Sean Baker on Making This Summer’s Indie Hit, Tangerine

Photo: Daniel Zuchnik/WireImage

Our critic David Edelstein called the new film Tangerine "everything an entertaining, old-fashioned, mainstream Hollywood comedy should be but no longer is," and that rave is all the more remarkable being that Tangerine couldn't be more contemporary. Shot solely on an iPhone 5s (with a Steadicam and lenses employed to help give it a glossier look), Tangerine follows two trans sex workers in Los Angeles, Sin-Dee (Kitana "Kiki" Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor), whose sweet and modest birthday celebration at Donut Time kicks off a raucous mission of revenge after Sin-Dee finds out her boyfriend has been cheating. We talked to director Sean Baker — who previously made Take Out (about a Chinese takeout deliveryman) and the acclaimed Starlet — about how it all came together.

Many people have focused on the actual technical approach to the film rather than the content itself. Do you find that people are more curious about that than the characters in the movie?
No, I don’t think it’s curiosity. It’s people being somewhat cautious about how they ask questions, because these days, semantics can get you in trouble, and people don’t even know how to word the questions about this. Even reading all the reviews, I sometimes have to correct critics and say, “Please don’t use this word, use this word,” or, “Please use the proper pronouns. Please don’t use ‘prostitute’ anymore, use ‘sex worker.’” It’s changing and people are aware of that. I was just in Sydney for our international premiere, and somebody had the same question you just had — they were like, “I’m upset that the Sydney audience is asking only about the iPhone and nothing about the content!” And I was like, “No, that’s universal.”

Is every trans role in the film actually played by trans actresses?
Yes, every transgender role is played by a transgender performer — a thespian. There’s one character at the end who screams “drama” from across the street, that’s a cross-dresser, but all the transgender roles are being played by transgender actresses or actors.

Were you informed and aware about that community, or is that something the actresses taught you along the way?
You do as much personal research as you can, and there was a lot of research that came from Mya and the other women that I met, and those were more detailed anecdotes. Those were stories about getting by day-to-day, their dealings with the police officers, different forms of discrimination they’ve faced.

You have a track record of focusing on professions that are usually swept under the rug in some way.
They can be seen as labor films, but after we made Take Out, I thought that perhaps we should start stepping away from the mechanics of vocation and instead focus on more universal themes and working those into stories that could take place anywhere. With different details, this could've taken place in Suburbia, USA. Somebody tweeted me the other day and they said, “Did it begin as a trans film or did it begin as a film about the intersection?" And that made me think, I wouldn’t call this a trans film. This is a look at such a subculture that it should be seen as more a film about sex workers than that they happen to be transgender. It just happens to be that transgender women of color in this community and in many communities are one of the most — if not the most — vulnerable communities in the world.

How did you settle on the movie's comic tone?
It came out of the fact that I was heading down a road where I felt that if I was going to continue to explore worlds that I wasn’t a part of — that doing it too much in an observational manner or too much from a witnessing-from-a-distance thing — I was becoming condescending towards its characters and the world that we were focused on. Mya was the one who helped me see this because very early on, about three weeks into the whole process, she said to me, “I’m going to make this film with you, and I trust you, but you have to promise me two things.” And she said, literally, “You have to show the streets for real — its brutal reality. Even if it’s un-p.c. or even if it’s hard to look at, I want moments in there that just show true realism.” And then she goes, “And I want you to make this funny. I want to be laughing through this entire thing, and I want a film that I can laugh at.”

Was that tricky?
It was a balancing act. I went home that night thinking about it and knowing that if I set down that road, that I would be definitely dividing audiences, and some people — no matter where they’re from, what community they're from — would not appreciate our approach to this subject. But at the same time, I thought if we didn’t do that, it would be condescending and it would be paternalistic. I was not going to spend two and a half years of my life and these girls’ two years making a film that I felt was dishonest. In the end, it was more about honoring Kiki and Mya, and I would only move forward if they approved.

What kind of help did they give you?
Mya saved me a lot early on with the guidance, and then Kiki saved me a lot later on. When I use “save,” you know what I’m talking about? Like, they helped me tremendously as a person from outside that community. After I would edit ten minutes, I would ask Kiki to come in and I would show her the ten minutes and ask her for notes. And there was one time where I threw a track of music down — I think it was the Donut Time scene — and it totally ruined the whole movie. It made it into one big farce and suddenly turned it into something it shouldn’t have been. And Kiki was the first one to tell me, “Remove that.” Again, I slept on it, and the next day, I woke up to realize she was right.

You said that you don’t really feel this is a “trans” movie, but it's coming out at a time when trans identity is so politicized and at the cultural forefront. How do you feel about being a part of that conversation?
Well, I’m happy to be a part of the conversation. I’m happy that this film is a part of the conversation, but I hope people understand that this is just one of a million stories that can be told. This is just a micro-community, and so that has to be kept in mind. It’s a wonderful thing what’s happening right now, and when we set down this road two and a half years ago, we had no idea [what would come]. I live in West Hollywood, so I had an inkling that it was becoming part of the Zeitgeist, but I had no idea. It’s wonderful to have Laverne Cox out there and television shows that are bringing visibility, but it’s all about Caitlyn Jenner [right now] because one of our biggest celebrities ever has transitioned. That’s what I think really, really brought it forward.