Director Sean Baker Talks His Fantastic New Film ‘Tangerine’

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As a white cisgender male, director Sean Baker (Starlet, Prince of Broadway) knew that if he was going to make a film about trans sex workers in Los Angeles’ “unofficial red-light district,” he was going to have to do it right. No stranger to making movies that explore worlds vastly different from his own, Baker and his co-writer Chris Bergoch found that “the only way of doing this properly and respectfully and responsibly would be to do exactly what we did with Prince of Broadway, which was to spend a tremendous amount of time speaking with women who actually work that area.” And after meeting vibrant newcomers, incredible trans actresses Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor, Baker’s Tangerine fever dream was born. 

Somewhere between a saturated revenge comedy and a vicious vérité portrait of a woman scorned, Tangerine tells the story of Sin-Dee (Taylor), a transgender sex worker recently released from jail and her fellow trans coworker friend Alexandra (Rodriguez), an aspiring nightclub singer. Now back on the streets, Sin-Dee is on a mission to hunt down the “fish” (a cisgender woman) who’s been sleeping with her boyfriend/pimp Chester (played by James Ransone). Shot on an iPhone 5S and booming with trap music, Tangerine has a striking immediacy and manic energy to it—but that’s only one reason why it became an instant sensation after premiering at Sundance back in January. Providing a unique look into a world rarely explored in cinema, Baker’s film gives a fascinating platform for his characters to shine and allows for an authentic immersion into these women’s lives on Christmas Eve in Tinseltown. 

With the film’s theatrical roll out happening this weekend, we caught up with Baker to talk about his attraction to intense collaboration, the benefits of shooting on an iPhone, and the dynamic women that populate Tangerine.

Coming off of Starlet, were you looking to experiment with how you work as a filmmaker?

No, I wasn’t. After Starlet I was waiting to hopefully get a much bigger budget; I was trying to pull together a film about the Russian community in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, which proved to be very difficult. The industry is in a place right now where it’s almost impossible to find financing. I thought that after Starlet the doors would open up, but they didn’t. So after about a year-and-a-half of waiting I called Mark Duplass, and I said, “Hey, remember that offer you had about producing a micro-budget for me if I ever wanted to do another one? Well, I’m ready to do another one.” He’d made the offer back when I’d made Prince of Broadway. He was a fan of that film and said the door was always open. So Mark and Jay [Duplass] came onboard, and they’re incredible supporters of other indie artists and they were the only ones willing to give me any money.

The budget was less than half the budget of Starlet, which is already a micro-budget, but I had no choice. I knew that with the little bit of money I’d be dealing with that I couldn’t even leave the state of California. So when they asked what idea I had I said, “You know the corner of Santa Monica and Highland?” Anybody who lives in LA knows about that corner, so he gave the thumbs up. At that point I knew it was time to set down the road of research, and it was going take several months. So along with Chris Bergoch, who I wrote the screenplay with, we used the model that I used on Prince of Broadway, but we really had to prepare ourselves. Being a cisgender straight white male, we knew that the only way of doing this properly and respectfully and responsibly would be to do exactly what we did with Prince of Broadway, which was to spend a tremendous amount of time speaking with women who actually work that area, which is sort of an unofficial red light district. We approached people on the corners while they were working and we told them what we were planning on doing and introduced ourselves.

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How did you begin to get to know these women, and at what point did you start casting your stars?

We weren’t getting very far, especially because these women were actually working while we were talking with them and they didn’t have much time on their hands. Then one day when started to explore other areas and we went to an LGBT center that was located around the corner. The center is wonderful, they support the community and provide services for at risk youth. So we thought we’d find someone there who would have something to say, and we did. The day we walked in there I saw Mya across the courtyard and she just shined. There was something about her that I immediately gravitated towards. I approached her and explained what we were doing and she really just expressed that wonderful enthusiasm I was looking for. “I’m an aspiring entertainer—I sing, and I can act if you want me to act,” she said. So I said let’s exchange information and start hanging out, and that’s really what we did. We just started hanging out regularly at the local Jack in the Box fast food place right around the corner. I didn’t want to start hanging out at Donut Time knowing I’d probably shoot there, so I didn’t want to bug the owners. We’d just sit down and listen to the stories she would tell us about the neighborhood. She had friends that actually worked the streets and she had witnessed a lot of things. Chris would just be taking pages and pages of notes.

But while this was all happening, Mya was introducing us to many of her friends, some of which actually worked their way into the movie as the characters on the fringe. Then one day she brought Kiki to the table. She sat down next to Mya, and I just saw them straight on and said, oh my gosh, we have a dynamic duo here. I didn’t know much up to this point—I only knew that all our characters would converge at Donut Time—but now I knew that we’re going to have two leads, and the two lead characters are going to be played by these two women because they are freaking hilarious. They also have just incredibly strong personas and were also just a wonderful comedic duo. They had this thing where they would finish each other’s sentences and set up each other’s jokes and punch lines. So at that point it was really about us finding the plot, and eventually Kiki was the one who pitched us the woman scorned plot, which was something that almost played out in real life but didn’t play out to fruition—about finding this “fish.” There was something very layered that took you on a journey with these characters, and we decided to make that our A-plot. After we wrote the basic script we asked Kiki and Mya what they thought, and they had a few notes of course, but for the most part they really liked what we did. We incorporated every anecdote, or at least every story that we could into the plot. Six months later we were shooting.

As straight white men going into this community of trans sex workers, did you have any apprehension about telling this story authentically? 

Yes, most definitely—but that’s something I have to deal with in every one of my films. I’m never really from the world that I’m focusing on in my films; I’m just interested in different people and different cultures. So now with this film, it’s to an even greater degree because the trans movement is so heavily in the zeitgeist right now and there’s more attention on that than there has been in the past. I had a certain degree of that when I approached Prince of Broadway because it was a film about West African street hustlers, and you’re always going to have some people who just simply can’t accept it no matter what. But this is how I see it: I have two people to answer to first, Kiki and Maya. So as long as I feel I’ve done the right thing by them, and then also remain confident that this is the right way of approaching this sensitive subject matter, then that’s all I can really do. Of course there will always be people out there who don’t agree, but I surround myself with artists who come form many different backgrounds, different cultures, different nationalities, different races, and different genders, and I feel as if we have similar sensibilities. The way that we work together is really great, so I feel that approaching these subjects in a collaborative way is the way to do it responsibly.

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Shooting on an iPhone lends itself so perfectly to the immediacy of this movie and the heightened energy and emotion of these women’s lives. Was that a conscious decision from the start or did you have to adapt to budgetary restraints?

I knew I couldn’t shoot the film on the higher format cameras, but now in hindsight I realized that shooting this film could only be this film shot on the iPhone. Ultimately it was the perfect choice, stylistically and even sub-textually. But I’m my own worst enemy, and if given the choice, I’d have shot it all on 35mm film. I wish I could say, oh this was all intentional, but to tell you the truth it all stems from a budgetary constraint. At one point I had to convince myself that it was okay, and I had to convince my team members that it was okay; it was my fifth film, and it did really feel like a step back. So I had to just say, “No, what we’re going to do is that we’re going to embrace this and make the best of it, and we’re going to make the most of it, and we’re going to find a new aesthetic if we have to find it, but we can’t pity ourselves and we can’t look at this as playing around. We have to look at this as trying to up our game.” So that’s how we approached it.

How does the experience of shooting on an iPhone compared to the way you’ve worked in the past? Did it allow you to gain more access than you would have been able to with a larger camera crew?

If anything, there were benefits. Once we got over the fact that we were shooting on inferior lenses, everything else was a benefit. We were able to have a small footprint and the intimidation factor was stripped away from the first minute with our first-time actors. We were able to move the camera a lot more, and it dictated how we picked the eventual style of the visuals in the film. Then on a very technical level, the workflow was extremely easy. Once I got the material off my phone every night and onto my computer, the editing was just like editing any other piece of media.

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How much of the script was locked down and how much changed on a daily basis with the more you got to know these women as people and as characters?

It was half a script, half a treatment so there were areas that were very scripted out in a traditional way with full dialogue, and then there were other times that I knew I would have the freedom of improvising with my actors. So there would be paragraphs like when the two girls walk down Santa Monica Blvd. and talk about their favorite Christmas gifts, then on the day we shot the scene we would experiment. I’m incredibly lucky to basically have found these comedic geniuses, and also these improvisational geniuses with my entire cast. I’m extremely lucky because that’s a rarity and a really, really incredible talent—in my eyes, it’s called genius. I know I could never do it. It takes a wit and it takes an encyclopedia of knowledge.

Was there a particular reason you set the film on Christmas Eve? My favorite Christmas films are always the one where the holiday looms in the background but isn’t central to the plot, like Eyes Wide Shut.

That’s funny, that’s one that hasn’t been brought up yet. Chris is influenced by mainstream cinema much more than I am, and he was looking at those classic LA movies that take place on Christmas Eve, like Die Hard and Shane Black movies. So when he pitched me, the way that I saw it was this: yes, it provided us with production value and eye candy, but it also struck me as something that could be quite profound. I hate to say that about my own movie because I feel pompous, but I give the credit to Chris. What it does is show that, even if you’re not religious, you associate Christmas with family, but what it comes down to is that the women in this world, their families are themselves, they only have themselves to rely on and support one another. So I saw that as working there on a subtextual level and I really appreciate that he brought that to the table.