Beyond the Walk of Fame: Director Sean Baker on 'Tangerine' and Los Angeles

Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mickey O'Hagan in "Tangerine," a Magnolia Pictures release. | Photo: Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Santa Monica Boulevard is one of the great Los Angeles thoroughfares; the spine of West Hollywood, the site of the Beverly Hills garden park and the hub of Hollywood's post-production houses. And at the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and Highland Avenue, among strip-malls and unglamorous gas stations, there is Donut Time, an unassuming building often ignored by the motorized masses racing past. But for those who pause for a moment and glance out their car windows, they might see a flash of a chocolate-glazed cruller, a cheetah print, and an artfully penciled eye. Donut Time is the unsaid center of L.A.'s transgender sex-work industry. It's also the garish, fragrant gathering place at the heart of director Sean Baker's latest film, "Tangerine."

Baker became captivated by Donut Time after he moved from his New York City home to Los Angeles, near Santa Monica and Highland. Along with co-writer Chris Bergoch, he spent days at the shop to better understand the universe it contained. At the LGBT center around the corner from the doughnut shop, he met Mya Taylor, and later Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, transgender actresses who loved to gossip. Their stories would eventually become "Tangerine," Baker's film entirely shot on iPhone 5, and Taylor and Rodriguez would become its stars, playing best friends Alexandra and Sin-Dee, two transgender sex-workers who call Donut Time their home.

Baker is a director who carefully considers often peripheral communities. In "Prince of Broadway," he contemplates New York Chinatown hustlers who promise Coach purses before disappearing into unmarked storefronts; in "Take Out," he considers the deliverymen who knock at doors with steaming bags of chow mein dangling from their wrists; and in "Starlet," he considers the Valley-dwelling porn stars who flicker briefly on computer screens. He takes those brief, hyperreal moments and stretches them until the familiar begins to show through.

The world of "Tangerine" might at first seem outlandish, but it feels true. Most of all, it feels like L.A.

Artbound recently caught up with Baker to reflect on the character of L.A., discovering his actors, and how to shoot a movie on an iPhone.

What role does the city of Los Angeles play in your movie?

Los Angeles is a main character in this film. My previous film "Starlet" did the same thing. It focused on the San Fernando Valley as a character in itself. I'm a recent transplant (lived my entire life in the N.Y.C. area) to L.A. and I've fallen in love with it over the past four years. When I first moved here, I realized that L.A. is a lot more than what we've seen presented to us in film and TV. Studio films have presented the city as Beverly Hills, the Hollywood sign, Venice Beach and the Walk of Fame. But there is so much more. I found numerous communities, neighborhoods, sub-cultures, etc. that haven't been focused on and I think this is a shame. For "Tangerine," we stayed almost entirely geographically accurate. Only one cheat! And I won't tell you what that is.

You've said that before you knew anything else about how you'd make this movie, you knew you wanted to do something at Donut Time. For people who don't know what Donut Time is, how would you explain it?

It's simply a doughnut shop that is located on the North East corner of Santa Monica and Highland. However, one could say it is a landmark because for years it has served as a hub or shelter for some of the working girls in the area. It's such an important locale that I told my producers that if they couldn't get permission to shoot there, I wasn't going to make the film.

Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, James Ransone and Mya Taylor in "Tangerine," a Magnolia Pictures release. | Photo: Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

I've heard you found your lead Mya Taylor at the LGBT center around the corner from Donut Time. What was it about her that made her perfect for this role?

The role of Alexandra was written for Mya Taylor. So of course she was perfect. But let me go back. Chris Bergoch ("Tangerine's" co-screenwriter) and I are both cisgender, white males and we knew that the only way to responsibly and respectfully tackle a project like this is to do so with as much collaboration and research as possible. We started our research process by meeting people in the area and trying to find individuals who would be consultants and collaborators. Chris and I met Mya Taylor at the local LGBT Center. We approached her because she made an instant impression. I noticed her across a courtyard and knew we had to speak with her. When I told her about the project, she expressed that enthusiasm I was looking for. Eventually the role was written for her.

What did you learn about the trans community in Los Angeles that really surprised you?

I'm not sure if there is anything in particular that really surprised me. Strip away cultural differences and we are all the same: people who are looking for love.

In Tangerine, essentially the only car is a taxi. But your other movie set in Los Angeles, "Starlet," centers on people who need a ride. What do you think is the difference between the Los Angeles without car and the Los Angeles with car?

Many think that there is a lack of public transportation in L.A. But there is plenty of it. Riding the L.A. bus can be quite exhilarating. There's always something going down on the bus -- if you are a screenwriter and need some stories, just ride the bus. I live in West Hollywood where I try to use my car as little as possible. Having lived in N.Y.C. for most of my life, my preference is to use my bike as much as possible. However, L.A. drivers don't seem to understand bicycles so it's often dangerous.


Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez in "Tangerine," a Magnolia Pictures release. | Photo: Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

The mother-in-law in "Tangerine" had a great, Baudrillard-tastic rant about how Los Angeles is unbearably false and phony at Christmastime. What role do replicas and simulations play in the character of Los Angeles?

One of the themes in "Tangerine" is infidelity. With infidelity comes secrets, lies and facades. Ashen, Razmik's mother-in-law, is personifying the city and giving the city the characteristics she sees in her son-in-law. Almost every character is hiding something -- this also plays in to this idea of simulating truth.

Why did you decide to shoot the film with your iPhone? What were the particular technological challenges to shooting on your phone?

It stemmed from budgetary constraints. We had a tiny budget and couldn't afford higher end cameras. However, shooting on the iPhone was surprisingly headache free. Besides the phone having an inferior lens, there really aren't any cons. Once the media was in the computer, it was the same as editing any other piece of media.

You upped the saturation and added in grain to create this warm (hot?), nostalgic tone to your movie. What does authenticity mean to you in the age of Instagram filters?

At first I was opposed to any manipulation in digital cinema. I couldn't see past the 1's and 0's of filters and effects. But I made myself recognize that filmmakers have been experimenting with a film's look in post-production since day one, that digital filters are just as authentic as a bleach bypass process of celluloid. Authenticity is about truth in emotion, not the technical steps in takes to achieve that.

The internet is a kind of tight-knit, but egalitarian world -- a world where 17 year-olds from New Jersey who post trap songs onto SoundCloud can make theme songs to a movie set in Los Angeles. What does the world of the Internet look like to you? How do you see internet communities changing senses of place in spots like the corner of Santa Monica and Highland?

Well, it's a wonderful world to play in. I exploited the Internet in many ways making "Tangerine" -- casting from Craigslist, Instagram, Vine and YouTube, scoring from SoundCloud. And now Twitter and Facebook have become an integral element of the film's release.

Internet communities exist but aren't real. The real world is face to face interaction.

Why tangerine? Are you seeing any other colors right now?

Honestly, "Tangerine" is just a title that we kept coming back to. It's not supposed to be literal, but simply to reference the feeling and sense one gets when thinking of the fruit and color. It is also the dominant hue of the film.

Am I seeing other colors? Lots of rainbows lately.

Kitana Kiki Rodriguez in "Tangerine," a Magnolia Pictures release. | Photo: Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

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