Independence Transcendent: With the iPhone-Shot Tangerine, Sean Baker Makes it Look Easy

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If the phrase “independent film” has in recent years felt problematic to you, with one-time rebels “going studio” and A-listers populating your neighborhood film festival, Sean Baker’s Tangerine is cause for celebration.

This is one indie film that passes the proverbial “I’ll know it when I see it” test. It’s the story of two transgender prostitutes, Sin-Dee Rella and Alexandra (played by powerhouse newcomers Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor respectively), hellbent on revenge after Sin-dee finds out her pimp-boyfriend Chester has been cheating on her with a fellow hooker, a “fish” (or “cis woman,” a person born female who identifies as female) named Dinah. Hijinks ensue across the West Hollywood neighborhood that marks the transgender sex industry’s unofficial capital—a sizzling, colorful battleground of salesmanship, danger and camaraderie. It’s a freewheeling, raucously funny street opera with a sweet and soulful center, pulsing with enough verve and vitality to erase any whiff of the “issue film” it might have been.

With a budget of about $100,000, leads cast directly off Santa Monica Boulevard, and guerilla-filmmaking scars to make Melvin Van Peebles proud, Tangerine could easily be the poster child for a certain scrappy, festival-friendly modern indie—even before you learn that it was shot on the iPhone 5s. Add that all up and you have Sean Baker’s flashiest spectacle yet by far, after four previous features: Four Letter Words, Take Out, Prince of Broadway and Starlet.

Of course, it would be a mistake to isolate any of those aspects from the finished product that is Tangerine, which ties its elements together so deftly that listing them as boxes to be checked seems gauche and reductive. At the film’s premiere in the Sundance NEXT section this January, Baker—flanked by his cast, DP Radium Cheung, multihyphenate collaborators Chris Bergoch, Shih-Ching Tsou and Darren Dean, and executive producer Mark Duplass—fielded 15 minutes of Q&A until revealing his camera of choice (by producing it, grinning, from his pocket). He drew gasps. Yet that offhanded announcement is of a kin with the team’s scrupulous efforts not to milk the “iPhone thing” as a publicity gimmick—as well as the humility beneath Tangerine’s pop and fizz, one that places the needs of the story above its creators’ egos.

Tangerine

Tangerine premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2015

Aesthetic humility is indeed a Baker hallmark, and probably the reason why he isn’t more famous. His features don’t bear down on you like Monumental Achievements, at least on the surface. Low-concept and lo-fi, many of them were shot as quasi-documentaries, concerned with the day-to-day of people whose lives interact with yours in ways you don’t think about—an illegal Chinese immigrant working as a take-out delivery boy in Take Out, a pirated-goods salesman on the streets of New York City in Prince of Broadway, a porn actress living in Los Angeles’ San Gabriel Valley in Starlet. The films come with none of the awe-heavy ostentation and mystique of your typical “auteur” fare. You’d be forgiven for imagining them effortless, work that calls for no special genius beyond a knack for observation, a dogged persistence and a certain repository of street smarts.

That illusion—of making the immensely difficult look easy—is precisely Baker’s gift. He’s a careful chronicler of the depths of modern society, unpeeling its layers with such an organic, good-natured humor that the accompanying pathos—the social consciousness that shapes his films—takes you by surprise. And he’s painstakingly efficient with his resources, with a penchant for using the word “footprint” to discuss his films’ manpower and budgetary needs. The more time you spend in Baker’s world, in fact, the more the conviction sneaks up on you: this unassuming, soft-spoken director may be one of the most important filmmakers of his generation.

Plenty of Labor, Not Much Fruit

Right now, though, all Baker is is busy. Over the course of our two-hour phone conversation in May, he runs an errand at the post office, drives to a Hollywood studio to drop off Tangerine’s DCP, then hustles back home to prepare for a trip to the San Francisco International Film Festival the next morning.

Why the frantic schedule? Tangerine’s makers are embroiled in a race to the finish line, marked by the film’s July release date. You get the sense that chaos is part and parcel of Baker’s professional life—and that he can deal, although this last leg, like all that came before, is draining. His firsthand knowledge of microbudget moviemaking’s brutality (Take Out, the feature Baker co-directed with Tsou out of NYU, was made for a mere $3,000 plus sundry favors), can sometimes temper his natural optimism. “I don’t particularly like making microbudget films. To tell you the truth, I hate it. Nobody gets paid right, everyone’s wearing too many hats, and at the end of the day, it’s hard to make a living.”

Take Out, co-directed by Sean Baker and Shih-Ching Tsou in 2009

Take Out, co-directed by Sean Baker and Shih-Ching Tsou in 2004. Courtesy of Fandor

After 2012’s South by Southwest-premiering Starlet, Baker swore to attempt something more comfortable—a feature called Caviar, set in Brooklyn with a projected budget of $15 million. After a year, though, he “couldn’t get any A-listers to read the script. So I gave up, quite honestly.”

A short sabbatical from the industry felt right. Baker took Starlet, nearing the end of its festival run, to the New Zealand Film Festival, where he spent two weeks watching low-budget films of a different provenance. “They lit a fire in me: ‘Maybe I should just hunker down and do one more of these.’” So, settling his energies onto a West Hollywood-set script he was developing with co-writer Bergoch, Baker put in a call to the self-proclaimed Robin Hood of independent film—Mark Duplass.

Tangerine’s Fairy Godparents

“I was on the jury at the Woodstock Film Festival in 2008 when Prince of Broadway played,” says Duplass, “and I fell in love with the movie, and began stalking Sean in the hopes of working with him.”

Lucky Baker. Many a moviemaker would love the attention from Duplass and his brother, Jay, indie producers of the moment. Discerning, hands-off, with the clout and connections to shepherd a project across the finish line, the pair channel the earnings from their own work into nurturing others.’ (In news that surprised no one, they produced three films that premiered at Sundance in 2015—besides Tangerine, Patrick Brice’s The Overnight and Brian Buckley’s The Bronze. All three were quickly acquired.)

“When he came to me with Tangerine I knew immediately it was the one. I spoke with Jay, and Marcus and Karrie Cox [the husband-and-wife team behind Through Films, whose recent productions include Ross Katz’s Adult Beginners]. We greenlit the movie in 24 hours from our own pockets.”

Tangerine’s non-commercial elements were “exactly what we loved about it,” says Duplass. “We were all ready to lose money on this if need be.”

This was good news for Baker and gang, surprised as they were to be diving willfully into another microbudget at this stage in their careers. “This was my fifth feature,” says Baker. “I couldn’t pull all those favors again.” Even with enthusiastic producers, Tangerine’s budget was, in fact, half the budget of Starlet, and this wasn’t exactly the easiest pill to swallow. “No matter how much you try to sugarcoat it, in this industry where money is everything, cutting your budget in half after making a well-received film felt like I was failing.”

Still, once more unto the breach, with backers who believed wholeheartedly in the project and weren’t shy about showing it. “They ran out of money at one point,” says Duplass. “I could hear the anxiety in their voices before they even asked. I said, ‘How much?’ We cut them the check the next day. I know how stressful it is to have shitty financiers, and I was so happy to make it easy on them.”

Looking for Hearts of Gold

If Tangerine’s financing fell into place with unusual alacrity, its screenplay was years in the making. Writing partners since meeting at NYU, Baker and Bergoch had originally envisioned their previous collaboration, Starlet, to be, as Bergoch puts it, “very cinéma vérité, with almost no plot at all.” While that film quickly developed a narrative trajectory—the protagonist becoming a young porn actress Jane (Dree Hemingway) who forms an unlikely friendship with 85-year-old widow Sadie (Besedka Johnson)—that initial seed, of a 24-hour Los Angeles odyssey, lodged in the writers’ minds.

Besedka Johnson and Dree Hemingway between takes on Starlet, 2013

Besedka Johnson and Dree Hemingway shooting Starlet (2012), set in the San Fernando Valley. Courtesy of Music Box Films

“We both lived in West Hollywood, says Bergoch, “and noticed that the area around Santa Monica Boulevard and Highland Avenue was the stage for all this down-and-dirty drama. Sean eventually said, ‘We have to make a movie around that area.’” In the fall of 2013, frustrated by the slow movement of their other ideas-in-progress—including a mainstream script-for-hire that was stalling—the pair launched a research investigation into their own backyard.

“It was just about hitting the pavement, getting to know the girls on the streets, and getting them to trust us,” says Baker. “Starting conversations and having coffee. Thank god I had a body of work to show them—I would hand out my DVDs.”

One such recipient of the Baker filmography: Mya Taylor from Houston, an aspiring singer-actress who had just started her transition. The pair encountered Taylor at the Los Angeles LGBT Center and was drawn to her openness. “She had a lot of friends getting rehabilitated at the center and she’d tell us their stories,” says Bergoch. The anecdotes ran the full, horrifying gamut: working girls being doused with gin and urine, being hit by cars and shot at, being robbed and robbing each other in return.

Taylor plays the streetwise Alexandra in Tangerine

Mya Taylor plays the streetwise Alexandra in Tangerine

Taylor trusted the affable, earnest pair on the spot. “They were very sweet. I felt like they were the real thing. They didn’t seem fake or shady—and with the life I come from, I know what that is.” She introduced them to her roommate, Rodriguez, a blonde maelstrom of energy from the San Fernando Valley who had studied acting and was herself involved in the LGBT center’s programs.

Between Rodriguez’s impetuous, rapid-fire frankness and Taylor’s wry dignity, the moviemakers saw comic gold—and the relationship at the heart of Tangerine. “Like all dynamic duos, you have the one that’s out of control and the one who reacts,” says Baker. “Mya was our straight man—not in terms of orientation,” he hastens to add, “the term ‘straight man’—and it’s what I saw in our characters.” (Tellingly, Rodriguez responded to the brash, streetwise humor of Prince of Broadway, while Taylor loved the reserved and poignant Starlet.)

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