Sean Baker learned some new slang while filming “Tangerine,” a drama about transgender prostitutes.
Sean Baker has always been fascinated by the people who haunt society’s margins, by the characters who “hide in plain sight,” as the New York Times put it in a reviewof the director’s 2008 drama about a street hustler and sudden fatherhood, “Prince of Broadway.”
The 44-year-old filmmaker’s latest project, “Tangerine,” takes place on Christmas Eve, in a sunbaked Hollywood landscape of strip malls that’s the workplace of two transgender prostitutes, Alexandra and Sin-Dee, one of whom has just discovered that her boyfriend (James Ransone) has been cheating on her. Played by newcomers Mya Taylor and Kitana “Kiki” Rodriguez — transgender aspiring performers whom Baker befriended at Hollywood’s LGBTQ Center — the characters are vivid, vulnerable and sometimes vulgar delights. We reached Baker by phone, mere days after Pride weekend and the Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage, to chat about the film, its place in the larger culture and the Hollywood doughnut shop — known to locals as the “tranny doughnut shop” — that’s the epicenter of the film.
What does the title refer to?
It’s not literal in anyway. It’s just this sense you get from both the color and the fruit.
And what is that sense? Tangy? Bold?
Sweet and strong, yes. Rich. Any of those adjectives that can be applied to the fruit can be applied to our characters as well.
Along with a bitter aftertaste, perhaps?
That is true, especially with what is going on in today’s world. I think we’re at a great time, and it’s only getting better in terms of trans awareness, but at the same time what really troubles me— and should be troubling everybody— is the fact that there’s been a 13 percent increase in the murder rate this year of transgender people.
The trans awareness movement just got a big bump from Caitlyn Jenner.
There is definitely something in the zeitgeist. I knew, 21/2 years ago, when we set off down this road with “Tangerine,” that there was something growing. I remember saying to James [Ransone] that if we’re going to change society’s views and help move toward acceptance, it’s going to require one of our biggest celebrities out there to either transition or to get into a relationship with a trans person. And guess what? A year and a half later, it happened.
Did you originally envision the film as playing any kind of role in that cultural shift?
Most definitely. But it hopefully wasn’t going to be just that. It’s an instigator. If audiences empathize or sympathize or are in anyway just interested enough in these characters that they’ve fallen in love with, they will then take it to the next degree and jump on Google, start trying to understand what these women have to deal with, why they’re out there, the oppression and discrimination that got these women there. This is a piece of entertainment. We could have done a documentary, but we didn’t.
As a self-described outsider to the world depicted in the film, howdid you and your co-writer, Chris Bergoch, in collaboration with Mya and Kiki, go about shaping the story of “Tangerine”?
It was an education for me. I could write some definitions for the slang dictionary now. I’ve learned a lot of new terminology. With allmy films, collaboration is vital. Chris and I, when we first met Mya and Kiki, we had only three things in mind. It has to take place in one night, because we have a limited budget. It’s about two people coming together— could be a love story, could be a revenge story. Then the third thing: I want all ofmy characters to converge at the end at Donut Time. . . . In the end, it was Kiki who told us this womans corned story about one of the girls who found out her boyfriend was cheating on her and who was going to go track down this “fish” [a woman who is biologically female]. I said: “What? Excuse me? What’s a fish?” She defined it for me. I wanted to make a film that people from that world would be able to appreciate and be able to be entertained by.
But not just that world, right?
For me, there are universal themes in there. There’s friendship, infidelity, jealousy, family. Hopefully, if somebody doesn’t even know that there’s a corner doughnut shop somewhere in Los Angeles that is frequented by transgender-women-of-color sex workers, they will still be able to somehow identify.
I understand the movie was shot entirely with iPhones.
We used the iPhone 5s. We bought three of them, thinking we would always be filling up our phones, but that never happened. We only shot with, at the most, two at a time, using an anamorphic lens adapter that allowed us to shoot true Cinema Scope. I think that really helped elevate this to a cinematic level. Radium Cheung is an amazing director of photography. It’s funny. He was working on the TV series “The Americans,” shooting 35mm one week, and then he came to Los Angeles to shoot on iPhones. He wasn’t exactly happy about it.
Director Sean Baker castMya Taylor, left, and Kitana “Kiki” Rodriguez after befriending them at Hollywood’s LGBTQ Center.
Mickey O’Hagan, left, and Kitana “Kiki” Rodriguez in a scene from ‘ Tangerine,” which is set in Hollywood on Christmas Eve.