An Interview with ‘Tangerine’ director Sean Baker
By Charles Bramesco (@intothecrevasse)
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Even as it draws on a rich legacy of rambling California narratives, there’s nothing about Sean Baker’s new film Tangerine that doesn’t feel brazenly, fearlessly new.
Along with lead actresses Kiki Kitana Rodriguez and Mya Taylor, Baker crafted the sort of story never told in Hollywood today: the trans actresses portray prostitute pals Sin-Dee (Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Taylor) as they spend Sin-Dee’s first day out of the clink on a wild-goose chase to track down her boyfriend/pimp, Chester (James Ransone, a.k.a. Ziggy from The Wire). Their discursive odyssey through Los Angeles’ seedier neighborhoods puts them in contact with crackheads, irate donut shop proprietors, and a variety of johns, with special attention paid to Armenian cabbie Razmik (Karren Karagulian) as he attempts to conceal his dalliances from his tradition-bound family.
Astonishingly, financiers were not lining up to throw money at this loosely structured dramedy about transgender hookers. In an effort to cut costs, Baker and his shoestring crew opted to shoot the entire film using three different iPhones hooked up to a variety of anamorphic lenses, and then digitally edited the footage using a few publicly available apps. It’s a resolutely DIY effort, appropriately employing fringe technology to tell a story about life on the fringes. The film looks and feels like nothing that’s come before, due in no small part to Baker’s eclectically curated soundtrack, haphazardly leaping from booming trap music to classical or jazz and back to heavy hip-hop. Movies like Tangerine get made with terrible infrequency, and so when one turns out as cleverly observed, humorous, and visually striking as Baker’s, audiences must sit up and take notice.
As he prepares for his labor of love to enter wide release, Baker sat for a phone call with Random Nerds from his home in Los Angeles. With the enthusiasm that only comes from true passion, he discussed his influences, the changing technology of cinema, and the art of finding his story along with his leading ladies.
Random Nerds: The most attention-grabbing aspect of Tangerine is the decision to shoot the movie using iPhones. Was that purely budgetary, or did you find that there were some unanticipated stylistic benefits to that as well?
Sean Baker: It purely started as a budgetary thing. I know people hate to hear that, but it’s true. We were really down to nothing. But the benefits to start to reveal themselves as we were shooting.
To tell you the truth, I’m still amazed because I thought I was going to be one of many films being shot on the iPhone at Sundance this year, and then we were the only one. I have to tell you, it was difficult in terms of talking myself into it and talking my team into it. It felt like a step back; this is my fifth feature, and — people need to hear this, they really do — people find the fact that I did this perhaps inspirational or forward-thinking, but when it comes down to it, I would’ve shot this on 35mm if I had the budget. But I’m still a lover of film and of celluloid, I’m in the Tarantino-Nolan camp, where I’d rather shoot a film using real film.
RN: One of the interesting things about the finished look of the film is that you’ve processed the iPhone footage in a way that almost replicates the grain of 35mm film stock. Did you specifically set out to imitate the look of celluloid while reworking the iPhone video?
SB: Yes, yes. That was extremely intentional. We did everything we possibly could to elevate it to that cinematic level. Emulating celluloid was our goal. We knew we wouldn’t achieve it, but in our campaign to achieve it, we’d be perhaps creating something a little bit new, and different, and our own. That was the one thing I was confident, that we’d be creating a new aesthetic, or at least our own aesthetic. Something where we can say, “Yeah, this is a pretty unique look.” It was when we were first going down this road that I saw Spike Lee’s Red Hook Summer. I don’t know if you’ve seen this film —
RN: [quickly, without shame] I have.
SB: There’s the little kid who walks around with the iPad, taping everything. Right. So, we could’ve used a DSLR, but that would’ve increased our crew by three members, right there. We simply could not afford that. And I’m really past the point of asking people to volunteer to make a film that you might one day sell and make money off of. It isn’t right, and this is my fifth film, I can’t be asking for favors anymore.
So many films are being shot on the DSLR, that they’re all starting to look the same. There’s a shallow depth of field. It’s a nice look, but I can always identify a film shot with a DSLR. I wanted to do something, like put on some classic fisheye lenses, but that would’ve cost thousands. We couldn’t consider it. So when I saw Red Hook Summer, every time Lee cut to the iTouch footage, I perked up in my seat. I was like, “This is really an interesting look.” It almost looked like Dogme 95 material but in HD form, and it retains resolution but still has something different about it.
RN: You could avoid the look of ‘cheapness’ that comes with less costly technology.
SB: It led me down this road of looking at as many samples as I could get my hands on. I found that to be easy on Vimeo, because there’s a channel devoted to iPhone movies. I started watching short films, and then I came upon this Kickstarter campaign for this company called MoonDog labs. They have an anamorphic adapter that fits over the iPhone lens to allow you to shoot with a wide scope. They had a few test shots on there, where it gave me the look of an anamorphic frame, but also the lens flares and other things you associate with widescreen cinema. I thought, ‘Oh my God, we might not be the first film shot on the iPhone, but we’ll definitely be the first truly wide-scope film shot on the iPhone.’
They were in their prototype stage, and I dropped the producer’s name. I asked if they’d be interested in sending us some prototypes. They did, so it was that in conjunction with an app called Filmic Pro, which allows you to shoot at 24 frames per second, with a higher-quality compression rate. Those two tools together convinced me that we could make something capable of elevating the iPhone to a cinematic level. Then I had to swallow my pride and try to convince the rest of my team that this was the right way to go. As we got closer and closer to shooting, it was even more apparent that I had to look at this iPhone as being just as important as a 35mm Panavision camera. Or else we would fail! I kept saying that, like, ‘If we don’t embrace this thing and be happy that we’re shooting on it, and accept that we’re making a new aesthetic, then we will crash.’ We can’t go in thinking we’re making a movie that’ll be inferior to the last film, you’re always trying to top your last film.
RN: To what extent was this film a collaborative effort between you and your stars, Mya Taylor and Kiki Kitana Rodriguez?
SB: From the very beginning, from the first moment, I said to them, “I have three things here. I have three ideas, and they’re hardly ideas. It has to take place on one night, because we don’t have the budget to do anything else.” You know, it helps when you’re shooting a story taking place over a twenty-four hour period, because there are no costume changes and maintaining continuity is pretty easy. So that was one. Second thing, “I think they’re a couple characters looking for each other. I don’t know what genre this will fall into, I don’t know if it’ll be a love story or a revenge story. I feel as if we should be following two people and they’re looking for each other.” That was the second idea, and the third, I said, “I really want all of my characters to converge at the end at Donut Time. That’s something we’re gonna have to stick to.” I’m very influenced by Mike Leigh, and the way that he always has these climactic confrontations, like in Secrets and Lies and High Hopes, in which the ensemble cast meets in one location. And Donut Time is such a landmark, so that had to happen.
So I asked the girls what they thought, and where we could go from there. I had been listening to all their stories, but I hadn’t heard a plot yet, there was no throughline story there. But Kiki called me a couple weeks later and told me she wanted to pitch me something, so I said, “Do it!” But she was like, “I wanna meet you and pitch you in person.” I met her at the Jack-in-the-Box, and she gave me this story. It didn’t play itself out like this in real life, it was being contemplated by one of the girls when she found out her man had been cheating on her with a quote-unquote ‘fish’. And I was like, “What? Could you define that for me?” She did, and that’s how she hooked us. I thought that was really layered, that there was something there.
RN: It’s almost a whole immersive subculture, this hidden world that not everybody knows about.
SB: Yeah, we thought that plot could take us on a journey with these characters. We can spend time with them, and get to know them. Because they spend the whole movie on foot, talking, and we hear their real, social interaction. At the same time, we see new locales and characters around the fringe. And I’ve also worked with Karren Karagulian five times now and really loved him. I wanted to work him in, and he said, “Look, there’s a huge Armenian-American population in Los Angeles. Why don’t you just make me a cab driver who’s got, you know, a preference?” We could have this parallel story of infidelity also going on. That’s how it all played out.
RN: I understand that you met Mya and Kiki through pure chance at an LGBTQ center in Los Angeles, and I remember that you worked with adult film actresses in your last film, Starlet. Is there something specific that attracts you to non-professional actors?
SB: Yes, definitely. I like combining the two. I think there’s a very special thing you get when you put a first-time actor in with a seasoned professional. They play off one another, the strengths and weaknesses of both. Some of the actors that I’ve worked with regularly know how to help make the first-timers a little more comfortable. But to answer your question: It’s funny, because I bring Spike Lee up a lot now, and I love him, but he’s not as influential on my work as, say, Ken Loach or Mike Leigh. He was very influential on this, though. When people talk about first-timers, I always think of Spike Lee. In every film he’s made, he has A-listers, but he’s always giving roles to first-time actors and breaking careers. He’s brought such wonderful actors into the spotlight, and I love that.
I love seeing fresh faces. We all just want something new.
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