If you’re exhausted with the endless onslaught of Marvel comic book adaptations and disappointing male stripper comedies proliferating your local cinemas, Sean Baker’s Tangerine, a shaggy, often-frenetic dramedy about a pair of transgender sex workers, Alexandra and Sin-Dee (impressive newcomers Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, both trans in real life), having a rough day on the mean streets of Hollywood, is here to offer a welcome respite. Baker might not be a household name — yet — but the talented 44-year-old filmmaker has developed serious cachet within the industry thanks to the acclaim that greeted his last two movies, Starlet and Prince of Broadway, both made for a budgets comparable to what the average person spends on petrol each year. Tangerine (in select theaters this Friday and expanding throughout the summer) should launch Baker into the bigger leagues. Already one of the most buzzed-about movies at Sundance last winter, the comedy-drama has been widely-written about for having been shot with an iPhone 5 (though you wouldn’t know it), which gives the film a startling immediacy, but it’s just as notable for the unshowy performances of its leading ladies, as well as for chronicling a rarely-seen subculture. Queerty spoke with Baker about how he gained trust of transgender newcomers, the clandestine shooting of the movie in Hollywood and the universal appeal of the film’s story.
Queerty: As a straight Caucasian man, how did you come to tell a story about transgender women of color?
Sean Baker: I live about half a mile from the corner of Santa Monica and Highland [the neighborhood where the film takes place]. I was just drawn to it. I can’t explain exactly why, other than from a filmmaker’s point of view I knew there would be some interesting stories there and I could tell a cinematic story. We went in there not knowing anything. We usually do extensive research. Chris Bergoch, who wrote the screenplay, and I just started pounding the pavement and introducing ourselves to people and telling them what we planned on doing.
It seems like a tight-knit group who hang out in that area. How did they initially react to you guys?
At first there was apprehension. They might have thought we were cops or johns or who knows what? We weren’t finding that one person who could be a collaborator. We learned from Prince of Broadway, which is a film I made before Starlet, that being from outside that world you need to find that one person to be your passport. In this case we found Mya at the LGBT Center. She was hanging out in the courtyard with some friends. We saw her from across the courtyard. There was just something electrifying about her. She was the one of all her friends who just stood out and was drawing me in. I decided we couldn’t leave until we introduced ourselves. We walked over and it was one of those moments when I knew it was perfect timing. Who knows whether she’d have been there the next day? The next thing you know Mya was showing the enthusiasm I was looking for and we exchanged contact information. The next thing we knew we were hanging out at the local Jack in the Box and we heard all of her stories and anecdotes.
How long did you meet before you found the story for the film?
It was once or twice a week over the course of a couple of months. She’d bring people into the Jack in the Box to introduce to us. One day she brought in Kiki and as soon as she sat down next to Mya, I thought, Here we go! Dynamic duo. They contrast each other and they complement each other. Visually, they were perfect, and then Kiki opened her mouth and she was hilarious. We went down that road of developing something together. It was Kiki who brought the “woman scorned” plot to the table. She said that one time this happened. She filled us in and we thought that was the perfect “A plot” for this film.
The first gaining of their trust was to show them you’re a legitimate filmmaker, so that was as easy as handing them DVDs. Mya connected over Starlet and Kiki connected over Prince of Broadway. I knew I’d won them over with the films. Then, yes, there was the trust issue. I was very open with them from the beginning. We had no idea then that the trans movement would become as much of the zeitgeist as it has. At the time I was still very conscientious that this is a sensitive issue and I’m a cisgender white male so there might be some apprehension or resistance to someone like me trying to tell a story like this. I told Mya that I would only do it with her and Kiki’s approval every step of the way. I wanted them to be happy with this film and with the representation of this subculture. By that I mean, trans women of color who are sex workers. So she said to me early on that she trusted me and wanted to make the film with me.
Did she have any caveats about how the characters would be portrayed?
She asked me to promise two things: It had to be extremely realistic and show the brutal reality of what these women have to deal with, the hardships, everything that comes with being a trans woman of color sex worker. She told me she wanted the movie to be laugh-out-loud funny. She said, “When you’re on the corner there’s humor out there and I want the movie to be entertaining.” I looked at her and thought, That’s a tall order. That’s a balancing act. It was already risky making this movie, but leaning toward comedy was really risky. Then I thought, Of course she’s right. Any other way would be condescending. If we started making an overtly heavy-handed, plight of-type movie, it would be treating these women as subjects to be studied rather than connecting to them as human beings.
While doing the research with them at Jack in the Box everyday I realized it was like watching stand-up comics. They’re extremely witty and were always finishing each other’s sentences, setting up each other’s jokes and delivering punchlines. I realized these women are dealing with such hardships that they use humor to deal with it.
I think it’s admirable that your film doesn’t portray sex workers of color as victims.
We decided that one of the themes of this movie would be friendship. I wanted audiences to connect with these women the way I did. It was important to be aware of the discrimination and violence and the dangers these women face on a daily basis. At the same time, that wasn’t the story we were telling. We wanted to bring these two characters together and show how friendship overcomes everything and how they have to support each other because society has shunned and alienated them. That’s the story we wanted to tell.
Has that been an issue with audiences so far?
At a screening someone stood up and asked if it was appropriate not to show a scene of violence against these women, given the fact that there are so many incidents these days. That’s true. Even though right now the transgender movement is so much in the zeitgeist and people are so much more aware, violence has risen 13 percent in the last year. That’s not the story we’re telling. We’re telling a story about friendship and we had to pick and choose about what we would put in this film. This is just one film. Hopefully, there will be many more films that focus on trans characters.
We didn’t fabricate anything, except for maybe Mya’s performance in Hamburger Mary’s [her character performs Victor Herbert’s “Toyland” to a nearly empty bar] and having to pay to play. That came to me from being a filmmaker and going to film festivals and having to put my film on the screen. I think all artists can connect with that. Every vignette and subplot in the movie — from the way the cops interfere with the girls to the hate crime at the end — is based on stories that we heard from Mya and the other girls.
I’m intrigued by Rasmik, the married Armenian cab driver on the down low and obsessed with Sin-Dee. Did you meet with guys like him?
I’d heard stories about how cab drivers solicit services from girls. Rasmik really came out of the fact that I wanted to work with Karren Karagulian again and there just happens to be a large Armenian community in Los Angeles so it just worked out. When I approached Karren I told him that I was making a film about two transgender sex workers in L.A. and asked, “How am I going to work you into it?” He said, “I’ll be a cab driver!” It’s funny that in all the press I’ve done that Armenian subplot is never brought up. I think it’s important because it’s really the other parallel story of infidelity being told. I was so incredibly lucky to have such a star-studded Armenian cast. Alla Tumanian, Arsen Grigoryan and Luiza Nersisyan… they’re all big stars over there. Arsen is the Sophia Loren of Armenia. It was an incredible honor to work with them.
Your film is very objective. You don’t judge the characters despite the awful things they sometimes do. Do you personally find them relatable?
I try to find something to relate to in every character. That’s something Chris and I said we wanted to do. We took it from the way De Sica [the Italian neorealist director] would hold longer on certain scenes. That’s why we held the camera on the characters a beat longer to show that everyone is going through it and has a history. The only people we didn’t give a second to were the guys who commit the hate crime at the end. We did that on purpose because they don’t deserve more screen time.
Shooting with the iPhone must have made filming inconspicuous. I wondered if some of the background actors even knew they were in a movie.
It was very inconspicuous. We learned how to do this with the previous films. As soon as you yell “cut!” we’d chase everyone down to have them sign a release. Everyone who is recognizable on camera signed a release. You shoot clandestinely, then you quickly try to save the day. In the U.S. it’s a legal thing. In this case, yeah, we had a very small footprint. If you saw us from across the street, you’d never know we were shooting a film. The only giveaway was our sound gear, because we had a boom on a sound pole. Otherwise, you’d never notice.
What do you see as the universality of this story?
It’s one of those themes that everyone in the world can identify with these themes of friendship and jealousy that’s the result of infidelity. Those are the universal themes we wanted to tackle. I’ve been so involved with this world from day one two-and-a-half years ago that I realized just recently that the first scene for some people isn’t a shocker but they’re trying to get a handle on what’s going on. It’s two transgender girls talking about a cheating pimp. It’s a lot to wrap your head around. So my hope is that after the first 10 minutes people will see the appealing personas of my two leads and just get invested in the film and fall in love with the character the way I did.
Watch Tangerine‘s trailer below.