Sean Baker’s “Tangerine” opens up a whole new world of possibilities for indie filmmakers

“So many things attracted me to this film: the fact that it was a female buddy movie, with females who weren’t actually females, and that it was all shot on a telephone; I knew I had to show it”, said Charlie Birnbaum, theater manager of the Stonzek Theater in a past interview with Art Film File. Birnbaum’s reaction mirrored  that of many film critics, as well as that of the Sundance Film Festival jury and public ,when he learned that the film was the product of highly versatile iPhone film technology. The story that conforms the epicenter of the film came at the right time, it seems; when the topic of diverse rights for transgender men and women is now more than ever in full view of the public’s eye, Tangerine relates the many obstacles and even abuse that many transgenders live on a daily basis. However, it does so encased in a shell of quick-witted and campy comedy.

On Christmas Eve, trans-female prostitute Sin-Dee Rella (played by Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) is released from jail after spending almost a month incarcerated, and away from her best friend Alexandra (Mya Taylor) and pimp, drug dealing paramour, Chester. She enthusiastically heads for Donut Time, a doughnut shop in Hollywood, to meet her best friend, but on what should be the most wonderful night of the year, Alexandra delivers a painful blow to her friend: Chester, the recipient of her affections, has been unfaithful to her with “a real woman”, spitefully referred to as “a fish”, whose name we later find out to be Dinah.

KItana Kiki Rodriguez (right) and Mya Taylor (left) star as two transgender prostitutes in Tangerine (Photo courtesy: Magnolia Pictures)
KItana Kiki Rodriguez (right) and Mya Taylor (left) star as two transgender prostitutes in Tangerine (Photo courtesy: Magnolia Pictures)

The night turns into a wild goose chase, combined with the incessant quest for love in all the wrong places by Armenian cab driver Razmik, under the nose of his ever watchful mother in law. The simplicity of the plot may allow for many to believe that Tangerine is one more low budget comedy, but they couldn’t be further from the truth. As the plot is simple, it’s underlying truth is complex and at times even depressing, as the reality of what these women actually have to do for a living sinks in. The funny lines disguise the hardships, the hair pulling, name-calling, and cat- fighting provide a momentary distraction from the harsh truth of Sin-Dee and Alexandra’s reality, which is painfully evident in the ending of the film. However, Tangerine also presents a path for an uneasy reconciliation between the parties involved, particularly when unexpected betrayals are brought to the surface. The film makes us realize that in the end we are only human, vulnerable to life’s unexpected blows, and that what keeps us grounded is many times the uneasy friendships that we acquire along the way.

Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mickey O' Hagan. Photo courtesy: Magnolia Pictures.
Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mickey O’ Hagan. Photo courtesy: Magnolia Pictures.

Tangerine director Sean Baker, has quite an extensive reel. He is the award-winning director of Take Out (2008) and Prince of Broadway (2009), both nominated for the John Cassavettes’ Independent Spirit Award. Another of his films, Starlet (2012), was the recipient of the Robert Altman Independent Spirit Award, as well as another Cassavettes’ nominee. Baker, a New York native is a graduate of NYU and co-created IFC/FOX’s “Greg the Bunny” and it’s subsequent spin-off, MTV’s “Warren the Ape”.

Art Film File spoke to Sean Baker via email, about how the idea for Tangerine first originated, the technology he used to shoot it, and why a story of transgender prostitutes.

AFF: How did you first get the idea that this film could be made with an iPhone? I don’t think this had been attempted before, correct?

SB: It stemmed from budgetary constraints. We had a tiny budget and couldn’t afford higher end cameras. In pre-production, I came across a Vimeo channel that focused on iPhone experiments and there was a Kickstarter campaign for a company called Moondog Labs. They created an anamorphic adapter that fits over the iPhone lens and allows one to shoot iPhone video in true scope (widescreen aspect ratio). Plus we also used a wonderful app called Filmic Pro; it captures the footage at a higher quality compression rate and shots at 24 frames a second. So these two tools convinced me that the iPhone would work.

We aren’t the first film to be shot on the iPhone. There have been a couple of films, I believe. But we are definitely the first iPhone film to be shot in scope.

From left, Mickey O'Hagan, Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, Radium Cheung and Sean Baker filming Tangerine. Photo source: The New York Times.
From left, Mickey O’Hagan, Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, Radium Cheung and Sean Baker filming Tangerine. Photo source: The New York Times.

AFF: I was amazed when I saw “Tangerine”, because visually, it looked like any other feature filmed with a professional movie camera. How did you achieve that?

SB: Thank you. We did our best to elevate the iPhone footage to a cinematic level. We knew from the beginning that we were going to attempt to shoot something that was worthy of being shown on the big screen. The iPhone can shoot in HD so the resolution wasn’t a problem. We had to enhance the footage with tools such as the anamorphic lens, the Filmic Pro app and a stabilizer. The saturation of the colors came during the tests. At first I de-saturated the colors because that’s a stylistic choice that fits with “neorealist” genre. But as soon as I looked at the desaturating images of our lead characters, something didn’t feel right. The style clashed with their colorful personas… so I went the other way and pumped the colors through the roof. Then it suddenly felt right.

AFF:I have to ask: Why transgender prostitutes? Was there a message you wanted to put out there with this film?

SB: The film I made before Tangerine is entitled Starlet. It explored the subject of sex work in the adult film industry. Perhaps the interest never left my system because I was drawn to a notorious intersection near my home in Los Angeles. It is the corner of Santa Monica and Highland — which has been known as a red light district for transgender sex workers. I think this film is yet another exploration of the subject of sex work. As far as a message goes, we are presenting a story about two trans women of color in Los Angeles and presenting it in a pop fashion focusing on humor. The intention is to connect with mainstream audiences and hopefully the take way is that these audiences are interested enough to do homework on the subject. This leads to awareness which will hopefully leads to acceptance.

AFF: Where was “Tangerine” filmed? I know the location is supposed to be Hollywood, but was the whole film shot there?

SB: Yes, the film was shot in Hollywood and West Hollywood… focusing mostly on the intersection of Highland and Santa Monica. I did try to stay extremely geographical faithful however there are times when style does have to override accuracy.

"Tangerine" Photo courtesy: Magnolia Pictures.
“Tangerine” Photo courtesy: Magnolia Pictures.

AFF: Did you ever expect that “Tangerine” would have this level of success with audiences, particularly before Sundance?

SB: No, I’m really happy that audiences seem to have embraced it. We thought the film would split audiences 50/50 but for the most part, there has been nothing but love for the film.

AFF: How was the experience of screening “Tangerine” at Sundance?

SB: Sundance was a very stressful 12 days. I’m a cinefile and see a film a day — when I was in Park City, I didn’t see one film for 12 days and I was going crazy. We were so busy with press and trying to sell the film that we never got a break. I’m not sure how the first screening went because I never watch my films with audiences but I hear it went well.

AFF: Did you also write the script for he film?

SB: Yes, Chris Bergoch and I co-wrote the script. We also wrote my previous film Starlet together.

AFF: Tell me about the actors in the film, and how was the casting process?

SB: We didn’t have the budget for a casting director so we had to do it ourselves. We cast Mya Taylor through “street casting” where one simply approaches people on the street. Chris Bergoch (co-screenwriter) and I met Mya Taylor at the local LGBT Center. We approached her because she made an instant impression. I noticed her across a court yard and knew I had to approach her. When I told her about the project, she expressed that enthusiasm I was looking for. We exchanged information and soon were meeting weekly to discuss the project. She shared stories and anecdotes of her friends who worked the streets. About two weeks in, she introduced us to Kitana Kiki Rodriguez.

Kitana Kiki Rodriguez in Tangerine. (Photo courtesy: Magnolia Pictures)
Kitana Kiki Rodriguez in Tangerine. (Photo courtesy: Magnolia Pictures)

I had already worked with Karren Karagulian, James Ransone and Mickey O’Hagan so I wrote their roles for them and then we found many of the supporting roles from Craigslist, Instagram, Vine and Youtube. The Armenian cast came to us through Karren’s connections. They are all superstars in Armenia. Alla Tumunyan, Luiza Nersisyan and Arsen Gregorian are very seasoned actors and celebrities from Yerevan. I am honored to have worked with them.

AFF: Will Tangerine be released on DVD or VOD as well?

SB: Yes, Magnolia will be releasing the film on DVD, VOD and my format of choice, Blu-ray. We are making sure that the discs are packed full of wonderful extras such as the original camera tests that we showed to our financiers. This should be happening before the end of the year.-





About ADRIANA DELGADO 68 Articles
Art Film File is a site for cinephiles ,who like myself, have a deep respect, love, and admiration for independent and foreign films of every era. Readers who follow Art Film File are for the most part adverse to the "Hollywood Blockbuster" theorem (although there are many good ones out there) showing instead a strong inclination to connect with films that explore topics such as life, identity and philosophy without necessarily following a neat studio-oriented narrative. In the past, much like it is now, many independent and foreign films get done many times with countless challenges. Small budgets, little or no outside funding and absence of willing distributors are some of the problems that many American and foreign independent filmmakers face regularly. Art Film File acts as a conduit in bringing these films, past and present, to the public's attention. Art Film File is also a site that displays detailed reviews about films they haven't seen as well as for films they have seen and wish to share their own views. I plan to include interviews with filmmakers and actors of indie and foreign films in addition to articles depicting topics of interest for readers who already follow Art Film File and for those waiting to discover it. Adriana Delgado Founder and Blog Manager of Art Film File

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