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

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.)

Reinventing Tinseltown

One of the stories Rodriguez told was of a prostitute who’d been scorned by her pimp lover. Bergoch felt the light bulb flicker. “That was our way into the story. We’ve all had a broken heart. I was like, ‘That’s the movie! A simple Point A-to-Point B story, over 24 hours on Christmas Eve.’”

Point A: Sin-dee’s discovery of Chester’s infidelity. Point B: her hunting down and beating up of the outraged, ineffectual Dinah (Mickey O’Hagan), a slapstick—emphasis on “slap”—rampage through West Hollywood that ultimately brings both girls to confront the pimp (James Ransone) at his “place of business,” a donut store named Donut Time. They’re trailed by an exasperated Alexandra, as well as Razmik (Karren Karagulian), an Armenian cab driver and regular client of the girls who’s looking to score with Sin-dee. Later, they’re joined by Razmik’s mother-in-law, Ashken (Alla Tumanian), who’s determined to get to the bottom of her son-in-law’s frequent absence from home and not quite prepared for the truth she uncovers. These arguments escalate to a fever pitch… and eventually dissolve into an ending of unexpected grace.

Revenge-thirsty Sin-dee (Rodriguez) drags the “fish” Dinah (O’Hagan) through the streets of West Hollywood

Revenge-thirsty Sin-dee (Rodriguez) drags the “fish” Dinah (O’Hagan) through the streets of West Hollywood

That basic structure—one driving narrative converging with two subplots over the course of a day—has a classical soundness to it, and brings a grounding familiarity to the fringier elements of Tangerine’s world: pimps and dealers conducting business in burrito shacks; hookers haggling over handjobs and smoking meth in bathrooms. Rarely has this facet of Los Angeles been depicted on screen, and it bursts at the seams with a new iconography: of grit, survivalism and its own particular code of honor. Between the city’s graffiti and food lines, its subway stations and laundromats, Tangerine’s story unfolds through space, Sin-dee storming her way down sidewalks and up back alleys like a force of fishnetted nature.

After index card-ing out the story, Bergoch and Baker divided up scenes according to what resonated most with each writer—a process they’ve honed for two decades. Bergoch took the “down-and-dirty” action-oriented scenes; Baker worked with Karagulian and other Armenian actors to finesse the B-story in a language he didn’t speak. The pair continually added characters based on people they met, and worked hard to flesh each one out: “We wanted to never, ever have even the smallest character be a throwaway,” says Bergoch.

The research resulted in a 50-odd page scriptment, and writing never officially stopped—even as production geared up around Christmas of 2013 (so they could capitalize on the real-life holiday decorations around the city). “I had the iPad version of Final Draft in my hand the whole time,” says Bergoch.

Dialogue changed constantly, with Taylor and Rodriguez correcting lines for street credibility. This, coupled with open improvisation, created a screwball sensibility that peaks in the Donut Time climax—intended to be “Robert Altman-esque,” Baker says. He commends the cast for their boundless on-the-spot wit: “There’s a line from almost every actor in the film that I’m in absolutely love with.”

Choosing the iPhone 5s

“It’s weird for me to say this, but I’m one of those filmmakers who loves film,” says Baker. Weird because he’s never shot a feature on the medium. “Budget constraints and real-world problems don’t allow for it.”

He arrived at the iPhone almost by a process of elimination. “[Being out of favors,] I knew I couldn’t get my hands on an Alexa or a Red. Shooting with a DSLR would have looked like every other movie out there, and I was trying to be wholeheartedly original.”

Then he stumbled upon some “gorgeous” iPhone footage on Vimeo—much of it using FiLMiC Pro, the app by developer Cinegenix that is fast becoming standard play for iPhone filmmaking. “I wouldn’t have made the movie unless we had the app. It had everything I needed: It allowed us to shoot at 24 frames a second and lock exposure and focus.”

He was equally impressed by demo reels featuring a 1.33x anamorphic adapter lens by Rochester, NY-based Moondog Labs. Moondog had launched a Kickstarter campaign for their adapter in November 2013, and Baker saw an opportunity. He called and asked for their prototypes. Moondog sent over three.

Together, app and adapter helped Tangerine pull off that all-important trick to shooting on the iPhone—that is, not looking like you shot on the iPhone. Under the stewardship of DP Cheung and Baker, the film looks consummately accomplished, a kinetic, acid-soaked assault of color that has provoked comparisons to Harmony Korine’s work, as well as Run Lola Run and Slumdog Millionaire. If anything betrays its unorthodox production, it’s the occasional illusion of a shot being sped up, which came from not being able to lock shutter speed on the phone. But, as Baker says, who cares? “It’s actually a really cool look.”

That eye-popping saturation wasn’t the initial idea, Baker notes. “In a lot of social realist films, there’s a tendency to desaturate, because for some reason we associate desaturation with reality. That’s what I did with my other films. I honestly thought Tangerine was going to be very much along the lines of Prince of Broadway—a lot of telephoto lenses, very docu-cam.” (Prince was shot on Panasonic’s HDX900; Starlet the Sony X3 with vintage Soviet Union lenses.)

Baker holds the iPhone 5s (equipped with Moondog anamorphic lens, on a Smoothee stabilizer) for a typically explosive confrontation scene. Courtesy of Shih-Ching Tsou

Baker holds the iPhone 5s equipped with Moondog anamorphic lens, on a Smoothee stabilizer. Courtesy of Shih-Ching Tsou

The desaturated test footage was “fine,” but “something felt off. The world that these girls lived in was so colorful. Why didn’t I go the other way and oversaturate it? So we pulled up all the saturation and suddenly I went, ‘Oh my God, this is so cool!’” To finish it off, a filter was applied in post; Baker also added grain to frames.

Using the Moondog adapters imposed certain unavoidable elements upon Tangerine’s visuals. For one, the adapters created the occasional horizontal flare in the picture. For Baker, this looked all the more cinematic: “We wanted the anamorphic flare. Sometimes we faked it like J.J. Abrams did in Star Trek—Radium held a Maglite off to the left, giving fake flares.”

A bigger stumbling block was the inability to shoot extreme close-ups, or risk distorting actors’ faces. “There are a few close-up shots for which I took the adaptor off. We had to blow up the image and crop it to 2.35:1, so some shots are actually lower resolution,” says Baker. (He launches into a short lecture on anamorphic lenses: “The old Sergio Leone stuff with the extreme close-ups on the faces? They were able to use slightly telephoto anamorphics; we didn’t have that luxury. The only way to make a face look decent with an anamorphic close-up is to shoot it like they shot Amélie—a 45-degree angle from above, which gives the face a very appealing distortion. Not ugly, but like a comic-book character.”)

The team bought three of the iPhone 5s, though they only ended up using two, after discovering that the third was calibrated differently and produced grainier shots (another risk in using non-professional cameras). These attached onto the Steadicam Smoothee, a gimbal stabilizer built for small cameras and smartphones, absolutely necessary considering the lightness of the phones. It took Baker, who shares credit as a camera operator, a month of practice to operate the rig adequately. Cheung himself took a week.

For the first week of shooting, Baker wielded this compact rig while riding his bicycle up and down Santa Monica Boulevard, getting swooping tracking shots around his actors. The technique started out as an experiment and quickly established itself as an important element of Tangerine’s visual style.

Another unorthodox operating trick? Attaching the phone to an 18-foot collapsible painting pole to forge a traditional crane shot. “I had to use it like a fishing pole, hoping that I was getting the right shot because we didn’t have a monitor.”

Guerilla Shooting Par Excellence

Shooting on location in Hollywood—that infamous hotbed of tourism and crime—is not for the faint of heart, as Tangerine’s team, already seasoned guerilla veterans, testifies. “I don’t want to do it again,” Baker says, ruefully. “It takes its toll on the crew and the actors.”

Rodriguez, for her part, believes the film’s urgency owes to the adrenaline of the shoot. “Chaos on location brings more character to the film. It could be some people’s worst nightmare—but Sean lives for that kind of filmmaking.”

Capping the crew at 10 on any given day helped mobility, as did the unusually lightweight camera rig. No task was too small for the merry troupe, which wore more hats per head than they’d thought possible.

A one-time bike messenger in New York, Baker was “very comfortable” shooting on his bicycle. Photograph by Augusta Quirk

A one-time bike messenger in New York, Baker was “very comfortable” shooting on his bicycle. Photograph by Augusta Quirk

Sound mixer Irin Strauss performed as a one-man band, says Baker, despite the fact that his sound cart—anchored by Sound Devices’ 664 Production Mixer—was Tangerine’s “biggest footprint”(“You can do whatever you want to with the look of a film, unless it’s out of focus, and it’s an artistic choice. But it has to sound like a professional job to be taken seriously—dialogue crisp, well-covered.”) The 6’5” recordist gamely squeezed himself into a tiny trunk for the many scenes in Razmik’s cab. His dedication paid off, especially during one of the most indelible moments of the film: a single-take oral sex scene in the cab as it passes through a car wash—the gurgling, vacuuming, splashing and wiping noises of the machinery providing more exposition than anything the camera could. (In fact, Baker composed the frame from the back seat. “I had always wanted to do a scene that took place in one take, in a car wash. [The windshield] is already a frame, and you’re stuck inside the car, forced to watch.”)

The other major benefit of shooting on the iPhone was discretion—for the sakes of the first-timers in the cast, put at ease by the unobtrusiveness of the rig, and for discouraging stares from passers-by. Inadvertent extras were chased down and made to sign releases. One bus commuter demanded a fee of $200 from the erstwhile producers, who tried to negotiate him down to $60 (the man refused, forcing them to discard a take). And Donut Time’s generously low location fees came with one pesky condition: The production couldn’t shut down the business over their three nights of shooting, which often meant framing around customers and even comping someone out of a shot.

Sin-dee (Rodriguez), Chester (Ransone) and Alexandra (Taylor) at Donut Time on Santa Monica Boulevard and Highland Avenue

Rodriguez, Ransone and Taylor outside Donut Time on Santa Monica Boulevard and Highland Avenue

Baker stresses that guerilla moviemaking only works when done safely. “Even though film is the most important thing in my life, no human being or animal should ever be put in danger while making a piece of art,” he says. “We had security making sure the actors were always safe. We had insurance and permits. Safety was our number one priority.”

Post-Production Blues

In post-production, the real work began—a process Baker says absolutely drained him. “I had to take over everything: be my own assistant editor, do the preliminary sound mix, find all my music, build the credits myself.” He spent countless nocturnal hours, over seven months, editing —even trawling Vine and Soundcloud for the film’s eclectic trap music-meets-Beethoven soundtrack.

For all that, Baker is a staunch believer in editing himself. “Editing is 50 percent of directing. I know that that pisses off some people, but post gives a film such a signature that I’d almost feel obligated, if somebody else was editing my films, to give them a co-directing credit.”

Commend him on his digital savvy, and Baker shrugs matter-of-factly: Keeping up with material on Vine, Soundcloud and Vimeo is an artist’s duty, he believes. “We have to embrace these great tools that have been given to us. If I was closed-minded about social media and modern technology, it would stifle me—I see some friends getting old in front of me. I tell my team, ‘We should be watching new films, listening to new music, and, if you have time, reading new novels.’”

Various personnel stopped in to offer critique of the cut as it shaped up—including Mark Duplass, who helped Baker get the film down from 110 minutes to a lean 87. How did Duplass feel now about the project he’d placed so much faith in? “I knew he’d nail it. And he did.” When Magnolia picked the film up four days after its premiere, fighting off IFC and A24 with a number reportedly in the “high six figures,” the producer had every right to gloat.

A Liberating Lens

Baker grew up in New Jersey, and while he lived most of his life in New York, his heart now lies in California. “The culture is growing here, the opportunities are here, the quality of living is higher—and, especially for artists, it’s more affordable. I have really come to love L.A.” He’s pleased when native Angelenos like his take on the city.

Of course, Tangerine doesn’t flinch from certain grim realities: drugs, violence, abuse, the thanklessness and loneliness of a life on the streets. It’s an ugly world—but one that brims with sympathy for its inhabitants. And even as series like Transparent and Orange is the New Black take a long-overdue axe to mainstream media’s heteronormative traditions, seeing transgender prostitutes depicted on the big screen sans judgment is still refreshing (though one hopes that novelty will soon fade).

You sense that this inclusive vision stems, for the filmmakers, not so much from a political place as from a commitment to plain ol’ good storytelling—the compassion at the heart of any great art. Baker knows to let his brand of unassuming humanism lead the way. After all, he’d managed to create an utterly three-dimensional porn star protagonist in Starlet, and his other films covered similarly controversial themes with a lack of sensationalism.

“It’s painfully honest. It isn’t glorified, it’s realistic,” says Rodriguez of Tangerine. Photograph by Dominic Bonuccelli

“It’s painfully honest. It isn’t glorified, it’s realistic,” says Rodriguez of Tangerine. Photograph by Dominic Bonuccelli

Still, he thinks, the transgender Tangerine was the hottest button he’s had to contend with yet. “But we decided very early on that, even if it rubbed people the wrong way, we would tell the story we wanted to tell.” For all his admiration of Mike Leigh, Dogme 95 and Éric Rohmer, Baker spent his youth worshipping schlocky ’80s action films like Robocop and Die Hard—and made his name in the late ’90s with two Muppet-spoofing puppet comedies, Greg the Bunny and Warren the Ape. Early on, Taylor gave him an ultimatum: “Be brutally honest about the reality of living and working on the street. But you better make this damn funny, ’cause I wanna laugh at this movie and I want the girls from this area to be entertained by it.”

Tangerine’s outsized swagger, then, fulfills multiple functions: One the one hand, it works as a sly bit of misdirection, enabling resistant audience members to let down their guards to empathy. On the other hand, humor is the truest, most dignified way to handle the sprawling human richness of Baker’s subject. “It is very easy to make socially conscious films heavy-handed and melodramatic, but it would’ve been disrespectful to do that with this film. Hanging out with those girls was some of the most fun I’ve had.”

Don’t get him wrong, he says. “We met girls with extremely tragic backgrounds—on the street since they were 12, dropped off by their uncles and aunts, HIV-positive. But they would joke with each other. We survive by laughing. I think it’s something we all do, no matter what we’re going through.”

For Taylor’s part, the experience working on Tangerine changed her life. “I had just started my transition when we began, and I was not happy with myself at all. I used to cover myself up with shades, or wear layers of clothes so that people could say, ‘That looks like a real girl.’ I didn’t want to reveal who I really was. So I was very proud of myself to be able to come out in the open. Making the film just made me feel so comfortable, it didn’t even matter. And I knew that I was working on something great.” MM

Tangerine opens in theaters on July 10, 2015, courtesy of Magnolia Pictures. Top photograph by Dominic Arizona Bonuccelli. Tangerine stills courtesy of Magnolia Pictures. This article appears in MovieMaker‘s Summer 2015 issue, currently on newsstands and available for download.

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