Interview: Sean Baker
On paper, Sean Baker’s fifth feature might sound like a parody of the contemporary American micro-budget indie: the day-in-the-life urban tale of two transgender sex workers—starring unknowns, shot with an iPhone 5, and set on Christmas Eve. But the capsule description of Tangerine, which premiered at Sundance in January, doesn’t do justice to the brashly staged, compassionate film that Baker has made with his lead actors, Mya Taylor and Kiki Rodriguez, both plucked from the streets of Los Angeles. Rendered in hyperrealist hues, the characters’ dramas send them careening across Hollywood’s sex district on conflicting missions which test their friendship as they attempt to reclaim their futures.
Baker has spent the last decade-plus illuminating a variety of subcultures and minority groups which usually receive little onscreen representation beyond shopworn character types. His breakthrough film, Take Out (04), follows a Chinese immigrant over 24 hours as he attempts to pay off a smuggling debt by making an ever-increasing number of food deliveries. Prince of Broadway (08) similarly tracks the day-to-day grind of a New York street hustler who’s forced to balance personal and professional commitments when his infant son is unexpectedly left in his care. In the years since Baker moved from New York to Los Angeles, his aesthetic ambition has only grown as he’s approached ever more provocative subjects with admirable nuance. In Starlet (12), a tranquil vision of the adult entertainment industry, a sun-drenched San Fernando Valley plays backdrop to a fable of friendship between a twenty-something porn star and an elderly woman. Tangerine, his boldest experiment yet, again portrays people on the social margins struggling to make a buck, bringing openhearted empathy to a headlong depiction of love and loyalty in a hard-bitten setting.
On Friday, Tangerine opens at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, following a full day of Baker’s three most recent films on Thursday. In Los Angeles before his press tour on the East Coast, Baker sat down with me to discuss his entire career and the process by which he arrives at such invigorating cross-sections of the foreign and the familiar. Our conversation took place at a popular Hollywood espresso bar, just a mile from Donut Time, where much of Tangerine’s action transpires.
Tangerine is a surprising film in many ways but it also traffics in themes which are part of your directorial sensibility. Do your subjects and characters arise organically through the writing process, or do you build around a predetermined culture or milieu?
I think it’s organic. When we go into these areas—and this applies mostly to Tangerine, Prince of Broadway, and Take Out, where we were actually going into worlds that we were not a part of—we go in without imposing any sort of plot or script. We would start the research process off by just going in to try and find someone to collaborate with. So with Tangerine, when I found Mya, and I met with her and Kiki, I remember saying, I don’t have anything. All I know is I think this has to take place in one day, because we have no budget and we can’t have a lot of costume changes. And because it’s cheaper to shoot a film over the course of one day. But I think it’s a film about two people coming together, whether that’s a story about friendship, or a love story, or a revenge story. And the third thing is I would like to have all of my characters converge at the end at Donut Time.
To be very transparent, I was thinking Mike Leigh all the way: High Hopes, Secrets & Lies. I was just thinking of all the characters in this big confrontation at Donut Time. And that was it. Then we would all just brainstorm and spitball ideas. And through that, I saw how the two of them interacted—that we would then focus on friendship. I saw how they had to rely on each other in the community, because they had no other support from the outside. And then it was Kiki who actually brought the idea of the woman scorned, of trying to find this “fish” [a non-transgender woman] who would be involved in an affair with her character’s boyfriend. This was something that didn’t actually take place in real life, but something that was contemplated by one of the girls when she found out her boyfriend was cheating on her. So that led to the theme of infidelity. And from there I realized I now had these two themes to work with: friendship and infidelity.
You seem particularly interested in depicting members of misunderstood or underrepresented social minorities. Are these worlds you’re familiar with, or simply subcultures that interest you? Can you talk a little bit about your upbringing, and perhaps about what role your past may have played in this creative trajectory, in this focus on such niche areas of society?
It’s hard to say. I grew up in suburbia USA, 20 minutes outside of Manhattan. I think that I was teased with New York City and the chaos of the urban setting throughout my upbringing because my father worked in Manhattan, and I would be brought to Manhattan and I could see what New York City was like in the early Eighties. Like anybody, I was drawn to that setting because of the excitement of it—the energy. But it’s a combination of things, and it’s hard for me to be self-analytical, because I always fear that if I’m too analytical it may affect the next project, but the films definitely start off as locations or small subcultures that interest me.
Then I immerse myself enough to where I not only get to collaborate with people from there, but I also can become their friends. I mean, I’m now very good friends with Prince Adu [star of Prince of Broadway]. I’m good friends with Mya and Kiki. And that just automatically translates into me not wanting to tell a “plight of” story. I think the closest we’ve done to a “plight of” story is Take Out. But after Take Out, Shih-Ching Tsou [Baker’s frequent collaborator and the co-writer, director, and producer of Take Out] and I said, “been there, done that.” We don’t need to repeat that. It would be more interesting and respectful if we tried to tell universal stories that can be applied to any culture or subculture, and tell those within the communities. As I get to know these individuals from these communities, my personal empathy grows, and I see that being able to happen with audiences as well, if they can identify or put themselves in that world just through the themes.
So I think I’m trying to see how I can apply that to different stories, and they’re different every time. Tangerine was the riskiest one because we were going for full-out comedy, and that stems from the fact that I got to know Mya well enough that she told me: “You know, you better make a movie that I’m going to laugh at, and the girls will be entertained by. Because if you just make a heartstrings thing, where it’s all doom and gloom, then I won’t want to watch this.”
Is depicting a more human side of these vocations something you strive for in your films? In the case of Tangerine, these are real transgender female sex workers you found and cast as, I imagine, slightly heightened versions of themselves. Were you hoping, as you did with those in the adult entertainment industry in Starlet, to focus on the personalities and idiosyncrasies of the characters rather than how they happen to make a living?
Exactly. Particularly in the sex work vocation, that’s something I personally feel—well, I feel that sex work should be legal, number one. I think that legalizing it, and decriminalizing it, can only help the men and women that do it voluntarily. But instead of making an overtly political film about why I think sex work should be legalized… I think that’s something I could cover in a documentary: all the reasons why, the statistics and how it would help these men and women be more accepted by society and not as shunned. But I think that by doing it this way, you’re allowing audiences who may look down or may judge to see them in a different way. Because I certainly did.
As soon as I got to know, say, all the porn stars in Starlet—and I got to know a lot of them, as that was an extensive research process and we did collaborate with a bunch of those women—that’s what led us in that direction. Starlet was originally going to be so simple: one day in the life of a woman in the porn industry—who you don’t even know is working in the porn industry—and it’s just her losing her dog and trying to track down her dog. That’s it. And it wasn’t until later that Chris Bergoch, who I co-wrote it with, suggested that we make it more plot driven. When I first started to hang out with the adult film stars, even I was taken aback by how ordinary their lives were. So for me it was the moment where I realized that we have to focus on the character’s life on a day when she isn’t even shooting. And I’m not trying to be preachy, or trying to convert anybody. I’m just trying to play with perception. That’s all. Because I’ve realized that even when I jump into these worlds, knowing that I’m going in with an empathetic eye, even my eyes are opened.
You’ve now made multiple features in New York and Los Angeles, but you’re increasingly becoming associated with L.A. And perhaps that’s simply because your two most recent films have reached a wider audience, but you seem very committed to accurately depicting the city. In each of your L.A. films the city could be said to be a character in and of itself, whether that’s the San Fernando Valley in Starlet or the intersection of Santa Monica and Highland where the majority of Tangerine’s action takes place. What’s your relationship with your chosen locales and, in particular, Los Angeles, and how do you approach the depiction of such unique geographical landscapes?
Well, without offending every New Yorker out there, I feel as if New York has gotten to the point where it’s so gentrified, for the most part, Manhattan is a rich-person island. I don’t find it as intriguing anymore. And I find that the art scene is developing in Los Angeles, especially the independent film community, which is growing here. I’ve shifted my love from New York to Los Angeles. And yes, I think the city, or any locale, will always, at least for my films, be a location as well, because a location is a big part of defining someone’s life. But right now I live here, and I like living here. And I was very surprised when I first moved here to find that there’s so much of L.A. that hasn’t been focused on. I came to L.A. thinking it was going to be shot out. I thought the studios had covered it. But then you find out there’s a whole world south of Pico.
I can’t think of another recent movie besides Starlet that’s set in the Valley, let alone one that captures it so lovingly.
For me it’s just been finding locations and being like, I cannot believe the industry has been here for 100 years. How haven’t you found these places yet! And I love the exploration of it. I spend time now exploring East L.A. and I spend time driving around the desert cities surrounding Los Angeles, going down to the Salton Sea area and places like that. There are so many unique communities that have such cinematic, scenic looks as well.
I think Tangerine may be the only contemporary L.A. film that can pass the Thom Andersen geography test.
[Laughs] That’s funny. I do think about that.
Even with just a random conversation in Tangerine when the taxi passenger asks if they’re driving on Sunset Blvd—if you look in the background and are familiar with Los Angeles, you can see that they are indeed driving on Sunset. Just simple things like that, as the girls walk up and down Santa Monica Blvd.—all the geography matches. Little details that I think may a big difference.
We only cheated once. And I had to really think about it because I had just re-watched Los Angeles Plays Itself and I thought about how [Thom Andersen] would react to our one cheat. But then I thought: “You know what, that’s why we’re making a narrative fiction film.” There are times when style does have to override accuracy. But I did try to stay extremely geographical faithful.
Well, you fooled me.
It’s the hotel exterior. The shot of the Grand Motel, because the Grand is shown on La Cienega, and it should really be in Thai town if you were mapping the film, Family Circus–style. But that’s how we actually mapped it out, like a Family Circus cartoon where you would be seeing the girls going down this way and then down this other way.
I’m pretty sure even the bus lines the characters take to Hamburger Mary’s are correct.
Oh yeah, they’re correct.
Stylistically Tangerine is very striking, and very different than anything you’ve done before. In fact, all your films are very individualized. How do you go about developing the visual look of each film? Take Out and Prince of Broadway, for example, have a docufiction look, while Starlet is much more refined and dreamy, appropriate for its reflective and inquisitive characters. Tangerine is manic and quite disorienting, very much in line with the stress and desperation of the characters. Is the aesthetic of each film informed by the characters and their states of mind?
To a certain degree. The colors in Tangerine stem from the characters. I was going to approach it by draining the colors, because that’s what you do in social realist films, and for some reason we always connect desaturation with reality. But then I was doing my tests to show Mark and Jay Duplass and the other financiers, and I had drained the color and for some reason it didn’t exactly say anything—it didn’t feel right. And I thought: “These personalities are so colorful and this world is so colorful, why don’t I just go the other way?” So I pumped the saturation through the roof and suddenly the sun popped and all the oranges, reds, and different colors popped. And that’s just more appropriate. Anderson Le, a programmer from the Hawaii Film Festival, said something like: “I like how you made Los Angeles look radioactive.” There was a review that called it “pop verité.” And I said: “Yes, that was exactly what I was going for—like a hybrid between cinema verité and pop.” And I’m not the first to do it: Tom Tykwer did it with Run Lola Run and to a certain degree even Danny Boyle has done it. But I just wanted to find that middle ground. This is the first time I’m working with wider-angle lenses, and that was mostly dictated by the iPhone. So I was forced to be closer to the actors. That really helped. It gave me something I’d never tried before: being up close and personal. Instead of telephoto, or from a distance, or observational. I mean, look at the Safdies’ film [Heaven Knows What]—that was a brilliant way of handling that subject.
Tangerine and Heaven Knows What are both very realistic films, in totally different ways.
Exactly. But to answer your question, it’s more about just trying to change it up every time. Sometimes the characters dictate it. And I don’t want to be praising the iPhone so much, but it did allow us to be more mobile. I didn’t really realize that until the first day of shooting, when Kiki first exits Donut Time, I thought: “You know, I have my bike here. Why don’t I just jump on my bike and try and get an arcing shot of her exiting. To give [the audience] a kind of adrenaline shot.” And as soon as I shot that and showed it to everyone, I just thought: “This is cool. We can go in this style if we want. We could really go down this road of moving the camera a lot—being very hyperactive and kinetic.”
That’s actually what I wanted to touch on next. I’m sure you’ve talked about it to death, but what was the reasoning behind shooting with an iPhone?
Not many people believe us, but it really did stem from us having no money. I’m on my fifth film and I’m… out of favors. Trust me, every time I open up the trades and I read about Tarantino shooting on 70mm, I’m jealous as hell. I love film and I want to shoot my next one on film. But this time I didn’t have the money, and I couldn’t even ask for the RED or the Alexa, because we simply didn’t have the budget. Then it was like, should we shoot on a DLSR? Well, then it’s going to look like ever other indie. And we’re dealing with almost half the budget of Starlet. So I just thought, why don’t we try something different to separate us from the pack? And at the time I was watching those Vimeo channels that focus on iPhone experiments and there was a Kickstarter link on one for Moondog Labs, and they had that anamorphic adapter that I thought could lift us up to a cinematic level. But I was still very reluctant. I even said to Mark [Duplass]: “You know, I think I have to do it this way just to pull off this movie.” Because we’re not making a mumblecore movie. And maybe we could have shot it with a DLSR if we were all in one location or just had our four characters in a room talking. But I wanted to show L.A., and I wanted an ensemble cast, and I wanted movement. And he was the one who finally said: “Just shoot it on the iPhone. It’s, like, punk rock. Why not?”
It looks great. I’d challenge anyone with no prior knowledge to guess it was shot on an iPhone.
I’m happy with the look. And I’m the biggest critic of digital, trust me. I’m the first one to dismiss even good-looking Alexa. But I am happy with the look. We treated it heavily in post. I mean, I put grain on it. I pumped up the saturation, like I said earlier. We did a lot of color correction. My color gradist did a great job.
You once again edited this film. Would you say that the editing is also an extension of the way you decided to shoot the film? The opening scene alone is just so invigorating in the way you forgo typical shot-reverse-shot and in the way you edit the conversation, which speeds up the dialogue and accentuates the comedy. It sets the tone perfectly.
We decided to just lock down the camera in three places—beginning, middle, and end. And, again, we didn’t want that adrenaline shot until Kiki decides to go on her mission. I consider editing to be 50 percent of directing. In the editing room you can do whatever you want. There are a million different ways of telling a story with an edit. I know for my films, I find the film again in editing. So it’s almost being written three times: when we do our “scriptment” (half script, half treatment), then on the set—for example, Chris Bergoch came up with the final twist in the third act while we were shooting—and then again in editing. We rearranged Razmik’s story in editing. It was originally revealed in Razmik’s first scene that his preference is for transgender sex workers. So that changed. I didn’t want to reveal that until later.
I lose my mind during editing, by the way. I edit at night. I can’t seem to break that habit. I wake up at 5 p.m., I do my regular thing until about 9, and then edit until 8 a.m. And I did that for about six months with Tangerine. I was getting into bed when my girlfriend was getting out of bed. It definitely put me in a weird state. I was addicted to Vine at the time. So I take breaks from editing to watch Vine—which isn’t really a break. I’d just watch more electronic images being shoved into my eyes.
Despite the recognizability of their form and themes, your films don’t evince easy comparisons or speak to any specific influence. Do you find your work being informed by influences outside the cinema, or are there filmmakers who you actively emulate or attempt to update or reimagine?
I’m trying to step away from the classic three-act structure of storytelling, because I feel that will age pretty quickly. Plus, it’s just something that audiences have been trained to think is the only way we can tell a story. I’m trying to fall more along the lines of a character study. And I really don’t think storytelling has to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. But as I grow older I’m realizing that the things I rebelled against when I was younger—like, when people say “You need life experience!” Now I realize that, well, yeah, that does help. As you get older you compile all these stories—your own stories and stories you’ve heard from other people. And for my films, these stories work their way in there. I’ve also been influenced by the narrative storytelling of cinema and even more these days by music, and trying to achieve the same emotional state that one gets out of listening to a beautiful song. And that’s hard. But I’m always thinking how I can make my films as emotionally satisfying as, like, the perfect five-minute anthem.
But as far as cinematic influences, I think it’s the British social realists. Mike Leigh, Ken Loach—I think you can see a lot of Ken Loach in Prince of Broadway, actually. And also the Dardennes, though not as much, even though I really like them. Just because by the time they broke out, I feel like I was already finding my way. And Lars von Trier—especially The Idiots and the Dogma 95 stuff. I consider The Idiots one of the most important films ever made, his perfect balance of comedy and drama and social satire and social commentary. But these days I’d have to say, maybe, Ulrich Seidl—he’s my guy. But he’s so dark. It would be hard to get a financier to finance anything like that in the U.S. And also Ruben Östlund, who I’m extremely impressed with. As soon as I saw Force Majeure I eBayed all his other films and realized that they’re all just as strong.
You tend to work with a mix of professional and nonprofessional actors, but Tangerine is built almost totally around two non-actors.
I like to call them “first-time actors.” With Prince of Broadway, I feel like I did Prince Adu a disservice by calling him a nonprofessional. He was an aspiring actor, and so are Mya and Kiki. Kiki even studied drama in high school, and Mya’s an aspiring singer and entertainer. But with Prince of Broadway, Prince was even nominated for a Gotham Award, but the industry just did not accept it—the industry thinks, “Oh, nonprofessional. That means unprofessional.” So what I like to do is call them first-time actors. Even Karren Karagulian was a first-time actor in Take Out, and now he’s the lead of all my films, basically.
Was there any point where you thought about casting the roles in Tangerine with someone at least semi-established, like you did with Starlet?
In this case, absolutely not. I was socially conscious enough to realize that casting a non-transgender person would be disrespectful and a no-no, just something that wouldn’t be accepted by the trans community. So the only person I could cast would have to be an unknown. The only person I could’ve cast that is known is Laverne Cox—and that wasn’t going to happen.
A sense of friendship also seems to extend into many ongoing collaborations, like with Karren Karagulian. Shih-Ching Tsou, one of your lesser-noted collaborators, seems to me one of your most important. She co-directed and co-wrote Take Out…
She executive produced Starlet. She produced Tangerine…
She’s in Tangerine!
All of my crew wear so many hats. She was doing continuity on [Tangerine], and she was also doing wardrobe. So as she was acting, she had to have her eyes on continuity, which is insane to me. She’s also the one who found Besedka Johnson for Starlet.
Your characters are often involved in perilous situations and risky vocations, and yet they’re all very funny films. I’m pretty sure no less than three of your films feature barf gags.
They all do! Every one of them! And some are more spectacular than others. [Laughs]
Tangerine has a great one. But you seem to be able to locate the situational humor and even irony in the predicaments in which your characters find themselves. And this is particularly true of Tangerine, which in a manner similar to its style, is pitched at a very different register than the humor of, say, Starlet or Prince of Broadway. Is this, again, something informed by Kiki and Mya’s real life dynamic, or did you conceive of the film’s humor separately from the actors?
No matter what, I knew I was going to make a film with a lot of humor. I don’t see myself making such a heavy-handed drama. It’s just not realistic. There’s humor in the world. There’s humor in behavior. If we had a camera in this room right now—there’s just so much comedy around us [acknowledges an adjacent camera crew setting up to shoot a Jimmy Kimmel skit]. I just don’t think it’s honest to show the world without humor, because we all use humor to get by everyday. With these girls, I saw that they’re dealing with such hardship—and I’m not talking about Mya and Kiki specifically, but the trans women of color who work in that area—they use humor to cope. So when I was doing my research, everyday I was hearing such tragic stories, but at the same time it was like going to a stand-up comedy club. These women are so fast, so witty, it was entertainment for me on a daily basis. So I decided, especially after Mya told me that I’d better make this funny—because “We have fun out here!”—that’s when I decided to up it a little more.
Prince of Broadway
You mentioned the “fish” slang earlier. Was there anything else that the girls brought themselves that you utilized in a similar way?
Almost every little scene, or every little vignette was inspired by them in some way. From the hate crime at the end, to the interaction with the police—we heard about five different stories about interactions with cops. And we could have gone to an extreme, like having the police solicit them—we heard about that. We heard about how they take their money. But in this case we decided since we were humanizing almost everybody in the movie, we decided to show just what could be considered an everyday occurrence.
It fits with the theme. And that the film is set on Christmas Eve.
Right. They’re still totally insensitive. Not many people pick up on it, but the [female cop] actually uses Mya’s male name. So instead of addressing her as Alexandra, she calls her Alexander. She refuses to identify her as a woman. We made up very little. Just stuff like the performance, Mya’s pay-to-play scene—that’s just stuff that was embellished. The rest was from stuff we heard.
You mentioned it before, but it’s pretty obvious that your films are essentially tales of friendship. Are you conscious of this sensibility while working?
I think it just naturally goes there. I was conscious of it at one point [while shooting Tangerine] when Chris pointed out to me that this film is just about these two friends who only have each other. And in the [last shot], it’s just the two friends supporting one another. And I was like: “Oh yeah, I guess it is.”
Prince of Broadway also ends on a shot of two characters.
And Take Out as well. Didn’t Danny Boyle say something like, “After your fifth film you realize you’re just making the same film over and over again”?
And this is your fifth!