It’s impossible to imagine the Spirit Award-nominated “Tangerine” without its thumping soundtrack of trap music, accompanied by detours into the sounds of Beethoven and Moroccan belly dance. The film invites the audience into the world of Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor) — two transgender prostitutes on the trail of a cheating boyfriend-pimp on Christmas Eve in Hollywood — and the film’s music plays a big role in bringing their unique world to life.
“What the soundtrack does is capture the energy of Santa Monica and Highland, where we shot,” director Sean Baker explained in an interview with Indiewire. “As an outsider I had to immerse myself into this world, and there was an energy that I felt and that forced itself onto my camera and later forced itself into the edit. There’s this hyperactivity, tension, nervousness, chaos and danger in that part of Hollywood and the music is just the sonic representation of that.”
The result may be this year’s most vital indie soundtrack, which is why it’s ironic that Baker had originally told his producers not to budget anything for music.
“‘Tangerine’ was suppose to be a return to Dogme 95,” said Baker, referring to the filmmaking manifesto written by Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg in which filmmakers took a “vow of chasity” to avoid post-production effects. Baker previously avoided using music in his first feature, “Take Out.”
That concept of a music-less soundscape went out the window one serendipitous night early in post-production. Baker had become addicted to watching Vines, which he used to escape the stress of editing. One of his favorite viners was wolftyla, an 18-year-old musician out of NYU, who often posts six-second videos of herself dancing, lip syncing or singing.
“One night when I was editing the first scene in Donut Time [a doughnut shop that plays a large role in the film], wolftyla posted this trap track that really grabbed me and I thought, ‘That’s the sound of all the footage I’ve been watching,'” recalled Baker.
Baker quickly hit the message boards, where wolftyla’s fans led him to the two 17-year-old DJ’s out of Newark, who had created the track. He contacted them through SoundCloud — a popular audio platform that enables sound creators to upload, promote and share their work — to ask if the track was available.
“SoundCloud is such a great tool for independent filmmakers,” Baker said. “There are so many high-quality tracks and most of the artists are unsigned. As long as the track is original, with no samples, you don’t have to go through music supervisors or labels and can negotiate directly with the musician.”
Baker fell in love with how the track transformed the opening scene and decided the movie would have a trap music backbone. “After that, I would find the vibe of the scene, I would look on SoundCloud for something that would work, reach out to the artist and then acquire it before I’m done editing the scene so I could edit to the track,” said Baker.
It was important to Baker that he pay the artists for the music, but the most he could afford was $200 per song, along with a guarantee they received points on the sale of the soundtrack. Virtually all of the musicians agreed, some even letting him have their music for free.
As he worked his way through the film, which was edited chronologically, Baker decided he wanted to mix things up: He used Moroccan belly dance music to capture the chaotic clash of cultures in a different scene set at Donut Time — and classical music when Sin-Dee faces a difficult decision, for which Baker discovered on the royalty-free website Musopen.
“Every independent filmmaker should know about this site,” Baker said. “It’s public domain classical tracks that are rated by their production value. I found and used a Beethoven track that was extremely high quality.”
Searching for unsigned artists and royalty-free music on the internet gave “Tangerine,” which was made for a reported $100,000, the high-quality soundtrack it could afford. But for Baker, this way of working also provided a source of creative satisfaction. “It was a great process,” he said. “I really want to work like this in the future.”