(Mya Taylor and Kiki Rodriguez in a scene from Sean Baker's Tangerine)
Let's get this out of the way right now. Sean Baker is an acclaimed director of low-budget independent films that typically feature a tight focus on characters along society's margins. He is also a cisgender white man. His most recent film is Tangerine, which follows the adventures of two African-American transgender sex workers, who seek revenge on a pimp when they discover he's been cheating on one of them. On Christmas Eve, no less.
Baker is aware that you might have apprehensions about all of this. But hear him out.
"I was just trying to tell a story about Los Angeles, really," he says, noting that the street corner where the two characters start at the beginning of the film is on "this intersection of Santa Monica and Highlands, about half a mile from where I live. It's an unofficial red light district, so it has a lot of activity out on the corner at night," he says. "It's impossible not to spot when you drive by. It was something I wanted to explore, from just a filmmaker's point of view of it, knowing that we could tell a very cinematic story there."
Baker and his collaborator, screenwriter Chris Bergoch, typically spend "six to eight months" on research and pre-production before they begin writing a script. They went down to the area and introduced themselves to the locals and let them know they wanted to make a film about the intersection. All the while they were on the search for the right collaborator, which they eventually found in Mya Taylor, a young transgender actress whom they discovered at a LGBT community center.
"We approached her and exchanged contact information. I could tell right there and then, there was something about her," Baker says. "She was an aspiring entertainer, not only acting but singing as well, and she said 'I want to do something,' so we started sitting down, meeting on a regular basis and discussing ideas and trying to find something.
"Chris and I are obviously not in that world... We're cisgender white males, so we didn't go in there imposing any plot or script. We were looking for somebody to help us figure it out."
Taylor brought on her friend Kiki Rodriguez, also a transgender actress, and together the four of them began developing the plot and characters of the film.
Sitting in the New York office of Magnolia Pictures, the film's distributor, Baker and actor James Ransone, who plays the pimp whose betrayal initiates the plot, seem at ease. They joke back and forth through the interview, but they're also a bit weary of having to answer questions about having the right to tell this type of story when they don't come from this world.
"I think that we're in a time where everybody loves the sound byte, nobody likes context," says Ransone, who has done several movies with Baker and is perhaps best known for playing Ziggy Sobotka on The Wire. "If you look at Sean's entire body of work, it makes perfect sense that he made Tangerine, because it's not about transgender. It's his dumb blind luck that the movie is coming out at a time when the cultural acceptance of it is part of the zeitgeist. It's really that simple. To me, the movie's just an LA story about two friends."
Baker nods at Ransone, and adds "We are not defending this movie. I feel very comfortable with how we made it and to tell you the truth, at the end of the day, the only people I have to actually answer to are Mya and Kiki."
Independent cinema is glutted with tales of white people with liberal arts degrees who are filled with ennui. Baker has no interest in telling those kinds of stories, he says, and seeks to make movies that provoke conversations and explore worlds not often seen on screen, and that involves carefully and respectively seeking out perspectives other than your own. He's done that with Tangerine, but much to his surprise, he's also made a much funnier movie than he expected.
"That was very much dictated by Mya. She was the one who made me see the light in a way. It could've been a played-out movie. It could've been very dry, political," Baker says, "Mya said, 'I want you to make a movie that I can be entertained, I can laugh at, and the girls out here at the corner, they can enjoy.'"
The film was shot with three iPhone 5s, and filmed on real locations, with Baker and his producers convincing local businesses to let them use their space, with the promise that they won't interfere with the daily commerce. (A climactic scene set a donut shop has a few real customers as extras.) This approach not only added verisimilitude, but it helped the film's stars, who had never acted professionally, feel comfortable "because they didn't have a big camera in their face," Baker says.
Though Ransone doesn't show up until a pivotal scene near the end, he manages to turn what could be a loathsome stock character into something more deeply felt, while winning some of the biggest laughs in the process.
"I think this actually makes me a bad actor. The first thing I'll try to dig out is the humorous beat, and then I'll sort of craft everything around that to try to play that punch line," he says. "I don't know, maybe if someone else approached this, then they'd think like, 'Oh, I've got to play a thug.'"
"There's a slight camp feel to Tangerine, more than my other films," Baker adds, turning to Ransone. "But you didn't go completely camp. You could have."
"My mom said it's like a John Waters movie with heart," he replies.
Though it has hilarious moments, Tangerine never avoids the realities of sex work or the prejudice transgender people face, and depicts how cruel and exploitive the corner is. The end of the film makes it clear that ultimately, these two characters can only rely on each other.
"They don't have happy lives out there. There's no way of sugar coating any of that," he says. "They only have each other. That's it. The rest of the world isn't there for them. Their only family on Christmas Eve are themselves."
Tangerine is showing in NYC at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts and is in theaters nation-wide July 10th.