The 'Florida Project' and 'Tangerine' director talks casting luck and tales driven by the locals as his new film hits screens.
Stephen A. Russell

6 Jan 2022 - 12:21 PM  UPDATED 6 Jan 2022 - 6:02 PM

Old fashioned Hollywood magic went into the making of The Florida Project writer/director Sean Baker’s latest movie, Red Rocket. Not least of which was the discovery of radiant star Suzanna Son.

She plays Strawberry, a 17-year-old doughnut shop attendant with big dreams who catches the eye of considerably older, incorrigible hustler Mikey Saber (Scary Movie alumni Simon Rex). Drawing on Italian sex comedies and a little bit of Kurt Russell’s performance in Used Cars, Mikey is the kinda scoundrel you love to hate. He’s fled LA’s adult entertainment industry in LA only to cause absolute mayhem on return to his hometown of Texas City, with Strawberry soon snapping his wandering eye’s attention.

Baker recalls that electric moment he and his wife (producer Samantha Quan) were leaving the great domed foyer of the ArcLight Hollywood cinema – immortalised in Once Upon a Time... In Hollywood – and spotted Son strolling in. Startled, Baker turned to his wife and uttered, “Who the hell is that?”

Quan was instantly captivated too, Baker says. “Suzanna just has something about her. Sissy Spacek, Goldie Hawn, Emma Stone all mashed into one. And we thought, ‘If she’s not a star already, she’s going to be one’. So we went up and did our spiel.”

Introducing themselves as independent filmmakers, they discovered that piano teacher Son had, like so many before her, moved to Tinsel Town with acting aspirations. Son’s Instagram profile only reinforced her star quality in the making. They agreed to stay in touch, and two years passed. When Red Rocket hop-skipped into production over another of Baker’s project’s benched by the pandemic, Son was the first person cast.

“She said, ‘What the hell, I was about to throw in the towel,’ and I think she was actually serious,” Baker says. “Like Simon, they were both on the edge of saying goodbye to Hollywood.”

Thank goodness these magnetic screen presences stuck around. Much like his gadabout character in Red Rocket, Rex started out in porn. Unlike Mikey, his trajectory is pretty impressive. Spotted by a casting director, he and his Hollywood jawline went on to a stint as an international model, then an MTV host, a rapper (Dirt Nasty) and an actor who has appeared in everything from the spoof Scary Movie franchise to TV show Jack & Jill.

Baker stumbled across Rex via his saucy presence on shuttered social media site Vine. He and co-writer Chris Bergoch had been plotting a return to the adult entertainment world for some time after exploring it in 2012 film Starlet, and Rex was the perfect fit. “He’s just a trooper on every level,” Baker says of Rex. “He wasn’t attached formally until literally like a week and a half out from shooting, even though I knew he was right for the role for five years. I asked him for a self-tape and he sent it right back in 20 minutes, having already memorised the monologue somehow, and he was 90 per cent there. I knew that my directing would mostly be tweaking and manoeuvring.”

As with most of Baker’s movies, the location is a character in and of itself. Dominated by the petroleum-refining industry, the constant whirr of heavy machinery in Texas City lends the soundtrack an unearthly quality that’s only amplified by the eerie light of flare stacks. It’s a place that has layers of misfortune buried into its bones, from its connection to the slave trade, to an enormous refinery explosion that killed 581 people in in 1947.

Fans of Baker’s iPhone-shot film Tangerine (available at SBS On Demand) may suspect a deliberate call-back to it via the Donut Hole location in Red Rocket, but it was a happy accident. “I wish I could take credit for it and say that it was always supposed to be a doughnut shop, but it wasn’t in the original script,” Baker reveals. “It was supposed to b a food truck outside the refinery. It just happened to be that I was driving past this doughnut shop with my producer and we slammed on the brakes and were like, ‘oh my god, this is too good to be true’.”

Baker again casts several non-professional actors from the local area to tell this shaggy dog story. They include the brilliant Brenda Deiss, who plays Mikey’s perma-unimpressed (rightfully so) mother-in-law, whose home he crashes much to the chagrin of his estranged wife and fellow former porn star Lexi (played by equally game New York theatre star Bree Elrod). And then there’s Brittney Rodriguez’ no-nonsense dope dealer.

“When you’re working with for people from the community you’re focusing on, they’re also bringing a lot to the table,” Baker says. “They’re your consultants. I relied on Brittney a lot to get the slang accurate, and she suggested Mikey’s side hustle of selling fake urine to the refinery workers. You have to be open to absorbing the local environment in order for the film to be authentic.”

He says their voices are the only ones that matter when it comes to the conversation around whether or not his work is respectful of the predominantly working-class communities in which they’re set. “Their opinions are more important than any critics or the audience,” he says. “Ultimately, I have to answer to them.”

That included working with adult entertainment stars and a sex worker to get the role of Strawberry right. “We asked them what they would like to see in this representation and the thing that was almost universal is that they wanted her to be complex, to have agency. They didn’t want her to be the innocent little lamb being taken advantage of by the big bad wolf.”

It’s a take shared by Son, Baker adds. “The way Suzy puts it, perhaps Strawberry’s using Mikey just as much as he’s using her?”

Son also gets to nail the movie’s big musical number, riffing of a classic NSYNC track. “It’s almost like casting an A-lister in your film,” Baker says of securing the needle drop, which would have destroyed their budget had the band members not signed off on it. “My music supervisor Matthew Smith got me [Kool & The Gang’s] ‘Celebration’ on The Florida Project, so I knew he was able to do it.”

Sure enough, the band agreed, with Lance Bass even showing up for a Q&A screening of Red Rocket in LA. Just another magic Hollywood moment.

Red Rocket is in Australian cinemas from 6 January.

Follow the author here: Twitter @SARussellwords

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