Q&A: Tangerine‘s Sean Baker and Mya Taylor on Their iPhone-Shot Indie Hit

Set in the world of transgender sex workers in Hollywood, <em>Tangerine</em> was a big hit at this year’s Sundance Film Festival

Tangerine is the kind of movie that festivals like Sundance ideally should be for. A low-budget production utilizing a cast of unknowns, the film follows two prostitutes, Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor) as they traverse the streets of Los Angeles in search of Sin-Dee’s cheating boyfriend. There’s almost nothing usual about this film, which was shot on an iPhone 5S and has a cast largely consisting of transgender characters played by transgender actors (which shouldn’t be unusual, but that’s the sad status quo). Tangerine has opened to raves at this year’s Sundance, and seems poised to become one of the indie screen darlings of 2015.

We spoke to first-time actor Taylor and the film’s director, Sean Baker, about the making of the movie.

You’ve explored the lives of sex workers before with Starlet. What brought you to Tangerine’s story?
Sean Baker: I live close to the corner of Santa Monica and Highland, which is a notorious intersection, kind of known as a red light district. I was drawn to it. There’s a lot of drama that takes place on that corner, a lot of chaos, so I thought it would be ripe for a film to take place there. Me and Chris Bergoch, my co-screenwriter, spent about eight months doing research, meeting people, telling them about this project, trying to hear stories. Then one summer morning, I met Mya at the LGBT Center around the corner.

And Mya, what was your situation at the time?
Mya Taylor: I had left my parents’ house when I was 18, after I came out to them. I moved to Los Angeles in hopes of pursuing a whole new life, because I’d always wanted to live there. Who doesn’t want to live there? It’s beautiful. Eventually, I started going to therapy to start my transition. We started the movie when I had just begun my transition. I knew Kitana through the Center, because I would go there to get my therapy. That’s what I was doing on the day that I met [Sean].

Baker: She was there with some friends in the courtyard. I saw her and immediately wanted to speak with her. She had the kind of physicality that I knew would translate properly to the screen. I approached her, and she was the first person to express interest and enthusiasm. That’s what we were looking for. We exchanged numbers and started meeting on a regular basis. About three or four meetings in, she introduced us to Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, and when I saw the two of them together, I knew they’d make the perfect on-screen duo.

We started collaborating on finding a story. We fleshed that story into a treatment and passed it by Mya and Kitana, and they approved. It was important to keep it collaborative and be respectful, that we got their approval on everything. We moved it into a scriptment form, and Mark and Jay Duplass came onboard and found the financing for the film. We still didn’t have too much money, so we jumped into production right away.

So was there anything in the initial scripting that [Mya and Kitana] made revisions on?
Mya Taylor: I think he did a wonderful job, except for when it came to some of the language. Some of the people in the area, they talk in a certain way, and he wasn’t quite familiar with that. So I had to teach him. He wanted to make it close to the way we actually are in real life, our actual conversations, and I like that.

Was Mya set for the role of Alexandra soon after you met her?
Baker: No, we didn’t offer her the role right away. We needed some audition/rehearsal time. We didn’t even have a story yet. We would rent out little audition rooms where we spent time developing scenes, seeing what was funny. We were recording all of it, so some of the dialogue was transcribed, and that’s how we came up with the initial scriptment.

Was acting a difficult new experience?
Taylor: No. I guess it’s because I have an entertainment heart. I wanted this to be right, I wanted to do it for myself. I feel like I did a good job at it. I put all of my heart into it.

Baker: She did. Two days into it, a crew member said to me, “Mya is good,” and I was like, “I know, I know.” I’m still blown away, because some of the best lines in the movie are Mya’s. I encourage my actors to improvise, and they all brought such amazing lines to the film, and delivered them in such classic and funny ways.

A lot has been made of how this was shot entirely on an iPhone. Did you do it more for the aesthetic or the convenience?
Baker: It started off for the convenience. We were taking advantage of all the benefits that thing has—the size, how light it is, how inconspicuous it is. We had to embrace it. And it quickly became an aesthetic choice. The thing is that I and the rest of the whole team are all cinephiles. We care about the look of a film, and we’re even concerned about the death of celluloid, quite honestly. But we couldn’t use that on this film; we didn’t have the means.You have to make the lemonade, and that’s what we tried to do.

So what did shooting with an iPhone allow you to do visually?
Baker: The camera movements were mostly improvised. It was the static shots that were planned. We locked the camera down only four times in the film. The rest of the time, they’re improvised. I actually jumped on my bike on the third day (my bicycle, not a motorbike). I was able to get on the sidewalk and go in a 360 around my actors and follow them and be really fluid.

Fortunately, we had enough time to work with. A lot of independent films try to pull off a 14-day shooting schedule, which I think is ridiculous. No matter how big or small you are, it really kills whatever sort of time you get to allow the actors to find their characters, and to spend time to think about what they’re doing. That’s important to me, so no matter what budget, I’m always going to ask for at least 24 days of shooting, so that there’s time to experiment when we’re on the set.

Did this come with any production frustrations?
Baker: We actually shot a couple of inserts with Mya seven months later, after she had gone further through her transition.

Taylor: Yeah, I saw that in the movie! I could point those shots out.

So will you keep acting going forward?
Taylor: Yeah. There’s a lot that I’m trying to work on, but right now, I just want to focus on the movie and just get the movie out of the way and get it rolling.

Baker: The industry must recognize the talent of this cast. I can’t wait to see what Mya and Kitana will do next.