David Opie chats with Tangerine director Sean Baker…
Famed for being shot entirely on an iPhone, Tangerine’s fascinating insight into the trans community has led to it becoming the breakout indie of the year, enjoying incredible reviews across the board. With awards season looming, Tangerine has earned its rightful place in many rundowns of the years best movies. David Opie sits down with director Sean Baker to discuss Tangerine’s many astonishing achievements. Our five star review is available to read here…
David Opie: Congratulations on the success of Tangerine. You’ve had an amazing critical response. I keep seeing the film appear on many critics best end of year lists. Did you ever think Tangerine would perform as well as it has? Have you been surprised by the film’s success?
Sean Baker: A little bit, yeah. I thought the film would divide audiences and critics 50/50. I had a feeling it would do all right with some of the critics, but I didn’t see it happening like this, and we’re just really happy about it.
DO: What’s your favourite moment in the film? What are you most proud of?
SB: As a director, I think that there are two moments that I’m most proud of, two sequences that come closest to the way that I originally envisioned them playing out. The first one is the makeshift brothel scene that took place in the sleazy little motel. It took a lot of work to find the right motel, the right actors and choreograph it all, so I’m very happy with how that turned out.
I’d also pick the final scene, as we weren’t sure we would be able to pull it off. Both the women (Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) were apprehensive about shooting that scene, so we needed to have our producers and PA’s basically guarding the laundromat so that nobody could see in. I only shot that scene once, which is never a smart thing to do. If you lose the footage, if your digital file gets corrupted, if anything goes wrong, then you’re really in a bad situation, but I felt that they both delivered an amazing performance in the first take, so I didn’t want to put them through it again. That was the first time I’ve ever felt moved on my own set. I’m not the kind of director who usually gets teary-eyed while shooting, but for that sequence, I was really moved and I thought we got it, let’s move on.
DO: It was such a vulnerable moment in the film. That makes complete sense. I imagine you can’t really recapture that easily.
SB: Right, and they both enhanced what we even had on the page. Just the performances they brought elevated the scene to a whole other level.
DO: Well, both the leads are phenomenal. I hope they receive all the accolades they deserve in the upcoming awards season. Do you think there’s a chance they could perform well at the big award shows?
SB: They’re both nominated for Spirits, which is about as important as it gets in the independent filmmaking world. As far as the Oscars go, we have no idea really. The very fact that they’re getting that recognition is good enough for me, but I know that it would be amazing if Mya got nominated. If there’s a chance that anyone could get nominated for this, then it would be Mya. It truly would be wonderful for her career and that’s really the most important thing for me, for the girls to use this to parlay this into the careers that they’ve always wanted. It’s a long shot, but the very fact that people are talking about it makes us feel like we did our job.
DO: There’s also been a lot of hype surrounding movies like The Danish Girl, where a lot of transgender films in Hollywood offer the key roles to cisgender performers. What’s your take on that?
SB: This is how I see it; Hollywood never wants to take risks, but because of where we are in 2015, most transgender women of colour who come from poverty don’t receive these opportunities, they’re living below the radar. We had to find Mya and Kiki through street casting.
The last thing Hollywood would do is go to the streets to try and cast. They always want stars in their films; Eddie Redmayne is a name. There aren’t really any known trans actors except for Laverne Cox, but the race thing doesn’t work in that particular case, so I wish that Hollywood would start thinking outside the box.
I think that as we move forward, studios are starting to see that people and just society in general are demanding that visibility, so it’s an important thing. Especially right now where we are in history, it just seems like the ethical thing to do. The unemployment rate among the trans commuunity is extremely high and we are aware that there are people within these communities who want to act, but Hollywood is all about the numbers.
DO: How much involvement did the trans community have ? I heard the two leads had some input in the script. Was this improvised as the film developed?
SB: The input in the script basically came from getting their (Mya and Kiki’s) approval. Chris Bergoch and I are cisgender men looking in from the outside, so we had to immerse ourselves in that world. I do that with every film I make, to varying degrees, but for this one, I had to spend several months trying to meet people who would welcome us into that world. Mya became one of those people and opened the door for us, introducing us to many people for our regular research meetings where we would sit and interview individual people.
One day, Mya introduced Kiki to us, and that was the moment when we realised they were going to become our two leads for the film. All during that time, we were observing, listening, bouncing ideas off the people from that area we befriended. Like my other films, I always encouraged improvisation on the set for Tangerine. As a director, I never want my actors to fully memorise lines, because I’m also the editor of my films, so I like to keep it fresh in the editing room. I like to have a lot of choices, it excites me, and theres a certain naturalism that comes from improv which is almost impossible to achieve in any other way.
I always give my wonderful actors credit there, because they really delivered in that department. I often ask for alternates and sometimes, those alternates would make their way into the movie, so my entire cast, not just Mya and Kiki are all wonderful at comedic improvisation. For example, Mickey O’Hagan, who played Dinah in the film, is incredible, really fast and came up with some incredible lines. Once the actors get to know their characters well enough, they have the gift of riffing and coming up with some hilarious lines.
DO: There are so many hilarious moments. Like you said, it all feels very authentic. The same is true of Starlet, the film you made before Tangerine. Both revolve around the sex industry in some capacity, but the focus is more on the friendships built within that context. Is this a conscious decision, something you wanted to actively explore or did this just happen naturally within the development of the film?
SB: We definitely didn’t feel like we had got it out of our system, leading us to another exploration of another world within the sex industry. I live in LA now, I’m from New York originally, so my first exploration developed from something I was exposed to through my work. We were actually casting adult film stars through a show that I was working on. I got to know them and realised that between their days of work, these stars are actually living mundane lives like the rest of us and I wanted to show that.
This all came about, because I live half a mile from the intersection of Santa Monica. I was drawn there because of my curiosity about the neighbourhood and also the fact that it was a red light district that’s never really been shown before. Sex work has been going on there for decades. It’s actually the end of an era there in fact.
Things used to be quite intense there, about a decade ago or even 15 years ago, when it was more full on, like 42nd Street in New York. It wasn’t just transgender sex workers back then. They also had gay hustlers, cross dressers, it was quite a scene. To tell you the truth, Tangerine takes place at the end of that era. You can actually see in the film that the neighbourhood has started to change, with recent additions that never would have existed even 10 years ago.
DO: At what stage of the process did you decide to shoot using an iPhone? Was this purely for budgetary concerns or was it more of an aesthetic choice? What was the thinking behind that?
SB: The initial reason we even explored other options was due to the budget. We didn’t really know what to do, because we had already scripted Tangerine out and we knew that we would be using several locations with a large ensemble cast. The producers told me that this was going to be very difficult to shoot and I also wanted to keep a small footprint, so it was a combination of these things.
I also realised that with the kind of movies I make, shooting on an iPhone would be great, allowing me to capture things that I haven’t been able to capture in the past. If I did Starlet again now, I would reshoot the garage sales at the beginning with an iPhone. The sales themselves were real, so we had to shoot them with a hidden camera from across the street. These days, we could have used an iPhone and captured it completely differently.
Using an iPhone for Tangerine allowed me to shoot clandestinely, to shoot hidden moments that I never thought I could ever get. I’m very happy with the result. Of course, we were very sceptical about how this would work out. It took us a little while, but when we finally got to the point where we embraced it, I had to go around and do the riot act, saying, “Look. We have to accept the that the iPhone can be just as important as a 35mm camera, or we’re never going to succeed here.”
DO: Well it turned out phenomenally well. You were definitely proved right, the film looks beautiful. You can see why people may have initially been worried about shooting with an iPhone, but Tangerine ended up looking very cinematic still, which is hugely impressive.
SB: We tried out best. When I found those anamorphic adaptors that fit over the lenses, that was one of the things that really convinced me that we would be able to elevate Tangerine to a cinematic level.
DO: Would you recommend utilising smartphone technology to other filmmakers?
SB: When you want to film candid moments, when you might be combining new actors with seasoned actors or even shooting with non-professionals, smartphone technology could help out in so many ways. I would particularly recommend using it for documentaries. I don’t see why you wouldn’t, to tell you the truth. You can get so much more from people. If you’re interviewing a subject, they’re going to be way more candid in front of a device that they use themselves, rather than looking at a camera that looks elitist and professional.
I would definitely recommend smartphone technology, but I’m still very much in love with celluloid, I always have been, and I mourn the loss of it. I hate the fact that celluloid is going away, so I’m not in any way saying smartphone technology should be our only choice.
My next movie will probably be shot on film, but I just did a fashion film for Kenzo, which I shot using an iPhone again on 4k. In the year and a half since I shot Tangerine, technology has advanced even further. It completely depends on the project you’re working on, but with the right focus, I definitely recommend using smartphone technology.
DO: Yes, the advancement of new technology should open up more options, rather than reducing the choices we already have. In regards to both the technical side and the script, Tangerine was one of the most unique films I saw this year. It had a really strong identity, but of course, every film has its influences too. Were there any particular films or filmmakers that had a particularly strong impact on Tangerine, even on a subconscious level?
SB: On a very conscious level, Mike Leigh is always a major influence on every one of my films. For Tangerine, I think it’s pretty apparent there’s a Secret And Lies thing going on, and that surprise party at the end of High Hopes also had a big impact. Those films definitely had an influence, but that’s really it.
Maybe some LA films inspired me for the way that they captured light anamorphically in the city, like Alex in Wonderland from early 70s. Some people also say there was a big influence from Run Lola Run and Slumdog Millionaire, which may have occurred subconsciously, but I’m not really heavily influenced by those films. I respect them, but I think the hyperactivity and the energy of Tangerine comes from the music and also the location. We were working in a dangerous area and it always felt like there was a nervous energy around while we were shooting, so it was just captured that way. Mike Leigh is the only influence you could cite that’s really apparent in Tangerine, not to mention legitimate.
DO: Now you say it, I can completely see the Mike Leigh comparisons. Do you have a favourite film of his? Secrets And Lies is a personal favourite of mine.
SB: I have to say it always comes back to Naked for me, but I really love the films he was making in the 80s and 90s. Naked is number one, but any handful of those from High Hopes to Life Is Sweet and Secrets And Lies, that whole era was great.
DO: Where does the title for Tangerine come from? Is that something you would like to share or would you rather audiences figured it out for themselves?
SB: It’s not a literal title, so it’s really down to how people want to interpret it. It’s a title we kept coming back to, because everybody had their own interpretation on set, which I thought was interesting. It’s the dominant hue of the film, so that’s obviously one of the reasons, but it’s really up to the audience.
DO: What’s next for you once promotion for Tangerine has been completed? You mentioned using celluloid again. Do you have a specific project in mind?
SB: We’re actually trying to get a film off the ground that takes place down in Florida, all about children living on route 192 in Orlando. It’s in the same realm as Tangerine in terms of social realism, but it will be a very different film in terms of style. It won’t be as hyperactive, but will cover its subject in a similar way. The film will look at the stories of unrepresented people and from that, we will then try to figure out a story that has universal themes attached to it. We want to build a story that many people can hopefully identify with and connect with the characters.
On another note, did you just hear that Haskell Wexer died? It’s all over Twitter. It’s weird, because we were just talking about filming clandestinely and he was one of the first guys to deal with this in Medium Cool, which became a major influence on all the films I love now. Movies that straddle the line between documentary and narrative, these are the films that talk to me the most right now.
Tangerine is available to stream on Netflix now. For more information, visit the official site here.
Many thanks to Sean Baker for taking the time for this interview.