It’s Christmas Eve in Santa Monica, but the transgender women at the center of writer-director Sean Baker’s Tangerine aren’t celebrating the holiday. Nobody outright says it in the film, but it’s clear they don’t have that luxury. Although the world of the film is not weighed down by heteronormative codes — the women earn their living from prostitution without ever being degraded onscreen — we occasionally get a hint that the outside world isn’t so accepting, whether it’s the cops who refer to Alexandra (Mya Taylor) who only recently started hormone therapy as “Alexander” or the constrictive family of her cab driver friend and client Razmik (Karren Karagulian).
When the film begins, Alexandra is having coffee at her local haunt, Donut Time, with her best friend Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez). Sin-Dee just got out of a 28-day stint in jail, and Alexandra accidentally lets it slip that her boyfriend and pimp (James Ransone) has been sleeping around with a cis woman (Mickey O’Hagen). This sends Sin-Dee on a mission to find her competition and have it out with her and her boyfriend while Alexandra spends the day trying to make some money before she gives her big musical performance at a local bar.
Unfolding over the course of one day and night, we follow Alexandra and Sin-Dee on their separate journeys as they wander the streets of L.A. until circumstance has their paths merge again. It’s clear these women are no stranger to hard times, but they take everything in stride and are full of vibrant vivacity. Baker’s colour palette is rich with reds, greens, and most of all, tangerines. This is a world full of joy, a refuge, even though there’s so much to cope with. What starts out as a revenge mission and a day-in-the-life story ultimately turns into an examination of friendship and support. Alexandra and Sin-Dee may screw up and hurt each other, but when push comes to shove, they’re there to take on the world together.
Working with mostly non-professional actors whom he had improvise in an effort to make it more realistic, Baker too often lets the film meander and grow clunky. Yet his approach affords him a multi-racial cast with a variety of body types, making the film seem more and more like it exists in the real world. It draws attention to how rare that kind of realistic diversity is actually portrayed on screen.
Baker uses his cast and characters to make subtle and thoughtful observations about race, class, and privilege. Not all of the acting is top notch, but the leads are solid. Sometimes the musical choices and shaky camera can be too on-the-nose, too showy. But sometimes, we just get to see these women in their natural habitat. They may be surrounded by run-down shops and money lenders, but Baker ensures the landscape is always colorful and inviting.
The Seventh Row sat down with Sean Baker to talk about how he developed the film’s aesthetic, how he created such stunning visuals when shooting on an iPhone, and how he assembled an eclectic cast to populate the film.
The Seventh Row (7R): How did you develop the aesthetic for the film? The colours are really joyful. What went into the planning of what that look is and actually, technically, accomplishing it?
Sean Baker (SB): I work in this wheelhouse of neo-realism or social realism. I think we normally associate with genres with a desaturated look. Even in television, often, like the British The Office, audiences associate desaturation with reality. That was basically where I was planning on going with this movie. I thought that once we pulled it into post that we were going to bring it way down. But there was something in our tests that just wasn’t working. There was something that was just so colourful about these two characters.There was something that was just so colourful about these two characters.Click To Tweet
The California sun seems to constantly, especially around magic hour, cast this beautiful orange hue over the Santa Monica Boulevard. I thought, “What if we go the other way [and saturate the colours, instead]?” Sometimes, that can look very amateur-ish and cheap when you saturate the colours.
When we added grain, and we had the proper colour correction, when we pumped up the colours, it just gave a vibrancy that I was looking for with this film. It made the orange really pop. The tangerine orange colour became the dominant hue.
We were trying to settle on a title at that point. All I had to do was pump up the saturation and just say, “That’s it. We’re settling on that title.”When we added grain, the proper colour correction, and pumped up the colours..the tangerine orange colour became the dominant hue.Click To Tweet
7R: Even though the film takes place in LA, where most people drive, you actually spend a lot of time in the film following the characters walking down the streets or riding buses.
SB: We get to take a journey with these characters on ground level, this walking tour down Santa Monica. The people in this world, being in the situation that they’re in, don’t own cars, unless you’re a cab driver. So they are using public transportation for everything. It’s usually the bus. They’re pretty much out of money, at the beginning of the film, so they’re on foot.I love seeing Los Angeles public transportation on film. It’s something we rarely get to see. Click To Tweet
I love seeing Los Angeles public transportation put on film, because it’s something we rarely get to see. Most people don’t understand that there’s a subway system in Los Angeles. Taking the bus in LA is a trip, because there’s always something going down. You have a bunch of people, in a closed space. You have wonderful faces to look at, different personalities. In our plot, we had an actual dramatic moment going down on the bus. It’s ripe for reaction. When I’m watching the two girls fight on the bus, my eye goes to the guy reacting next to them.
7R: There are wonderful, expansive landscapes, especially when we’re watching Sin-Dee and Alexandra walking down the streets. What the process was for developing these?
SB: We did our walk up and down Santa Monica three times. We allowed for a lot of time for the girls to just improvise and talk about subjects they wanted to talk about. It’s edited down to really little in the final film. As we walked this huge strip, which is over a mile down Santa Monica, we came across murals, interesting-looking store fronts, and interesting intersections. We were able to condense some of the more beautiful, interesting locales into the film.As we walked this huge strip, we came across murals, store fronts, and interesting intersections.Click To Tweet
We were shooting on the iPhone with this anamorphic adaptor. The lens the iPhone comes with is equivalent to a 29mm focal length. It’s already very wide. It’s not a fish eye, but it’s wide. On top of that, we were using an anamorphic adaptor. We were capturing the expanse of the L.A. landscape, in widescreen framing. It’s not so fun when you’re there; you’re being blinded all the time by the sun. The sun is very low, especially in the winter, when we shot. But on film, it actually looks quite wonderful.We were capturing the expanse of the L.A. landscape, in widescreen framing.Click To Tweet
7R: I loved what a diverse cast the film had. It feels like you’re watching real people in a real city. How did you go about putting together that ensemble?
SB: I like films with ensemble casts: the more, the merrier. When I decided to go down this road, it was just very simply who would be surrounding our main characters and why. In a cab, you always have a wide range of people from different backgrounds, cultures, races, sexes, etc.We cast through Craigslist. We cast through Vine. We cast through Instagram.Click To Tweet
Who would be surrounding our two leads? Who would be on the fringes of their world? It was about discovering who those were and writing for those people.
We didn’t have a casting director. We couldn’t afford one. We had to do all the casting ourselves. We cast people that we knew already; some of the roles were [specifically] written for [certain] people.The Armenian cast came to me through Karren [Karagulian], through his connections. All of them are celebrities in Armenia.We tried to be as eclectic in our casting as we were in our music choices.Click To Tweet
We cast through Craigslist. We cast through Vine. We cast through Instagram. For example, the selfie girl in the back of the taxi, she’s a little celebrity on Instagram. The madam from the brothel, she’s a Vine-r who’s known at this point and getting quite a following. We tried to be as eclectic in our casting as we were in our music choices.
Tangerine is now streaming on Netflix USA.