After 28 days in jail, Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) is back on the streets of Hollywood just in time for Christmas Eve. The joy of freedom and a donut is short-lived when her best friend, Alexandra (Mya Taylor), suggests Sin-Dee's boyfriend and pimp, Chester (James Ransone), has been less than faithful. Not one to take others lying with her man (with a woman no less -- "vagina and all"), Sin-Dee goes on a wild hunt for Chester through the unglamorous streets of Hollywood -- with Alexandra reluctantly in tow.
The latest film by director and co-writer Sean Baker (Take Out; Starlet; Prince Hollywood), Tangerine is a film about marginalized people atypically viewed in the media. It also has a lot of energy, compassion and humor.
Baker and director of photographer Radium Cheung also managed to shoot Tangerine with the IPhone 5s, using anamorphic lenses.
In this exclusive interview, we spoke to Baker about his Tangerine.
UR Chicago: Why did you want to make this film?
Sean Baker: I usually answer that question like five years down the line. [Laughs] But I live a half mile from the intersection of Highland Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard and something was telling me there were a lot of great stories to be told. And it was sort of an extension of my previous film, Starlet, where I focused on sex work in a very different world. So I went in there with (co-screenwriter) Chris Bergoch and we just tried meeting people. We met Mya and Kiki, talked to them. Then we started sprinkling stories from our research. Then we wrote our script and presented to the girls for approval.
UR: Did you feel like a voyeur into this subculture even though you live close to it?
SB: To a certain degree, but I didn't want to approach the film from a voyeuristic way in any shape or form. At first I was very much an outsider so it was all about collaborating and doing it properly, because it's the only way for a male like myself to do that.
UR: How did you gain their trust?
SB: This time around I had already made a few films so I could just show them my DVDs and that I was a legitimate filmmaker. When they watched my films they kind of got my sensibility. Mya said, "I trust you. I want to make this film with you, but you have to promise me two things. One, you will show the brutal realism of the streets and what these girls go through on a daily basis. And secondly, you have to make this as funny as hell because there is a lot of humor in this world and we laugh our way through this to cope." Not only am I so happy that I found Mya, who is this wonderful actress, she also really helped me in finding the way to approach the subject.
UR: With regard to the representation of Sin-Dee, who is not a very likable character, what concerns did you have about representing someone like her from the transgender community, who are not, generally, represented well in our media.
SB: People see that we have humanized these characters and that is the most important part. In the end, I, as a filmmaker, all I can say is I approached these characters like I would approach any other person from any other culture or subculture or community. If I was Sin-Dee and my boyfriend was responsible for me going away to jail for 28 days and then I find out he cheated on me, I would be doing the same thing. Sin-Dee is violent; she has violent tendencies. She is reactionary. But at the same time, her behavior is very understandable. Maybe it's not acceptable behavior, but I completely understand where she is coming from.
UR: As far as the characters go, which one do you identify with the most and why?
SB: That's really interesting. I've never been asked that question. Alexandra. From the artist's point of view, her whole play and pay thing came from personal experience.
UR: Why did you set it on Christmas Eve?
SB: It was Chris's idea. He wanted it to be a sort of homage to mainstream Hollywood movies, but subtextually we all associate Christmas with family. Unfortunately, for women in this subculture, usually the only family they have is each other. Then there is the shallow reason: it would give the film more color, more eye candy.
UR: You shot the film using an IPhone. Rather than talk about that, again, would you do it, again?
SB: [Laughs] It was difficult for us to accept because it felt like it was a step back. It felt like we were back to "amateur hour," but I said to everybody going in, "We have to embrace this. If we don't create a new aesthetic from this we're going to fail." Then it came pretty easy. Whether I would do it, again, probably not now. I also mourn the death of celluloid. If I have the budget next time, I will definitely shoot on film.
UR: Lastly, what do you think about these interviews where you talk about yourself and the film? Do they serve the film? Should the film speak for itself?
SB: [Laughs] I sometimes feel that when we talk too much about it, it's a disservice to the movie. But ultimately I understand this is how we get the film out there. It's all about doing right by the movie, the actors and the community we're focusing on. Especially in a film like this, in which semantics is extremely important. In the digital age, it's out there forever. Something that I say today may not be PC in three years, tomorrow.
GET SHOWTIMES for Tangerine at Chicago’s Music Box Theater!