Sean Baker's Universal Stories

The director of the Sundance phenomenon Tangerine talks about being more than just "the guy who will be remembered for shooting with iPhones."

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If you keep up with the buzz humming off the festival circuit, then no doubt you’ve heard of Sean Baker’s Sundance hit Tangerine, which he shot using a handful of iPhone 5s (outfitted with anamorphic lens adapters). But please, make no mistake: Tangerine isn’t a movie about iPhones. It’s a movie about Alexandra (Mya Taylor) and Sin-Dee Rella (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez), two transgender sex workers in L.A. who briefly reconnect on Christmas Eve following Sin-Dee’s expired prison sentence, and then quickly separate as Sin-Dee goes on a tear through the city in search of the woman with whom her scummy boyfriend (James Ransone) is two-timing her.

Baker’s iPhones are just a tool. They aren’t the story, nor should they be. So when Paste caught up with Baker to chat about Tangerine, the conversation revolved more around the challenges of setting foot into cultures outside your own, and why that’s so necessary in a whitewashed industry, than it did around mobile tech toys.

Paste Magazine: Watching this movie really gave me this sense of “being there”—I’d stumbled into Alexandra’s and Sin-Dee’s stories and hitched a ride along with them. Does that kind of describe your process, and how you wound up meeting up with them and building this movie around them?
Sean Baker: Yeah! Yeah, I mean, I’m glad that you felt that way, because that actually is exactly what I was looking for. We went into that world not knowing a thing, meaning that we didn’t have any idea of where we’d go with this plot or this script. We didn’t want to impose anything, being that we’re cisgendered white males from outside of that world, and we didn’t want to go in there thinking that we could write for them in any way. We ended up, of course, writing the script eventually, but it was all based on collaboration.

So what we did, when we eventually met Mya Taylor, who was at the LGBT center, hanging out—I approached her. She was the first person to show us true enthusiasm and desire to want to be in the movie. She would meet with us regularly, and she would give us stories and anecdotes about the things that she’d witnessed firsthand, from her friends that worked the area, and it was that time that I met [Kitana Kiki Rodriguez]. She brought Kiki to one of our meetings, and Kiki sat down next to Mya, and I just saw them as, like, this dynamic duo. And I thought, “We’ve gotta write two characters, who will be the leads of this film, that you two can play. We gotta figure this out.”

So the four of us, and Chris Bergoch, my co-screenwriter, the four of us would just sit in this fast restaurant and riff, and try to figure out stuff, share ideas, and it was one day that Kiki was like, “I think I have something for you. It’s a little crazy, but you told me you want to make a movie about, like, people coming together, so, well, there was this one time…” And she told me this thing that never really actually played itself out to fruition—it was an idea, one of these girls, they were contemplating it when they’d heard that their boyfriend was cheating on them with a “fish,” right? So I said, “Excuse me, what’s a fish?” And they told me, and I looked at Chris, and I go, “Oh my gosh, wow. That’s a crazy story.” The next day, Chris called me and he said, “I think we have our A-plot. That’s going to take us on the journey with these two girls, and the audience will be spending time walking down Santa Monica with them, and they’ll be forced to talk and socialize, and they’ll be able to get to know them through that walk.”

So to answer your question, it was really Kiki who was the one who brought this wonderful story to us, that allowed for us to take this journey with the characters.

Paste: Sounds like a really reciprocal creative process. Is that how you tend to work, no matter what kind of film you’re making, or is that just how this particular project came together?
Baker: I think [all of my films are] very similar in a way. Usually they’re about worlds that I’m not from and it just happens to be that I’m usually drawn to a vocation first, or something about a character who’s living on the fringe. In one of my previous films, Prince of Broadway, that one was a very similar process. We actually spent a year in the research process. It took place in New York, and it was about West African immigrants who sell counterfeit goods in the wholesale district, so it took about a year to really get to the point where I had a collaborator and somebody to move into pre-production with. In this case it was more like six to eight months. But yeah, I just feel it’s just a responsible way of going about it, especially if you’re not from that world. And if you want people from that world to actually like your movie, and see your movie as legitimate, well, then isn’t it best to collaborate with them so that they have their voice in how they’re being represented? That’s so important to me.
Paste: I think audiences can smell that, even if they’re not in tune with the culture or the sub-culture. I think they can detect phoniness. I feel like that’s a big part of what makes the movie so vital.
Baker: Well, thank you!

Paste: Do do you find a particular sort of satisfaction in telling stories that even a lot of independent films aren’t willing to tell? The stories of Alexandra, Sin-Dee, and Razmik…what do you find so meaningful and compelling about those stories for modern indie audiences?
Baker: As a filmmaker—not even as a filmmaker, as a cinephile, I watch a film a day—I’m interested in going to worlds that I haven’t gone to before. I don’t have the money or the means (I’m an independent filmmaker, so I don’t make much money) so the only way for me to travel is to travel through movies. But then when I actually make a movie, I get to actually really travel on the festival circuit, which is a wonderful thing. But I’m watching films, I want to go to another world. I want to be brought to a world that I don’t know about, and I don’t honestly don’t need to see suburbia U.S.A. much anymore. I’ve seen it too many times, and it’s not that there aren’t important stories there. I mean, we’re all human, as long as a story is good it can take place anywhere. But my question is: Why aren’t we seeing more stories with universal themes taking place in locations, or sub-cultures, or cultures of people that we don’t normally get to see? It just doesn’t make sense.

So in this case, I think it started with Prince of Broadway, and then it was more of a conscious thing for me with Starlet, because with Starlet I had started to explore sex work, but it was in the film industry. So what I wanted to do, what Chris and I wanted to do with Starlet, was focus on the personal life of the adult film stars and never focus on the vocation, or focus very little on the vocation, because even though all four of these films, I guess, you could consider labor movies because they all have to do [with] somebody in a particular vocation, we never wanted to focus on the mechanics of the vocation, but instead focus on perhaps universal stories.

People were like, “Well, I don’t know if Tangerine could take place in suburbia U.S.A.” I’m like, “Really? Because I knew a girl in high school who found out that her boyfriend cheated on her, and she went on a rampage.” So I think this could place in any corner of the Earth, you know? We’ve all had a broken heart, we all have friends, we all understand what friendship is, we all understand family. The more I get conscious of this, the more I’m worried about it, actually, because when I self-analyze, I fear that this will be too apparent in my work down the line. [Laughs.]

Paste: I like that sense that there’s a universality to all of these stories. It might feel foreign to us in some way, but there’s a nugget there that we can connect to even as outsiders. It feels like that’s really important to you.
Baker: Yeah, I think so. Just because, you know, after a while, these films that become too anthropological, or too observational, what happens in that case is that, number one, it becomes condescending; number two, it actually doesn’t do anything for the actual community, or group of people, whatever it is—race, sex, gender, creed, whatever—that are actually being focused on. They could care less. That’s something that Mya Taylor was very clear about very early on to me. She said, “You’d better make a film that’s accessible to the woman on the corner. They’d better be entertained by this.” And I said, “Oh boy. You’re asking kind of a lot here, because it’s a dangerous route, especially being as I’m not from that world.” Then I began to see exactly what she meant, and that’s why this film definitely leans a little more toward comedy than dramedy. My last few films, they always have humor, always, but not to this degree. Not where it actually, I think, worked its way into the style of the filmmaking as well.

Paste: Obviously a lot of people are going to talk about the use of iPhones in creating this movie. Are you maybe concerned about earning a reputation as “the guy who shoots movies on iPhones?” Do you feel that kind of focus on the technique might distract attention away from the really important “stuff” of the movie?
Baker: Well, I’m glad that you focused on that actually, because a lot of people start off with the iPhone stuff.
Paste: You’ve probably heard enough of that…
Baker: Yeah! I mean, there was a review—I think I saw a review, it was like, “Sean Baker, the guy who will be remembered for shooting with iPhones.” I was like, “Oh, that’s nice. that’s great, that’s wonderful.” [Laughs.]

Even though I’m happy that it’s bringing attention to the film, it’s not something that I in any way inspired, because I get a lot of tweets, and I get a lot of Facebook messages from people who say, “I’m a first time filmmaker, I’m glad you did it because now it allows me to do it.” And I was just like, “Well, that’s a wonderful thing. That’s a great thing.” I can’t wait to see what the next iPhone movie will be, because it’s been a year and a half since we shot, and even in that year and a half the technology has advanced so much that they can shoot 3K now with their phones. It’s pretty mind-blowing to me.

But ultimately, this really just stems from the fact that we had no money. We were just trying to figure out how to make our film look different on the little money that we had. The benefits revealed themselves to us as we were shooting. We were able to shoot clandestinely, even more so than I thought we were going to, and the fact that it removed all the intimidation factor away from our first-time actors, that was wonderful. But honestly, my hope with this film, the ultimate hope for this film, is that Mya and Kiki can actually, you know, parlay this into the careers they want. That would be the ultimate success for this movie, and then if I said that there’s a number two, it’s that I get the budget to shoot on film next time. [Laughs.]
Paste: [Laughs] I’ll hope for both of those things too. Though, I think the movie gains a lot from the use of the iPhones, not just because everybody’s talking about that and it’s creating buzz, but I feel like, and maybe you can give me your insight on this, when you have challenges like minimal funding, that tends to breed stronger creativity, creative solutions. Do you feel the same way?
Baker: Most definitely. There’s no doubt about it that it does. I shot a film called Take-Out, that I co-directed and that Kino Lorber put out, and it was shot on standard definition back in 2004 on the P150, and the whole time I was complaining. The entire time I was complaining, and Shih-Ching [Tsou], who played Mamasan in Tangerine, she’s one of the producers—the woman who was selling donuts…
Paste: Right, yeah.
Baker: She was one of the producers on it and she co-directed that film with me. When I was shooting that, the whole time I was complaining, and then finally she goes, “Can you shut up please? We’re getting stuff that we never could have gotten if we had a bigger camera and a bigger crew, number one, and number two, your favorite film is, like, Lars von Trier’s The Idiots, which is shot on the same camera, so what’s your problem?” [Laughs.] It’s something that I remember. I remember the day that she said that to me, and it’s something that I keep fighting myself to embrace.

Paste: Razmik, Karren Karagulian’s character: I feel like he’s going to end up being, like, the unsung hero of the movie, because he’s also so important…
Baker: He’s so great. He’s just so incredible. I’ve worked with him five times now, and I think you’re really going to love him in Prince of Broadway. He plays a very different character who’s just as dynamic. He’s one of those…that’s where I get so incredibly frustrated with this industry, because he has not been signed yet, and it’s been ten years of him delivering amazing performances, but because this culture only wants whitewashed stories, he can’t get an agent. And then the one time he came close to getting an agent, they were like, “Hey, do you want to play a terrorist?” It’s unbelievable, it truly is unbelievable. But hopefully this film, because it is a little bit higher profile, I’m hoping that it really just opens the doors for everybody.


Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing online about film since 2009, and has been scribbling for Paste Magazine since 2013. He also contributes to Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine and Badass Digest. You can follow him on Twitter. He is composed of roughly 65% Vermont craft brews.