One of the most attention-grabbing films to debut at this year’s Sundance Film Festival was Tangerine. It gobbled up headlines for both being a feature length film shot on iPhones and also for being a strikingly (and often uncomfortably) unfettered look at the lives of two transgender prostitutes in Hollywood, played by two actual street workers (Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) with no previous acting experience. Of course all that attention came before the film had actually screened, sending out worrying signals that the film would at best play like a gimmick and at worst feel distressingly exploitative. Thankfully, the warm, funny, and surprisingly moving film proved to be none of those things.
The primary reason for that is the fact that Tangerine wasn’t some sort of heartless stunt by a first time filmmaker, but the fifth feature by underrated director Sean Baker. Through such rough n’ tumble indies as Take Out and Starlet, Baker has long since proved himself to be a humane and sensitive filmmaker interested in portraying the lives of fringe figures who are rarely seen on the big screen or even discussed in most media. Tangerine feels like a logical next step for the director and a film that rises above its headline-nabbing central elements to work as a truly moving portrait of lost humans seeking friendship. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that there are some hilariously profane and disturbingly honest scenes peppered through along the way. With Tangerine debuting in theaters this weekend as the summer’s ultimate counter-blockbuster programming, Dork Shelf got a chance to chat with Baker about the unique production of his latest feature.
First off, how did you start developing this film? Did you start writing anything before finding Mya and Kiki? Or did you almost approach it like a journalist or documentary filmmaker before compiling your research into a script?
No, we didn’t have anything written before finding them. We had three ideas, if you could even call them ideas. One was basically that I knew it would take place on one day. The reason why was the budget. If you have a tiny budget, it’s easier for a film to take place in a 24-hour period because then you don’t have to deal with costume changes and continuity is slightly easier. Two, I knew it was going to be about two people coming together or searching for each other. I didn’t know that would become a revenge story or a tale of friendship. I just wanted to flesh out that neighborhood through two people. Third, I knew that I wanted there to be a final confrontation between all the characters at Donut Time. That was the most important part for me, because it’s such a landmark. I’m very influenced by Mike Leigh and direct cinema where there’s a huge family drama that takes place in a single location where everything converges.
So those were the three ideas. That’s what I presented to Mya and Kiki and everyone else we found. I told them, “This is all I’ve got. [Co-writer Chris Bergoch] and I are trying to find something to take place here. We really want to show this corner, this world, this microcosm because it’s never been on film or television. So help us, please!” (Laughs) That’s where we started.
From there, I’d imagine you were working from a wide array of details and anecdotes. So, how did you approach combining all of that material into a script and was there anything you found particularly fascinating in you research that you just couldn’t fit into the final film?
We heard stuff that ran the gamut. We had everything from the very mundane to wild extremes. We had to pick and choose and figure all that out. We were looking for an A story the whole time. So for instance the hate crime that takes place at the end of the film we heard from Mya and knew it couldn’t be the A plot, but put it aside because we knew we had to work it in somehow. For the interaction with the police officers, we heard a variety of different stories and the scene in the movie is sort of a combo of a few of them. We heard stories about police officers being extremely sensitive and then stories about police officers taking advantage of these girls and not only being Johns themselves, but stealing their money.
There were many different stories that we could have fit into the film, but when it came down to it we realized that it was ultimately going to be a film about friendship. From there, it became a process of picking and choosing which stories would get them to the laundry mat at the end. That was really the goal. I’ve been asked why I didn’t go with the more extreme police stories and it was just as simple as it not fitting into this particular movie. For the A story, it was actually Kiki who gave us that. She called me one day and said, “You’re looking for a story about two people coming together? Well, I think I have one just like that.” I said, “Ok, let’s meet” She presented a story to us about finding a fish. So first we had to clarify what a “fish” meant (Laughs). But then, when she told us the story it was something that never actually played out to fruition, but a fantasy from one of the girls who had been cheated on by her boyfriend and she wanted to drag her to him rather than punishing the boyfriend directly.
It was something that immediately stuck with Chris and I. We thought, “Wow, that’s bigger in terms of scope than the other stories we’ve been hearing, it takes our characters on a journey, and it’s also extremely layered in terms of gender roles and exactly how incredibly hurt a woman like Sin-Dee would be in that position. There was just a lot to play with there. So Chris was the one who said, “Let’s make that our A story, we can sprinkle the other stories throughout and then hopefully one of those will grow into our B-story.”
How’d you land on the cab driver for that?
That was actually quite easy because Karren Karagulian is an actor I’ve worked with five times now and I’m always looking for a role for him. But I don’t just want him to have a walk-on. I want him to be a lead because he’s that good. When I first called Karren, I said, “I’m working on this movie about two transgender sex workers in LA, so I’m not sure how to fit you in.” He said, “Well it’s obvious, isn’t it?” The Armenian population is huge in LA and every other cab driver in LA is Armenian, so what’s the issue?” (Laughs) So that came together in just a few weeks after that.
Obviously there’s been a lot of talk about how you shot the film on iPhones and I’m curious if you think that helped in working with non-actors because everyone is so used to being filmed casually on cell phones now anyways that they’d be less likely to get self-conscious about acting?
You know, I wish I could say it was actually part of my thinking in shooting the movie that way. But honestly, it was just one of those happy accidents that worked in our favor. It’s part of the style of filmmaking that I usually do, which involves mixing first timers with experienced actors. I’m used to the first timers being a bit intimidated at first and needing a little time to get used to having a big camera in their face. But in Mya and Kiki’s case, they didn’t care. From the first take of the first scene, their confidence level was on the same level as James Ransone because we were using a device that didn’t look like a camera and something that they used themselves. So the intimidation factor never existed. That was fantastic, but nothing I ever planned for.
I really liked the look of that photography as well because it is very cinematic, but at times also looks like something fleetingly captured by accident. Was that a deliberate choice you were going for or just the result of experimentation?
Well, we always tried to elevate it, to be honest. We used anamorphic lenses, we treated the footage heavily…Listen, people need to hear this because they want to think that this was a call to action for a different way of making films. I wish I could say that was my intention, but I’ve got to be honest. I had to shoot this way because of my budget. If I had all the money in the world, this film would have been shot on 65mm celluloid. Of course, I’m happy in the end that we created something that only could have come through these techniques. But, I’m a filmmaker and cinephile and a lover of celluloid trying to emulate that look. I know that young filmmakers hate hearing that from me (Laughs), but that’s the truth.
Do you think you’d ever work that way again given how it turned out?
I didn’t think I’d ever be shooting below a million dollar budget again after Starlet. I thought that would open new doors. But it didn’t. So, you never know. If this one doesn’t open the doors, I’m going to have to do it again. That’s where I’m at (Laughs).
I was curious how you approached the brothel scene because it’s hilarious and shocking and all those things, but never in a way that feels emptily salacious or exploitative. Was it tricky to strike that balance?
For that moment, we obviously were getting into a really seedy place that falls into the dark side of things. But it also comes from something that was witnessed. I wasn’t there, but Chris Bergoch actually tracked down a real makeshift brothel working out of a motel. He posed as a John and pretended to see what he was getting and then said, “Oh I forgot my wallet” and left. But the way he described it to me made my jaw drop. There was someone on this bed over here and someone on that bed over there and someone in the toilet and someone in the shower. I couldn’t believe what he was telling me. So I knew we had to show it. Also, we wanted to give every character a little bit of breathing room, sort of in the way Vittorio De Sica would hold a little bit longer on his extras. We wanted to do that with everyone in the film, except for the people who did the hate crime. That was a conscious statement that they don’t even get that moment. But everyone else does. So that’s why we went back to the brothel after they left just to show it was a bunch of confused individuals who had their day spoiled and now had to deal with it. (Laughs) That just came from that desire to give breathing room to everyone in the film.
And then I have to ask how you ended up setting this story at Christmas?
That came from Chris again. I think it was very influenced by things like Die Hard and Shane Black’s movies. Stuff like that. When he presented it to me, I thought automatically, “Wow, yeah that’s more than eye candy. There’s something there.” Whether we celebrate Christmas or not, we all associate Christmas with family and these women have no family. Their only family are themselves. So that was something that I automatically thought worked perfectly into the subtext and that’s why we went with it.
Well, I thought it worked wonderfully and look forward to Tangerine playing on TBS every Christmas season from now on.
(Laughs) Yeah, I’m sure it’ll be on right after The March Of The Wooden Soldiers.