“We wanted to exploit the iphone and see what we could do with it.”
Director Sean Baker was in Sydney to promote his new film TANGERINE which had its Australian premiere this week as part of the Sydney Film Festival. Addressing a crowd occupying half of the Sydney Apple Store (a hugely appropriate venue to discuss TANGERINE) Baker explained how he filmed the entirety of his new movie on a set of iphones.
TANGERINE takes place one Christmas Eve in Los Angeles, over the course of a day following transgender prostitutes Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor) throughout the city. Sin-Dee has just been released from prison when she is informed by her friend that her fiancée cheated on her, the two together tracking him down while Alexandra promotes her solo gig to take place later that evening.
Searching the city and confronting her boyfriend’s lover Dinah (Mickey O’Hagan), elsewhere taxi driver and family man Razmik (Karren Karagulian) rides through the city, living a life secret from his family, searching for transgender prostitutes during the day and returning home at night. The various stories intertwine throughout the day, reaching a turbulent climax at a local fast food joint.
“I like to explore areas I’m unfamiliar with so I can educate myself and others about these cultures,” explained Baker, noting that his first film was about “white straight guys in the suburbs.” TANGERINE’s characters and context will certainly be unfamiliar to many, the decision to set a relatively straightforward story on untraditional ground for cinema a gutsy and ultimately rewarding move by Baker, who commented “as long as you’re telling a universal story we can all identify.”
TANGERINE is at once a light-hearted and empathetic tale, immediately accessible to a vast audience however unfamiliar with its subject matter by its realistic tone and frequently funny moments. The film does not shy away from darker subject matter, dealing in part with the frequent discrimination experienced by transgender persons, resulting in a multilayered and thoroughly entertaining comedy-drama.
“We set about going into the neighbourhoods and introducing ourselves to the women in the area… we were looking for someone to collaborate with,” Baker explained, commenting on his initial research for the project. “It’s a controversial, unofficial red light area, it really catches your eye.”
“I found this dynamic duo and knew I was going to write these characters for them (Rodriguez and Taylor)… They are friends yet they’re not playing themselves, but there are bits of themselves in these characters, they understand the language of this area.”
Baker would improvise dialogue with his leading stars, going so far as to edit the film in their presence so they could give him advice. The presence of the two main actors certainly lent the strongest voice to the film, their performances having an impact beyond the already thought-provoking screenplay with both playing captivating and consistently interesting characters. Baker explained how their role in the film even influenced its comedic arc, commenting, “That’s how a lot of women cope with their hardship, through humour.”
The film’s photographic style is visually captivating, with Baker opting to follow the actors around LA with a set of iphones and film their interactions.
“We really didn’t have the money to shoot on the high end equipment, we couldn’t shoot on film and to tell you the truth I wanted to set this film apart from others out there and have a different look,” explained Baker.
“I don’t think it’s about a particular genre or style, the benefits were revealed to me while we were shooting, being able to run around and be mobile, but it was also about the relationship with the actors, many of whom were first-timers.”
Many of the actors were drawn from the area; the iphones proving much less confronting for the screen-novices than the bulky camera equipment, which while versatile still had its drawbacks.
“Everyone had a smartphone so it wasn’t intimidating,” said Baker. “[Because] We were using the iphones, no one knew we were filming a film, there were fights (that we filmed) in the streets and there were a few times the police were called.”
“I would,” said Baker in response to a question about whether he would use the technique again. “I don’t know if its going to be the next one but I would, I’m sure there’s been so many advancements in just the last year and a half (since filming took place) which would make it of enormous benefit.”
“There’s also the amount of cameras, and just that you can grab a phone tomorrow and do it, you can buy a phone and after the shoot you can ebay it.”
“It also gives opportunities to aspiring actors, I think of Spike Lee who introduced someone new in every film, he’s introduced some amazing actors and I really admire that.”
A technically competent, entertaining and at times confronting film, TANGERINE is a welcome experiment which in time will surely be emulated and appreciated by a multitude of filmmakers.