When cinematographer Drew Daniels got a call out of the blue from his agent that writer-director Sean Baker wanted to talk to him--right when the COVID pandemic took hold and pretty much no one was working--his reaction was immediate. “I’m going to say yes to whatever he wants me to shoot,” Daniels decided, based on his admiration of Baker’s work, particularly The Florida Project. Without ever meeting Baker, Daniels felt a sort of creative kinship to the storyteller and his movies. “He’s such a purist filmmaker. I felt our style of making films was already aligned.”
Bolstering that alignment was the story Baker wanted Daniels to help him tell--in what would become Red Rocket (A24). Daniels recalled first reading the script and feeling it was totally right for him. “My family is from Texas. I went to college in Austin. The area where we shot I kind of grew up in, back when I was going to the beach down there near Galveston.
Red Rocket--which debuted at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival--centers on a washed up porn star, Mikey Saber (portrayed by Simon Rex), who keeps on selfishly hustling and scamming when he returns to his small Texas hometown, weaseling his way into the home of his estranged wife Lexi (Bree Elrod) and her mother Lil (Brenda Deiss). Mikey starts selling marijuana to make a living when he encounters Strawberry (Suzanna Son), a 17-year-old girl whom he sees as a ticket back to porn industry prominence in Los Angeles.
Rex’s performance as Mikey entails a delicate balance. While he exploits people, somehow he retains a charm and a semblance of likability--in part due to the comedy of the situation and his disarming manner as someone who has never fully grown up emotionally. It all adds up to a darkly funny, humane portrait of a uniquely American hustler and a hometown that barely tolerates him. Baker teamed with Chris Bergoch on the screenplay.
Red Rocket not only had Daniels return to his geographic roots but also his creative beginnings. “I learned how to shoot on 16 millimeter film,” related the DP. And he would lens Red Rocket on Super 16, drawn to its depth of field while seeking to shoot deeper focus. “We took an older approach to the cinematography, especially anamorphic. Now anamorphic is generally used to make work look out of focus and beautiful. But we went for as much depth as possible for a sharpness in seeing the locations.” Wider lenses and a deep focus helped make the Texas town settings more than just a backdrop but rather another character in the film.
Daniels secured two anamorphic lenses originally developed for Steven Soderbergh’s Che but for some reason not used. According to Daniels, these two lenses were made in a planned set that was never finished. Daniels described the lenses as “finicky and difficult to work with...but they also have a unique look that I had never personally seen before.”
Going the Super 16 anamorphic route proved a prudent choice, continued Daniels. “It gave this film the right look--sophisticated but still grainy. It has grit and texture but also the elegance of anamorphic.”
Baker--who wrote, directed and edited Red Rocket--told SHOOT that he gravitated to Daniels in part because of the DP’s stellar work with writer-director Trey Edwards Shults spanning such films as Waves, It Comes at Night, and the 2015 SXSW Grand Jury and Audience Award-winning Krisha. Baker was also drawn to Daniels’ life experiences in Texas give that Red Rocket is set (primarily in Texas City, an oil refinery town on the Gulf Coast). Daniels’ intuitive feel for Texas attracted Baker who wanted to capture that sense of Americana.
Baker and Daniels exchanged cinematic references to help define what the mood and tone should be for Red Rocket. Baker credited Daniels with coming up with the definitive cinematic language reference for creative inspiration, Steven Spielberg’s The Sugarland Express shot by the late, great Vilmos Zsigmond. Taking place outside of Houston just like Red Rocket, The Sugarland Express also captured the 1974 vibe that Baker envisioned.
Daniels shared that one of his favorite cinematographers of all time is Zsigmond whose anamorphic photography in The Sugerland Express was remarkable in “the way it captured dusk and fluorescent lights. It had an Americana sort of quality to it. I thought it was really applicable (to what we wanted for Red Rocket).” Daniels added that there’s an elegance in Zsigmond’s camerawork, an economy where he says a lot with each shot.
Daniels loved working with Baker. “He always does what’s best for the film and the scene,” assessed Daniels who described Baker as an independent filmmaker able to bring great craft to his work even within tight budget parameters. While dealing with money and time restrictions, which can be a bit chaotic--particularly during a pandemic--Baker was very grounded the whole time, observed Daniels. “Things are changing. You have to be adaptable yet Sean is grounded at the same time. These opposites come together to create something new and unique.”
Helping to create that grounded feel was the upfront work done on Red Rocket, especially the location scouting which had Baker, Daniels and producer Alex Coco driving around together, not just deciding on places to lens but discussing extensively what the film should be. “That’s where a lot of the film was made,” said Daniels. This in turn helped to give Red Rocket “the sense of place” that Daniels said he felt the first time he saw the film on the big screen.
Reflecting on his experience on Red Rocket and collaborating with Baker, Daniels shared that it reaffirmed for him that having a writer-director with the creative freedom to go about his business, giving him the final cut, generally yields the best results. “That kind of solidified for me on this picture. That’s the kind of film I want to make...intimate films that really say something and challenge an audience.”
Daniels’ body of work spans features, TV, shorts, commercials and music videos. Among his other notable credits are: director Guy Nativ’s Skin, the Best Live-Action Short Oscar winner in 2019; director Jim Cummings’ Thunder Road, which won the Short Film Grand Jury Prize at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival; and such TV series as HBO’s Euphoria.
This is the fifth installment of a 16-part series with future installments of The Road To Oscar slated to run in the weekly SHOOT>e.dition, The SHOOT Dailies and on SHOOTonline.com, with select installments also in print issues. The series will appear weekly through the Academy Awards gala ceremony. Nominations for the 94th Academy Awards will be announced on Tuesday, February 8, 2022. The 94th Oscars will be held on Sunday, March 27, 2022.