Scene It Before: The L.A. of Tangerine

The film fest-vetted flick shows Los Angeles through the lens of an iPhone

Tangerine, the darling of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, hit movie screens over last weekend. The storyline centers around transgender prostitute Sin-Dee Rella (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) as she treks through Hollywood looking to seek revenge on her cheating boyfriend, Chester (James Ransone) on Christmas Eve. The fact that the movie was shot in its entirety on an iPhone 5s has audiences talking.

Director Sean Baker had an extremely limited budget to work with despite backing by Duplass Brothers Productions. Filming with an iPhone afforded him the luxury of forgoing a crew and expensive equipment. I had the pleasure of speaking with Baker recently about the experience.

He told me that he and his small team set about shooting Tangerine in Hollywood and its environs in December 2013 armed with three iPhones, anamorphic adaptor lenses, the Filmic Pro app, and a Steadicam built for smartphones. The film takes place around the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and Highland Avenue, so they shot near there. Baker’s previous film, 2012’s Starlet, showcased the Valley. For this latest venture, he wanted to focus on areas of the city not typically featured in mainstream movies and TV shows. A recent transplant from New York, Baker lives a half mile away from the intersection of Santa Monica and Highland and wanted to highlight its vibrance in Tangerine.

Kitana Kiki Rodriguez in Tangerine.
Kitana Kiki Rodriguez in Tangerine.

Photograph courtesy Magnolia Picture

A few of the more significant locations utilized in Tangerine include the Vermont/Santa Monica Red Line Station at 1015 N. Vermont Avenue in East Hollywood, El Gran Burrito at 4716 Santa Monica Boulevard in East Hollywood (the owners of which, says Baker, were especially accommodating), the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and Launderland Coin Laundry at 6707 Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood.   Hamburger Mary’s, at 8228 Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood, also makes an appearance in the film. Only the exterior of the eatery can be seen. The Cork Lounge at 5043 Van Nuys Boulevard in Sherman Oaks masks as Hamburger Mary’s interior.

Donut Time, located at 6785 Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood, is the film’s most significant shooting location. The tiny corner stand, which Baker calls a personal landmark, served as the inspiration for Tangerine. After passing it countless times and taking note of the colorful characters who frequent it, Baker knew he had to write a movie about the space. When it came time to film, he insisted Donut Time be featured onscreen—a set recreation or substitute doughnut shop would not suffice. Shooting on location was so important to the director, in fact, that he told his producers he would not make the movie if they could not secure the place for filming.

Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, James Ransone and Mya Taylor in "Tangerine."
Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, James Ransone and Mya Taylor in “Tangerine.”

Photograph courtesy Magnolia Pictures

Thankfully, the shop was available; the cast and crew spent two-and-a-half nights filming there. Because the movie’s budget did not afford for Donut Time to be shut down for the shoot, filmmakers captured scenes around a steady flow of real-life customers. In some instances, Shih-Ching Tsou, who plays Donut Time’s owner, wound up serving walk-ins between takes.

Lindsay Blake is an actress, writer, celebrity admirer and Los Angeles enthusiast who contributes to CityThink each Thursday. Her true love is filming locations, and she founded the Web site IAMNOTASTALKER in 2007 to document her vast findings on the subject. For more “stalking” fun, you can follow Lindsay on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.