Tangerine: Interview with Sean Baker and Mya Taylor

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Transgender revenge comedy Tangerine is making waves. London Calling talked with director Sean Baker and star Mya Taylor.

The film everyone's raving about is Tangerine. Shot on an iPhone, the daring US indie comedy follows two transgender prostitutes as they plot revenge on Christmas Eve. We spoke to its director Sean Baker and star Mya Taylor about guerrilla filmmaking, making LA authentic, and their surprise Oscar campaign.

“That was a stolen scene,” director Sean Baker says of Tangerine when Sin-Dee and Dinah fight on public transport. “The bus was pulled over and the cops were called. We ran into the night and scattered.” When the actresses shove each other, an unwitting extra is unsure if he should intervene. “That guy was actually scared. He didn’t know we were shooting, and just saw two women going at it.” Did they not get permission? “Well, you should. But, you know… this is guerrilla filmmaking.”

As you might infer, Tangerine was not a typical production. One of the most talked about and widely praised films of the year, the hilarious trans revenge comedy was shot by Baker on an iPhone - not only can you not tell, visually it’s more cinematic than its competitors. When the film premiered at Sundance, the audience weren’t informed until it’s mentioned in the credits. “There was a nice audible gasp in the theatre,” Baker remembers. “So it worked.”

Breakout star Mya Taylor plays Alexandra, a lively transgender prostitute on a wild trip across LA with her best friend Sin-Dee, depicted by Kitana Kiki Rodriguez. Together they seek out Sin-Dee’s cheating boyfriend - who also happens to be a pimp working at a donut shop - while dragging along reluctant Dinah, the cheatee in question. Throw in the Christmas Eve setting and a plethora of one-liners, it manages to be funny with several hints of melancholia.

“Almost every little dramatic scene in the movie,” reveals Taylor, “I’ve seen that in real life.” After meeting Baker at a Santa Monica LBGT centre, the actress worked on the character using range of real-life anecdotes. She’s referred to by Baker as a “consultant”. Unlike Dallas Buyers Club and The Danish Girl, which cast Jared Leto and Eddie Redmayne in transgender roles, Tangerine is refreshingly authentic.

“A lot of people have reached out to me since the film about different things,” Taylor says. “Some want to know about the transition. Some have suffered with the same thing, doing sex work. People will Facebook me. This morning, I had 13 friend requests. Yesterday, I had 21.”

It could go further. Taylor and Rodriguez are the first ever transgender actresses to be part of an Oscar campaign backed by a Hollywood studio. “Mark and Jay are taking it quite seriously,” Baker notes, referring to the Duplass brothers, who worked on the project as producers and are supporting the campaign with Magnolia Pictures.

This means Tangerine could earn an Oscar nomination for cinematography, despite being shot, as mentioned earlier, entirely on an iPhone 5s (not even the latest version). For Baker, it follows 2012’s Starlet as another lo-fi film able to depict LA in a new light. “It stemmed from this budgetary constraint,” he states, “but it became an aesthetic that we embraced and tried to develop.” All it took was an anamorphic adapter by a company called Moondog Labs, and an app called Filmic Pro. “Those two tools really convinced me and my team we could elevate it to a cinematic level.”

By coincidence, the climax of Tangerine was filmed a few blocks from where the Golden Globes ceremony was taking place on the same night. In that sense, is the film showing another side of the glitzy city?

“We always see Los Angeles through the eyes of the industry,” Baker reckons, “and they try to sugar-coat that scene. They try to make it look more glamorous than it really is. And they whitewash it. People should know it’s a humungous city with so many pockets and subcultures and neighbourhoods and locales that are colourful, full of energy and full of life.”

However, Taylor doesn’t want to be pigeonholed. “I don’t want to just focus on trans roles,” she explains. “True enough, I am trans, but I’m far along in my transition that I look just like any other normal girl walking on the street. So I want to play a regular cisgender girl. Just give me regular roles, like everyone else.”

Part of the film’s vibrancy comes from the soundtrack’s chaotic mixture of hyperactive dance tunes, and classical music. “It was about finding the vibe of each scene,” Baker says. ”My addiction to Vine introduced me to trap music, which was the backbone of the movie. I used Soundcloud to reach out to artists directly.” There’s also Harry Horlick’s orchestrated version of “Toyland” popping up throughout. “That was to remind the audience that, at the same time, this is a classic Christmas Eve story.”

True, but it’s also a classic Christmas Eve story with a laugh-out-loud vomit scene. “That was Josh Sussman from Glee,” Baker clarifies. “He was just like, ‘I’ll make it real.’ I show up to set on the day and he has five vodkas in him. I was really worried because he had to be babysat afterwards because he kept vomiting for hours after that scene.”

When Baker’s directorial style is described as a mixture of Curb Your Enthusiasm, Lars von Trier and the Dardennes, he laughs. “It’s actually very influenced by you guys here. British social realism, like Mike Leigh - the way he has scenes where everyone comes together at the end, like in Secrets and Lies and High Hopes.” Does that mean he ran workshops? “That’s how we broke some scenes. We’d sit them down in a room with chairs. I’d say, “We’re on a bus. This is after Mya performed. And… action!”

For all the film’s talking points, whether technical or serious, Tangerine is also a fun viewing experience taking a break from the norm. “How many more times can we see the upper middle-class 35-year-old white couple going through mundane problems?” Baker asks. “I don’t care about that stuff anymore.” Instead, the film offers authenticity, which in turn lifts its humour and emotional impact.

“I said it had to be brutally real and honest,” Taylor adds. “And it is.”

Tangerine opens in UK cinemas on Friday 13 November