Interview by Jon Dieringer
Red Rocket director Sean Baker has collected nearly 1,500 movie posters since his teens.
Always generous with his film recommendations on Letterboxd and Twitter, Baker began to post his collection to Instagram in April 2020. There he curates a selection ranging from films that befit his reputation as an “American neorealist”—John Cassevettes’ Husbands (1970), Jerry Schatzberg’s stark heroin drama The Panic in Needle Park (1971)—to eclectic and unexpected gems like Hindi horror movie Khooni Panja (1991), the notorious exploitation documentary Mom and Dad (1945), 80s teen sex comedy Angel. (“High School Honor Student by Day. Hollywood Hooker by Night.”)
When I logged on for a Zoom tour of Baker’s one-bedroom apartment and de facto gallery, his chihuahua Boonee—a fixture of the account—greeted me with a waving paw from the lap of his owner, who was seated in front of a massive poster from the original French theatrical release of François Truffaut’s Jules et Jim. We spoke about the culture of poster collecting, hiding naughty artwork from friends’ children, and how Steven Spielberg and 70s Italian sex comedies inspired Red Rocket.
What were some of your earliest posters?
Sean Baker: This really dates me, but when the first series of Star Wars films came out in the seventies and early eighties, they put out poster books where you would unfold it and have a poster. I [also] remember having a reproduction of the Universal James Whale Frankenstein. Everyone had that one at that time. As I got into my early teens, horror and genre films were the easiest posters to acquire. I would go to a local flea market and find an original Friday the 13th or Dawn of the Dead. I still have a lot of them. In high school I had, and this really was disturbing for my parents, but I had a Maniac poster.
Oh, right. With the bloody knife and the dangling severed head.
Very violent, very violent.
When did you start identifying as a collector?
On my Instagram, I have an original US one-sheet of Red Desert that I found for $5 in the back of a Detroit comic book shop. I realized it was a find, because I called Jerry Ohlinger, who runs a poster shop in New York City on 30th Street, and asked, “Do you have a one-sheet of Red Desert?” And he said, “I have a half-sheet and it's about $500.” I'm like, “Boom. Okay.” That was the first time that I realized there's something to collecting. And you know, it isn't that expensive of a hobby. You can go down rabbit holes.
Oh, for sure. But I don’t know if I’d say it’s inexpensive.
There are times that you can get obsessed. Like in the beginning of Covid when we had nothing to do, I was doing a little too much on those online auctions and eBay. This one behind me, Jules et Jim, is probably my most prized one. It's absolutely pristine, an original French Grande.
I find that I end up spending more money on framing than the actual posters. I’ll bid $6 on a poster for an Indonesian Rambo knockoff and then it's $150 to frame it with UV-treated plexi and everything.
You have to. You become responsible for these, you know? In a way all I'm doing is holding onto them and preserving them during my lifetime and then passing them on.
How often do you rotate your collection?
It's really just what I'm in the mood for, to tell you the truth. And the Instagram account keeps me putting something up every three weeks just to keep posting. But, I do get on a certain kick. With Red Rocket, I've been watching so many Italian genre films of the early seventies, especially the sex comedies and the erotic dramas.
There's a lot of [actress] Ornella Muti all over the place, because she had such an inspiration on Red Rocket. I obviously lean towards genre simply because I think those are the coolest posters. I love the art.
The foreign genre posters can be kind of shocking. Sometimes I get really excited about something with “cool artwork” and hang it on the wall, and then my girlfriend is like, “That’s horrifying.”
Oh yeah.. You just don't invite your friends' kids over, basically. [Laughs] Anyway, you want me to give you a tour?
Let's take a look around.
Please write this, because it's true—I live in a one-bedroom apartment. People think I live in a mansion because I swap my posters out, but I only have 15 frames. Anyway, this is Lady Frankenstein. The reason I got this one is because of its beautiful ugliness.
You mentioned on Instagram that you have multiples of Lady Frankenstein.
I collect not just for the films or filmmakers, but also for the stars. In this case, Rosalba Neri is a classic starlet from the early seventies Italian cinema. I love her as a personality and actor, so that ends up adding into the why.
I just swapped out my Sugarland Express for Danger: Diabolik. Sugarland Express was a major, major inspiration on Red Rocket, but I love this Mario Bava film. I could probably look at the poster a lot more than the film, I’ve only watched it maybe three times in my life. I wouldn't even consider it in my top 50, but I do just love the artwork.
Do you find that it's always preferable to have a poster signed? Like, let's say François Truffaut somehow wanted to come over and sign your Jules et Jim poster. Would you like to have his signature, or would he be defacing it?
That's definitely a debate. And then the next part of that debate is whether you get it personalized or not, because when you do that, you're essentially devaluing the poster for your own selfish reason. So, I don't know. It's really hard. Actually, if he came over, I would say, just sign your name. I would not ask him to write “Sean.”
But there are others, for example, I know Mark Lester, the guy who made Class of 1984, and that movie means a lot to me. There's something where I'm kind of boasting that I know the director, too, so I got him to sign, “To Sean, Mark Lester.” So yeah, it's a pick and choose thing.
Is there a sense of competition between poster collectors?
I don't know if it's a competition. There's always going to be one more out there, you know? And I'm not on the level where I'm collecting originals worth thousands and thousands of dollars. If anything, it’s inspiration. Like, at Austin Film Society I saw that Linklater had a 2F of Coffy, and it's so beautiful, and I hadn't seen it before, so I reached out to my guy.
I love collecting posters with the same titles of films I've made. So, I have a Starlet, but it's not my Starlet. There's a Starlet that [exploitation filmmaker] Dave Friedman made in the sixties. And I'm trying to find a 1926 Prince of Broadway, but I think Scorsese might be the only one who owns that.
Would you say that’s your white whale?
Yeah. The one that I wanted forever was an original Bryanston Texas Chainsaw Massacre, before it got bought by New Line. That's my prized one, even though it's worth less than Jules et Jim. So I guess you would say Prince of Broadway. I don't think I'm going to find another film called Red Rocket [or] The Florida Project.
How do you store everything?
In my storage space I have blueprint cabinets that I had to purchase on eBay. I lay my posters down flat in the drawers, and between each poster, I give it a lining of the acid-free paper to keep them separated. And I have approximately 1,000, maybe 1,500 at this point. And I have a spreadsheet—my wonderful wife is nice enough to sit down and we log them all.
I know so many people who updated their movie poster spreadsheets during the early days of the pandemic. It was a good task to keep our minds occupied during lockdown.
That's cool. We weren't the only ones.