2 items from 2015
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?
Sean Baker: 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.
Aguilar: 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 Broadway" 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 coverage.
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.
- Carlos Aguilar
Eric Lavallee: Name me three of your favorite “2014 discoveries”…
Sean Baker: 1) Ruben Östlund – After being blown away by Force Majeure, I made sure to check out all of Östlund’s previous works and they are all amazing. I haven’t been this excited about an emerging filmmaker since discovering Ulrich Seidl back in 2001. 2) Soundcloud. Of course I was aware of it prior to 2014 but over the course of the year, I discovered what a valuable tool it is for indie filmmakers. Soundcloud not only exposes you to new trends in music but allows you to reach out directly to artists. We scored Tangerine with extremely high quality music tracks for a fraction of what licensing with music labels would normally cost. It allowed both parties to work directly with one another and make mutually beneficial deals. 3) Iced Sea Salt Coffee... go to 85°C Bakery – A Taiwanese chain of coffee »
- Eric Lavallee
2 items from 2015
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