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The Letterboxd Show 2.25: Sean Baker
[clip of River’s Edge plays]
LAYNE You think I’d at least, rate a Michelob.
SAMSON Don’t be an ingrate.
LAYNE You’re calling me an ingrate?
SAMSON I never asked you to do it Layne.
LAYNE A friend doesn’t have to ask a friend to do somethin’ like that. Mmm, it’s warm, even. You don’t even care, do you?
SAMSON I ain’t drinkin’ it.
LAYNE About yourself, you dumb fuck! How do you expect other people to care about you? It’s people like you that are sending this country down the tubes.
[The Letterboxd Show theme music Vampiros Dancoteque by Moniker fades in, plays alone, fades down]
SLIM Hello and welcome to The Letterboxd Show, a podcast about the movies people love watching from Letterboxd: the social network for people who love watching movies. Each episode your hosts Slim—that’s me—and Gemma are joined by a Letterboxd friend for a chat about their four favorite films. As you listen long we have links in the episode notes, so there’s no excuse not to add these films to your watchlists. Today, our guest is Letterboxd member and filmmaker Sean Baker.
GEMMA Sean is the writer and director behind Starlet, Tangerine, The Florida Project—for which Willem Defoe was nominated for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar—and his newest film is Red Rocket starring Simon Rex as the very talky Mikey Saber who arrives back in small-town Texas from LA with his tail between his legs but his spirit uncrushed. At the time of recording, Red Rocket is in our top twenty of the year and in our top three comedies. On Letterboxd, Wes writes, “What’s the point of getting out of bed in the morning if the colors in real life aren’t as vivid or dreamy as a Sean Baker film?” Indeed. Sean’s four current Letterboxd faves are Paradise: Faith, River’s Edge, Oasis and The Sugarland Express. Sean, welcome to The Letterboxd Show.
SEAN Oh, thank you for having me. It’s great to be here.
GEMMA Very, very exciting to chat. We both watched Red Rocket this week. What did you think, Slim?
SLIM I loved it. I wrote in my review that I was pissed that we recorded our Faves of 2021 podcast episode the day before I watched the movie like an idiot. [Gemma & Sean laugh] I watched it afterwards. Gemma, your thoughts as we dig into this conversation?
GEMMA We’ve just published an interview with Ella Kemp with Simon Rex, which I just adored. But I’m just obsessed with Suzanna Son. I’m obsessed with Strawberry.
SEAN Oh, wow, yeah.
GEMMA I just adore her performance.
SEAN She’s amazing. She’s like a miracle in my life. [Sean laughs] She’s phenomenal in the film.
GEMMA Honestly, it’s such an interesting and tricky role to play knowing that, you know, as audience members that this guy’s grooming her. She doesn’t know it yet, but maybe she does? She’s just, I don’t know, you think that there’s no nuance at the beginning and then—I just love her.
SEAN Oh, no, she plays it with such complexity. And doesn’t play just the innocent little lamb which could have been a very easy way of approaching it. And then—I don’t know how many people have seen the film up to this point. But I guess people know through the trailer, that the *NSYNC song plays quite a big part in the film, it almost becomes an anthem. And it’s because I heard that the song is in the film, quite honestly.
SEAN Yeah, it was because I discovered that she is extremely talented, can sing and was teaching piano at the time. So we said we’re going to work her talent into the film. We wrote that scene for her to perform a song. And then we had to figure out a song that would contextually fit with the film and we eventually got to ‘Bye Bye Bye’. So it all comes from her.
GEMMA That’s amazing. I was trying to work out, I know A24 are big on unconventional merch, shall we say? And I was trying to work out what the Red Rocket merch would be.
GEMMA Donuts! [Slim laughs] Strawberry donuts, or is it gonna be baggies?
SEAN I would love to bring the American-flag rolling papers back.
GEMMA Oh my god!
SEAN Those were all those were all vintage that we used in the film. And I’ll admit something, because I know we’re talking to a lot of cinephiles right now. I was inspired by the movie [The] Candy Snatchers, 1973. And when I saw them smoking those American-flag rolling little joints or cigarettes in the film, I said, “That’s such an image. I can’t believe that hasn’t been used since 1973.” [Gemma & Slim laugh] So we incorporated it into Red Rocket. So maybe if A24 wants to put out their own Red Rocket-branded rolling papers.
GEMMA Or I was thinking more like the wallet with the incredibly loud Velcro.
SEAN Oh, why not?
GEMMA Just for super awkward moments.
SLIM We need to bring those back in a big way, I think. I think there’s a collaboration that could potentially happen here
SEAN My wallet still a velcro wallet from Florida. [Slim & Gemma laughs]
SLIM Was it your wallet that was used in the movie?
SEAN No, but it looks exactly like that.
GEMMA Can we hear that?
SLIM There it is.
SEAN Why not? [Velcro tearing sounds] Here we go. There’s the velcro. [Gemma & Sean laugh]
SLIM We’re talking today about you know what you currently have as your four favorites on Letterboxd, and as with many members, they change often but what do you think Mikey Saber’s favorite films would be? If you cornered him and he rattled off some of his favorite movies? I was thinking that earlier.
SEAN They would be his parodies of the films of the Hollywood films that he starred in. So, it would all be about him. [Sean & Gemma laugh]
SLIM You think he’d have a Scarface poster up in his room at one point?
SLIM There is a bit of a theme, we’ll get into your four favorites. There’s a bit of a theme, very complicated love, I feel like. At least that was something that struck me, maybe not so much River’s Edge, depending on how you view it. But, your first movie that we’re going to go through for a little bit is Paradise: Faith from 2012. Sean, you are one of five fans that have this in your current four favorites. So very exclusive group. That might be the lowest—is that the lowest number so far, Gemma? I think Justin LaLiberty might have had a low number as well.
GEMMA I honestly think maybe eleven has been the lowest so far, so yeah.
SLIM We gotta get a trophy for Sean.
GEMMA Sean, we could find those other four Letterboxd members and the five of you could get together for a drink. [Gemma & Slim laugh]
SEAN I would love that! Yeah, well, I’ll tell you a little bit about Paradise: Faith. I’m a big fan of Ulrich Seidl, the Austrian director, and I love all of his films. It’s actually, Paradise: Faith is part of the Paradise trilogy that he made. Paradise: Love, Paradise: Hope and Paradise: Faith. This one in particular, I think really just spoke to me because of its audacity and its boldness. And its unapologetic criticism of religion, in general, but I guess, yeah, religion in general. I also just have to say that I love movies that focus on one character. I have ensemble casts with all my films, but I’ve also made films like Take Out and like Prince of Broadway. And I guess you could even say Red Rocket that focus on one individual and their journey. And in Paradise: Faith, just following Anna Maria through her journey, played by the wonderful Maria Hofstätter who I think is incredible. I wanted to bring over from The Florida Project but we couldn’t figure it out. Yes, I think she’s amazing. She was in Dog Days. Yeah, she’s quite a well known Australian actress, but I just think her performance is next level. She was surrounded by non-professionals in this film and had to work with non-professionals in a very docu-style way. I thought his use of hybrid filmmaking is incredible, where he blurs the line between fiction and documentary filmmaking.
GEMMA Anna Maria is an incredibly devout Catholic woman who, there’s one line in the film where she and her prayer group say, “We are the church’s assault troop,” which I thought like that just stayed in my brain. And part of her day to day, she has a day job, which by the way, just on a Covid basis, if you want to see a perfect hand washing technique, it’s in this movie Paradise: Faith. Extraordinary hand washing technique, I thought, took note of that. But outside of her day job, she takes herself off to Austrian apartments to minister to the occupants. And these include a dude who’s just in his underwear, who can’t access his mother’s bedroom or bed since she died, like he won’t go near it. So she helps him pray the sins away from the bed. It includes a drunk woman who’s like a complete alcoholic in a basement apartment. I don’t know, I found those scenes the most disturbing in this. And that’s taking into account the fact that halfway through the film, this woman’s Muslim husband comes home and begins reasserting himself in the home.
SEAN Yeah, and I don’t know if this is widely known, but Ulrich Seidl is also a renowned documentarian and he’s made a few documentaries. One of them is called Jesus, You Know, 2003. And Paradise: Faith directly comes from this film, meaning it was inspired by a real life couple that he documents in Jesus, You Know.
SLIM It felt like an alternate universe Jeanne Dielman. And it felt very similar and obviously just totally different style.
SEAN But not really. Not really. I mean, his framing and his long takes.
SLIM Slow burn.
SEAN I think, yeah, very inspired by that film. I think, I don’t know. I haven’t asked him, but the very symmetrical sort of straight on wide shots that just allow actions to take place in real time.
GEMMA Unlike, or in contrast to, Jeanne Dielman, he often films her from behind, I noticed, whereas Jeanne Dielman, we get to see her face, most of the time. So much of the time, she’s directly facing the camera. But in this one, I was really, really intrigued by how much of the camera is from behind or over the shoulder.
SEAN That’s true.
GEMMA Couldn’t quite parse what that meant. But I have to say that—
SLIM Let us in.
GEMMA This was an extraordinary double feature for me because I watched Paradise: Faith immediately after watching Paul Verhoeven’s Benedetta, in which we have various sacred symbols used in sacrilegious ways. And we also have women whipping themselves for Jesus. I was like, well, if anyone wants—man—a one-two-punch, double feature, there it is right there. [Slim laughs]
SEAN Yeah, no, it is a perfect double feature. And actually Benedetta is one of my two favorite films of the year.
SEAN So I guess—and I didn’t grow up a Catholic. So I’m really not sure what is pulling me towards this subject matter or why I love this approach to this subject matter. But I see, yes, 100% a great double feature there. I have Paradise: Faith up there, I don’t know if I would say it’s—I mean, it’s definitely one of my favorite films. I wouldn’t say it’s in my top four. I think what I do often on Letterboxd is like the way I swap out my posters every once in a while. I’m swapping out my favorites. And I think our favorites come and go and change. Being cinephiles or being filmmakers, whatever. It’s whatever is really speaking to us in the moment.
GEMMA We have members who swap out their favorites every month based on what’s happening that month. So I guess we should book the same time next week to talk to you about your new favorites! [Slim laughs] When you do a tidy up.
SEAN If you want to jump to [The] Sugarland Express next, the reason that that’s actually on there—you know, it's definitely one of my favorites Spielberg’s, it’s one of my favorite films. I don’t know if it’s in my top four, but I put it up there just because it had such an impact on Red Rocket and I rediscovered it because of my wonderful cinematographer Drew Daniels on Red Rocket. He was like, “Let’s let’s take a look at [The] Sugarland Express, as we started prepping.” And because it was shot in a similar area outside of Houston and of course, you know, we all love Vilmos Zsigmond’s approach to lighting and framing, and so we rewatched The Sugarland Express and I fell back in love with it. It had been 30 years since I had seen it and it spoke to me on many levels, but especially to do with the craft and Spielberg’s incredible genius and in his beautiful coverage. So I think you’ll see for those who have seen both films, you’ll see a lot of nods to The Sugarland Express in Red Rocket.
GEMMA Definitely in the sunsets and sunrises.
SEAN Yeah, and the lateral driving shots.
GEMMA Yeah. So I wanted to ask you about that because [The] Sugarland Express is very much a vehicular-based epic. But your films—and I love this, because I’m an urban girl, a human-scale person, whose commute is my bicycle. And one of the things I absolutely love about your films is that it’s people on foot or on bike. We’re not in the realm of people who spend a lot of time in their cars, in they’re comfortable leased vehicles. And so somehow you’ve taken the incredible motion of [The] Sugarland Express and applied it to this deadbeat who gets off the bus, has to get a bus from LA to Texas, which is no easy ride.
SEAN No, it’s not. It’s not. Like you, I spent most of my life in urban settings. Most of my life in Manhattan, where I eventually gave up on the subway system and just biked everywhere.
GEMMA Same! Oh my god. [Gemma laughs] The F-train can die a death as far as I’m concerned. [Sean laughs]
SEAN Yeah, exactly. And so even in the winter I was biking around. I was even a support post-production of my first film, I was a bike messenger for a summer and that was a very dangerous summer. Oh my gosh. But also, I do have cars in my films. For example, having my film Tangerine take place in LA, of course, I had to have cars involved and I incorporated that whole taxi throughout tangerine, because of the fact that I was a taxi driver at some out iin rural New Jersey. So, yeah, all forms of transportation. I try to cover all forms of transportation! [Gemma laughs]
SLIM How often did you have to clean up the back of your taxi cab? Like that scene?
SEAN Oh, I think that happened to me one time.
SLIM Thank god. The Sugarland Express, 1974. Steven Spielberg. So, me, I don’t even remember this movie at all from Steven Spielberg’s filmography. And Jack, who gathers our facts, agrees is somewhat relatively under the radar of Spielberg. Number 32 in popularity for his films, only ahead of 1941, Always and Something Evil, but it is his 24th-highest rated.
SEAN I think it’s because people haven’t seen it. And when I was actually accessing it last summer, when getting into Red Rocket, HBO Max was the only way to see it. And I think since then, they’ve been working on, I’ve heard noise that they are working on a proper restoration. And so we’ll probably see a new version out very soon, but I have a feeling it’s just under seen.
GEMMA One of the Letterboxd lists it’s in is masterpieces directed by individuals while they were in their mid-20s which force you to wonder what you’re (not) doing with your life. [Slim laughs]
SEAN Exactly! Really. How old was he when he made this? 24? He made it before Jaws.
SLIM Geez Louise.
SEAN I think he made it at 25.
GEMMA And what’s interesting is you know, one of the reviews, Ryan on Letterboxd, says “Damn, Spielberg started out pretty dark and I LOVE it.” And we’ve talked about this on the pod before, Slim and I, I grew up in a family that took us to see the darker Spielberg’s. So I didn’t see Jurassic Park until last year, for the first time because that was also the year that Schindler’s List came out. So that’s the film we went to see. We’d see Empire of the Sun, but I’d never seen The Sugarland Express until this week. And I have a question, like it’s this and it’s The Blues Brothers and it's all these American movies. Do they really need that many police cars? [Slim & Sean laugh] Doesn’t it just take—
SLIM It was a different time back then.
GEMMA Yeah, these are a lot of resources. And then when they call the Louisiana boys and they drive into the sunset singing as they’re out to get their woman and man. I’m just like, ‘What the heck?’ I also need to know more about Terrible Ted. You can’t just drop—you can’t just have people in conversation dropping the idea of some other case, the case of Terrible Ted and us not know what that is. I started googling ‘Terrible Ted’ and didn’t sort of seem to relate.
SEAN Yeah, I love when films do that. I love it. And I tried to do that with all my films. I put in something that literally has to be googled after the audience goes home at the end of the night. And hopefully, I’ve engaged the audience enough where they want to do that. [Gemma laughs] But that’s really grounds films where you hear about a local detail or local slang that you know is authentic. And it’s even more authentic not to define it because when human beings have normal conversations, they’re not defining the slang they’re using.
GEMMA I love that Goldie Hawn went down the comedy route and her career. But I would like at this point in her life to see her pivot back to Sugarland Express level drama.
SEAN I agree with you. She delivers the drama. And on the other hand, I would like to see her husband go back to comedy.
GEMMA Yes! [Slim laughs]
SEAN And I’m serious because Kurt Russell in Used Cars, usually Used Cars is in my top four. Okay? That is my favorite comedy ever, Used Cars. And Kurt Russell is such an amazing comedic actor. And I’m so happy that he made all the films with Carpenter, obviously, and went the whole action route thing but I really also really appreciated his comic delivery and there’s a lot of like his character from Used Cars in Mikey Saber by the way.
GEMMA Oh wow!
SEAN Yeah! Because he’s a huckster. He’s a hustler. He’s a used car salesman, you know?
SLIM My son loves those movies. He asked me to put that on, like almost every other week and I’m like, “Uh, you know what, I don’t know if it’s screaming anymore, son, sorry.” [Slim & Gemma laugh]
GEMMA It’s always streaming. The Christmas Chronicles is always streaming. And he’s gonna find out one day and you’re gonna be the worst dad.
SLIM Yeah, it’s gonna come back to bite me.
GEMMA I was gonna say, speaking of Christmas movies, I wanted to ask a question about Tangerine. I was listening to you on Pure Cinema pod. And you said that you got the idea for Tangerine while you were in New Zealand, which is where I am now, having moved home for the pandemic. So how? Were you hanging out on K’ Road?
SEAN Well, it happened to be with when I went to the New Zealand [International] Film Festival with Starlet and I was very—I spent almost two weeks, I think a week in Auckland, a week in Wellington and I just fell in love with the festival because I had time to really absorb a lot of really real, real independent films. I’m talking like, very low-budget, regional films that I probably wouldn’t see in the US festival circuit. So this was really inspiring. And it actually made me—I was having trouble finding financing for my next film, like I always do. [Sean laughs] But it was after Starlet and I was hoping to get bigger and looking for more money, which I just simply couldn’t find. So I was kind of in that place where I didn’t know what was happening next. I go to the New Zealand [International] Film Festival and suddenly I see all these films being made for under 50K, but just really full of heart and very accomplished films. And that’s what really inspired me to just, okay, as soon as I got home I’m like, ‘I’m going to make Tangerine.’ Even if I have like a quarter of the budget of my previous film, I’m going to do it. So yeah, it was the festival and seeing all these guerrilla films that really inspired me to do that. So it was more to do with that than anything to do with theme.
GEMMA It’s so interesting, because by the time this episode goes live, we’ll have up on Journal, our online magazine, a piece about alt-Christmas, alternative Christmas films, things that are stranger, darker, bleaker, weirder. Just that take, a different angle on Christmas than The Christmas Chronicles say. And Tangerine is definitely one of those. You know, it’s like, if we only watched cheesy Christmas movies, we would think that Christmas for everybody is about family gatherings with a little bit of tension and a lot of cheese. But Tangerine is fantastic and the way that it shows like it’s not snowing everywhere, and it’s certainly not snowing in LA. So how do you see Tangerine as sitting in the Christmas canon?
[clip of Tangerine plays]
Merry Christmas Eve, bitch.
SEAN Hey, we definitely set out to make a Christmas movie at some point. Chris Bergoch, my co-screenwriter was the one who came up with the idea, I think very inspired by LA Christmas stories like Die Hard. And then working with the theme of family especially with Tangerine and the fact that many of the trans youth at risk here in LA who were finding themselves in that area, unfortunately did not have a family connection because they were, many of them were rejected by their family. And so this became something that I think that their family became their friends, their family became their support group. And so, I think we wanted to play upon that theme and show that family doesn’t always have to be blood. And sometimes if it is blood, it can be more toxic than your friends who are family. So we were showing the Armenian family who was a family by blood having a lot of issues on Christmas Day, while the sisterhood, which I also see as family, they supported themselves and they were there for them. Even through their hardships, they were there for each other.
GEMMA You even see them attempting to enact a perfect American Christmas and failing at it. I was thinking, who would Mikey Saber spend Christmas with? Where even is his family? Because the family comes back to in Texas—
SLIM Is an ex-victim.
GEMMA Is his estranged wife and her mom, who are amazing by the way
SEAN Yes, oh yeah. But Bree Elrod and Brenda Deiss. Yes, amazing. I don’t know. He would be watching some television. I have no idea.
SLIM Watching NCIS on reruns. [Slim laughs] So Red Rocket is now—I just checked, we had a 3.9 average on Letterboxd, now it is officially a 4.0, Gemma, as of today on Letterboxd.
GEMMA That is huge.
SEAN Wow. Well, I want to thank all Letterboxd users who positively rated my film. Thank you. That’s so nice.
SLIM So finding himself down and out in Los Angeles, ex-porn star Mikey Saber decides to crawl back to his hometown of Texas City, Texas, where his estranged wife and mother in law are living. And then chaos ensues. And so we were lucky enough to watch this, this past week. I loved it. I love Simon.
SEAN Oh, thank you.
SLIM And I mean, I was comparing the one scene, the scene later in the movie with Simon, where you kind of get a vibe that you’re witnessing something special happening. Not gonna say what scene that is. But it reminded me of—I’ll edit this out.
[music from Red Rocket plays over Slim speaking]
SLIM And the music is playing. Unbelievable scene. It reminded me of, for any On Cinema fans, when Gregg Turkington would have his Oscar pick. And you get like the logo under his face of like, “This is my Oscar pick.” Do you have that moment when you’re filming that scene, you kind of know what’s going to happen in advance. But at the end of those scenes, are you and Simon just kind of high fiving each other like, “Man, that was great, right? This looks amazing. This is gonna be a really cool moment in the movie.”
SEAN We were so relieved just to pull that off that I think that we were just more in that state, that state of just being like, ‘Oh my god, I can’t believe we actually did that without getting arrested.’ [Slim & Gemma laugh] We didn’t have permits. We tried. We actually did try. But during Covid and, you know, this was just a crazy time. We never really actually got a response. So we went ahead and started shooting and that night that we were shooting that scene, the police came out nowhere—
SLIM Oh my god.
SEAN The whole night lit up.
GEMMA It was The Sugarland Express. [Gemma & Slim laugh]
SEAN Red and blue lit up the sky and I jumped out, I had my hands up and I just said, “Officers, we’re that independent film crew. We did approach the department about shooting. Were those guys.” And they looked at us and they said, “Oh, oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. Okay, no problem, do whatever you want.” [Gemma laughs] And they waved us off. And they drove off into the night. And we realized at that moment that what they’re concerned about is terrorism. The potential terrorism around the refinery, and we’re literally meaningless in their eyes. We look like a student film crew because there was only seven of us or whatever. So we’re pretty much harmless in their eyes.
SLIM I love the idea of Simon holding his hands up in the air while you’re filming that scene. And he’s just sitting there.
SEAN Oh, no, no, he was in the backseat of one of the cars pulling his pants up going, “I can’t be arrested for this little movie! You’re not paying me enough!” [Slim & Gemma laughs]
GEMMA So we need to read a review, back to you, that you wrote on November 18 2018 on Letterboxd, back when you were still writing reviews.
GEMMA Before you just reverted to using Letterboxd as a diary. And I can totally understand why someone with your profile would do that. But thankfully, we still have preserved for, you know, forever. You writing about Bodied: “Simon Rex has an extremely amusing cameo. Love him. I’d like to see him tackle a dramatic role.” Speaking of Simon Rex’s tackle.
SEAN I know and I forgotten I had written that and somebody on Twitter took a screenshot and posted it and tagged me in and then it all came back, I’m like, ‘Oh, yeah, I did write that, didn’t I?’
GEMMA So you obviously knew about him from his MTV days.
SEAN Oh yeah, we’re about the same age and I’ve been following his whole career. But it was around that time. Bodied and his presence on social media that made me say, he has to be given a role, whether it’s gonna be me or somebody else, I don’t know. But it has to happen.
GEMMA And it’s happened and he is working that award season circuit and it’s so exciting to watch. But I’m fascinated by the reaction, I’ll speak specifically for Letterboxd. So we just published an interview with him, brilliant interview. But he talks about needing to build likability for Mikey Saber so that you go on this journey with him whether you like them or not. And we’d sort of use the words ‘rooting for the bad guy’. And then, I mean, okay, so first of all I need to say that there is no nuance on Twitter. So, you know. But then we got all these replies going “Oh, rooting for the bad guy, no thanks. I’m not gonna watch this movie.” And I’m like, but you’re watching Succession, you’re watching The Sopranos, you’re watching The Godfather. I mean, give me a break. But I’m really fascinated by just what kind of person Mikey Saber is and why you wanted to foreground such a character, who we all know one of these people.
SEAN I’ve been interested in exploring the moral gray since my first film. And an antihero is part of that. And I don’t see any problem with doing a character study of an antihero. We used to do it all the time. And usually up on my top four favorite films on Letterboxd is Bad Lieutenant and Buffalo ’66. And I think I had Five Easy Pieces on there one time. I mean, these are films that spoke to me because these characters are very complex, and they’re flawed. And you can actually, and maybe people don’t want to admit this, but sometimes you can see yourselves in flawed characters. And I think that they ultimately teach you more. Whether that’s, again, self reflection, or just perhaps seeing the world in a different way. But I don’t know why we’re shying away from it these days. I think it’s perhaps because people can be vocally outraged now because of Twitter and other social media platforms. And then people are sensitive to those people who are outraged. And it becomes a cyclical thing where it just becomes something in which I think the industry and filmmakers then become cautious of tackling these sorts of subjects. And that’s where we are now. We’re not seeing this anymore. So I knew it would be risky. And I knew that, yes, tackling an antihero in a film, making him the lead and asking us to spend two hours with somebody who you might find reprehensible is asking a lot. But these are films that I grew up on, films that I appreciate and films I would like to see more of.
SLIM I thought the same thing when I was watching it. Now that you say that, Gemma, I think there is maybe an aversion to that introspection, because you can see, in this movie—I mean, have you ever gotten away with anything and then not gotten your comeuppance? Like, you start to build a certain arrogance, and ‘Am I smarter than everyone?’ And his character is someone that never really figured out that that was gonna bite him in the ass. So I think a lot of people are probably like that and I think you’re right, maybe is afraid of that kind of introspection a little bit.
GEMMA I was gonna say, my favorite shots in the film—as much as I love the way that Mikey just does not shut up. And it’s kind of terrorism by talking and maybe the cops were right to arrest you guys with terrorism. But it’s just terrorism through conversation. But it’s just the shots of Mikey just sitting and thinking, coming up with his next scheme, the calm before the chaos. Those are my favourite moments, because you just know.
SEAN Oh, thank you.
GEMMA He’s figuring it out. He’s like, ‘How do I get—’
SLIM His next grift.
SEAN Yeah, he’s always on to the next grift. Yes, exactly. And also, I should give you a little bit of background here. Chris Bergoch and I were doing research for my film called Starlet and that’s where we met a handful of Mikey Sabers and realized that there was this archetype in the adult-film industry. This archetype, I found extremely fascinating, for many reasons. They had this psyche that was very complex and I was of two minds about. Because I knew that obviously, some sort of trauma or their background led them to this place, to the survival mode they’re in. And they are narcissistic, they are very ignorant of, you know, the toxic effects they have on other people and the negative, the way they’ve negatively affected other people. They also play the victim all the time. And they also have this incredibly blind optimism about their own future. Their break is just around the corner, even though if they looked at their life, that it’s never turned out that way. But then on the surface level, because they are hustlers, users, they have to be charming, and they have to be appealing. And they’re actually quite entertaining and quite funny. The men that I was hanging out with, like stand up comedians. I was actually enjoying my time with them, laughing. And then at night, I would go home, drive home, and be beating myself up saying, ‘Why was I laughing? Why was I laughing at some of these horrible stories I heard?’ So I was in two minds with them. And I was torn internally. And that’s what I wanted to do with this character study, sort of put this out there in an objective way, without condoning or condemning, without judging, and put the audience in the same place that I was in. So I just wanted to give you the for the people out there who haven’t seen the film yet, that was my intention with this character. And you pointed out that, yeah, there is that sort of, you’re rooting for him in one and you’re rooting for his demise, and the next moment, and that’s exactly how I felt. And I think Simon got—I mean, I know Simon got that. He understood that. He was able to understand he always had to keep Mikey charming. And he always had to keep him in a way where you could have empathy for him. You know what I mean? Even though you’re watching him do these terrible things.
[music from Oasis plays]
GEMMA Speaking of having empathy for surface-level, extremely unlikable characters, we need to talk about another of your four favorites, which is Chang-dong Lee’s Oasis from 2002. Which is, I mean, again, it has full 4.0 out of five star average, just like Red Rocket! And similarly features someone who at the beginning of the film comes home from having been away and in this case, he’s been in prison. And this is Hong Jong-du, he was in a drunk driving accident it turns out and a man was killed. And the two families, his family and the family of the man who was killed, come together through his growing relationship with the cerebral-palsy-afflicted daughter of the man who was killed. These are some complicated families living in tiny Korean apartments and this is a highly, you know, through his actions in the first fifteen, twenty minutes of the film, you just think no one wants this guy around, he’s one of those parasites on society. And yet, by the end we are all in love with him and with his love. Han Gong-ju played by Moon So-ri. My god, what a film.
SEAN Yeah, it’s definitely one of the most moving films I’ve ever seen and one of the most bold films I’ve ever seen because again, it’s tackling that moral gray and presenting a very complex situation that can be seen in many different ways from many different angles. And when he asks us to actually see the relationship through the woman’s eyes, the woman with cerebral palsy (Gong-ju Han is the character’s name) played by Moon. It even becomes more complex because you realize that the relationship means everything to her, being that she has been so ostracized, and an outcast.
GEMMA But treated so appallingly by her family! My god.
SLIM I want everyone in those families in prison.
SEAN Yeah, exactly.
SLIM I want them all in jail. 100%. [Gemma & Sean laugh]
SEAN I was extremely moved when I saw this film and also extremely impressed that this subject was covered this way. Again, not taking the easy way out, not taking that simple morality tale, that black and white morality tale, big bad wolf, little innocent lamb. That’s why I wanted to avoid that with Red Rocket, because of films like this, and I don’t even think this film could be made in the US right now. Although I hear that they’re trying to do it.
GEMMA Seriously? What they should be doing is trying to find us a copy that’s any better that’s any better than a 480p on YouTube. [Slim laughs]
SEAN There is a wonderful import Blu-ray by the way that I have from Korea.
SLIM I figured you had a nice physical copy. The version that I think maybe that Gemma and I both watched was on YouTube at 480p. I kind of liked the muck and the grime of that copy. Visually it looked like it was shot on DV like 28 Days Later, but it felt like it added to the kind of vibe of the film. At least from my viewing, it kind of enhanced it which is crazy to say.
SEAN No, I actually felt the same way back in the day about Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Before it got restored, I saw it on like the fifth-generation VHS and it added so much to it. So I think a lot of genre films have that. Like Cannibal Holocaust for a long time was unavailable. So seeing it in the most grainy, dark way possible actually added a lot to it. But I know what you’re saying.
GEMMA I mean, we could talk all day but we are running quite low on time so I feel like we need to jump to River’s Edge. But not without noting that Oasis has that brilliant filmmaking moment where they literally bring filmmaking into the picture. [Slim laughs] When he’s on the delivery scooter out on the highway and rolls past a film shoot with that really good looking couple in the red car and he pulled a U-turn and starts getting in the shot. “What are you doing? Hey! Who’s movie is it? What is it about? What is it about?”
SLIM I love it. I love it.
SEAN What I also love about Oasis is that, and this is why again, why I find it so inspirational, is that he’s not afraid of always infusing humor, and its behavioral humor. He’s not afraid of doing it where I think normally with covering this sort of subject matter, especially like a US film covering the sort of subject matter, it would be as humorless as possible.
SLIM The last recommendation we have is River’s Edge from Tim Hunter. 1986. 3.6. Average on Letterboxd.
GEMMA Too low.
SEAN Way too low.
SLIM A group of high-school friends discover that they are in the presence of a killer. One of them, Samson, has murdered his girlfriend, Jamie. Brags to his friends about killing her. And when they discover he is telling the truth, their reactions vary. And my main thing is, is Crispin Glover the greatest actor of all time?
SEAN Oh, he’s incredible.
SLIM Is he going to be in your next movie? Can you let us know? Has Crispin been cast?
SEAN I would love to work with him. Absolutely would love to work with him.
GEMMA Crispin Glover and Goldie Hawn in Sean Baker’s next film. [Slim laughs] Bring it home.
SEAN Yeah. Yeah, definitely. You know who I’ve been talking to actually because he lives in my neighborhood, Joshua John Miller, who played Tim and he’s also the younger kid from Near Dark.
GEMMA And he’s a scriptwriter these days with his partner, right? I mean, this guy is incredible.
SEAN I would love to work with him too.
SLIM That would be incredible. One of my friends wrote a review for this. And he said, “What’s it like to grow up in a time when the world could end at any moment?” Do you remember your first introduction to River’s Edge? And these kids and the youth of the time?
SEAN Well, yeah, I saw it on VHS back in the day. And remember, this is like the mid ’80s, so every film that had to deal with youth was essentially in the John Hughes mode. You know what I mean? It was the John Hughes approach, which we all love, obviously, John Hughes is amazing. And I love every film he’s made. But for this to come out, and this came out of nowhere, and this was a totally different approach, much darker. Much more real, based on an actual true story. And it didn’t pull any punches, doesn’t have the nice wrap up ending at the end. This is a dark film that covers dark subject matter. And I also think it’s Keanu Reeves best film, by far, this is his best performance.
SEAN And it’s a moving film. It’s a very moving film about apathy and the state of youth.
GEMMA And how to be a good big brother. I really appreciated—
SEAN Oh, interesting.
GEMMA Keanu, he has a few roads he has to go down and one is the potential navigating a romance and one is navigating this relationship that his mother is in with his stepdad and then there’s his role as a big brother to his younger brother and sister. And that for me is the biggest role of all and the biggest journey he goes on, is learning what being a big brother is. He can’t just be a lone teenager. He has to engage and be part of his family in a way that his parents aren’t going to teach him.
[clip of River’s Edge plays]
SEAN Exactly. And that’s a very interesting take. Yeah, it’s such a broken family that I think by the end of the film, he’s seeing that it’s his responsibility to be a paternal figure. Also, it’s just beautifully shot by Frederick Elmes. I mean, when I make films I look to these sort of movies to say, ‘I want my film to look like [The] Sugarland Express. I want my film to look like River’s Edge.’ I love to craft of these movies and that’s another reason why I have these four up there.
GEMMA I can’t wait to see what your next four might be. But we’re able to do a few things with Letterboxd members who have Patron membership and that we can dive into your stats and find out a few things like what you’ve rated higher or lower than the Letterboxd average. And just looking at yours, rated lower than average, The Florida Project, 4.1 average, one star from Sean Baker. [Gemma & Sean laugh]
SEAN Well, you know, what type of person would I be if I gave my film a good rating? [Gemma laughs] That’s the type of filmmaker I would want to follow.
GEMMA Slim’s gone through to look at who you’ve watched the most, who your most popular stars are, and has devised a casting game, if you will.
SLIM I went into the lab and I saw a lot of Willem movies recently. I think your lifetime stats, Willem is almost number one. So I went into your 2021 stats, I was like maybe I can triangulate some potential casting for a future Sean Baker movie. What kind of actors is Sean looking at? Salma Hayek is number one right now with five films. Am I right on the money?
SEAN Total chance, by the way. [Gemma laughs] Total chance on that one. [Sean laughs] I love her but I don’t think there was any real—
SLIM Ryan Reynolds, four films.
SEAN I love Ryan Reynolds. He’s like my comfort food. Seriously. I’ll watch anything he’s in.
GEMMA I would watch a film that has Simon Rex and Ryan Reynolds as brothers. [Slim laughs]
SEAN I would love that! I would love to see that film.
SLIM And then next on the list, Gary Oldman. Maybe Gary can play their dad in the movie as well.
GEMMA Oh my god.
SEAN Well, I adore him. And I used to get starstruck all the time. Like up until my 30s, I couldn’t speak with filmmakers I adored or celebrities. That went away. Up until I believe we’re in Toronto with The Florida Project. I was with The Florida Project. I was in a room with Brooklynn. And Gary Oldman walks through the room, he was there with I believe he was there for Darkest Hour. And Brooklynn goes up to him, and she’s wonderful. She’s like, “Gary, you’re one of my favorite actors.” And then I tried to open my mouth. And it came out like this. “Oh—miss—movie—nil—map—cut—great movie—I like you.” [Gemma & Slim laugh] It was like—I was in my late 40s, and I couldn’t string a sentence together in order to speak to Gary Oldman. But I was in a place where I’m like, wait a minute, I can’t let that sit like that. And I actually said, “Wait, hold on. Let me start over Mr. Oldman. I’m so sorry. I love your film Nil by Mouth, I think it’s incredible. And it deserves to be restored and re-released.” So I got that out there. And he said thank you! He’s like, “Yeah, I don’t know what’s been taking so long with that movie.”
SLIM Oh man.
SEAN That is actually another film that you would normally find in my top four Letterboxd, is the film that he directed, Nil by Mouth.
GEMMA And I just like to officially declare Red Rocket as a Christmas movie because it is simply a gift.
SEAN Thank you, thank you.
[The Letterboxd Show theme music Vampiros Dancoteque by Moniker fades in, plays alone, fades down]
SLIM Thanks so much for listening to The Letterboxd Show. And thanks to our guest, Sean Baker. Red Rocket is in theaters now and Tangerine is on all good On Demand services for your Christmas viewing. You can follow Sean, Slim—that’s me—Gemma and our HQ page on Letterboxd using the links in our episode notes.
GEMMA Thanks to our crew, composing dynamos Moniker for the theme music ‘Vampiros Dancoteque’. Thanks to Jack as always for the facts, our booker Linda Moulton for looking after our guests, and Sophie Shin for the episode transcript. And to you, for listening. The Letterboxd Show is a Tapedeck production. You take it easy there, and think about what you’re doing. [Slim laughs]
SLIM I just remembered your segue, what did you refer to Simon Rex? I can’t remember what word you used.
GEMMA Oh, it was tackled.
SLIM It was tackled. [Slim & Gemma laugh]
[clip of Red Rocket plays]
[Mikey running around screaming]
MIKEY Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
[Tapedeck bumper plays] This is a Tapedeck podcast.