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'Tangerine' director finds an unlikely cinematic muse in LA's 'unofficial red light district'

Mya Taylor (left) and Kitana
Mya Taylor (left) and Kitana "Kiki" Rodriguez in "Tangerine."
Augusta Quirk/Magnolia Pictures
Mya Taylor (left) and Kitana
Sean Baker, director of "Tangerine."
Daniel Bergeron
Mya Taylor (left) and Kitana
(L-R) Kitana "Kiki" Rodriguez, James Ransone and Mya Taylor in "Tangerine."
Augusta Quirk/Magnolia Pictures
Mya Taylor (left) and Kitana
Mya Taylor started out as a consultant and then was cast in "Tangerine."
Augusta Quirk/Magnolia Pictures
Mya Taylor (left) and Kitana
Mickey O’Hagan (left) and Kitana "Kiki" Rodriguez in "Tangerine."
Augusta Quirk/Magnolia Pictures

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Hell hath no fury like a trans-woman scorned in director Sean Baker’s latest film, "Tangerine."

When a transgender working girl named Sin-Dee (played by Kitana "Kiki" Rodriguez) gets out of prison and learns that her boyfriend has been cheating on her, it sets off a series of events that are at times hilarious and tragic. Wrapped up in all the drama is Sin-Dee's best friend Alexandra (Mya Taylor), who also spends part of her time as a prostitute near the intersection of Santa Monica Boulevard and Highland Avenue. 

Note that the video below contains graphic language and scenes. 

The film premiered at Sundance Film Festival earlier this year and was a surprise hit, mainly due to the colorful cast and the fact that it was shot entirely on iPhones. At the helm were both Baker and his co-cinematographer, Radium Cheung.

Made for about $100,000, Baker and his team ran a tight production that had them shooting on busy L.A. streets and running after people for signatures on appearance release forms. Even with the low budget, Baker felt inspired to make the movie in order to portray communities otherwise overlooked by television and film.

"When I moved to Los Angeles about three-and-a-half years ago, I was surprised that there were so many pockets, so many nooks and crannies, so many communities, so many cultures that hadn't been focused on in film and television," said Baker on The Frame.

"When we think of L.A. we think of the Hollywood sign, the Walk of Fame, Beverly Hills and Venice. But there are so many other interesting, amazing locations and [Santa Monica and Highland] was one of them. So I thought there must be incredible stories that can be told there and that occur there on a regular basis. It's basically an unofficial red light district. It's an infamous corner that has been known for this for decades."

Baker and Cheung joined The Frame to talk about the making of "Tangerine":. 

Interview Highlights

One of the things that is certainly noticeable in this film are the locations that you use near this neighborhood. There is a car wash and there is a Donut Time restaurant. Were these businesses that were familiar to you? How did you get them to sign up to be part of the film?

Sean Baker: I had wonderful producers — Darren Dean and Shih-Ching Tsou. We did this film on an extremely low budget and for them to be able to lock down these locations for close to nothing is quite a feat. But I did tell them from the very beginning: "I will not make this film unless you can lock down Donut Time," because it's such a landmark. It's right on the corner of Santa Monica and Highland on the Northeast side. It's sort of a hub. It's where a lot of the working girls from the area used to, and still do, hang out between their jobs.

What was the initial conversation about using iPhones to shoot this film?

SB: It took a lot of convincing, not only of my team and of Radium, but also of myself. This is my fifth feature film. You always work towards getting a bigger budget, getting better cameras, and stuff like that. [With] the state of the industry right now, we're forced to work with a budget that was less than half of the budget of our previous film. Yet we had this treatment that was asking for a lot — multiple locations, exteriors, ensemble cast. We wanted to put all of that money up on the screen. Basically, I'm out of favors. I couldn't shoot on film. I couldn't shoot on higher end cameras.

What got me was when I found this Kickstarter campaign for a company called Moondog Labs. They created an anamorphic adaptor that fits over the iPhone lens. When I saw those tests I thought, This could elevate this to a cinematic level. So, long story short, we shot on the iPhone 5s the entire film. 

Radium, what are the opportunities and obstacles of shooting on that kind of equipment?

Radium Cheung: If it had been anybody else either than Sean who called me and said, "Let's shoot a movie, but we only have a budget for a couple of phones to shoot it on," I would have said, Get the f*** out of here. Dead serious. What really convinced me — it took a while, like Sean said, to convince himself and the team — were these lenses. They actually allow the phone to capture in anamorphic, squeezed images. Much like an anamorphic lens on a real camera. That really elevated the look of the film. It really brought this film up to a different level than what you would expect from a mobile phone movie. 

One of the things that also is remarkable about this film are the actors you got in the lead roles. Kitana and Mya. Sean, can you talk about casting them, where you found them, and what they brought to the performance in terms of creating the characters of Sin-Dee and Alexandra?

SB: I am a white, straight male. I'm not from this world whatsoever that we're focusing on. So we knew that the only way to do this correctly, responsibly and respectfully was to find a consultant — and not just a consultant, a true collaborator. That was Mya Taylor. Who knew that she was also going to be an amazing performer? We found her one morning hanging out in the courtyard of the LGBT Center, which is basically about a block away from this intersection. We exchanged contact information and we started hanging out on a regular basis. That was sort of our research process.

She would actually tell us stories, anecdotes and stuff that she knew from the area because she had friends who had worked the streets. She witnessed first-hand a lot of the stories that eventually made their way into the movie. About three weeks in she brought Kiki to the table. Kiki sat next to Mya and I saw the two of them together and I thought, Wow, the dynamic duo! They contrast each other, but they compliment each other. They really have this wonderful interaction. I thought, We're going to write two characters for these two women to play.

Who introduced you to the idea that a car wash is not just for washing cars?

SB: Well, that is funny. For about 20 years I have wanted to shoot a scene in a car wash. I didn't know what it was going to be, but I always wanted to do a take in a car wash in which something happens in that car. Maybe it is what happens in "Tangerine," or maybe it's a mob hit. I never had the opportunity to do this until when we were actually discussing these things with Mya and Kiki.

Mya actually mentioned that some of her friends took [clients] to the local car was because it would give them five or six minutes of complete and utter privacy.  If they didn't have time or the money to rent a hotel room, the car wash was their way of completely isolating themselves. I thought, Thank you Mya, now I have the opportunity to shoot the scene I have always wanted to shoot.

What were the mechanics of shooting it? Did you end up with an incredibly clean car after five or six takes, or were you able to get it quickly?

SB: Only two takes. I was very happy with the performance. It was very simple. It was one shot. We shot it — maybe Radium can speak more about this — at the right time. 

RC: One of the many good things about shooting in Los Angeles is that you can count on the sun. You look at your app on your phone and it tells you what time the sun will be where and you show up at that time and the sun is there. The technicality of it was very, very simple. Just Sean sitting it in the backseat holding the phone and then you have our two performers in the front.

SB: And our wonderful sound recordist, Irin Strauss, who is six-foot-five, in the trunk of the car. It was a rented cab so I don't think it was properly watertight. It wasn't sealed. He was in a puddle by the end of the second take.

RC: The car was very clean afterward.  

I want to ask about the fight on the bus. How did you pull that shot off?

SB: In that particular case there was the first part of the scene that was — I guess you could call it violent. It was a semi-fight going on in the bus. First off, I'm focused on the monitor. I'm not looking around, and neither is Radium. The bus pulls over and we just assumed we were at a stop, but they were pulled over for a little bit too long. I started to realize that something was up. I looked up and said, "The bus isn't pulled over because of us, is it?" A passenger turned around and looked at me and said, "Yeah, not only that, but they're calling the police." So we scattered into the night. 

RC: From the front of the bus you could imagine some people in the back and these two girls kind of slapping each other. It wasn't very violent — that is the wrong word to use — it was just commotion in the back. Being responsible, the driver pulled over and we didn't realize. We kept shooting and kept waiting for the bus to move. We thought it was a red light. We thought it was a stop and then, like Sean said, after a while we kind of stopped and realized something was up.

They're calling the police. We all ran. We literally all ran out of the bus. We went in different directions and we had to call each other and converge somewhere. The good thing about that is we ended up at a place we never expected to be — a certain corner where Sean noticed this amazing graffiti mural. We shot a very nice shot just tracking back from that wall. So that was a blessing in disguise. But it was really funny that night. We felt like young kids getting in trouble. 

Sean, let me ask you this last question. Television has really taken a lead role in presenting stories about transgender characters. I am thinking about "Orange is the New Black," "Sense8" and "Transparent." It seems like movies are catching up a little bit, and certainly "Tangerine" is in that category. What do you hope all of these stories can show audiences about this world? Specifically, what do you hope audiences can take away from "Tangerine"?

SB: It's a wonderful thing what has happened in the last year. Awareness and visibility have grown substantially. When we set down this road two-and-a-half years ago, we really did not know it was going to be as much of a part of the zeitgeist as it is now. My hope is that people just see this as one of many stories that can be told about the movement. But this is of course not about the trans movement, this is about one microcosm, a sub, sub-culture of the movement and of the community. If anything, this just will add to further awareness. The way we approached our film — you could basically call this film a comedy — this is entertainment.

My hope is that the audiences will connect and identify enough with our two leads that they might take it further, do their homework, explore and know more about — just take it upon themselves to learn more about the movement. What's distressing to me is that with all this awareness that is growing, there is so far still to go. The murder rate of trans people in the United States has increased 13 percent this year alone. There is still an incredible amount of change to happen. Hopefully, this is just one of many stories. This is just the beginning of us telling many diverse stories of different parts of the trans community. 

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