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Sean Baker on Bringing Comedy to ‘Tangerine,’ Identity, the American Dream, and More

Written by Kyle Turner on November 12, 2015 

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Doused in luscious color and comedy, Sean Baker’s Tangerine dares to do a handful of things, but its greatest feat is how unradical its radicalism is. At the heart of the screwball antics of Mya Taylor and Kiki Rodriguez is simplicity: friendship, broken hearts, and aspirations towards comfort, accepted identity, and social mobility.

That it’s filmed on iPhones isn’t some mere gimmick, but crucial to its examination of self-identity in a world where exploration of such is a luxury for the privileged. We talked to Sean Baker about working with his two stars, the American Dream, and self-actualization through selfies.

The Film Stage: One of the things I noticed about Tangerine was that the stars, Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor, really seem to dictate where the camera goes. The camera is fascinated by and in adoration of these characters.

Sean Baker: Yeah, when we settled on what was going to be our A story — you know, the story of the mission to find the cisgender woman — that was the one that we settled on because of the fact that it was going to take our characters on a journey. At that time in my research process, I had come to just fall in love with both Mya and Kiki, in love with their personas and physicality, and I wanted to spend a lot of time with them and the characters they would be portraying. So Chris Bergoch and I – Chris Bergoch co-wrote the screenplay – we had no idea what this was going to be before actually immersing ourselves in this world. We didn’t know what it was going to be. One lead character or two or three? But when we found Mya and she introduced us to Kiki, it was at that point that I knew we were going to have to write a script with two protagonists for these two women to play, because they were just so dynamic.

And I recall reading that one of the original intentions was to be significantly darker, but you made it into a comedy at the suggestion of your stars.

Well, it was more like a request. I guess you could call it a suggestion, but, being a cisgender white male from outside of that world, we knew from the very beginning that we had to be… I’m gonna say we knew that we had to be responsible and respectful, that was one thing, but it was also just that we also had to be careful. That was the thing. We had to be careful. We had to keep ourselves in check about how they would be represented and how that world was going to be represented. At first, we knew there was going to be humor, but we didn’t know it was going to be an overt comedy. It wasn’t until that Mya told us that she wanted this thing to be funny that I was starting to embrace that. Because, for several reasons, I knew that she wanted this to be entertaining for those women that are actually on the corner. If this was too much of a “plight of” movie, that they wouldn’t be able to enjoy it in terms of a piece of entertainment.

And then I also realized that what she was asking of me was also very important because, to do a comedy, to do a pop style, that’s how you reach a greater audience. Using comedy to actually reach a greater audience is ultimately more significant, because what it does is put it in the hands of the audience. If they love these characters, if they are interested in the subject matter, then we’ve done our job. At the end of the day, hopefully they do their homework and Google to see what drives transgender women of color who come from poverty in the United States, and also many other areas in the world, why they’re driven to the underground economy. They’re driven to the underground because of oppression and discrimination, etc., and my hope is that the audience will be entertained and love these characters, and then they’ll realize, “Hey, there’s a message behind this. Let’s do our homework. Let’s do our own investigation.”

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Absolutely, and that’s one of the aspects that I love about the film, and I thought what was interesting was that, although it’s not overtly present in the text, there’s definitely an implication of this systematic bigotry at the margins. It’s juxtaposed against these versions of, I guess, what the characters want their “American Dream” to be. I was wondering, what do you think do you think the American Dream means to these characters?

That’s an interesting question. I’ve never had that question before, so thank you. I think that, for them, what an American Dream is is not what we think of as an American Dream. Their American Dream comes down to merely respect. As Mya Taylor quoted recently, “You don’t have to be accepting of me or not. Just respect my right to live as I see myself, my right to be who I want to be.” That, I ultimately think, is what they’re looking for. Because society, up to even now, obviously… there’s an increased visibility and an increased awareness, but there’s still not an acceptance.

The murder rate has increased. Obviously this is just the beginning of a movement in the trans world, but I think that their American Dream comes down to simply being recognized. So often they are just pushed into the margins because the world hasn’t been ready for them. I don’t think it has much to do with the financial success that most people think of when they think of the American Dream; I think it has more to do with, like, simply being recognized as fellow human beings. That’s, of course, just a cisgender white guy’s observation, so, that should probably be asked of Mya and Kiki — but that’s what I have observed.

I am really appreciative of the respect you pay in these representations, and that seems to be very crucial to your work in Starlet and Prince of Broadway. What is your approach in terms of portraying these characters as sensitive, real human beings?

I think it’s simply that it’s just about getting on the same page. I spend enough time in those worlds, hopefully, where we become fellow artists working towards the same goal. We’re all fellow artists working on the same art project. And I think that’s where barriers are broken down and we all see each other as people, which is the way it should be. Actually, I think in Prince of Broadway, it was just telling a universal story and having our characters have universal dreams and aspirations that anyone in the world could identify with. But then, when it came to Starlet, I was becoming a little more conscious of this – and still, to this day, trust me, I try to stay away from being too self-analytical, because I feel it’s a contrivance – with Starlet, there was a very conscious choice to do something, and that was to tell a story of somebody in an industry often looked down upon. Men and women who work in sex work are shamed upon by society, even though society uses them on a daily basis.

There was this one moment that really changed the way to tell these stories. I was actually hanging out with some adult film stars on the set of this television show that I worked on, and one of the adult film stars said to me — we were just conversing, and she was like — “Oh, my gosh, I forgot to take my clothes out of the washer this morning and forgot to put them in the dryer!” And it struck me, because it was just such a human everyday statement, it was something that I would do, that everybody does. It was just such a mundane everyday occurrence. Oh, yeah, you forgot to take your clothes out of the washing machine. And then I thought, “Oh, my gosh, that is something I want to focus on in my next film. I want to tell the story of an adult film star and not focus on her occupation, because her occupation doesn’t define her. It’s, like, everyday human moments that define us.”

So I wanted to tell a story that never hinted at the fact that she was an adult film star, but instead showed something else. At first the film is going to be about her losing her dog for the day, and eventually of course it evolved into a friendship between her and an older woman. But, again: friendship is a universal theme that anyone in the world can identify with. So that was the same thing that we did with this film. We said, “What we want to do here is humanize and we want to tell a story that stuck ultimately – because, yes, there’s so many cultural-specific details and also location details that are specific to Tangerine, but at the same time, if you think about it, it’s about one girl who finds out her boyfriend is cheating on her, and she goes to find the girl who is part of that affair. So that could apply to anywhere in the world. This could have been a sequel to Mean Girls, if it took place in Suburbia, USA! But that’s what our intention was.

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I am really interested in the kind of performativity of your films. Particularly within Tangerine, the performance of masculinity and femininity seems to be very crucial to the film.

Yeah, that’s true. That’s obviously something to do, where we are in 2015 with the trans movement and the trans community. You know, identity is obviously very important, and the way that society is recognizing identity. Of course, that has to be addressed, masculinity and femininity. And we tried to do it in subtle ways. But we’ve also tried to show the full spectrum of it.

And I think identity plays into this one particular scene very interestingly. It feels a little meta reflexive, I guess. When we’re in the cab and there’s the young Asian girl taking selfies, I thought that was very important in terms of the self-actualization of the characters in the film. And I’m very pro-selfie, in that way, and I was wondering if that idea of self-actualization was in your head when you decided to shoot the film on iPhones.

Well, yeah, there’s that definitely, there’s that. Almost like us taking a selfie of ourselves. We were very conscious of the fact that she would be taking a selfie on a cell phone and we’re recording on a cell phone — that’s one thing. But also, if you notice, but not only in her scene but almost every scene in the – well, actually almost every scene in the film, but particularly these passengers in the taxi cab, they all are unfortunately in a place in which they are not exactly satisfied with themselves. She’s sitting there and she can’t take the selfie. You can see disappointment on her face. I think everybody is, to a certain degree, dealing with their identity, their own self-identity. And that was definitely a scene we were very conscious of. We actually shot that later; it was a pick up shot that we shot a few months later, because we realized that that was required. And what’s even more meta about it is that she happens to be an Instagram fashion blogger, so we chose her for that reason. So she’s always taking selfies for herself, and we thought that would be self-referential and self-reflexive.

And another thing with identity in the film: my favorite scene is when Mya is singing “Toyland.” In that scene, she seems to be at her best. She seems to have realized that she wants to be a star, I guess? What went into picking that song?

Well, that’s funny, because, to tell you the truth, she did not actually want to do that song. If she was given the choice, she would have done, like, a Toni Braxton Christmas song, but we couldn’t afford that. We had to look for a public-domain song just because we had such a low budget. But it so happened that my producer, Darren Dean, loved March of the Wooden Soldiers and Babes in Toyland, the Laurel and Hardy film, and because we had already gone down that road in making it a Christmas story — and also making a sort of a bali, to a certain degree — we wanted to reference that, so we use that song “Toyland.” I’m usually with Mya: she realized that we had to choose one of these songs, and I think she eventually fell in love with it, and I think she loves her performance in it, and she made the most of it. And that scene I think is supposed to get more into her head, get more into the head of her character, and I think that’s why that scene has a different style. It’s locked down, it’s covered in a different way, it’s written a different way. We’re entering her world completely.

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It very much reminded me of Liza Minelli singing “Maybe This Time” in Cabaret.

Oh, interesting! That’s a good a good reference!

Back to the humor: it’s a very, very funny film, and I think what’s interesting is that, to me, it’s like a neo-screwball comedy. You’re allowed to be a bit more explicit, but it still retains that rhythm, that rat-a-tat-tat quality in the dialogue, and I’m wondering what it was like, trying to balance that kind of stylization with the more emotionally potent scenes.

It was a scene-by-scene balance. Every time, we just took it scene by scene, hoping that, as a whole, it would retain that balance. Yeah, it stayed in check. I had my team, I was always showing, as I was editing every ten minutes, I would reveal it to them and see what they thought. And Mya decided that she actually didn’t want to see the film until it was done. However, Kiki was very involved in post-production. So every time I would edit about ten minutes, she would come in and give me her notes, and give me her thumbs up and her thumbs down. For the most part it was thumbs up, but there were one or two scenes.

One scene in particular, in Donut Time, when I actually… I think I lost my way a little bit and I put down a long track of music, and it turned the film from a romp into a farce. And I didn’t want it to get into farce territory, and Kiki was the one who said, “You got to take that music out. It’s changing the whole style and tone of the movie.” And I thank her for that, because in hindsight, she was totally right. So, it was that: it was about having my team, which included my producers and my co-writer, and then also Kiki, really for everybody to be very much in tune with and very conscious of how we were going to balance this. And ultimately, I can’t honestly answer you if it’s balanced or not, because it becomes about being subjective. I feel it’s balanced, but it’s such a subjective thing. I’ve had reviewers say that actually we did it, and some who feel we didn’t.

They’re wrong.

[Laughs]

Congratulations on pushing your two leads for an Oscar campaign for the Oscar. That’s really exciting, and I think it’s incredibly important. And I’m just wondering, what do you want to do next? What’s the next thing on your mind?

Well, first off, I definitely have to thank Mark and Jay Duplass, because they are the ones who are using their pull to make this… it’s a total longshot, because I don’t think our pockets are deep enough to support an Oscar campaign, but the very fact that it’s been announced and that it’s being taken seriously, that’s what matters, because it’s putting the attention on these two wonderful actresses, and they deserve it. Even if the announcement helped them, that’s what matters ultimately. So Mark and Jay are totally getting behind it, they’re actually doing all the screenings here in Hollywood to push to Academy members. They’ve been extremely supportive, which is wonderful.

In terms of what’s next, I think I’m going to be making another film which falls into the same category or wheelhouse of social realism. I’m very influenced by British social realism, like Mike Leigh and Ken Loach. So I don’t know if the next film will be as overtly comedic, but it’ll definitely have humor, and it’s probably going to be focusing on the lives of children in Florida.

Oh, interesting.

A Florida film now. I’m moving from New York to LA to Florida, so we’ll see what happens.

I like how the location is very much embedded in your films.

Oh, yeah, they’re always the starting point.

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Tangerine is now available on Blu-ray and Digital HD.


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