Tangerine was the first that film that really put Sean Baker on the map, despite it actually being his fifth feature as a director. Baker had hoped that his 2012 film Starlet might open some bigger doors for him, but despite attracting some awards and critical acclaim, trying to get the next film off the ground remained a struggle. Mark Duplass had offered to finance a micro-budget film of Baker’s before Starlet’s festival run began, and after two years of touring that film, Baker called Duplass up asking whether that offer still stood, since he wasn’t get any interest from anybody about financing his films. Luckily, Duplass was still up for it..
Tangerine came out of Baker just living in Los Angeles and living near the intersection of Santa Monica Boulevard and Highland Avenue, which for decades has been a hotbed of sex work and drug use, most notably involving transgender sex workers. He isn’t of that world by any means, so went down to the Los Angeles LGBT Center, where he eventually found his two lead actresses, Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez. He was soon in collaboration with the two of them, getting some of their stories and meshing them with some of his own ideas and those of writing partner Chris Bergoch. The result was this story, which is set on Christmas Eve in that area of Los Angeles. Given the nature of the film and its budget restraints, improvisation was encouraged, and some of their own lives embellished the story: the whole subplot of Rodriguez’s Sin-Dee Rella’s boyfriend/pimp possibly cheating on her with a cisgender woman came out of the fact that she thought her boyfriend was indeed cheating on her.
Baker smartly decided to set the film during the space of a single day: it means you have fewer issues with wardrobe, obviously—most people change their clothes once maybe twice during the day at most, so continuity is much easier, and if something that comes up later in the filmmaking works better near the start, you get some fluidity with the edit. The story is for the most part Sin-Dee Rella and her friend Alexandra (Mya Taylor) trying to find her pimp boyfriend, who she believes has broken her heart. There are a few subplots, which are times feel like padding to make it feature-length. The whole subplot with Karren Karagulian as Razmik, a married Armenian cab driver who wants some action from a transgender sex worker, is obviously not far from reality but seems a little forced. Obviously, all of the various subplots culminate at the climax when they get to Donut Time. The shop has since the film ended become Danny Trejo’s Coffee & Donuts!
In many ways, Tangerine was a lucky film: it came out when there was higher visibility of transgender people, and also the new possibility of shooting a film on your phone. It marked the first-ever Oscar campaign for a transgender actress for the two leads, and while neither were nominated it’s certainly safe to say that by the end of this decade a transgender actress will have been. The two actresses are fantastic, by the way, and hopefully will get more acting work in the future—they are naturals.
The film got lots of buzz for the fact that Baker had the ingenious idea of shooting the film on modified iPhone 5s, which inspired Steven Soderbergh to shoot two features the same way soon afterwards. Along with the subject matter, it was a great hook to sell the film. Tangerine ended up being a minor success. It was not the first feature shot on an iPhone, but it was the first one to become a big festival hit.
Baker has a real knack for making films about underrepresented communities and finding the cinematic poetry in their stories, whether it’s trans sex workers in Tangerine or the unemployed single mother living in a crappy hotel in The Florida Project or, in his most recent and in my opinion best film, the scummy but kind of lovable male porn star in Red Rocket. He has only gotten better as his work has gone forward, and while occasionally his endings don’t completely land, he is a director shedding lights on worlds so rarely seen on screen that this alone should be congratulated. However, I’m sure he would shudder at being described as a “trustworthy male director in a post #MeToo world” as he has been before. Personally, I can’t wait till Baker dips his toes into one of his greatest cinematic loves… exploitation horror films!
The Blu-Ray release from Second Sight is very welcome, given that the film only got a DVD release from Metrodome, which went out of print when they went under. The extras are aplenty, and include an audio commentary with Cerise Howard and Rohan Spong; a making-of documentary; and interviews with Sean Baker, actor Mya Taylor, cinematographer Radium Cheung, writer Chris Bergoch and the film’s producer, Darren Dean. The booklet contains new essays from a slew of writers, an archival interview with Baker and some behind-the-scenes stills. It all contains packaged in a rigid slipcase with several art cards.