?” I said, “We’re going to make this movie, man. I just have to break the story in my head.”

DEADLINE: How did that story come to you?

BAKER: One day the image of him pushing a baby cart through the snow, trying to sell counterfeit goods, just hit me one night as I lay in bed. I was like, “An undocumented African immigrant with a baby selling counterfeit goods in the snow—that’s the image I want to see.” So, I said, “Prince, I think I’ve got the story. You’re going to have a baby dropped on you and you’re going to have to continue to try to hustle with a baby.” And he goes, “That happens all the time here.” So, we moved forward and we shot in the winter of 2007, and it was quite an experience. It was a full-on guerrilla filmmaking thing. We didn’t own anything. Well, we did own the shop that we shot in and the apartments that we shot in, but we couldn’t control street stuff at all. We shot in the snow, we shot in real weather. That was the film that really, really made it clear to me that, when you’re from outside of the world that you’re focusing on in a film, you have to spend a tremendous amount of time in it. You have to entrench yourself. That film I thought would open up a lot of doors. It didn’t, really, for some weird reason. But at least I had people paying for my films at that point. After Prince of Broadway, I never had to pay for a film myself again. I did have to waive fees and use my own equipment, but I never had to pay for a movie again.

DEADLINE: What kind of life did it have?

BAKER: That was the one that got us really seen, because we won the Los Angeles Film Festival and then we got into Locarno. Take Out had been picked up for distribution, but the distributors didn’t have any money so they couldn’t put it out. It was the strength of Prince of Broadway on the festival circuit, and all the awards it was winning, that really helped Take Out get its release finally. So, what happened was that, even though Take Out was shot literally three-and-a-half years earlier, the two films came out at the same time, and they were both nominated for the same Independent Spirit Award, the John Cassavetes Award. Everyone thought it was a one-two punch. There was even an article that said, “Sean Baker: One-Two Punch!” And I was like, “That’s not the truth, but I’ll roll with it.” So essentially, Take Out and Prince came out at the same time, they supported one another, and that’s when I was finally known in the independent film world. After that, every film [of mine] has had its own origins, its own life, its own … whatever. But that’s what got me to a place where I was … I wouldn’t necessarily say supporting myself, because, quite honestly, making films has not supported my life until Red Rocket. Red Rocket is where I finally made some money.

DEADLINE: Was it easier raising the money for your next film, Starlet?

BAKER: For Starlet I was able to get $250,000. It was actually $240,000, to be exact. But that came from a combination of financiers who had just read about the accolades that Prince had, and, in the grand scheme of things, $250k is not that much. The one financier only had to give $100k and the other two financiers gave, like $50 or $75k. So it wasn’t that much of an investment.

DEADLINE: It’s set in the world of adult filmmaking. What was the reason for that?

BAKER: I was working on a show for MTV called Warren the Ape. It was a short-lived, we didn’t even make it past one season, but it was a comedy show that I made right after Prince of Broadway. I’d moved out to Hollywood, while we were working on that show and we were like, “Let’s put in cameos from adult film stars,” because the show’s demographic was teenage guys. That was our way of thinking! But while I was on set, I remember one of the young adult film performers saying something very mundane along the lines of, “Oh, I forgot to put my laundry in the dryer—it’s sitting at home and it’s going to get stale.” And I laughed—in my mind, I was thinking, that’s the most non-porno star line you’ll ever hear. And it was at that moment that I actually said to my co-screenwriter [Chris Bergoch], “We should make a cinema verité film, something really small,”—because I didn’t think I would get any money—”like a Dardenne brothers movie, following a porn star around and you only realize three-quarters through the film that she’s a porn star. You think she’s an everyday young woman in the Valley.” I also had this other idea, that was very Harold and Maude-influenced, about a younger woman and an older woman and their friendship coming together. So, Chris suggested we just combine the two: take this Harold and Maude idea I had and combine it with this new cinema verité porn movie. And that’s essentially how it happened.

DEADLINE: Was Dree Hemingway your first choice?

BAKER: Actually, Dree was kind of late to the game on it. We didn’t know who we were going to cast. We thought we may cast some adult film star; we just didn’t know. It was Dree’s manager who reached out. He was a big fan of Prince of Broadway and said, “I would love you to consider Mariel’s daughter.” And I was like, “I didn’t even know Mariel had a daughter.” Oh my God, Star 80 has been a big influence on my whole career.

DEADLINE: Would you say that Starlet was the film that put you on the map?

BAKER: I honestly thought it was the film that was going to finally open up every door. It played at SXSW, and people knew who I was by that point, but the film isn’t exactly the most friendly to the industry. It has a hardcore sex scene right in the middle of it. So, it’s an NC-17 right off the bat and it isn’t going to get nearly the amount of exposure that other Sundance movies or calling card movies would get. We only just broke even on this film a couple of months ago—and we made it in 2012. We never made any money off of it. The distributor, Music Box, which I like a lot, couldn’t do much with it because it’s not something you could easily market to the mainstream.

DEADLINE: How did you react?

BAKER: I was kind of going crazy. I was like, “Oh my God, I’m in my mid-30s now, and I … No, wait, where was I? I was almost 40! I was like, “If this film hasn’t opened up the doors, I don’t know what will.” And that’s when Mark Duplass came to me and said, “Do you want to make something for me? I can give you $100,000.” And I was like, “Oh, here we go. Are you serious? I just made a film for $250k. I thought for the next thing I’d be able to at least get a million or two million. And now I’m jumping back to $100,000? OK. Like, that makes me feel … worthless. [Laughs] And I also don’t know how we’re going to do it.” So that’s when I said, “I’m going to shoot this on the iPhone, because that’s the only way any of us will even make a few thousand dollars. We can at least pocket $5,000 each, so that we’re living and paying rent, if we can just shoot this for free, essentially.” And that’s what we did. That’s why I explored the whole iPhone thing.

DEADLINE: That was Tangerine. Were you surprised that the iPhone angle caused more of a stir that the subject matter—trans sex workers?

BAKER: I thought we were going to be one of many iPhone films that year, quite honestly, because it was the perfect year for it to happen. It was kind of weird it didn’t happen, because it was when the iPhone 5S jumped up to HD and there were these apps that were supporting it. So, the iPhone was finally in a place where it was a presentable medium. I went to Sundance that year assuming we would be one of many—and we ended up being the only one, and then we also ended up making a splash because of the trans representation. But then we got rejected from Cannes. I don’t think we were even thought about for Un Certain Regard or the main competition, but Directors’ Fortnight decided to take Chloé Zhao’s film Songs My Brothers Taught Me instead of mine. So, I was a little butthurt about that, but I was like, “OK, at least the film’s getting out there.” But then the US release had to speed up the international film festival rollout, so we only premiered at Sydney, at the Sydney Film Festival. I love Sydney, but it’s not the ideal way of launching your world cinema splash. It wasn’t until The Florida Project where we were able to control the way the world saw it, how it was presented to the world.

DEADLINE: Tangerine also confirmed your talent for street casting. Is it now in your nature to look at people in the street and wonder if they might be useful to you?

BAKER: That’s another one of those things that I consider, as an independent filmmaker, I can handle on my own. It’s not a control thing—I’m the one who’s ultimately deciding on who’s cast and who’s not, so why am I not just casting the whole thing anyway? So, yeah, I do. I keep my eyes open for anybody who has that “it” factor, that energy, or that aura. Whatever that that star-making thing is that you can’t really define. [For Red Rocket] I saw it in Suzanna [Son], I saw it in Brittney [Rodriguez], I saw it in Ethan [Darbone]. They pop out, and I say to myself, not only can I see them being on the big screen for two hours, I would like to see them on the big screen for two hours.

DEADLINE: You used to carry copies of your films around to give to interesting-looking people. Do you still do that?


BAKER: Yes and no. Just the other day I gave a Starlet Blu-ray to a young woman who came out to see Red Rocket and was a big fan of Florida Project but had not seen Starlet. But, to tell you the truth, nobody has Blu-ray players anymore, it’s such a select group of people. So, no, it’s something I don’t really do much of anymore. But I used to all the time.

DEADLINE: Did Tangerine finally bring the opportunities you wanted?

BAKER:  It finally opened the doors for me to get almost $4 million for The Florida Project. Well, just under $4 million—it was the agencies’ fees and all that bullshit that brought it up a little over $4 million, plus shooting on 35mm.



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