Tangerine Director Sean Baker Talks Monster Flicks, Shooting Feature Films on Smartphones, and His New Sex Worker Comedy

Tangerine is a film to celebrate, not only because it brings a bright beautiful shade of blooming reality to transgender issues, but also because it is a return to the inventiveness of filmmaking. Shot entirely with iPhone 5S smartphones, the film is a triumph of cinema’s capacity to capture the human condition using whatever means necessary. With past projects that include Greg the Bunny and Starlet, director Sean Baker could have gone with much more expensive cameras, but decided to stick with smartphones and all the inherent challenges – challenges that were worked out with special, newly invented rigs and filmmaking apps. The decision lends an atmosphere of spontaneity to Tangerine that wouldn’t have been captured otherwise. The film, which takes place on Christmas Eve, follows Sin-Dee (played by Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (played by Mya Taylor) as they search for the former’s pimp through a landscape of lascivious pleasure seekers involved in all manners of sins of the flesh – all among the neon hued and gum stained sidewalks of Tinseltown’s soiled boulevards. When watching the film, you are injected with a new enthusiasm about moviemaking – an enthusiasm that hasn’t been felt since Harmony Korine was using camcorders to shoot Gummo, or when Thomas Vinterberg was using handycams and mini-DVs to shoot the 1998 Danish film, Festen, or even when Richard Linklater was using 16mm to shoot Slacker on a shoestring budget. It seems that using unpredictable tools results in beautiful cinematic experiences. In the following interview, Autre speaks with the director of Tangerine, Sean Baker, about his falling in love with monster movies, transgender rights and why he decided to shoot his third feature film on smartphones. 

OLIVER KUPPER: When did you know that you wanted to make films? Was there a specific film that you saw that really inspired you?

SEAN BAKER: Yeah, it goes way back, actually. My mother brought me to the local library when I was in first grade. They were playing a 16mm of old Universal films—monster films. It was the burning hill scene in James Whale’s Frankenstein—that climax—that got me hooked. Up until then, I had always said, “I want to be a fireman! I want to be a construction worker!” I left the library that day and said, “I want to be a filmmaker!” From that point on, I knew I wanted to direct films.

OK: That’s amazing. I want to talk about your first effort in filmmaking. Your first effort in getting your work out there was Greg the Bunny, correct?  

SB: Well, yes, that was the first one that hit. My first film was a film called “Four Letter Words.” It was a look at guys in the suburbs. I’m hoping some day I’ll have the money to remaster it. It was shot on a 35; I made it in my early twenties. It was very much like a social-realist Kevin Smith film. Because in your twenties you see time in a different way, I let time fly by. I think I shot the film in ’96, but it wasn’t until 2000 that Matt Dentler (now he’s with iTunes, but at the time he was running South by Southwest) was the first champion of my stuff. When I was in post-production of Four Letter Words and trying to find this movie in post, two friends and I (Dan Milano and Spencer Chinoy) picked up a puppet one night. I realized what a genius Dan Milano is, when he started improvising with this puppet. The next thing you know, we have a public access show that gets recognized by IFC. Then, the next thing you know, we’re going to have some things on IFC, which lead to getting on Fox. We signed over with Seth Green, which is where we got most of our fan base. We went back to IFC, and then we had a spinoff on MTV. So I could say that this was a wonderful, happy accident that supported me through many years of making independents.

OK: You were an independent filmmaker, went to public access, made Greg the Bunny, and then went back to independent filmmaking?

SB: At my heart, my love is cinema.

OK: Your work deals with a lot of darker themes and cultures on the fringe. Where did these interests or appreciations come from?

SB: I think it’s a natural desire to explore the world, to try to understand and identify with people from different cultures, who have very different experiences and upbringings. For me, usually, it stems from a desire to explore a different location, first. Then, it’s finding the community within that location, and really taking the time to collaborate with them. For example, with Tangerine, it was about that unofficial red light district of Santa Monica. I knew of it because I lived close by. I had already been exploring sex work with my last film, so there was a natural progression. That area happens to be frequented by transgender sex workers. First and foremost, it was a look into that chaotic neighborhood. Then, it developed into exploring the lives of the transgender sex workers who are really in a place where they are forced to work the streets. They’re not given the same opportunities. Most of them are trans women of color who aren’t given opportunities because of bias, prejudice, and racism. Because of the cards they’ve been dealt, they’re living these lives. There was a natural desire to explore that. I had already had empathy and sympathy for them, but I wanted to get to know them on a human level. That was really what led to that.

"...We were shooting out on the street with very little money, so we wanted to keep our prints small. We didn’t want to draw attention to ourselves. We just didn’t have the money for security. We didn’t have the money to own location....Even with Donut Time, we paid them to be there, but we could never shut down their business. We had to work around real customers that were coming in and out. So what the iPhone did was grant us a low-profile."

OK: In terms of transgender and gay rights, do you want this film to be an important document of this time to humanize these people that have been on the fringe for so long?

SB: Yes, it’s most definitely in focus right now. Especially over the last few months with Caitlyn Jenner, the public television show which focuses on the trans individual, Transparent… When we set out to make this film over two years ago, it was something that was rarely talked about. I think it’s a sign that we’re all thinking the same way in terms of our society recognizing these individuals. I’m focusing on one very small—very small—sub-community. This film is not meant to represent all trans people. It focuses on the corner of Santa Monica and Highland where there happens to be sex work going on.

OK: And the movie was shot on iPhones. I don’t think that’s ever been done before in the sense of a feature film. Where did that idea come from?

SB: It came from a very organic place. I would be the first one to call myself out if it were done as a gimmick. I’m a cinephile, as I told you. If I was given the money, I wouldn’t have shot this on a 5s. But maybe I wouldn’t have made as good of a movie. I think in the end, the fact that we shot on a smartphone, there were so many benefits that came with it. At least for this story. I’m not saying for every movie. I actually hope my next film is shot on film. But for this particular movie, it helped in so many ways. Number one, we were shooting out on the street with very little money, so we wanted to keep our prints small. We didn’t want to draw attention to ourselves. We just didn’t have the money for security. We didn’t have the money to own location. We had, of course, insurance and permits. Even with Donut Time, we paid them to be there, but we could never shut down their business. We had to work around real customers that were coming in and out. So what the iPhone did was grant us a low-profile.

OK: And you were working with very green actors, right? 

SB: The second thing, and probably the most important thing… I was working with two first-time actors—Mya Taylor and Kiki Rodriguez. Those two were already aspiring actors and professionals. What I’ve learned from shooting other first-timers is that there’s always a hump they have to get through. They have to drop their inhibitions. Even with Prince Adu from Prince of Broadway—it took him a little while to get used to the camera. In this case, everybody has a smartphone. For example, these girls were taking selfies of themselves between takes with their own phones. There was no difference between what we were doing and what everybody else was doing. Their confidence level and their lack of intimidation was really there from minute one. They were on the same level as James Ransone and Karren Karagulien. It was wonderful, in that case, where suddenly I was able to jump in, and even first-timers became great actors.

OK: For someone who is a little more conservative or doesn’t understand this world, how would you invite them to appreciate this film?

SB: I would just say to give this film a chance. I have a feeling that, like me, you’ll fall in love with these characters. I fell in love with these characters. I think that no matter who you are and what your politics are, you will identify with these characters. They’re going through struggle, but we all are. Of course, they’re also dealing with hardships that we’ll never know. At the same time, Tangerine is about friendship. Tangerine is also about fidelity. We all have friends; we all understand friendship. And I’m pretty sure a large percentage of us have also had to deal with fidelity. Whether we’ve done it to our partners or our partners have done it to us, we all understand the consequence of fidelity. We all understand what jealousy is. If you go into the film understanding that this is not a “life of” movie, but is actually a human story filled with humor and characters that I think everyone will love—even if they are flawed. I’m not just talking about the two main characters, but also the characters on the fringe. Even the characters who might be a little crass in what they say are still lovable characters. That’s how I would invite the more conservative crowd in.

OK: If this movie were to play in a cult cinema double-feature, what would you play next with it?

SB: That’s a good question. I never had a double-feature in mind with Tangerine. Maybe the Estonian film Tangerine. [Laughs.] No, I don’t know. I’ll have to think about that. Maybe I can text you later with my answer.

Magnolia Pictures presents Tangerine, directed by Sean Baker, opening July 17, 2015 at Landmark’s Embarcadero Center Cinema in San Francisco, Landmark’s California Theatre in Berkeley. You can also see the film in Los Angeles and New York. Text and interview by Oliver Maxwell Kupper