Sean Baker is no foreigner to the world of independent film, and with his unique thematic interest in marginalized characters and subculture, he is certainly making a name for himself. In his 2012 film Starlet, starring Dree Hemingway as a whimsical porn actress living in the valley, he broached the topic of sexuality and empowerment without judgment. This same approach is seen here in Tangerine, a raw look at a day in the life of trans women trying to make sense of the world. The film not only explores the underbelly of one facet of the Los Angeles nightlife, it cinematically takes on a new-age aesthetic, relying solely on iPhones. During our interview with Baker and co-writer/ co-producer Chris Bergoch, we talk about how they discovered Mya Taylor and Kiki Rodriguez, shooting a feature film on an iPhone, and how the final scene left them emotionally drained. We begin:
Can you talk about why you chose the locations you did?
SB: Well I wanted to stay geographically accurate. I think that stems from [Martin] Scorsese in Taxi Driver… It’s just something that, if you know the city, you want audiences who also know the city to appreciate the fact that you did that. We only break [from Los Angeles] one time and that’s the… oh I won’t even tell you! We were able to get these locations for next to nothing, which was quite a feat. I knew I couldn’t make the film if we didn’t have Donut Time. Donut Time is such a landmark.
CB: When you see the Donut Time scenes in the film, those are actual customers. We couldn’t own it, so we just had to chase after them with release forms.
Were there people saying, ‘No way, I don’t wanna be in your film’?
SB: They didn’t say no way, but they tried to get some dollars out of it.
I thought the bus scene was fantastic.
CB: Do you remember when Dinah [Mickey O’Hagan] falls when they’re getting on the bus? That’s a real fall. She just kept going with it, she didn’t break character.
SB: I thought that she was over at that moment. I couldn’t run after her to see if she was ok because the bus took off. I was about to vomit, I saw her hit the ground so hard. I think it was one of our producers on the bus who said, ‘I think we’re gonna have to go to the hospital.’ It was scary.
CB: Yet perfect for the scene.
SB: The first thing Mickey said was, ‘You better use that.’
Being first-time actors, were Mya and Kiki nervous on set?
SB: We are using a device that they own themselves. Between takes they would whip out their own smartphones and take selfies, there was no intimidation factor. Usually for first time actors, it takes about a week for them to get over that hump of having a camera in their face. In the past I’ve seen how seasoned actors usually help coach [novice actors], but in this film, no. From the first day Kiki and Mya were just as professional as everybody else.
A lot of people are calling Tangerine “The movie shot on an iPhone”. Is this something you embrace, or would you rather have it be remembered for something else?
CB: It started as a budgetary thing and we didn’t make that relatively well-known before Sundance. After people saw the premiere in January and saw the credits, that’s when that [iPhone] buzz started. I know our fear at first was that we didn’t want to tell people, because it would be read as a gimmick. But it absolutely wasn’t. Sean’s done five features and I think you were out of favors at that point and we all had an iPhone 5s in our pocket. We did a lot of tests with the Moondog Labs anamorphic adapter and I think that’s what convinced Sean.
SB: Yeah that and an app called Filmic Pro which allowed us to shoot 24 fps.
What were you looking for during casting?
SB: I was extremely lucky to find Mya Taylor. Not only is she incredibly talented, but she also had that enthusiasm that I was looking for. She was our passport to that world. The only way to respectfully do that was to collaborate with someone from that world, and that was Mya. Mya was always there– we would meet regularly at the Jack in the Box on Highland and just hear her stories. She would bring people and introduce us regularly. That’s how we met Kiki. Kiki came in and sat down next to Mya– Chris and I were sitting across from them in the booth– and we knew, there is our dynamic. The complimented each other and they were funny, and finishing each other’s sentences.
Were there moments in the script, just in terms of transgender women, where either one of them said “No, this isn’t the way it should go”?
CB: Interestingly enough, after Mya Taylor greeted us with open arms she did have a couple of requests. She wanted us to make it funny, but she also wanted brutal realism which is a very interesting tightrope to walk.
SB: I think saying that to us really dictated the whole style of the movie. They were very much involved in all stages of production, except in post-production, Mya decided that she didn’t want to see anything until we had a cut. Kiki would actually come by my apartment. Every time I had 10 minutes cut she would come by and give me her notes.
Can you talk about the final Donut Time scene?
SB: That was one of the only things Chris and I went in to with a vision of [when we set out to make this movie]. We went in there not really knowing what the story was yet, thinking it would take place on one day because of budgetary reasons, and maybe two people were trying to find each other but don’t know if this will be a love story or a friendship story or a revenge story, but we do know that all of the characters have to converge at the very end at Donut Time. It is inspired by [director] Mike Leigh (Secrets & Lies, High Hopes).
How did this film leave you upon its completion?
SB: Very emotionally draining. We’re focusing on the most vulnerable group of people, I mean they’re trans women of color who are sex workers, their lives are not great. They’re out there because they have no other choice, dealing with discrimination, hardship, violence. After we walked away and started editing, the weight of it came down.
CB: We had an emotional day when we shot the laundry room scene, the last scene of the film.
SB: They were very brave to do that scene [removing their wigs] and we could only shoot that one time, that was a one take. We had to have PA’s in the parking lot making sure nobody could see in to respect their privacy. The bravery that they displayed and also their trust, I couldn’t ask for more.