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How Sean Baker Used Beautiful Accidents and New Talent to Deliver one of the Best Films of the Year

How Sean Baker Used Beautiful Accidents and New Talent to Deliver one of the Best Films of the Year

Glamour, palm trees, and surgically perfected bodies define
Los Angeles in the eyes of the world, but beneath that artificial sunshine
there are people and places that never find themselves portrayed on screen.
People on the bus, on the not-so-pretty streets, in the neighborhoods that no
one’s ever hear of, in those places that have stories that are never told. Even
Hollywood, as plastic as it’s often depicted, has areas that have not yet been
gentrified and in which people outside the norm are also allowed to be
beautiful in their own way. It’s here that director Sean Baker found the stars
of his riotous and perfectly acted latest film “Tangerine,” and where he shot it.

At the center of it are Alexandra (Mya Taylor) and Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez), two transgender sex workers on Santa Monica Boulevard who struggle to get by while
dealing with heartbreak, revenge, and their dreams. Their story, which takes place on a sunny California Christmas
eve, exists in the real world without embellishments and its driven by their
hilarious banter that’s always based on uncompromising sincerity. It’s in this
sort of uncontrollable environment that Sean Baker found beautiful accidents as
his camera, or better said his iPhone, recorded the characters interacting with
the city.

We had a chance to talk to Sean Baker about the making of one
the year’s best film and a standout at the most recent Sundance Film Festival.

Aguilar: “Tangerine” shows us a side of Los Angeles we
rarely see in film, far from all the glamour and artificial beauty. I know the streets where Alexandra and Sin-Dee exist. I’ve taken those buses, those trains, and been to those places. It feels very real and vibrant in an unpretentious way. Why did you want to tell this singular L.A. story?

I’m originally from New York
and I spent most of my life there, so when I came out to L.A. I was
surprised to find that most of L.A. hasn’t been shot out. I thought that the
studios would have covered L.A. for the last 100 years, but then I realized
there is a whole city south of Pico where there are these subcultures or communities that haven’t been focused on whatsoever, and also wonderful
locations. For example, I told everybody, “I don’t want to make this film
unless we can lock down Donut Time,” because it’s such a landmark. Thank god
my great producers Darren Dean and Shih-Ching Tsou were able to lock Donut Time. I’ve fallen on love
with Los Angeles and I love to explore it myself. If I’m telling an L.A. story I
want to tell a fresh L.A. story and show places that haven’t been shown before. 

How rough was it to shoot out there in the wilderness of the city?  You only have control of your equipment and your actors, everything else is alive and moving without you having power over it.

Sean Baker: I’m kind of used to that because I did it with “Prince of
” and I did it with “Take Out.” With those two films I
kind of had to accept the fact that there was going to be obstacles, but that
those obstacles would lead to happy accidents. If I have a bystander who is
stepping into the frame sometimes that would work, as long as we get their
permission and get releases everything is fine. I’m open to that. I like the
lack of control sometimes. I think that leads to a lot of interesting things,
plus I edit my own films, so I almost like to edit from a documentary point of
view. It keeps me awake and keeps me surprised in the edit when every take is
different and there are new things to be seen on every scene.

Aguilar: You have to two incredible leads in Mya and Kiki, but also two leads who have big personalities. Was it a challenge at first to work with actresses that didn’t have much experience or none at all?

Sean Baker: They were as
professional as professional could be from day one. I was so incredibly lucky
to have found Mya and Kiki. They started impressing me one or two days in. I
realized how great they were. I didn’t even know they were going to be that
great. With a film like this, even though it’s scripted and you know where you
are going, you kind of still have to find it while you shoot, and then you find
it again in the edit. I was going into the shoot knowing that if they weren’t
good enough I was going to focus on the characters around them or I was going
to give them less dialogue. That’s how I was going to do it, but then when they
started impressing me after the first day I was like, “Why not? They are
stealing the show every time, let’s roll with it.”

Aguilar: Even
though the film is a sense dialogue-heavy it feels very vibrant throughout. The only quiet moment is when Kiki sits by the Vermont station to consider her next move. Did you feel like you needed that calm beat before the madness was unleashed?

Sean Baker: In
that scene, I didn’t know I was going to be marrying the Beethoven track to it at
that moment. I just said, “This is a moment in which I’m going to slow thing
down.” It was the quiet before the storm. We already had a shot of adrenaline
in the beginning and this was going to be the second shot of adrenaline right
after this quiet scene. I basically said, “Look, let’s just take a moment and
allow the audience to breathe a little bit.” I told Kiki, “Sorry, you are gonna
have to smoke like 10 cigarettes,” because we needed to get every angle
possible. I should have gotten even more coverage. I wish I had more

Aguilar: You weaved in hilarious comedy within this story about two marginalized characters. Was finding that tonal balance difficult? The humor
is just so clever. There are lots of quotable material in the film like “You didn’t
have to Chris-Brown the bitch”or the whole part about “real fish.” 

Sean Baker: [Laughs]
That was really just because when I was in my research process and I’d be
hanging out with them, it was like going to a stand up comedy routine. They
were so funny, and they would always finish each other’s sentences. They would
set up jokes and then deliver a punch line. I realize there is so much humor in
that world because the women use that humor to cope. They use it to get by. We
all use humor in our lives to get through, but they do so especially because
they are sex workers because they have to be. They’ve been so marginalized they
don’t have other opportunities. They are faced with discrimination, with
danger, and with violence on a regular basis. They have to use humor just to
cope and I witnessed this. I thought that if I didn’t inject that humor in
the story it would be dishonest.

Aguilar: How did the Armenian driver who lives a very traditional lifestyle at home and finds solace in these transgender girls come about? It certainly adds another layer of complexity to the story.

Sean Baker: The
actor, Karren Karagulian, this is my fifth
time working with him. I love him. He is great, but he is underrated. This
industry hasn’t noticed him yet. He doesn’t even have an agent and yet he’s been
the lead of three films now. This is due to the racism of the industry, but I’m
hoping that this is the film that finally breaks him in because he is so good.
I approached him and said, “Look I’m making a film about two transgender sex
workers in Los Angeles, how can we incorporate you? Or how can we find a
character for you?” He said, “Look there is a huge Armenian community in L.A,
I’ll be a cab driver who is into one of them.” I said, “There we go.” [Laughs].
He is New York-based, so he came out and through his connections I was able to
get the stars of Armenia. Alla Tumanian, who plays the mother in law, is a classic
actress from Armenia. Arsen Grigoryan, who plays the other cab driver that rats on him, he hosts The Voice over in Armenia. He is our biggest
celebrity in the movie. It was really interesting to work with some of the
stars of Armenia, such seasoned talent.

Aguilar: Will it ever
play in Armenia since you have names that are recognized there? Or is it too
non-traditional in terms of its themes to play there?

Sean Baker:  Yeah, that’s the thing. We are hoping
that it plays at the Golden Apricot, which is their film festival, but we are
still not sure.

Aguilar: Out of
Sundance most of the talk about the film was related to how it had been shot on
an iPhone. Have you gotten to a point where you want to talk about the actual film
and not mechanics of how it was made?

Sean Baker: Yeah,
I’m sort of sick of it at this point. What started out as a budgetary thing has
become sort of a gimmick and it’s not, but it is a selling point at the same
time so we can’t dismiss it. Some critics have gone as far as to say that
subtextually the fact that we are shooting on this accessible device works
with the subject matter about these women who might not have the means to shoot
any other way. I’m just happy that it’s accepted and that we were able to find
our aesthetic. We were sort of forced into it but I’m happy with the look of
the end product. I come from the school of thought that feels that if you can shoot film, you should
shoot film. I’m still in that Christopher Nolan, Tarantino thing.

Aguilar: Save film!

Sean Baker: Yeah!
If I had the budget I would have shot it on film but then I probably wouldn’t
have made the same movie.

Aguilar: Did you ever
image that “Tangerine” would go as far as it has or did it catch you by surprise? Despite all the iPhone talk, reviews have been stellar and people seem to really connect with the film and its humor.

Sean Baker:  No, I thought that it might have the
same acceptance as my last film “Starlet,” the critics liked it and it won the
Altman Award, but it’s still under the radar and people are still finding it on
Netflix. I thought it would be the same, but this one seems to have a  bigger
impact. I thought it was going to divide critics more and so far it hasn’t
really done that. People really seem to accept it, which is a great thing. My
hope is that with the trans movement being such a big part of the zeitgeist that
Mya and Kiki can really parlay this. That’s the hope.

Aguilar: Do you think
it’ll be difficult for them to find more acting jobs after this?

Sean Baker: That’s
my fear, but at the same time I’m hoping that with the industry realizing that
diversity it so important they may be offered more roles. They are talented enough
to play anybody. It doesn’t just have to be a trans role. I’d love to see both
of them take on anything. That would be the ultimate success for this film.

Aguilar: They are both amazing, colorful, and brimming with authenticity. How did you
find them? I’m sure raw talent like this didn’t come from traditional casting.

Sean Baker: You
have to put in the time. With “Prince of Broadway,” which is the film I made
before ”Starlet,” we spent a year in that district and everybody kept on
telling us to find Prince Adu. “Find Prince Adu, he’ll like you. He’ll work
with you,” and when we did, it all worked out. He was enthusiastic and he wanted
to make the movie with us and everything worked out. In this case I tried to
keep that in mind, “If I can just find that one person who is enthusiastic enough.”
Then, only two weeks in, we went over to the LGBT center and there was a
courtyard, Mya was about 40 feet away and I saw her and thought, “She has a
look. There is something about her. She is the one who stands out in the crowd.” We went up to her and introduced ourselves. Next thing you know she was doing
what Prince did, she had that enthusiasm. She was like, “I want to make this
film with you!” We exchanged information and we started going from there. That’s
how it happened and then she brought Kiki to the table. This is also something I haven’t
said enough, Mark and Jay Duplass were very supportive. They found us the money
to make it. When nobody else was stepping forward they were the only ones that
said, “We’ll help you make this film.”

Aguilar: They are
like the indie film godfathers.

Sean Baker: Exactly!

Aguilar: I have my
own theories about this, but why did you decide to title the film “Tangerine”? Is it the sweet and sour nature
of the two leads?

Sean Baker: Yes,
you got it [Laughs]. Is that and it’s also the color. The sense and the fruit you
get from the color of it. I didn’t want to go with a literal title. I’m sick of
those. Film is the only art form where we feel we have to title our stuff
literally. Musicians don’t have to title their songs literally. It can be more
about what’s conjured up when you think of a word. In this case for some reason
tangerine just kept sticking and we kept on going back to that.

“Tangerine” is now playing in Los Angeles at ArcLight Cinemas Hollywood and in NYC at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema

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