What happens when you combine two razor-tongued, quick-witted trans prostitutes, the frenetic energy of LA’s infamous Santa Monica and Highland intersection, the creative mind of writer-director Sean Baker and a handful of modified iPhones? You end up with Tangerine, an indie film that pulses with such authentic energy, it feels almost unscripted.
Tangerine takes place over the course of a single day—Christmas Eve—and follows working girl Sin-Dee (Kitana Rodriguez) as she searches for her pimp-cum-boyfriend Chester (played by previous Baker collaborator James Ransone of The Wire fame) upon her release from a 28-day stint in prison. Sin-Dee learns that Chester has been cheating on her and sets off on a chaotic, heel-stomping hunt for Dinah (Mickey O’Hagan), the alleged mistress, with best friend Alexandra (Mya Taylor) reluctantly on her tail. While transgender lives and sex work are major themes, Tangerine is ultimately a film about friendship.
We chatted with Baker, Ransone and Taylor about the film and the top ten reasons why Tangerine is a major game-changer.
1. Tangerine was shot completely on modified iPhones
The concept of shooting on iPhones was initially a means of dealing with budgetary constraints, but the discovery of an anamorphic lens adapter from a new company with a Kickstarter campaign and an app called FiLMiC Pro got the filmmakers excited. While the former allows users to shoot in widescreen, the latter turns an iOS camera into a “broadcast-worthy HD video camera” that allows full manual control over everything from focus to shutter speed. “We knew with those two tools that we could elevate it to a cinematic level. And then it was really just about just convincing ourselves that we were going to create an aesthetic and that we shouldn’t be embarrassed by it,” says Baker.
2. The street life vibrating through each scene is authentic
Another reality of shoestring budget filmmaking? Not having the astronomic resources needed to recreate a city scene. Baker and his crew filmed in bustling parts of Santa Monica Boulevard; while they secured all the necessary permits, they didn’t announce themselves. The resulting scenes feel decidedly real. “There are those little nuances, those little details that all the money in the world can’t buy. I love doing it this way,” says Baker. “It results in happy accidents. It’s risky but, for me, with these smaller films, it’s really the way to go.” Adds Ransone: “The chaos of the outside environment really permeated the set, which actually doesn’t happen on anything else.”
3. Baker and his creative team didn’t set out to make a “trans movie”
Baker and co-writer Chris Bergoch knew they wanted to create a film about the corner of Santa Monica and Highland, an intersection just a half mile from Baker’s home, but they had no particular plot or script in mind. “I don’t go in there with any sort of ideas because that’s simply not the responsible, respectful way of doing it and so in this case, we knew that we were gonna have to find our collaborator or collaborators,” says Baker. “We didn’t go as tourists, we came as guests to this world, we got invited in,” Ransone agrees. “If you go with that mentality, you’re of course going to find universal themes of friendship and infidelity,” he says.
4. Actresses Taylor and Rodriguez were collaborators in the creative process
Bergoch and Baker began their research by observing the neighbourhood and chatting with locals. One such local was Taylor, a transgender woman with a performing arts background who quickly became the key collaborator they needed—and ultimately one of the film’s leads. Taylor’s good friend Kitana (Kiki) Rodriguez soon came on board and pitched the idea that became the central plot line.
5. Alexandra and Sin-Dee’s characters were written for the real-life friends who play them
During the research and brainstorming process, Baker saw the two women in action and realized he had a dynamic duo on his hands. “Up to that point, we had no idea what the theme was going to be but after seeing them together, we understood: One of the themes of the movie will be friendship because they had that strong bond,” he says.
6. Taylor understands the reality of sex work firsthand
Much of Tangerine‘s authenticity can be credited to the real life experiences of the film’s stars. “It tells the truth…it tells the truth for certain transgender people,” says Taylor. “Not every transgender person is a sex worker or has been a sex worker, but I myself have been a sex worker. When I was 18 and I couldn’t get a job because I was different and everything, I was forced to do sex work and that’s why I was so able to give so much information about it.”
7. Tangerine is funny and light
Baker, who comes from an improv comedy background, says he knew going in that Tangerine needed to include comedy, but he credits Taylor and the people he met while researching the film with showing him that humour is a great equalizer. “A lot of the [people we met who] actually worked the streets or had very difficult backgrounds were sometimes the funniest because they used humour to cope. I think humour humanizes,” says Baker. Adds Taylor, “Even when I lived a hard life, I liked for everything to be fun and funny. I didn’t want to be sad all the time and ‘Oh my god, this is happening to me.’ No, make the best out of it. Make fun out of it.”
8. Actors were encouraged to improvise
Baker and Bergoch wrote pages of “scripments” (half script, half treatment containing scene outlines and dialogue) but encouraged the cast to improvise. Baker says that improv and creative license is what adds heavily to the film’s authenticity, particularly when it comes to the vernacular that Alexandra and Sin-Dee use. “It was all part of the collaborative process. Chris and I, we’re not married to our dialogue, it’s all about the final product,” says Baker. “That dialogue’s pretty much there to make sure that the plot propels itself in a forward motion,” says Ransone. “So then everything else, all the nuanced dialogue, the anecdotal jokes, those are completely improv. That’s why it feels very real.”
9. The cast and crew wore many hats—including doughnut vendor
The film’s climax takes place at the local Donut Time, a Santa Monica and Highland landmark. The shop’s owners agreed to let Baker and his crew film on one condition: that they remain open to the public and continue to serve customers. Shih-Ching Tsou, the film’s producer, sold doughnuts to hungry patrons throughout the 2 a.m. shoot.
10. The film has given Taylor a platform to advocate on trans issues
Taylor recently joined forces with queer cultural activist organization OUTMedia to share her transgender experience through speaking tours and other channels. And while Tangerine is not expressly a trans film, Baker feels positive about what it can add to the conversation and the impetus for change that’s brewing. “The awareness and visibility gained by the trans communities being visible in the zeitgeist right now, I just hope that turns into acceptance because obviously there’s so much change that still has to happen,” says Baker.
Tangerine is now playing in Montreal, Calgary, and Vancouver.