One of the things that makes Sean Baker‘s Tangerine a stand-out amongst the hundreds of films that played at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival is its specific sense of time and place. Set in and around the Donut Time on Santa Monica Boulevard, Baker’s film evolves into a great Los Angeles film in its hour-and-a-half runtime as it digs into the lives of two transgender prostitutes trying to get their lives in order while an Armenian cab driver finds himself caught in an odyssey all his own.
We were lucky enough to speak with co-writer/director Sean Baker, as well as impressive lead actress Mya Taylor and James Ransone, who puts in great work in a supporting role. Check out the full conversation below.
The Film Stage: Where does the story come from? Both the narrative focused on street life in Los Angeles and the Armenian storyline?
James Ransone: So Sean basically always wanted to use the Donut Time as a location in a voyeuristic sense because he lives in the neighborhood. He was constantly, sort of, investigating what was going on as an extension of [his SXSW 2012 film] Starlet because he’s interested in the lives of sex workers. From there he went to the Gay and Lesbian Youth Center in West Hollywood because he just wanted to hear the stories of the locals and what was going on in that particular space and time. And there he met Mya.
Mya Taylor: I was at one of the Gay and Lesbian Centers – the one on Santa Monica and McCadden – and then Sean came in. He was looking for different people to talk to about the area. To find out what really goes on in that area and what are some of the stories. And I guess I was the one with the most interest and the one who could tell him the most about what I had seen over the 4-year span that I had been going through that area. Because I normally go to the centers to get all of my services and things like that. You know, hormones and stuff like that. So I was telling him some of the things I had seen, and the next thing I know we had took it from there and we had another meeting and then I eventually introduced Sean to [Tangerine co-lead] Kiki Kitana Rodriguez and she started to tell him some stories too and it just kind of went from there.
Ransone: …yeah so out of that it became a back-and-forth collaborative process in terms of writing the skeleton of the screenplay and the treatment that he did with Chris Bergoch which was ‘Hey, we’re going to go to Gay and Lesbian youth center, we’re going to meet some people, you know.’ He finds Mya and Kiki and he’s like ‘this is going to be a great duo’ and from there he’s not just taking their story and turning it into his own. He would fact-check with them and it became a collaborative effort as it went along.
So it was a very organic process?
Ransone: Yeah, it was basically ‘What’s a day in your life look like?’ And we’ll take the most thematically-dramatic elements that work in a movie and, in a way, we’ll re-dramatize this in a concise three-act story. And then the Armenian element is that Sean has used Karren Karagulian in all of his films, whose an Armenian actor and he’s really good. And it just so happens – because Sean likes having B-stories too – there’s a really big Armenian subculture that is part of Los Angeles and is actually really close to that neighborhood, so I just think it made a lot of sense. And Karren ended up being an associate producer [on the film]. That’s the cool thing about Sean’s movies – and I’m not throwing a banal platitude here – they’re an actual organic process of making a movie. There’s a lot of room for improvisation and mistakes; mistakes meaning ‘Oh this is mistake that became really interesting to focus on.’
So from a scripting aspect, how fluid is the screenplay? I imagine you’re playing [with the script] more than you would on other sets?
Ransone: Oh, 100 percent. So the way that it’s been, it’s been like we’ll read these lines, you’ll memorize the lines and then you can add certain things and something sort of comes up organically and then you react to that and then this tone is shifted around and then you go back and go ‘Well I need to get this specific line because saying this propels the story,’ and everything else around that is the jazz.
So script as blueprint to get you to that place…
Ransone: Right, but I also don’t want to say that it’s some loose skeleton. The [climactic] Donut Time scene, for example, all of the dialogue was written. All these people gotta say this, all these people gotta say that.
Taylor: Basically, Sean fell in love with our personalities. So he wrote a hard copy of it, and we read the script and everything, and we knew everything but we’re putting ourselves into it. (Laughs) And most of the funny stuff, is from us.
Ransone: Yeah, like a lot of my stuff when I’m smoking meth and talking about aliens, that’s mine, or any insults I have are all mine, you know?
Well, in talking about your character Chester, where does research come into that?
Ransone: Well, the real-life version of Chester was with Kiki. Like when I met Kiki for the first time I met the real Chester.
Ransone: Yeah, so it was pretty easy. But him in real life is way more subdued. It’s the same thing that happened in Starlet too, the character I played. It was like I showed up and, ‘This is the house where we’re filming where the dude you’re playing lives in.’
One of the most fascinating things about this movie is that it’s about this very specific world, and it’s very topical in many ways, but it never feels to be at the expense of these characters, or exploitative in any way. How literal is that discussion on set?
Ransone: Sean actually…So like Besedka [Johnson], who was in Starlet, she was this really old woman, you know? She died pretty soon after we filmed that and Sean was going out to her nursing home because her kids weren’t there and it’s like Sean actually…once he’s invested he actually gives a shit about the subcultures he’s trying to represent. And again, the universal is in the specific, so the more you can actually just focus on Mya’s story or Kiki’s story…like I’m going to try and use as little artistic license as possible and be as truthful to what this is without any judgment. I think that’s how it ends up being ‘Oh my God, here’s a world unto itself that I had no idea that existed.’ And that’s where the universal themes come in. ‘Oh, you have all the same fucking fears and problems that I do and they manifest themselves at a horrible economic level…and that’s it.’ Like I feel like Sean, in actuality, makes films about economy. They’re all based in economy. Any subculture that exists in the United States today is marginalized specifically by economy. Like if we can’t make money off of you, you mean nothing to us. And I think Sean is really…like porn or sex work, here’s some thing we brush off to the side…
It feels like it’s on the fringes…
Ransone: It’s all based in economics, so once you look at the specific story of anybody you can see that universally we all like operate sort of…our human-ness never changes.
(To Mya) and speaking to the honesty of that final scene, and the wig exchange…
Taylor: Oh my God that was so hard. Because I don’t come out of my hair! But I did it for the film, because I love them.
Well, it was worth it.
Taylor: Yeah, it was.
Was there a specific reason for the Christmas setting?
Taylor: Well, I think it goes back to the characters. Being transgender and not having family or anything like that. That all they have is each other. And, you know, Christmas is the time when you want to be with your family. So I guess Christmas played a big part because it made it more sad even though the movie was very funny and happy. It was was very sad and touching and Christmas is the time when it’s supposed to be like that.
This film was shot exclusively on iPhones. As performers, it’s got to be a different experience making a film that way.
Ransone: I mean, no. Only for me because it was like, ‘What am I doing? Shooting a movie on an iPhone? This is crazy! Like this is never going to work.’ Using the iPhones was 100 percent predicated on budgetary constraints. It was not a stylistic choice. We had 50,000 dollars to shot this movie. In 22 days. And a lot of our locations were not locked off. We had permits for them, but they were not locked. We never shot anything illegally, but we scraped by with the legalities and flew under the radar so much. So Sean called Radium Cheung, who’s Sean’s DP, and he’s like ‘Radium we’re going to shoot this movie on iPhones.’ And Radium was like, ‘Fuck, Right?’ so Radium basically found out that there’s this company called Moondog Labs that made these anamorphic lenses [for iPhones]. And they just literally clip onto the lens and they go over top. And Sean and Radium discovered an app where you could lock aperture and you could lock depth of field and stuff because the iPhone is automatic. And there’s this steadi-cam that’s made for iPhones that’s handheld that’s like less than 100 dollars.
[Director Sean Baker enters the room]
(To Sean) We were just discussing the iPhone and how it was a budgetary decision…
Baker: It started off like somewhat of a budgetary thing because I want to make films look good so I didn’t have the money to go with something like the Alexa or the RED. So instead of going with something lower-end I decided to go with something completely different and make this film look very unique. [Executive Producer] Mark Duplass and I went back and forth about whether it was feasible or not or whether we could pull this off and make it look like a real movie. And I was actually doing a lot of research on Vimeo and I came across one in particular that was a lot of footage shot with this anamorphic adapter and this Filmic Pro app. So those two things combined plus with a lot of like post treatment, that’s how we got the look. But what Radium and I did is we really embraced it after a while and said ‘We’re going to use whatever benefits come from having this small little device’ to help us achieve things we wouldn’t have been able to achieve with a bigger camera. It became very fluid and that dictated the style somewhat. I was able to jump on my bike – and I’m talking a bicycle not a motor bike – and I would be biking around Mya and Kiki and just following them down the street as if I was with a steadi-cam doing it. And also we were shooting clandestinely to certain degree; we didn’t want to have a big footprint and we wanted to keep it on the DL and [the phone] helped out.
Where did the music come from? Did it all come together after the fact?
Baker: In this case it did. I thought maybe…I did a film called Take Out – I co-directed – and there is not a single note of music in that film. And so I didn’t know if I would be going down that same path again. But once we established the visual style I knew there would be some sort of score and in post-production you know, I follow social media like anybody else, and I was a Vine addict last year. And I was watching Vine in the middle of the night coming across all of these different Vine-ers and one was Wolftayla, this 18-year old girl out of New York. She’s cool and she’s always rapping and throwing up different tracks and she threw up this track that is actually the opening track of the movie. Not “Toyland” but the first track of music. It was something that just connected with me, I said ‘this is the vibe of the film.’ So I reached out and got the rights for that track for nothing because these guys are incredibly gracious and that really started to dictate the rest of the film. I would go on SoundCloud, which I think is one of the most valuable tools right now [along with the iPhone] for independent filmmakers because you can reach out directly to the artists. Even though we did have a music supervisor and he;s wonderful. His name is Matthew Smith. He was behind the legality, doing all of the contracts. I was the one actually finding the tracks on SoundCloud, clearing it, and then laying it down and then cutting the scenes to the tracks.
With a film like this, how much footage are you working with at the end of the day?
Baker: It’s so weird, no matter what medium I’m using it seems I’m always shooting 10-to-1 no matter what.
What’s next for you guys?
Taylor: Right now I just want to completely work on the movie and get it out there and everything and we’ll see what follows. Take it slow. I don’t want to do too many things horribly at one time. I want to do one thing right and then move on to the next.
Baker: Well, we have a few different projects and they’re a few different genres. And it’s really about the financiers and where the money is. So we’ll go with whatever project gets funded first. Anything from a social-realist film that takes place in Florida to a puppet thriller, because I was also one of the creators of Greg The Bunny so I have that whole other world where I play with puppets (Laughs).
Ransone: Sean and I were talking to each other about making a movie about Vegas. We haven’t really fleshed it out yet but we know, in the economic sense, there’s a darkness underneath there that no one sees. We’ll never be inside a casino, how about that?
More of the Vegas where people live…
Ransone: Yeah, there’s some stuff there that’s pretty crazy. There’s like underground cities and stuff. And yeah, I’m in Ti West’s In A Valley of Violence coming up. [West’s] close to final cut right now. I took over the franchise of Sinister so I’m coming back for the lead in that for Blumhouse. And then I just finished this movie with Sam Rockwell and Anna Kendrick called Mr. Right. It’s like an action-comedy so. But I’m fucking unemployed right now, so I got nothing.
Tangerine premiered at Sundance Film Festival and will be released by Magnolia Pictures.