Sean Baker on Tangerine and shooting on an iPhone

Tangerine is the most exciting and invigorating indie film of the year. Its director, Sean Baker, talks us through the ins and outs of creating this vivid slice-of-life comedy about two transgendre LA sex workers and capturing it all on an iPhone lens

Feature by Jamie Dunn | 06 Nov 2015

Tangerine is not your typical Christmas movie. You’ll probably realise this while watching the scene in which a hyperactive transgender prostitute drags a skinny white girl kicking and screaming from a fleapit motel room that doubles as a makeshift brothel, with each space in the tiny apartment (bedroom, hallways, cupboards, shower) being used for some sex act, like a Russian doll of debauchery. If not that scene, then perhaps the unbroken shot of an Armenian taxi driver going down on a different trans prostitute while his cab goes through a carwash cycle. Or maybe it’s just the opening line that gives it away: “Merry Christmas Eve, bitch.”

This raucously funny comedy takes the form of a day in the life of Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor), best friends, trans women, and sex workers in West Hollywood. We meet the pair as they share a single doughnut at a garish, Formica-clad dive called Donut Time on the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and Highland Avenue, where they’re celebrating Sin-Dee’s recent emancipation following a 28-day jail stint.

When we meet the film’s director, Sean Baker, at a fancy London hotel a million miles from Tangerine’s hardscrabble streets, he explains that this notorious stretch of Los Angeles, which acts as the city’s unofficial red light district, was his chief inspiration for the movie. Baker lives a half mile away from that corner of town where Donut Time is situated and wanted to highlight its vibrancy. It was his entire pitch to producers Mark and Jay Duplass. “Mark said, ‘OK, what’s your idea,’ and I just said, ‘Santa Monica and Highland,’ and that’s all I had to say. He knew the intersection.”

‘I want you to make this hilarious'

The simple plot kicks off as soon as Alexandra lets slip that Sin-Dee’s boyfriend and pimp, Chester (played by Baker regular James Ransone), has been stepping out on her. What makes matters worse is that the other woman was born a woman. Or, to use Sin-Dee and Alexandra’s vernacular, she’s “a real fish, like a girl with a vagina and everything.” Hell hath no fury like a trans woman scorned. With this revelation Sin-Dee heads off on a rampage looking for revenge, like a pint-sized Godzilla in leopard print blouse and white hotpants. Baker’s expressive camera loops and twirls as it tries to keep up with her.

“I would love to take credit and say that I envisioned this hyperactive style from the beginning,” says the director when we commend him for the film’s breakneck pace, “but it wasn’t like that.” Baker had something more austere in mind, a gritty social realist drama with observational camera and no music. His leading ladies weren’t having any of it, though. “Mya said to me, ‘I want you to make this hilarious. You can show all the brutal reality, but you need to make this funny. It’s not fair if you make this movie and it only appeals to the geriatric arthouse crowd. It also has to appeal to the girls on the street. You have to be making an entertainment for them.’”

The chaotic nature of the location also played its part. The film feels as hopped up as its residents – “crystal meth is like an epidemic around there and it just rubbed off on us.” Baker and his crew were shooting on the hoof and on the edge. “Chris [Bergoch, Tangerine’s co-writer] got his wallet stolen on the first day of filming,” Baker recalls. “We were always holding our equipment and looking over our shoulder because we had no idea what was going on around us. We didn’t have security, so the manic shoot just made its way into the movie.”

As well as West Hollywood’s frenzied atmosphere, the film also nail’s the scuzzy beauty of its mile-wide boulevards and squarish, pastel-coloured buildings. It’s a bonafide great LA movie in which Tinsel Town feels like a real city. Characters even use public transport, a phenomenon not seen on film since Speed. Baker blames his East Coast origins for his lyrical approach to capturing the prosaic setting. “I do feel like I’m sometimes making New York movies in LA.”

But he also confesses that he’s kissing up to Angelenos: “I do want them to love the movie, because I feel like an outsider to Los Angeles. I’ve only been there for four years now, so that’s why we tried to keep it geographically accurate.”

More from Film:

 "A Jim Jarmusch movie on amphetamines" – Tangerine reviewed

 John Niven explains the dark back story to Kill Your Friends

Tangerine might be the first case in movie history where a meagre budget has helped enhance the aesthetic. Since its premiere at Sundance in January this year, Baker's film has been known, unofficially, as “that iPhone movie” – it was shot entirely on iPhone 5s.

Sounds like an arty gimmick, right? You’re probably picturing the ugly, out-of-focus video you made on your last night out, or the shaky footage you shot at that gig last month. Think again. With the addition of a handheld Steadicam support, a $8 app, and some prototype anamorphic adapter lenses, Baker manages to merge the supersaturated colour of iPhone footage with the sweeping, cinematic grandeur of a Sergio Leone movie. “In hindsight, I was blessed,” says Baker. “When we were shooting, I was hating every minute of it.”

The key to the film’s widescreen look is the fact the iPhone’s focal length is fixed. “It’s very wide – not quite fisheyed, but it’s very wide,” he explains. “So when you throw the anamorphic adapter on that, it gives it a sense of a really wide scope, and so basically what it allowed me to do – or what it forced me to do – is capture LA in a way that you can always see the environment.” 

Even when his actors are in close-up, you’re seeing what’s around them: the buildings, the cars, the graffiti, the people. “That really helped sell the world. But trust me, that again is serendipity. If I’d had the money, probably I’d have shot this more observational, but this forced me to get up close and personal with my actors, which I think helped us connect with them more.” After a few days, Baker had embraced the cameras. “We started doing impromptu crane shots and I brought my bike to set where I would bike down the sidewalk and do 360s around the girls and just to see which shots worked. It was really freeing.”

Trans Roles

What’s most pleasing about Tangerine, however, is that it brings to life on screen a subculture that’s rarely visible in mainstream culture. A big part of this success is down to the casting: Rodriguez and Taylor are both non-actors and from this world. Baker found them while scouting in the neighbourhood’s LGBTQI* community centre and shaped his film around them.

“It wasn’t just about casting trans people to play trans roles,” explains Baker. “It was also about getting approval from them, about input from them, about basically consulting them. We would give them dialogue and they would say, ‘That sounds like a 35-year-old white boy wrote that.’ And I’d be like, ‘OK, that’s out the window.’ That’s what I wanted.” This did put Baker on a bit of a learning curve: “you would hear the girls say a word and you would just be like, ‘Definition?’”

Casting trans women to play trans women might seem a no-brainer, but it’s against the grain of Hollywood’s current philosophy. From Chris Sarandon in Dog Day Afternoon, to Hilary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry, to Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club, cisgendre actors have been playing trans gender characters for years and been showered with awards in the process; expect newly-minted Oscar-winner Eddie Redmayne to be in the race for best actor this year for his upcoming turn as real-life trans artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl.

Baker’s attitude to this casting trend is pragmatic as well as political.

“Look, hopefully down the line none of this stuff matters, everyone is accepted, humankind becomes one, etcetera,” he says. “But right now we’re in 2015 and you have to look at where we are in history. There is a very high unemployment rate among trans people, even higher among trans women of colour, so if there are roles out there and you can help them get jobs, why not do that on the level of human decency. That’s all I’m saying. I’m not saying Eddie shouldn’t have his job – he should, he’s a wonderful actor and I’m sure he did a great job. But I’m just talking about right now in 2015. Maybe we should be thinking a different way until acceptance is universal.”

Tangerine is released 13 Nov by Metrodome