Very well-known on the independent cinema scene for the Spirit Award nominated films TAKE OUT, PRINCE OF BROADWAY and STARLET (winner of the Robert Altman Spirit Award), Sean Baker defied expectations once again with the highly innovative and thoroughly enjoyable Tangerine. A real treat from start to finish, the film premiered at Sundance Film Festival 2015 where it counted among the most talked-about titles in the festival line-up.
Set in the sun-blistered streets of Los Angeles and shot entirely on an iPhone 5S, Tangerine follows Sin-Dee (the extraordinary Kiki Kitana Rodriguez), a transgender woman prowling Hollywood on Christmas Eve in search of the pimp who left her heartbroken. Enlisting the help of her best friend and crossing paths with a myriad other memorable characters, Sin-Dee will take you on a journey that will delight with many surprising scenes in which issues of sex, gender and race receive a refreshingly honest, exuberantly comic treatment.
ABOUT THE PRODUCTION
Coming off of his SXSW 2012 hit Starlet, which starred Dree Hemingway as a pornographic actress who forges an unlikely bond with an older woman who once dreamed of being a Hollywood star, writer/director Sean Baker was interested in once again making a film that provided a nonjudgmental, level-headed look at individuals who are often marginalized in the broader cultural conversation. Starlet had been praised for its lack of judgment with respect to those who work in the porn industry, and Baker wanted to bring that same kind of objectivity to another subculture with his next project, Tangerine. “Mark Duplass had asked me if I had an idea for a new film concept,” Baker explained. “I had recently been at the New Zealand Film Festival where I was presenting Starlet, and I was very inspired by the kinds of films I saw.” So when Duplass – a prolific actor, director, writer and producer in the indie sphere – came calling with a request that they collaborate on a project, Baker was prepared with an idea for his subject matter.
Baker had recently befriended Mya Taylor, a local African-American transgender woman he met at the LGBTQ Center in Hollywood. “Mya was very familiar with the area and neighborhood, had vivid stories to share and also had a desire to act. She came from a performing arts background, so we knew at that point that we had found somebody we wanted to work with.” Said Taylor, “Sean was very sweet and he was very direct with what he wanted from me. That really attracted me to his project. I’m very open the experiences that I have personally had.”
The Los Angeles neighborhood where Mya lived is close to the intersection of Santa Monica and Highland, to become the backdrop for the developing story. Explained Baker, “it is notorious for some of its underground economy, in particular sex work and drug use. So my co-screenwriter Chris Bergoch and I decided that we wanted to explore that world and, like my other films, we knew there would be an extensive research process. We told Mark we wanted to make a personal film that took place in that area. He gave us the thumbs up.”
With Duplass on board as a producer, Baker, Bergoch, and Taylor dove into researching the underground economy in their neighborhood, and they ended up befriending a number of transgender sex workers. It wasn’t long before the screenwriters began to put a story together – a story that locked into place when Taylor introduced them to her friend Kitana Kiki Rodriguez. The dynamic between the two women was extremely appealing to Baker. “Kiki was a trans mentor and a trans advocate and she was also very familiar with that area. Mya and Kiki had this camaraderie together. There was something about it that I thought could make a perfect duo, I could see the two of them on the screen. And it was at that point that I told them I want to make a film with both of them.”
For Taylor, the offer to appear in the film was readily accepted. “At the time that I met Sean, I was going through a rough patch in my life. I had just started my transition. So to have an opportunity like that, considering the fact that I’ve always wanted to be an entertainer, I wasn’t going to turn it down.” Discussing various narrative ideas with Taylor and Rodriguez, Baker and Bergoch eventually arrived at a story that appealed to them cinematically. “Kiki and Mya said realism was extremely important to them – they wanted to show what life was like for women who work that area,” Baker explained. “But they also wanted it to be fun, a movie that they’d want to watch. So I wanted to try something a little different with this film, tonally, because I thought that approaching this film the I’ve approached my other films, in a voyeuristic, observational style would not be the right way to do this. I wanted to change styles a little bit and find a way to allow the audience to participate in the chaos of the characters’ lives.” Baker and Bergoch got to work, the script was soon written and Baker launched into the shoot.
The Story of Tangerine
The premise of Tangerine grew out of the in-depth conversations Baker and Bergoch had with Taylor and Rodriguez. Rodriguez plays Sin-Dee, a trans sex worker who has just been released from a short prison stint; Taylor plays Alexandra, an aspiring singer and Sin-Dee’s best friend. She, too, is a trans sex worker. Upon being released from prison, Sin-Dee learns that her boyfriend and pimp, Chester (James Ransome), has been cheating on her with a woman who is Cisgender female. The genesis of this narrative was borrowed from real life, as Baker explained. “Kiki told us a story she’d heard about a girl, a transgender sex worker, who found out that her boyfriend was actually sleeping with a Cisgender female. She was so upset that she wanted to actually find this girl and force a confrontation between herself, the girl, and the boyfriend. And it was something that struck me as quite dramatic. It was a launching point for us because it’s immediate drama that would take us on a journey.”
The film – which takes place on Christmas Eve – then begins following Sin-Dee and Alexandra as they go their separate ways. For Sin-Dee, the day becomes about exactly one thing: exacting vengeance upon the girl whom Chester has cheated on her with, as well as confronting Chester himself. However, a third storyline is introduced early on: that of an Armenian cab driver, Ramzik (Karren Karagulian), whose link to the girls is not immediately known. Karagulian has been in all of Baker’s films, and the two have a strong working relationship. “Karren is an amazing actor. There’s a very large Armenian community here in Los Angeles and when I told Karren I was making this film, we started discussing how we could incorporate an Armenian subplot. We ended up compiling a cast full of Armenian stars, these classic actors from the Armenian film world.” Those stars play the members of Ramzik’s family. For Karagulian, the bond with Baker is due, in no small part, to how Baker allows Karagulian to trust his instincts. “Sean always allows me to bring my own qualities to the character,” Karagulian explained. “Throughout the years we have developed a lot of mutual trust and I think as a result we are often on the same page.”
As we spend more time with Ramzik, the connection between him and the women becomes clear: Ramzik is one of their most devoted patrons. “Razmik is a family man with a clear understanding of the responsibilities that come with it but he is also living a double life,” Karagulian explained. “He has discovered a personal and natural desire that is not widely accepted within today’s social norms, especially if one has a wife and child. It is also a life style that would be violently shunned in his homeland. So he has found himself trapped between two worlds and forced to live a secret life.”
While Baker and Bergoch were writing, the decision to humanize Ramzik before revealing his secret sexual predilection was a crucial storytelling decision. “It’s important to allow the audience to become connected to a character during their everyday routine, something that everybody can identify with,” Chris Bergoch explains. Baker adds, “I wanted to show the mundane parts of everybody’s life before getting to the fireworks.”
Ramzik’s “payoff” comes in a touching scene where he has a sexual encounter with Alexandra in a car wash – a scene that demonstrates the intimacy and shared history between the two characters. “Alexandra is quite a professional and knows what she’s doing, she is able to make not only Razmik but also the audience believe that this is more than just a business transaction,” Baker explained. “But that’s part of being a sex worker. But there’s another way of looking at it. There’s a lot of loneliness on the streets of Los Angeles and I wanted to show that there was history between the two – even if just a business history, still, there was a comfort level between them.”
While Alexandra is having her encounter with Ramzik, Sin-Dee ends up finding Dinah (Mickey O’Hagan), the woman whom Chester cheated on Sin-Dee with. Sin-Dee physically assaults Dinah and essentially abducts her, with the purpose of taking her to Chester and confronting him. For Baker, the intensity of the scene was important to convey. “We knew from the beginning that we were going to approach that scene aggressively. It’s violent, it’s dangerous, and we wanted to capture that. It’s a balancing act – we wanted to retain the audience’s sympathy for Sin-Dee, but at the same time we wanted to stay realistic. I wanted to see how far we could actually take things without losing the audience.”
However, Sin-Dee and Dinah’s first stop is not Chester; it’s a club that Alexandra is singing in that night. It makes for a striking counterpoint, Sin-Dee and her captive sitting quietly in a nightclub as Alexandra signs quiet songs to a mostly empty room. It’s in this scene that the film dramatically shifts from a tone of edginess and aggression to one of beauty and tranquility, if only for a moment. “When we got to that scene, it almost becomes surreal,” Baker explained. “We’re almost inside the head of Alexandra during that entire scene. You know, the lighting changes, the mood changes, the composition change, and suddenly we’re seeing Alexandra very much the way she wants to be presented on stage and in the spotlight. We took that approach because you know; we wanted to find the calm in the chaos. Also, this is our way of allowing Mya to show the audience this is one her talents. She’s an amazing actress, but she’s also a singer. So when Chris and I were initially writing this film, she said she wanted to perform in it.”
For Taylor, the performance came naturally. “Shooting that scene was actually very fun, because I was in my own element. I’m sitting on stage in this red dress and I’m singing this song and it was like a natural high, I was just floating on a cloud, because I was so excited. Because the song was slow and soft like a lullaby, it took me back to a special place, and then Alexandra looks out and sees Sin-Dee sitting there. So seeing her there while I was singing, it was heartwarming.”
The heartwarming moment is the eye of the storm, however – shortly thereafter, Sin-Dee, Alexandra, and Dinah will end up in a confrontation with Chester in a local donut shop. To make matters worse, Ramzik and his family members become embroiled in the conversation, which becomes the culmination of the film’s many conflicts. Ransone recalled how shooting the chaotic scene was itself a chaotic experience. “Our location was a donut shop on Santa Monica Boulevard that wasn’t locked off, so customers would come in during the takes. There were a lot of sketchy Hollywood meth-heads lurking in and out of that place. There are so many little segments in that scene to piece together. The funniest thing was, it was Golden Globes night, and the Globes were being handed out literally five blocks away.”
Baker explains, “Chris and I wanted the film to come full circle… with the climax happening where the story begins. For me, nothing can be as exhilarating as a convergence of adversarial characters in a single location. I have personally witnessed conflicts go down in Donut Time and because of the shop’s tight quarters, the drama is escalated. I knew it would be an exercise in controlled chaos and before the story was even broken, we knew this scene would be our climax.”
Tangerine and the iPhone
One of the most visually striking components of the film is its look, which is grainy yet also highly saturated, creating a sense of tension within the images. Though it may not be apparent upon first glance, Baker and Director of Photography Radium Cheung actually shot the film on iPhones. Baker explained that there were a number of factors that contributed to the decision. “The iPhone 5S had recently come out with its better camera. So we started thinking about how the iPhone could help us. We realized it could be good for shooting with first-time actors because it wouldn’t intimidate them and the extras that we were grabbing off the street. It allowed us to shoot clandestinely. We were able to have a very small footprint. But I wanted to still make this film extremely cinematic, so we shot with anamorphic lenses. They were actually prototypes from a company called Moondog Labs, which provided us with prototype anamorphic adapters for the iPhone. Nobody else had shot like this. And then on top of that, I was treating the film quite heavily in post to really give it its own unique look.” Cheung was also a huge fan of the first-of-their-kind adapters. “They really were great for what we were doing, as they turn the phone camera into real anamorphic capturing devices. This gave the picture a much more classical film look. We were so lucky that the prototypes were made just in time and were available to us!”