Q&A: ‘Tangerine’ Director Sean Baker on his iPhone-shot transgender revenge comedy

Tangerine

Mya Taylor, left, and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez in ‘Tangerine.’

While Director Sean Baker’s Tangerine may feel very of-the-moment, he had no desire to make a polemic about the transgender community with his infectious revenge comedy.

Filmed around Baker’s neighbourhood in Los Angeles, Tangerine revolves around a pair of trash-talking transgender street workers named Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor). Fresh out of a stint in jail, Sin-Dee is looking forward to reuniting with her boyfriend and pimp Chester (James Ransone), when Alexandra lets slip that Chester has been cheating on her with a woman born with a vagina (or a “fish” in Sin-Dee’s derogatory slang). Enraged by Chester’s betrayal, Sin-Dee embarks on a rage-fuelled journey through her L.A. haunts in search of the “other woman.”

With strong performances by the film’s leads, and an equally impressive cast of supporting characters, including the Armenian cab-driver Razmik (Karren Karagulian), Tangerine is an exhilerating study of friendship, that just happens to be set within the world of transgender sex workers. Set during Christmas day in L.A., Tangerine harkens back to the single-day action-comedies of the 80’s, with foul-mouthed Sind-Dee tearing through the city in search of Chester and his new girl.

Shot entirely on an iPhone 5s, the film looks more vibrant than most Hollywood fare, while allowing Baker to truly focus on the nuances of the characters and the often-seedy environments they find themselves in. We caught up with Baker to discuss the origins of the film, how he gained the cooperation of the transgender community, and what it was like to shoot a film on an iPhone.

Following the film’s Montreal premiere at the Fantasia Film Festival in July, Tangerine opens at Cinema Excentris on August 21. For more information, visit the film’s official website.

Bad Feeling: How did you come upon setting this story in the world of transgender street workers?

Sean Baker: I made a film called Starlet before Tangerine. It also explored the subject of sex work, although the focus was very different — the adult film industry. Perhaps the interest never left my system. Plus, I live approximately half a mile from the intersection of Santa Monica and Highland. This intersection has been known as a red light district for transgender sex workers. I think this film is yet another exploration of the subject of sex work.

BF: What was the process of bering accepted by the community in the neighbourhood like?

Baker: It all comes down to collaboration. Chris Bergoch, who co-wrote the screenplay, and I are cisgender white males from outside that world and we knew that the only way to tackle this project responsibly and respectfully was to spend time researching.

Tangerine writer/director Sean Brker - photo by Daniel Bergeron.

‘Tangerine’ Director Sean Baker – photo by Daniel Bergeron.

Thankfully, I had my previous films to show to potential collaborators to gain trust and interest. So once we found Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, I gave them DVD’s of my previous films Starlet and Prince of Broadway. I think they connected with the films and understood my sensibility. This lead to trust. Eventually, Mya and Kiki became our main consultants who introduced us to people from the area.

BF: How did you nail down the dialogue? Were you familiar with terms like “fish” prior to shooting?

Baker: When Chris and I finally wrote our treatment (which included much of the language that we picked up during our research), we gave the treatment to Mya and Kiki to approve. Once approved, we moved forward with workshop sessions which helped give their voice to the dialogue. Then when we were shooting, I encouraged improvisation. So we were incorporating the specific vernacular in to the film through several stages. I learned about the term “fish” when Kiki originally pitched the idea to us.

BF: How did you settle on the film’s leads (Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez)? Did it come down to their chemistry together?

Baker: We met Mya first. We approached her because she made an instant impression. I noticed her across a court yard and knew we had to speak with her. When I told her about the project, she expressed that enthusiasm I was looking for. Mya was then introducing us to many of her friends who we would interview. One day, she brought Kiki to the fast food restaurant where we were hanging out. The moment that I saw Mya and Kiki together, I realized we had a dynamic duo on our hands. They complimented yet contrasted one another. Chris and I knew we would have to construct a story with two lead characters that Mya and Kiki would play.

Tangerine

Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, James Ransone and Mya Taylor in ‘Tangerine.’

BF: What was the process of shooting the film on an iPhone like? Was there a certain shot when you realized that this would work?

Baker: Shooting on the iPhone was surprisingly painless. Moondog Labs created an anamorphic adapter that fits over the lens of the iPhone. It allowed us to shoot iPhone footage in true scope (wide aspect ratio). We also used an app called Filmic Pro. This app locks exposure and focus, and most importantly it shoots at 24 frames a second. So, we shot tests early on to show to our financiers. I think we all realized this would work when we took this test reel to Technicolor and projected it on a big screen. We saw that the resolution held up and it actually had a very unique look to it that would set the film apart from other indies.

BF: Did shooting on a phone make it easier for the non-actors to work?

Baker: Well, I don’t like the term “non-actors.” I use the term “first-time actors” because both Mya and Kiki are hoping that this film leads to careers in the acting field. They both were aspiring entertainers and Kiki even studied drama in high school.

That being said, I think the iPhone helped in lowering inhibitions in my first-time actors. I like to combine first-time actors with seasoned actors. With my previous films, it took about a week for the first-timers to get comfortable with having a camera in their face. This time around, there was no intimation factor because we were using a communication device that the actors owned themselves. It lent itself to a much more casual shooting experience.

Tangerine

Mickey O’Hagan, left, and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez in ‘Tangerine.’

BF: How did you balance on the tone of the film? It’s often very funny, but doesn’t shy away from the dangers of street work either.

Baker: Quite honestly, it was a constant balancing act for every scene, line of dialogue, music selection, etc. So it’s very difficult to answer that question. I edited in chronological order so I think this helped. I was doing my best to stay on course and if something disrupted that balance, it would become apparent. While editing one of the final scenes, Kiki called me out on a music selection. She thought that I chose a track of music that threw us off course and made the film a farce instead of a romp. Thankfully she called me out on it.

BF: The film has a really driving music score – how did you settle on the type of music you wanted for the film?

At this time I was editing, I was addicted to Vine. One night, a Vine celebrity by the name of Wolf Tyla posted a video that single-handedly dictated the cutting and scoring style of Tangerine. Tyla, seventeen years old at the time, posted a video of her striking poses to a track of ‘trap’ music entitled “Team Gotti Anthem.” Those six seconds had a major impact on me. It was at that moment I knew I had found the sound of the film. At a certain point in the film, we decided to get eclectic with the score; however, trap remained the backbone.

BF: Why set the film during Christmas in LA?

It was Chris Bergoch who proposed the story taking place on Christmas. I thought it was very apropos because no matter if one celebrates Christmas or not, people always associate the holiday with family. Many trans people have dealt with being ostracized from their own families. And we found that for many of the trans sex workers in the Santa Monica/Highland area, their only family is their friends in their community. It’s a sad state of affairs.

BF: How did the Duplass Brothers get involved?

Baker: Mark and Jay Duplass are fans of one of my previous films, Prince of Broadway. They told me that if I ever wanted to make a micro-budget with them, the door was open. I was hoping that I would secure financing for a much larger film after Starlet. This didn’t happen. And after a year and a half of waiting, I gave up. I called Mark and asked if the offer still stood. It did! They are wonderful guys who have been nothing but supportive throughout the process.

BF: What are you working on next?

Baker: Working with the same team on a children’s story that takes place in Florida. Hopefully a much bigger budget. Although micro-budget filmmaking can be an adventure, one can not make a living with them.

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