Sean Baker’s Tangerine is an intimate portrait of two transgender women on Christmas Eve in L.A. It’s a highly collaborative, consultative, and careful project that reflects its intricate production process in the attention to detail that emerges in the film. We caught up with Baker at Sydney Film Festival to discuss how he worked with both an amateur and professional cast, the importance of criticism and what he felt reviews and interviewers have missed so far in covering the film.
I guess I was interested in what drew you to the story of Tangerine?
Well, it was actually… it stems from the fact that I live close to this intersection – of Santa Monica and Highland. It is sort of viewed as an infamous intersection that is known for transgender sex workers frequenting the area. I was already exploring sex work in my previous film called Starlet – which got released here I think – and this was just sort of a logical next step I think. I wanted to explore another area of it and I am always looking for something that hasn’t been done before and no film that I knew of had focused on that area of Los Angeles, let alone having a film in which the two lead characters are trans sex workers. I set out to make this film, but to tell you the truth I didn’t have an idea of what it was going to be. Actually, Chris Bergoch who is my co-screenwriter… we went to that area looking for somebody to collaborate with and we found – thank god we found Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and it was once we found those two that we developed our screenplay together.
So Kitana is Sin-Dee and Mya is Alexandra – and they’re kind of at the centre of the film – and I was really interested in watching those characters about the collaborations that took place. It is quite a topic where I think that having constant dialogue with the actors and actresses involved – with those experiences – is really important. So yeah, I was interested as to how that process took place to make the film.
Well, first off, the way it first went down was I found Mya Taylor who really expressed a lot of enthusiasm. I mean, I had to show her that I was a legitimate filmmaker and that I’d made other films, but once she’d got on board she said to me something that was extremely important; right off the bat, probably within the first week of us actually corresponding. She said something along the lines of “I want to make this film with you, but if you make this film you have to promise me two things. Number one, it will be as realistic as possible and it will show the brutal reality that these girls go through by working the streets of L.A. Even if its un-PC” she said “I want you to depict it as realistic as possible. And secondly, I want you to make this movie funny. I want you to make it for the girls so we can all appreciate it and laugh along with it” – and I was taken aback because she was asking me for what seemed at first like two conflicting things, and I thought “oh my god, this is going to be quite a balancing act.” She wanted me to focus on the plight of making a political film, yet, on the other hand, a comedy. I had to sit with it for a while because I’m not from that world so it was definitely a… not only challenging, but it was dangerous.
We set out to make this film two and a half years ago, before the trans movement really came into the zeitgeist, but anyway, I was very aware of the responsibility. But then I all of a sudden saw that what Mya was asking for was – to me – actually the most mature way of approaching this subject. Because it didn’t condescend to the subjects; it didn’t walk on eggshells. We were actually making a comedy that these women would enjoy themselves and so when I was confident enough in that, the style started to find itself. First off, Kitana was the one who brought the A-plot to the table, she was the one who proposed the whole ‘woman scorned in search of the ‘fish’ story. So not only were they very collaborative in that aspect, but during production I would ask them “is this real?”, “is this ringing true?” and they would give me their opinions; and they would trust me and I would trust them. In post-production – Mya decided she didn’t want to see the film until it was cut – but Kitana was the one who was around during all of post-production. So I would actually show her about every ten minutes when I would cut and for the most part she would approve. It was one time, near the end of the film… I threw on one track of music that was not appropriate and it turned it into a farce – right away she goes “that music does not belong in the movie, get it out of there”. And so I was so happy that this remained a collaborative effort all the way through in all the stages, because without it I don’t think this product would have been the same in the end.
I think one of the interesting things about this element of collaboration was how it democratised the film; and how this was a film inherently about that. I read a review that tried to frame the use of the iPhone 5 as a “gimmick” when I found it more kind of in line with it removing barriers, being a more democratic film, and being a more consultative/less exclusive filmmaking process.
Yeah, I’m glad that you see that because it was not… only a few people have pointed that out – that the way we have captured it is in sort of the same vein as the world you’re exploring. I see exactly what you’re saying and I’m really glad that you saw that.
Yeah, and I guess I was asking – with the decision to use that – was it kind of inextricably linked to that idea of being as realistic as possible and also trying to mediate that line between being a fictional story but also a journalistic piece that documented a story of a reality?
The films I love the most are those hybrids, you know – those hybrids between documentary and narrative. You guys have a great example that came out of here a few years ago that was a major influence of the film… you know Snowtown?
Yeah, it’s brilliant.
I mean, I want to hire the casting director from that film. I mean.. quite brilliant. So anyway, these hybrids are what excites me the most and I think that using the iPhone wasn’t… I would love to say I was completely conscious and aware of it going into the film, but to tell you the truth it made itself apparent to me – as we were shooting – how beneficial the iPhone was in terms of, as you just said… levelling the playing field and making it a democratic film. To tell you the truth, everyone in America has a smart phone and the girls were taking selfies of each other between takes, so they never saw this as a ‘motion picture camera’. They’re both first time actors, they’re both aspiring entertainers and actors – and now they’re well on their way. But when we were shooting I thought we were going to have to get over that hump that all first time actors have, because I work with a lot of first time actors and it always takes about a week for them to get out of that hump and get their confidence level up their with the seasoned actors. This time, though, there was no hump. They were as comfortable from the first take as they were all the way through the film. It was because the intimidation factor was removed by using one of these.
I feel that’s an interesting thing I wanted to ask about: the amateur actors. I was wondering if you’ve worked with many professional actors vs. amateur actors and if there’s ever been a preference towards either… and if there is a reason for that?
You know, it’s 50/50 and these days its been growing a little bit… well, it’s been 70/30 in the past and now its moving towards 50/50 where I’m trying to work as much with seasoned actors as I am with first time actors. But what I love about it… well first off, as a movie-goer I love to see fresh faces on the screen. Like, looking at the poster for Aloha makes me sick. There’s not one fresh face there. It’s all ‘A-listers’, the entire thing. And I understand it’s all business these days and it’s all algorithms that tell you how you have to cast the movie to sell to the entire world. But at the same time, the films that are exciting to me are the ones that have fresh faces and that really grounds us a lot more in reality. I always love Spike Lee because no matter how many recognisable faces there are, he’ll always introduce somebody new in his cast… and look at all the people he’s discovered over the years. I just think that that’s really important, to always be bringing new faces to the table… I think I went off the rails on that one.
Not at all, haha. I think that answers the question, what amateur actors can bring to a film…
But I do… the thing is that what is very interesting about first time actors is that they’ll adapt to the style of the actor that they are playing in the scene though. For example I saw, in my film Prince of Broadway – which was about two films back. I had a lot of Meisner actors from that method school of acting… and I saw how the first-time actors would suddenly adapt the practices of the Meisner actors. Like they would be doing repetition and they would be unconsciously just picking that stuff that stuff up, which was really interesting.
I was interested in how the film comes off like a riff on the quite traditional and established idea of ‘the Christmas film’ but like a weird little inversion of it, and I was wondering if it was one of your original ideas to work from that point or if that developed?
It’s funny because Chris Bergoch – who co-wrote the film with me – he comes from a place in which he’s way more influenced and interested in mainstream cinema and I’m the other side. I go way more towards the obscure, towards foreign, etc. It was his idea, because I think he pulls it from those classic Hollywood Christmas stories – like Die Hard and the Shane Black movies, and he wanted to see L.A at Christmas – so he’s the one who brought that to the table. But it just seemed to appropriate because that’s the one holiday every year where, whether you celebrate Christmas or not, you’re always with family. Unfortunately most transwomen of colour who are working in the sex industry, they have no family; their family are their friends; they are their peers. That was just a little more poignant for us – for me, I thought that showing a day in the life having to deal with the fact that they’re often very alone and on that night in particular it even hits home a little more that they’re very much marginalised.
With the film so far is there anything that you think has been glossed over that you think is quite important in this film.
I do, actually… I feel the Armenian sub-plot is never mentioned and –
Yeah, and I think that really is something that I hope people look a little bit further into because that actually… and I think it’ll speak to Armenians than it’ll speak to anyone else. Because the transphobia, the homophobia… if you think it’s bad in the U.S. it’s terrible in Armenia, the intolerance is outrageous. Our film explores that – not directly – but our film does put a character out there who is dealing with a sexual preference that he cannot express, that he cannot act out on because of the culture that he’s from. I also just think that that sub-plot also has the actors that I worked with. I don’t think anyone is picking up the fact that they’re such amazing actors. Like Alla Tumanian – who plays the mother-in-law – she’s like a classic actor from Armenia. She’s like the Sophia Loren of Armenia.
So she’s more towards the professional side?
Oh, yeah, the whole Armenian cast was 100% professional and to tell you the truth we scripted that out to the word – because I don’t know Armenian – so I had to know exactly what was going on. The other dialogue in the film was loose. Sometimes we would have it pretty tight, like some of the stuff on the bus had to be very tight, because we had limited time to shoot and the exposition had to get out there. At the same time there were other parts where we would have in our script, we would just have a paragraph that would say something like: “Sin-Dee and Alexandra walk down Santa Monica and talk about their most treasured Christmas gifts” and that was it. Then when we were on the set I would say “okay Mya, let’s see what you’ve got” and we would do it again, and we would be collaborative on set in terms of the improv – but in terms of the Armenian stuff, that was never improvised.
I guess this is still quite early for the film – this is the international premiere – and I’m guess maybe you’re not currently thinking about what you’re going to be doing next but –
No, no, trust me. Because financing takes so long, and this industry is so upside-down right now, that you always have to be thinking about what you’re doing next. I actually had 3 projects that I was almost equally passionate about, but then just in the last week I’ve had to decide to take the helm on one because if not nothing would ever get done. I’ve realised that it’s a director that has to be really strong about what he or she wants to do next – or those projects will never work. So I’m focusing on a film titled The Florida Project. I don’t want to give too many details on the idea but it remains in the same wheelhouse as the previous films.