Interview: Sean Baker’s ‘TANGERINE,’ Shooting a Film About Transgender Streetwalkers with an iPhone

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IMG_0425Preston Barta // Features Editor

The world of prostitution and gender roles is foreign to some and even vile to others. TANGERINE may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but the beauty that everyone should find in it is how different and unique it is. It drops you in the underbelly of Los Angeles and takes you on a thrilling adventure with two of the most fun and lovable characters.

Shot exclusively on iPhone 5s, TANGERINE presents a simple yet effective story. It tells of two transgender prostitutes working the blocks around Santa Monica and Highland in L.A. Sin-Dee Rella (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) is fresh out of a prison stint on Christmas Eve when her best friend, Alexandra (Mya Taylor), brings up that her pimp/boyfriend, Chester (Jason Ransone), has been sleeping with a woman (Mickey O’Hagan). Thus, leading Sin-Dee and Alexandra to tear through the city to find and confront him.

Fresh Fiction had the opportunity recently to ring up filmmaker Sean Baker (STARLET, 2012) to talk about shooting the film on iPhones 5s, working around business operations, and teaming up with the Duplass brothers.

TANGERINE Co-writer/Director Sean Baker. Photo courtesy of Daniel Bergeron.

TANGERINE Co-writer/Director Sean Baker. Photo courtesy of Daniel Bergeron.

What kind of release is TANGERINE seeing? Is it only New York and Los Angeles, or will it roll out?

Sean Baker: “It’s not that limited, but Magnolia is putting it out. This is my fifth feature, so I’ve learned that you just have to push as much as possible or it won’t get recognition. In San Diego, they have one theater that is playing it down there, which is like an art-house theater. It’s all on our website, but we’re do a pretty good release for it. But it depends on how well it does this weekend to see how it will roll out.”

That’s good! And with the Duplass brothers being involved, I imagine it will turn up on Netflix soon, since they have that deal with them.

Baker: “Yeah, hopefully within two-to-three months it’ll have a Video-On-Demand and Netflix release.”

Very cool, very cool.

Baker: “You saw it at the Oak Cliff Film Festival a few weeks back, right?”

Yes, that’s right. I heard so many great things about it from its premiere at Sundance and Mark Duplass was in town not too long ago talking about it, so safe to say, I was pretty stoked about seeing it. And I’m glad I could, because I really enjoyed it a lot. I didn’t feel that the fact that it was shot on iPhones was a gimmick or anything like that. I believe if I didn’t know, I would have enjoyed just as much because of the rich characters and engaging story.

Baker: “That’s so wonderful to hear. Thank you. Yeah, Mark has been so supportive, so that’s so nice to hear that he’s spreading the word.”

Yeah. It sparked from a question I asked him – and be prepared for this question later because I always conclude on this question – if he could teach a class of his creation, what would he teach, and he said, “I would teach a micro budget course on shooting films with an iPhone. Sean Baker just did it in TANGERINE.” It’s very inspiring to me that you can film anything with your phone and it can come out as great as this film did.

Baker: “Oh, that’s funny. It’s funny that he feels that way because I’m actually the opposite. I am so sick of micro budget movies and making them [Laughs]. I would rather teach a course on the benefits of celluloid and how important it is to keep it.”

Sean Baker directing Mya Taylor in TANGERINE. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Sean Baker directing Mya Taylor in TANGERINE. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

So do you think you would have shot TANGERINE the same way if you had more money?

Baker: “No, I wouldn’t have. And whether that is a good thing or not, I don’t know. I definitely would not have, though. I get jealous every time I open up the trades and see that Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson get to shoot on 70mm film. I know that’s probably what people don’t want to hear; they want to hear that I am pushing this alternative way of filming. And I don’t mean to be negative about anything, but we had to do this because of our budget. We were out of favors; we couldn’t even do DSLRs because that would have required extra group effort.

I did an Apple talk in Sydney, Australia, and I said this very same stuff that I’m saying to you now and the moderator of the panel gave me this look of, “Wait, what? The whole reason you’re here is because of it.” And I was like, “No. No, I know. I do feel as though we are doing something major by shooting digitally, but at the same time, I would have rather shot using celluloid if I had that option.” I’m a filmmaker who wants to make films, so I have to take what I’m given and make the most of it. It’s always about making the most of what you have. If you don’t do that, then you fail. If you go in thinking, “Oh, I’m going to make an inferior film because I have an inferior camera,” then you will fail. You know what I mean?”

Right. That’s makes sense. Was it all problematic shooting the way that you did, though? Like, the look of it is great– the color, etc. But how was it dealing with lighting and sound?

Baker: “Actually, it terms of the technical aspect, it was breeze. It really was. We shot with an app called FiLMiC Pro at 24 frames per second. It locks all aperture and focus, etc. We synced it all up, obviously, in post. We used a professional sound mixer/recorder; his name is Irin Strauss and he did a wonderful job. He used all the traditional sound tools to capture the sound.

As soon as we had the raw footage that we would take off our phone every night and back it up, we would convert them from h264 files to ProRes. After that, it would all sync up and it was a breeze.”

What did you edit on?

Baker: “Final Cut. We just colored it on DaVinci Resolve. But in terms of the technical side, media management and workflow, it really was a breeze.”

Yeah, I was curious to hear you side of it, because Mickey O’Hagan, who plays Dinah in the film, came to Dallas for the screening at Oak Cliff last month and she mentioned a story about how the sound guy was locked in the trunk or something like that.

Baker: “Yeah [Laughs], but I think that would have happened no matter what camera we were shooting on. He knows guerilla filmmaking and that’s just what he had to do. We didn’t have a follow car for that scene, shooting in the car. It was actually being driven by the actors, so he had to hang out in the trunk.

What was interesting– the only drawback, when people ask me about it, besides shooting with no depth of field, was having no monitors. With an iPhone 5s, the phone screen is your monitor. We were shooting anamorphically; we were looking at a squeezed image the whole time. So we had to imagine what it would look like when it was stretched out. But then I thought about it, that’s how Sergio Leone shot his westerns. He had to imagine what it would look like when it was stretched. That’s just the thing about understanding widescreen filmmaking, so it wasn’t that big of a deal. You just have to get used to it. But now that I have the iPhone 6, I can’t imagine what we could have done.”

So because you had to imagine what it would look like, did you not run into any re-shoots?

Baker: “We had re-shoots, but not for that reason. We had re-shoots because we had to do pickups; it related to the story. We had to fill in holes that were missing here or there.

One of the things that was interesting was the re-shoots we had to do with Mya Taylor, who plays Alexandra. She was taking hormones for her transition and we had to redo this one shot seven months later, and you can actually tell. Nobody will know it but us, but once we pointed it out, people began to notice. You can see that her facial structure has changed a little bit since then.”

Oh, wow. Yeah, I didn’t notice, and I edit footage all day long and notice details like that. So you’re good.

Baker: “[Laughs] Oh, good.”

One of the funniest bits to me was when one of the workers – I don’t want to say which one – receives oral sex while going through a car wash. And during that long take you can barely see the car wash workers in the background, and you can kind of tell that they know what’s going on. Did those workers know what was going on during that scene – since those guys really work there – or did you tell them after the fact to get a real reaction out of them?

Baker: “Yes. They knew we were shooting, and then we had to get everyone’s signature for the release form. But we went through that wash twice, so I think it was the second time we had gone through that they were more conscious of the fact; they were more conscious of the camera. We had permission to shoot and everything, but yeah, yeah– Do they make eye contact?”

No, no. They don’t. You can just kind of tell based off their faces, where they are acting like they don’t know what’s going on but they do. They do.

Baker: “Right [Laughs]. Exactly.”

L-R: Sean Baker, Mickey O'Hagan,  Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Ian Edwards in TANGERINE. Photo courtesy of TANGERINE Facebook Page.

L-R: Sean Baker, Mickey O’Hagan, Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Ian Edwards in TANGERINE. Photo courtesy of TANGERINE Facebook Page.

Was shooting around business hours and operations a difficult thing, like the donut shop or the restaurant in the film?

Baker: “I co-directed another film called TAKE OUT with Shih-Ching Tsou. She actually plays Mamasan in TANGERINE, the donut shop owner. She’s also one of the producers of TANGERINE. Anyway, we got used to that method of shooting because of doing TAKE OUT, which was a very low budget movie. We shot at a Chinese take out and we couldn’t interfere with their business. We kind of got used to how to shoot something like that and work around customers.

We didn’t have enough money to buy out Donut Time entirely. We paid to film at their location, but we told them we wouldn’t interfere. So every time a customer came in we would either shoot it or wait, but that depended on how intense the scene was. If there was too much screaming or anything I would call cut. I don’t know if you noticed but when a customer comes in Mamasan says, ‘I have other customers.’ That was actually a real customer. So after we shot it we would let them know what we were doing and would get their permission. As long as you’re polite and not in any way disturbing their business, I think that it’s OK. They were OK with us.

The Mexican restaurant was wonderful, too. I think our producer bonded pretty well with the owner of that business over the fact that they both grew up in Jersey. So the owner just let us have that entire backroom that you see in the film for free.”

That’s awesome. Seems like it all went rather smoothly.

Baker: “It did. It was very nice of them.”

Now, I imagine when you were in the research process for the film, you came across many interesting people with many interesting stories. So were there any stories that you found fascinating but do to the way you steered the narrative couldn’t work into the final feature?

Baker: “There were some stories we heard that were extremely, well, there were different takes on different things. We had heard stories about cops in the area, but what we had to do was really just pick and choose to see what would get us to the place where we logically needed to get to. For example, as you may know, there have been a tremendous amount of murders in the trans community, especially women of the trans community of color. They are the victims of an incredible amount of violence. There was a talk of whether something like that should be covered, and even in one of the Q&As we did someone asked why something like that was not included because it would seem like every couple of weeks you would hear about an unfortunate event like that take place. The way that I tackled that was I said, ‘Look, this isn’t the film for that. With this film, I definitely want to show the hardships and brutal reality of what they deal with, but at the same time, this film is about friendship, and having universal themes that would allow audiences that aren’t a part of that world to identify with them.’ That was very important to me, so we decided at the end to show a hate crime, but a hate that didn’t end with one of their deaths. It was to show that these girls really only have each other and they are family. What happens at the end of the movie is a story that Mya told me that happened to many people in that area.”

It was a very powerful ending.

Baker: “Thank you so much.”

TANGERINE opens in select theaters in NY and CA today, and it’ll expand over the weeks.
Dallas: Angelika Film Center – Dallas on 7/24.

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About author

Preston Barta

Hello, there! My name is Preston Barta, and I am the features editor of Fresh Fiction and senior film critic at the Denton Record-Chronicle. My cinematic love story began where I was born: off planet on the isolated desert world of the Jakku system. It's there I passed the time scavenging for loose parts with my good friend Rey. One day I found an old film projector and a dusty reel of the 1975 film JAWS. It rocked my world so much that I left my kinfolk in the rearview (I so miss their morning cups of green milk) to pursue my dreams of writing about film. It wasn't long until I met two gents who said they would give me a lift. I can't recall their names, but one was an older man who liked to point a lot and the other was a tall, hairy fella. They got me as far as one of Jupiter's moons where we crossed paths with the U.S.S. Enterprise. Some pointy-eared bastard said I was clear to come aboard. He saw that I was clutching my beloved shark movie and invited me to the "moving pictures room" where he was screening the 1993 film JURASSIC PARK to his crew. He said my life would be much more prosperous if I were familiar with more work by the god named Steven Spielberg. From there, my love for cinema blossomed. Once we reached planet Earth, everything changed. I found the small town of Denton, TX, and was welcomed into the Barta family. They showed me the writings of local film critic Boo Allen. He became my hero and caused me to chase a degree in film and journalism. After my studies at graduate of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, I met some film critics who showed me the ropes and got me into my first press screening: 2011's THE GREEN LANTERN. Don't worry; I recovered just fine. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD was only four years away.