‘Tangerine’ Director on Why the Movie’s Transgender Stars Deserve Recognition

Sean Baker and his two leading ladies Mya Taylor and Kitana ‘Kiki’ Rodriguez have been nominated for Independent Spirit Awards — are the Oscars next?

2015 may be heading towards an all-time box office record thanks to “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and “Jurassic World,” but they weren’t the only movies to make waves this year. For every big-budget blockbuster there was an indie gem like Sean Baker’s “Tangerine,” a microbudget movie shot on an iPhone 5s that stars transgender actresses Kitana ‘Kiki’ Rodriguez and Mya Taylor.

“Tangerine” follows a sex worker (Rodriguez) as she and her best friend (Taylor) tear through Tinseltown on Christmas Eve searching for the pimp (James Ransone) who broke her heart. The gritty yet charming film has been nominated for four Independent Spirit Awards — Best Feature, Best Director (Baker), Best Female Lead (Rodriguez) and Best Supporting Female (Taylor) — and while that sort of recognition will encourage more people to see “Tangerine,” there’s no reason why the Oscars should be considered out of reach.

Baker isn’t one to campaign for awards but he recognizes the social importance his film carries. With that in mind, Baker spoke to TheWrap about why the Academy Awards don’t need a special category for transgender performers, why the film’s mysterious title has a special meaning and the challenges of shooting on an iPhone.

TheWrap: When I tell people how much I liked “Tangerine,” some of them say, ‘Well, you only liked it because it was shot on an iPhone for no money.’ Have you found that people have been dismissive of the film because of the way it was shot?
Sean Baker: We read Twitter and get Facebook messages, and every once in a while people dismiss it and say, ‘Get over the iPhone thing,’ and we knew that would happen. We knew that the iPhone approach was going to be perceived in many ways, and one of them was as a gimmick. We also knew that people might see why we used it and see the benefit we saw from it. We take all the criticism in stride and understand there will always be people who will be skeptical about things. But there’s a lot of commentary about how it’s not just an iPhone movie, with people urging others to give this film a chance, because the least important thing about this film is the iPhone. When you get the general public tweeting that kind of stuff, it’s nice.

So why did you decide to shoot this movie on an iPhone?
It stemmed from a budgetary constraint, but shortly after, we realized it’s the perfect way of shooting the type of film I like to shoot, where we mix professional actors with real life. The iPhone lowered inhibitions, because to the people who were new to filmmaking, it never felt like we were making a film.

How were the challenges on “Tangerine” different from your earlier films like “Starlet”?
“Tangerine” was less than half the budget of “Starlet,” and “Starlet” was already a microbudget film. A director always wants more time, and we had a limited amount of resources. I have to say, if it pertains to the iPhone, it was the stripping away of ego. It had nothing to do with the technical side of things, it had to do with me and my producer wondering, ‘Are we doing the right thing? Is this amateur hour?’ We just had to have faith this would work.

I don’t know about you, but my iPhone’s battery dies pretty quickly. Did you ever run into those kinds of problems? Did you ever get a call in the middle of shooting?
We were concerned we wouldn’t have enough storage space, but we barely filled up the phones. I spend a lot of time on my phone, so I have two Mophie backups myself. The mandate going into this project was, we will never run out of power. We were actually surprised how fast the cameras were dying, but we had several backups. On our longest night, we were pushing 13 hours and shooting at Donut Time. We finally killed all our cameras and backups and we had to plug into the wall, so some shots were filmed while plugged into the wall. As far as getting calls, the phones never had a plan associated with them. It was funny telling AT&T, ‘I don’t want cellular service. Please don’t turn it on, just sell me the phone.”

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I’ve wondered about this ever since I saw the movie, and I’ve read a few different theories online, but why did you decide to call the movie “Tangerine”?
We had a bunch of titles and that was one that everybody kept coming back to. It resonated with everybody, and everyone has their own interpretation. It doesn’t really stem from the dominant hue of the film, but there’s something about the title that reminds me of Christmas. I think I used to get tangerines in my stocking on Christmas, so there was a personal link for me. There are hints throughout the film, like the air freshener in the cab. It’s funny, filmmakers are the only artists who feel obligated to title their works of art. Musicians and poets and novelists don’t have to, but we’re the only ones who feel obligated, like we have to, and I want to get away from that. I’m fine with a title that’s open to interpretation.

Speaking of Christmas, why did you choose to set this story around the holidays?
I give full credit to my co-writer, Chris Bergoch. At first, it stemmed from wanting the film to be in the same realm as those classic LA Christmas stories like “Die Hard and “L.A. Confidential,” because nobody can accept Christmas in LA, and as a filmmaker, it gives me eye candy since there’s a lot of lights. But I sat on it and thought about it and came to the conclusion that this had to take place on Christmas. Contextually and subtextually, we associate Christmas with family. Many trans women of color come from poverty and are forced to live on the streets. Their families have shunned them and their remaining family are the friends they’ve come to rely on. I remember thanking Chris and telling him he really nailed it with that suggestion. It’s extremely important, because the film wouldn’t be what it is if it wasn’t taking place on that night.

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Why did you cast one recognizable actor, James Ransone, amidst this largely unknown ensemble, and were you worried he’d stand out and distract audiences who might know him from “The Wire”?
I worked with James on “Starlet” and wrote the role for him, but I almost didn’t give it to him because of some logistics. It almost went to a few other people, and then it came back to PJ (Baker’s nickname for Ransone) in the end. He just felt right when I saw the rest of the cast come together. We bonded in a way on “Starlet,” and like Karren Karagulian, we’re friends, so we can talk about the development of the character when we’re not on the clock. James is the type of actor who takes it very seriously and wants to know about his character’s motivation and backstory. He actually took the time, on both “Starlet” and this film, to meet the people he’s semi-based on or sort of representing. He spent time on Santa Monica Blvd. and Highland Ave. meeting like-minded people. He’s our recognizable face, our cameo guy, and we structured it in a way where it would be a fun reveal. The way I present him, with that music and that semi-dolly into him, is a big, funny moment where we’re sort of poking fun of those types of cameos in movies.

You’ve been nominated for an Independent Spirit Award along with your two leading ladies, and the Oscar nominations are next month. Tell me about the campaign for “Tangerine” and which celebrities have been helping to spread the word?
The amount of love people have for this film has been so wonderful. I’m so humbled. We’ve had Melissa Leo, Ira Sachs and Laverne Cox host screenings just to spread the word. We’ve had Academy members email us saying ‘We saw this screener and loved it,’ from Daniel Craig to Julie Christie and Mel Brooks. J.J. Abrams called out our film in a good way at a screening. Lena Dunham gave us a shoutout. I’m hoping more Academy members will get to see the film. That’s my only fear, because we don’t have the deepest pockets. Magnolia is an incredible distributor and I couldn’t be happier with them, but it’s a simple fact — they’re not Sony Classics and their pockets aren’t deep enough to do a humongous campaign, so we’re relying on word of mouth. Mark and Jay Duplass really took the ball and ran with it. I’m the type of director who sits back and says, I’m ready to move on to my next project. But I remember Mark getting on the phone and saying ‘I want to push this because it can happen,’ and getting on the phone with Magnolia. I’m just along for the ride.

The most important thing to me is the recognition of Mya and Kiki. I don’t care about my nomination or any of that stuff, I just want a budget for my next film. Mya and Kiki delivered and showed they have talent. This is not a one-off for them. They’re barely playing themselves, no matter what people think. Like every actor in every movie, you have characteristics of one’s own persona in the character, but they’re not playing themselves. Kiki is a sweetheart and she’s barely taking part in this campaign. She’s a very shy and introverted person, and Mya is very different from her character too. My hope is that people recognize their great talent so they can parlay this into their dreams and their futures… Now that more trans roles are being written, it’s time to look at trans actors who can play these roles.

Should the Academy create a new category at the Oscars to recognize transgender performers?
No, I don’t think so. This can be taken different ways, but I never understood the gender breakdown in the Oscar campaigns anyway. The best thespian should win the award. This is how I see it — Mya and Kiki are women and they should be recognized as women, so if those gender-based categories exist then they should be nominated under the Best Actress category.

9 Cisgender Actors Playing Transgender Characters in Film (Photos)

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