'Tangerine' Was Shot on an iPhone, But Director Sean Baker Still Pines for Celluloid

We spoke to Sean Baker, the director behind this year's breakout Sundance film, about depicting the world of two trans women of color as a white, male director.

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Jul 11 2015, 6:07am

All photos courtesy of Sean Baker

Sean Baker doesn't just remember the movie that made him want to become a filmmaker, he remembers the exact scene: that final image of the burning mill in Universal's 1931 Frankenstein. He cites it as having immediately been seared into his frontal cortex. If you ask him about it now, he'll tell you he still can't shake it.

Frankenstein's finale gets to the heart of "otherness" and the strange reactions to figures on the fringe. Baker's new film, Tangerine, which screened at Sundance earlier this year to rapturous praise, burns down the mill in a different way. It was shot entirely on iPhone 5S, which makes for a radically fresh aesthetic. The film's audacity feels like a dare.

Tangerine takes place over the course of one day, and tells the story of best friends Sin-dee and Alexandra (Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor), two transgendered prostitutes, who meet at a West Hollywood donut shop on Christmas Eve right after Sin-dee has gotten out of jail for a minor drug felony. When Alexandra informs Sin-Dee that her boyfriend and pimp, Chester (The Wire's James Ransone), has been cheating on her with a cis-gendered woman, it prompts a mad dash across Los Angeles that veers into something both seedy and touching.

VICE spoke to Baker about the film's origins, the power at the center of its comedy, and why he's hesitant to be the face of the iPhone movement (hint: he's not quite ready to bid adieu to film).

VICE: The film was really born out of your real-life friendship with Mya, who plays Alexandra. How did that come about?
Sean Baker: There is an LGBTQ center in West Hollywood that is really wonderful, and services the at-risk youth. There's a courtyard outside for people who might be transient or are just looking for a place to spend a day. I came across Mya and her friends there one spring morning, and there was just something about Mya even from 40-feet away that drew me in. Her aura, I don't know, but I knew I had to speak to her.

So I told her about the film we wanted to make and our intentions, and I didn't know what her reaction would be at first, but she immediately got it. Not having any other opportunities out there, these women are forced to turn to sex work. She had total enthusiasm from the moment I met her. But it wasn't until Kiki came in when I saw the two of them sitting next to each other, you could tell they're real friends. I just said, "I don't have a plot or anything, but I want to make a movie that takes place in one day, and I think you two have to be the leads."

How did you begin to reconfigure the production of the film?
Well, we couldn't shoot on film, which was the first choice. And honestly, a lot of independent films are looking the same way these days because of DSLR. And I really didn't want it to have that same old look.

Is that when the idea to shoot the entire film on an iPhone struck?
I started exploring these Vimeo channels that were focused on iPhone experiments. And I was really impressed. I know that Tangerine is getting a lot of attention for pushing the iFilm, but I am really mourning the death of celluloid. I get jealous when I read in the trades about Tarantino shooting on 70mm—that's where I would go first.

But I found this Kickstarter campaign for a company called Wolf Dog Labs, and they had created this anamorphic adapter that fits over the iPhone lens and lets it shoot in real scope, which just elevated it to a cinematic level for me. I thought, if this is going to make it different from what anyone else has done, then I'm ready to jump on board.

Was everyone else involved in the film as gung-ho?
At first my Director of Photography was a little embarrassed, and I was telling him we need to embrace it or else we'll fail. We have to create our own aesthetic. If we do that, there is no difference between 35mm and this, as long as we're confident. When I told [the film's producers] the Duplass Brothers, Mark was the one who patted me on the back and was like, "Let's do this man, it's like punk rock."

Did the actors look at it like that way as well? Or maybe as some strange experiment that could go either way?
I love to combine first-time actors with seasoned actors. So in the case of James [Ransone], his reaction was different from everyone else's. When we were actually out on the corner shooting his first scene of exteriors, it was the night of the Golden Globes. And he had friends that were actually in tuxes, in limos, heading to the red carpet. And he's on the corner of Santa Monica, outside a donut shop, while I'm shooting him on an iPhone, and he just looks at me like, Look at me. What's going on in my life?

For first-time actors, in my experience it takes a week or so to get comfortable with the idea of cameras being shoved in their face. But with Maya and Kiki, because we were using a device that they used themselves—they would literally be taking selfies of each other off-camera—the intimidation factor wasn't even there; inhibitions were stripped away, and the comfort and confidence levels were high. There was no hierarchy.

I think that the aesthetic actually helped the film feel even more confrontational, in a way. Not only have you never watched a story like this before, but you've never seen anything that looks the way this movie looks.
It's true. Because we were using this new technology to capture the images, I wanted to do that contamination where we were using mono old-school sound and start the film by looking like an early talky, with the classical music and the font of the title card. And then I wanted to immediately break out of it with trap music, and bring us into 2015.

It sort of readies you for the way the film aims to destabilize you, first in its form and then in its function, because you wouldn't expect a movie about transgender prostitutes to be essentially a comedy.
Mya told me, "If you make this film, you have to promise me two things: that you're going to really show the brutal realism of daily life for the girls on the street to live like this, even if it's un-PC or uncomfortable to watch. And number two, I want you to make this movie funny."

And if it wasn't for Mya, I probably would have shot this film more along the lines of something observational and distant. But after spending so much time with the girls at local fast food joints, hanging out in this Jack-In-The-Box, it was like watching stand-up every day. Kiki and Mya are so funny and witty. It was just non-stop. And I saw that a lot of these women were using humor to cope. And I thought that if we don't do that, and we just make a film about the plight devoid of humor, then we're not making a film that they themselves could enjoy. We made a film that these women would love, too.

Have you had to navigate any criticism that you, as a white, cis-gender male filmmaker, are not part of the world that you're documenting?
All I can say is: I go into these stories not imposing a script or thought. I find the people from these worlds that I can connect and collaborate with. That, to me, is the only responsible way for any storyteller to tell a story—it's not right otherwise.

Would you ever have done this film without real trans women at the center?
No. No, I would never. You know, I saw the community's reaction to Jared Leto's Oscar win, and I have friends who are trans advocates. So between all of that, I just knew there was no other way of doing it. I mean, I didn't even know what "fish" meant until we started brainstorming. That workshopping was very important.

Los Angeles is such a strange place in how its sprawl is so decentralized. Was there something about LA as a space that drew you to the story?
There's a whole other world south of Pico that goes on for 17 miles. And there are so many communities and cultures in-between there that are just never shown. From a filmmaker's point of view, there is something undeniably cinematic about a location like Santa Monica Boulevard, which is so chaotic and busy and over-stimulating. It's also sort of an unofficial red light district, and it's beginning to gentrify so there is a real "end of an era" feeling.

A lot of the film's hype came out of Sundance. What do you think of the independent film scene and the film festival circuit?
I thank my lucky stars that the film got accepted into Sundance. I don't think this film would have gotten as much attention in many other festivals, and I think that that's a problem. It's unfair that the industry is taking advantage of a film that doesn't premiere at Sundance by paying less for it, even if it's of the same quality. The films that are coming out of SXSW are incredible, and they should get the same bids that films at Sundance are getting. That's discouraging, that's wrong. And that has to change.

Tangerine is radical in a way just for starring two woman in the lead, let alone two transgender women of color. What do you think of the public's appetite for minority stories?
The more films that get made, the more we will see the public's demand. All we can do is continue making films that seem alternative in their casting. We have to keep showing universal stories that take place in different communities. We have to look at where we are in our historical time. And what I'm trying to do with Tangerine is step away from a "plight of" movie and get closer to telling stories that white guys in the middle of Kansas can identify with. That's where I think we have to go.

Tangerine is now showing in select theaters.

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