'Tangerine' First Feature Film Shot on iPhone - In Theatres Friday July 10th


“It's Christmas Eve in Tinseltown and Sin-Dee (newcomer Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) is back on the block. Upon hearing that her pimp boyfriend (James Ransone, “Starlet”, "Generation Kill") hasn't been faithful during the 28 days she was locked up, the working girl and her best friend, Alexandra (newcomer Mya Taylor), embark on a mission to get to the bottom of the scandalous rumor. Their rip-roaring odyssey leads them through various subcultures of Los Angeles, including an Armenian family dealing with their own repercussions of infidelity. Director Sean Baker’s prior films (“Starlet”, “Prince of  Broadway”) brought rich texture and intimate detail to worlds seldom seen on film. ‘Tangerine’ follows suit, bursting off the screen with energy and style. A decidedly modern Christmas tale told on the streets of L.A., ‘Tangerine’ defies expectation at every turn.”

Magnolia Pictures picked up ‘Tangerine’ (Official Selection) at Sundance 2015. Mark and Jay Duplass produced the film from director Sean Baker, who co-wrote it with Chris Bergoch. It stars newcomers Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor.

Exclusive Interview with the Director Sean Baker by Yenis Monterrey of LA Splash Magazine

Sean Baker is the award-winning director of “Take Out” (2008) and “Prince of Broadway” (2009) - both nominated for the John Cassavettes' Independent Spirit Award - and “Starlet” (2012), the recipient of the Robert Altman Independent Spirit Award, as well as another Cassavettes' nominee. ‘Tangerine’(2015) premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and will be released by Magnolia Pictures on July 10th.  Baker is a graduate of NYU and co-created IFC/FOX's Greg the Bunny and it's subsequent spin-off, MTV's Warren the Ape.

1. What can you say about yourself and how much have you grown as a Director, writer, and producer since your previous films "Four Letter Words", "Take Out", "Prince of Broadway", "Starlet", and now ‘Tangerine’?  What is your advice for independent filmmakers?

"I’m not sure I have grown. I’ve just kept going. I’m not sure I can grow until I get accepted by the industry and I’m still trying to break in. I wish I had advice for independent filmmakers but I honestly don’t because I don’t think my career is a good model for them to follow.

I was one of the creators of a cult TV show entitled “Greg the Bunny” and if anything, this allowed me to focus on making independents for a few years without having to take a 9 to 5 job.  So this would be my one bit of advice… try to find a paying side gig that doesn’t eat up your time. It doesn’t hurt if this side gig is either in the industry or on the fringe of it because it keeps you honing your craft.  I also edited for several years… industrials, promotional videos, etc. I believe this really helped in understanding pacing and learning how to trim the fat.

Oh, I guess I would say that I wish I went to business school. Business school is more important than film school because you can learn film by listening to DVD commentaries, youtube videos, and volunteering on film shoots."

2.  Do you have any anecdotes while researching the topic or shooting the film?

"There are so many anecdotes but probably the most important one was an exchange I had with one of the film’s leads Mya Taylor. Mya understood my sensibility and was interested in working with me. But she said something very important to me early on. She told me that she would make the film with me if I promised I wouldn’t hold back on the realism. She wanted me to capture the brutal reality that transgender sex workers have to live. No holding back… even if it was difficult to watch or not politically correct. Secondly, she wanted the film to be funny. She wanted the film to capture the humor that the girls use to cope.  I was taken aback because what I was being asked to do was attempt a very tricky balancing act that could go quite wrong. But as I moved forward, I realized that making an overtly political film that treated our subjects only as victims would be condescending to the subjects.  It was an important moment in the making of this film and I owe Mya much for pointing me in the right direction."

3.  How did you come up with the idea of writing and directing a film about two transgender prostitutes?

"The film I made before ‘Tangerine’ is entitled “Starlet.” It explored the subject of sex work in the adult film industry. Perhaps the interest never left my system because I was drawn to a notorious intersection near my home in Los Angeles. It is the corner of Santa Monica and Highland… which has been known as a red light district for transgender sex workers. I think this film is yet another exploration of the subject of sex work. Perhaps this will be a trilogy. I’m not sure."  

4.  Was it a hard to brainstorm to decide the topic for your next project?

"Well, I don’t exactly brainstorm to decide on the topic. The topic comes from an interest in a subject… so it comes quite naturally and sudden. The brainstorming kicks in when we are trying to break the story.  But that is also why I love collaboration. Being able to spitball ideas with my co-writer and collaborators always keeps me in check and grounded. For example right now… we know what we want our next film to be about but we are still in the process of breaking the story. This can take months. But I’m starting to learn to roll with it and not be frustrated in the time it takes to find it. When it comes, it comes… it can’t be forced."

5.  How did the theme of transgender prostitutes impact your decision to write and make your final choice?

"Again, I think the theme of sex work was on my mind and this was a red light district close to my home… so I decided to explore it."

6.  How was your experience of directing the transgenders leads Mya Taylor and Kitana Rodriguez since they are non-actors.  You met them at the local LGBT for your film, correct?

"Well, Mya and Kiki are actors. They are just first-time actors. They both were aspiring entertainers and Kiki even studied drama in high school. So, they were professional and ready to put in the time. We began with work-shopping scenes and improvisation was always encouraged. I was impressed however I didn’t fully realize how talented they are until the first week of shooting when their performances were just blowing us all away on a daily basis.

Chris Bergoch (co-screenwriter) and I met Mya Taylor at the local LGBT Center. We approached her because she made an instant impression. I noticed her across a courtyard and knew I had to approach her.  When I told her about the project, she expressed that enthusiasm I was looking for.  We exchanged information and soon were meeting weekly to discuss the project. She shared stories and anecdotes of her friends who worked the streets. About two weeks in, she introduced us to Kitana Kiki Rodriguez."

7. How did you make the decision to cast them as the main characters? Was it because they had an intense personal story to contribute to your project or was it based on faith that they could come across and portray the roles just as well or better than professional actors? How was the process of improvisation with them? How Mya and Kitana help you to develop their characters, story and location?

"I decide to cast them as the leads shortly after seeing the two together for the first time. They perfectly complimented each other.  

We collaborated extensively. If you’re a screenwriter who wants to tell a story about a world you’re not in, you need to do so with as much collaboration and research as possible. It is the only way to responsibly and respectfully tackle a project like this.

We knew the film would focus on the two of them, and center around that intersection and a confrontation at Donut Time [the doughnut shop at the intersection]. But that is all we had. Eventually Kiki brought up the story of the hunt for “the fish”, which we saw as providing a dramatic and dynamic plot line that would take our characters through LA. [Co-writer] Chris Bergoch and I came back to Mya and Kiki with a treatment. They approved of the treatment and we moved forward with fleshing out dialogue and creating a scriptment (half a script, half a treatment.) We told them if the dialogue wasn’t good or real to just throw it out the window."

8.  Can you tell me your experience about shooting with iphone 5s, the Moondog Labs anamorphic lenses, and the app called Filmic Pro?

"Shooting on the iPhone was surprisingly headache free. Moondog Labs created an anamorphic adapter that fits over the lens of the iPhone. It allows you to shoot iPhone footage in true scope (wide accept ratio). We also used an inexpensive app called Filmic Pro; it locks exposure and focus, and most importantly it shoots at 24 frames a second.  There are plenty of other bells and whistles as well.  In my opinion, these two tools truly elevated the look to a cinematic level.  In post-production, we added grain and overly saturated the colors."

9.  Can you share some of your creative tips tips about shooting a movie with iPhone, pros and cons with the equipment?

"Besides the phone having an inferior lens, there really aren’t any cons. If you can accept the lo-fi look that the iPhone gives you, then you are in great shape. If you are planning on hand-held shots, it’s important to use a stabilizer. We used the Steadicam Smoothee by Tiffen which was necessary at eliminating the wobbly, shaky image that one gets when hand-holding a device with such a small lens.  Creatively, it’s really up to the user’s imagination. Personally, I found the small size and unobtrusive nature of the iPhone to help us shoot in a clandestine style. We had pedestrians pass through our frame and not ruin the take. Our producers would chase down the individuals and ask them to sign a release after the take was complete. Creatively, this gave us the freedom to capture realistic looking street scenes that a Hollywood production would spend thousands of dollars on."

10.  How many iPhones did you use and did you use them in different ways?

"We purchased three iPhones but never used more than two at a time. We discovered early on that the small size of the phone allowed us to be quite mobile. We ended up keeping the camera moving for most of the film so that during the times that the phone was on a tripod, the static image would have more of an impact.  Sometimes I was on my bike, left hand on the handle bar, right hand holding the rig… this allowed for fluid, fast-moving shots. I rode my bike on the sidewalk, following the girls as they walked down Santa Monica Blvd.  Sometimes I simply followed them at the pace they were walking and other times I went for very stylized camera moves such as dizzying 360’s around the them.  To achieve our makeshift crane shots, we purchased a painters pole which could extend to approx.16 feet. We attached the phone to the end of the pole and would lift the pole up above our actors, swiping down as they passed by. We didn’t have a monitor so we could not see what we were capturing until we brought the pole down and played back the take."

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