Sex­ual peel­ing

Sean Baker’s new com­edy ‘Tan­ger­ine’ is about trans­gen­der sex work­ers in LA. ‘We had no idea it was go­ing to be a trend move­ment,’ he tells Tara Brady

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FILM -

Not too far into the new movie Tan­ger­ine, there comes a mo­ment when Alexandra (Kiki Ro­driguez) ac­ci­den­tally tells her best friend Sin-dee (Mya Tay­lor), that Sin-dee’s boyfriend and some­time pimp, Ch­ester ( The Wire’s James Ran­sone), has been cheating on her with a cis­gen­dered woman: a “fish”.

The trans­gen­dered Sin-dee im­me­di­ately storms out of the donut shop where they’ve been sit­ting. The trap mu­sic of DJ Lightup kicks in on the score; it’s Christ­mas Eve in Santa Monica and she’s go­ing fish-hunt­ing.

It’s a stun­ning se­quence: one that com­pares favourably with Scors­ese’s ground-break­ing use of hand­held track­ing in Mean Streets. There may be bet­ter films in 2015 – al­though they’ll have to be very good in­deed – but no movie will match Tan­ger­ine for sheer en­ergy.

Di­rec­tor Sean Baker’s much­buzzed-about fifth fea­ture has made head­lines as the first fea­ture to be shot on an iPhone in proper cin­e­matic as­pect ra­tio. But it also man­ages to be the most colour-sat­u­rated fea­ture since Dou­glas Sirk’s hey­day.

“I didn’t know it would look that way at first,” says Baker. “I’m really in­flu­enced by Bri­tish so­cial real­ism, by the work of Mike Leigh and Ken Loach. I love Ul­rich Seidl: I think he’s one of the last of the great mas­ters of cin­ema. The work I love tends to be very de­sat­u­rated. And that’s what I orig­i­nally thought I was go­ing to do. But when I first shot some test footage, it seemed so wrong. It didn’t look like the world I was try­ing to rep­re­sent.”

The iPhone al­lowed Baker to make the film for $100,000 dol­lars – much of it handed over by mum­blecore grad­u­ates the Du­plass Broth­ers – but there are many more in­no­va­tions to cheer about.

So­cial me­dia played a huge role in the pro­duc­tion: the film ben­e­fits from cameos from In­sta­gram star Fran­cis Lola, Vine star Chel­cie Lynn and a sound­track sourced on Sound­cloud. Baker un­earthed the movie’s most-chat­tered about trap mu­sic track through Viner and YouTu­ber wolftyla, who is duly thanked in the cred­its.

“It’s not the kind of mu­sic I nor­mally lis­ten to,” laughs the di­rec­tor. “I like Brit­pop and shoegaze. I still lis­ten to Suede. When we started post-pro­duc­tion, I didn’t know what the sound de­sign would be. To tell you the truth I told my pro­duc­ers that they didn’t have to bud­get for mu­sic. I was more sur-

“Life is hard when your iden­tity isn’t recog­nised by many peo­ple.” Be­low: Kiki Ro­driguez and Mya Tay­lor

prised than any­one when we ended up with 35 tracks. Sound­cloud al­lowed us to reach out to the artists di­rectly. I was just as sur­prised that we ended up us­ing trap mu­sic. But I was us­ing Vine and it sounded like the world I had just been im­mersed in.”

Im­mersed is the word. The di­rec­tor and his co-writer, Chris Ber­goch, spent al­most a year re­search­ing trans­gen­der sex work­ers around the LGBTQ cen­tre in West Hol­ly­wood. En­ter Kiki Ro­driguez, Tan­ger­ine’s lead­ing lady, who col­lab­o­rated closely with the di­rec­tor at ev­ery stage of pro­duc­tion.

“When I first saw Mya, she was at the LGBTQ Cen­tre about a block away from Santa Monica and Hyland,” re­calls Baker. “And she had such a dy­namic qual­ity. Ev­ery­thing about her: “I’dlove­towork­thiswaya­gain. But I’mdef­i­nite­ly­look­ing­toin­creasemy bud­gets.Workinginthis­realm, it’s al­mosta­hob­byand­nota ca­reer, be­causey­ou­can’tpaypeo­ple or your­self­prop­erly. That’sanis­sue. Also, Ifellinlove­with­cel­lu­loidandI’d like­toshooton thatwhileit’sstill pos­si­ble.But mak­ingTan­ger­ine­did make­me­re­alisethe ben­e­fit­sof havin­gan in­ti­mates­mall­er­crew. And­no­body­both­er­sy­ouwhenyou’re shooting­amovieon­three iPhones. Theyjus­tas­sumed­wew­ere­tak­ing self­ies.” her phys­i­cal pres­ence, the way that she com­manded the con­ver­sa­tion with her friends. So I in­tro­duced my­self. And she in­tro­duced me to many of the girls work­ing the area.

“But it wasn’t un­til I met Kiki that I knew we had a dy­namic that was very cool. And that we had to de­velop around th­ese two women.”


The film marks the screen de­but of trans ac­tors Tay­lor and Ro­driguez, who to­gether make for bitchy ban­ter that puts one in mind of a X-rated episode of Ru Paul’s Drag Race. It shouldn’t be ground-break­ing to cast trans ac­tors in trans roles, but it is.

“We had no idea that it was go­ing to be a trend move­ment,” says Baker. “We went down this road al­most two-and-a-half years ago. And there’s sud­denly been some much needed progress: Obama be­ing the first US pres­i­dent to use the word trans­gen­der; Laverne Cox on TV; Cait­lyn Jen­ner. All of th­ese things make our film feel like part of the zeit­geist. But it wasn’t de­lib­er­ate.”

Tan­ger­ine marks yet an­other fas­ci­nat­ing de­par­ture in terms of cin­ema tropes: the film’s sex work­ers are nei­ther happy hook­ers nor ru­ined women. True, their lives aren’t easy, but they beat on, making con­sis­tently hi­lar­i­ous re­marks, nonethe­less.

“When I was do­ing my re­search on the streets I no­ticed the hu­mour,” says Baker. “Ob­vi­ously the women are in the sex trade be­cause of dis­crim­i­na­tion and op­pres­sion and poverty. Ob­vi­ously it’s an un­der­ground econ­omy. But they’re cop­ing. And just as the rest of us use hu­mour as a cop­ing mech­a­nism, they have to use hu­mour to an even greater de­gree be­cause of the hard­ships they face. Life is hard when your iden­tity isn’t recog­nised by many peo­ple. And I wanted to in­fuse the film with that hu­mour I en­coun­tered, the hu­mour they use to get by, and make it not only a part of the di­a­logue and the plot but also the style of the film.”

Tan­ger­ine is at the IFI and at Out­burst Queer Arts Fes­ti­val, Belfast. See re­view on p11

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