Sean Baker

Here to talk with us now is Sean Baker, who most recently has directed Tangerine, the first full-length movie that was shot on an iPhone and is actually really good. It’s about transgender sex workers on the mean streets of L.A. and is actually really funny.

His production overseen by Mark and Jay Duplass (The OvernightThe Skeleton Twins), Baker co-wrote the film with producer Chris Bergoch, but it wouldn’t have been possible without essential contributions from its stars, Mya Taylor and Kiki Rodriguez. Here’s what Baker had to say about them and the film when he was in town this spring for the San Francisco International Film Festival.

I seem to remember an interview with Jay Duplass a while ago where he said somebody could shoot a whole movie on an iPhone and if the story’s good enough, it wouldn’t matter; people will watch.

He said that? I didn’t even know that.

I was going to ask: Was that a dare? A challenge?

Not to me! But to tell you the truth, in this case it was more Mark than Jay. Because I think they sort of take turns in terms of who is more in the forefront with each film that they produce. In this case it was more Mark’s thing. He was helping us, and I remember one of his comments was the deciding factor in us going with the iPhone. I was playing around with the idea, and I had shot some tests, but at one point I was feeling a little bit apprehensive. And I called him and said, “I’m still not sure about this. We could go with a DSLR.” And he was like, “Dude! Let’s just go punk and go with the iPhone. I think it’s cool.” And I was just like, “Ok!”

But explain this a little bit. Did you have, like, the iPhone, but then also a huge complicated camera rig and big expensive lenses?

It was a tiny rig, actually. I found this Kickstarter campaign for Moondog Labs, and they had developed this adapter that was the size of a matchbox, which just clicks right on to your iPhone, and that allows you to shoot true anamorphic footage. That truly elevates it to a cinematic look. So that was one thing, and then there was this app called Filmic Pro, which was the most advanced app at the time, and maybe still is. It allowed us to lock our camera at 24 frames per second, and it had all these other bells and whistles. And that, along with just treating it heavily in post-production, gave it this look that I was really sold on. So it all really started from a lack of a real budget. And then what happened is that it became an aesthetic that we had to embrace. I remember very early on having that talk with everybody, including Radium Cheung, my cinematographer, about how we just had to embrace this, because if we didn’t, it really wouldn’t be a good movie. One thing which was really wonderful, and I didn’t realize this until we were a couple of days into shooting: What this did was it stripped away that intimidation factor that I always have with first-time actors. Because Mya and Kiki were first-time actors with this film. They had been aspiring actors so they understood acting, but they had never had a camera in their face before. So it helped give them confidence.

You wouldn’t know that they were leaping in for the first time.

Yeah, they’re so damn good. I was also just very lucky, and I take my time with casting. I mean, we met a lot of other girls in the neighborhood who just didn’t make the cut. Mya had such a persona, and also just this appeal. Some sort of something. She had the “it” thing. Because I saw her in the courtyard of the LGBT Center on McCadden, just hanging out with friends. And she was the one that I saw from 40 feet away. So when I went over and approached her, I was doubly lucky because she showed enthusiasm and said, “I want to make this film with you.” Almost immediately we exchanged information. Next thing you know, we were collaborating.

Tell us more about that: how the story came up, how collaborators got involved. 

It was really just Chris and me wanting to tell a story about this particular area, and we didn’t really know what story we wanted to tell. I remember going into it saying, “Mya, all I know is this: The end has to take place at Donut Time. All of our characters have to converge at Donut Time. And I think the A plot is something about two people finding each other. Whether it’s a love story, or some sort of vengeance story, I don’t know. Help me!” So she shared some anecdotes. Some of her friends actually worked the area. She shared all these stories, and she brought Kiki to the table. We spent some time just hanging out. Literally we’d just sit in Jack in the Box and riff. And eventually, one day, it was Kiki who said, “You want a story about two people coming together? I’ll tell you a story….” And she told this story about this transgender sex worker who found out her boyfriend was cheating on her with a fish. And I said, “What? A fish?” And she said, “Biological female.” And Chris and I looked at each other, and we said, “Ooh, there are so many layers to that.” And not only that, but it puts our characters on a journey, and then we can take all the anecdotes that we had already heard from Mya, and sprinkle them in to be our B plot, and then we have something.

It sounds like you spent a lot of time before you finally landed there, and said: “Ok, this is it.” Were you ever freaked out, thinking, “Oh God, am I wasting my time, am I wasting their time?” 

There’s always that danger. But you know, the same thing happened on my film Prince of Broadway. A very similar thing, where it took us a year. And we eventually found Prince Adu, and then one night, I don’t know what it was, the story came to us. I guess I had confidence from that that eventually we were going to find something. Oh, and to add to that, this was a different situation, because I gave the two girls my previous films, to show them I was legit. Because they didn’t know who we were. So I showed them the movies, and I really loved the fact that Mya identified with Starlet, and Kiki identified with Prince of Broadway. So I knew: OK, they both appreciated the work, and they both had similar sensibilities. They knew that I was going for something that’s not a “plight of” story, but instead trying to find a universal story that would fit into that world. They were on that same page.

I love that there’s so much warmth and humor in it. But it’s beyond that: Some moments are just plainly hilarious. Yes, this is a movie in which desperate circumstances are depicted, with characters who have a really hard go. But that’s not all it is.

Thank you. Yeah, the subject matter is extremely sensitive. When we started down this path almost two years ago, it wasn’t as much in the zeitgeist as it is now. There was one moment that made it concrete, within the first couple of weeks of meeting Mya. She’s like, “I’ll make this movie with you if you promise me two things. One: You make this as real as possible. Showing the brutality. Showing the hardship. Showing the struggles that these women go through out here. Even if it’s un-P.C., I want you to show it. And then, two, you have to make this movie hilarious! And fun to watch!”

No pressure. 

Yeah, right? So I looked at her with my jaw dropped, and I was like, “You have to understand, especially with the people who will be seeing this movie, that’s going to be a very difficult balancing act.” But at the same time, I understood exactly what she was going for. Because humor is so much a part of their world. They use humor to cope. Like we all do, but they have to use it to an even greater extent. And, I have to say that those days hanging out with them at Jack in the Box were some of the funniest moments in my life. Especially hearing Kiki and Mya riff. Sometimes I almost regret not capturing that stuff. But the point is that the humor was absolutely necessary in the end, I feel. And I feel it’s the only respectful and responsible way of telling this. Like I was saying, we could have told a basic “plight of” movie, but that I think would’ve been very condescending. And I wanted the audience to experience it with them, to be participating in it. But so much of the credit goes to them. I’m very proud of my actors. I feel as if they have very bright futures ahead of them, and all I can say is that the industry better step up and recognize these two. Now there are more roles for trans women of color, and I really hope that there will be more opportunities for them, because Mya and Kiki deserve the attention, and they can do anything.