Tangerine, the color of a winter sunset in West Hollywood, is also the name of Sean Baker’s new film -- shot entirely on an iPhone. The story circles around two transgender sex workers, Alexandra (Mya Taylor) and Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez), and a long day’s journey into night that begins and ends in a Los Angeles Donut Time.
Just two years ago, Jared Leto won an Oscar for his role as a transgender woman in Dallas Buyers Club. In this context, Tangerine could be a bellwether: casting transgender actors in transgender roles. KQED Arts spoke with Baker about his low-fi techniques, first-time actors and making it in Los Angeles.
You met Mya Taylor at an LGBTQ Center in LA.
There are two centers. They are extremely important around that area, because they service youth at risk... It's a trauma-free zone, and that's where I came across Mya and a few of her friends one day. Mya moved from Houston to LA not only to begin her transition, but also to pursue this dream of hers to be an entertainer.
It's extremely tough for these women to land employment... After the film, I was doing everything I could do to help Mya... In that time, I witnessed Mya get turned down by close to fifty jobs. She was more than qualified, but they had every excuse in the book not to hire her.
My point is that the Center is a place where they can go for free services, for help in looking for employment.
Tangerine is a road movie, an odyssey on foot. The main characters are roommates but we never see where they live.
For all of the films that I make, we have an extensive research process. I got to see a few of the apartments that the girls live in. Usually they are living in a dorm-like environment where there were lots of women and friends living under the same roof. It's a communal thing, where whoever has the money at the moment is helping the others get by... I thought it would be good to at least hint at the fact that they might live together, and it might be month-to-month.
It quickly becomes clear that their private lives are on display in public spaces and on the streets.
Most of their lives are lived in public, and that was something that we definitely noticed. There's lots of homelessness amongst this community as well. I'm not talking about the trans community. I'm talking about the group of sex workers who work that area. They wear their lives on their sleeves. People can see it.
Plus, we also wanted to show that there are these locales along Santa Monica Boulevard that become temporary homes and shelters. One being Donut Time.
What does Los Angeles mean to you as a filmmaker?
I'm from New York... so I do have this outsider's point of view of the city... I think it's an unexplored city. I had no idea how much culture was there, so I'm drawn to it, and I like living there now.
I've never thought about this, but maybe being that I've been a struggling indie filmmaker for most of my life, I see LA from that Mulholland Drive viewpoint where I'm always looking for the industry to let me in... I only know a handful of the happily-ever-after Hollywood stories, Mark and Jay Duplass being one of them [the film’s producers]. I have other actor friends who have made it. The majority, most of the people I hang out with, socialize with, observe, etc., are people who are still knocking on the door.
How did you make the decision to shoot with an iPhone?
We had such an incredibly low budget. I'm on my fifth feature, so I'm out of favors at this point in my career. Some independent filmmakers would say, "Oh, you could borrow a camera," but we weren't in that situation, plus it would add crew members.
It started off as a budgetary thing, then it quickly became a stylistic thing, and we embraced it. I do feel that it led to an even greater degree of intimacy than the smallest of the professional cameras. Then I realized, very soon into just shooting some tests on the street, that it was also this tool that kept us clandestine.
Everybody that I'm working with has their own smartphone. They're used to shooting video and selfies of themselves... There is not a moment of intimidation. You don't have to get over that hump with the first-time actors.
A recent New York Times series, “Transgender Today” notes, "As prominent transgender people have come out in recent years, their revelations have been a source of fascination, much of it prurient." Do you feel there’s an element of prurience in a film about prostitution and drug use?
That is definitely true. But if we remove the trans element from the film, I'm personally still interested in the subject of sex work. I covered it in my last film, Starlet. I approached it in my first film through dialogue, and through a teenager's fascination with porn.
Tangerine was developed before the subject of trans people in our society came into the zeitgeist... For me, I was exploring a particular section of LA, a red-light district that happened to be frequented by trans prostitutes.