On the Transgressive, Sweet 'Tangerine'

Mya Taylor (left) and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez star in "Tangerine." Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

While video-sharing platforms like Vine and Instagram may already feel ubiquitous in our overexposed culture, consider that one of the most buzzed-about feature films of 2015, Tangerine, was shot entirely on an iPhone. It's not technically the first flick made on the Apple product (2014's And Uneasy Lies the Mind nabs that prize), but the Sundance breakout stands out because its subject matter is beautifully transgressive. Sure, the photo quality is a smidge grainier than what you'd see from a DSLR, yet it's arguably one of most critical films to emerge from this generation. That's not even taking into account the iPhone.

The film follows best friends Sin-Dee Rella (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor), transgender prostitutes who traipse around Los Angeles's red light district on one rollicking Christmas Eve. Sin-Dee's just been sprung from jail and is celebrating her return with Alex—until she hears that her boyfriend/pimp Chester (James Ransone) has been cheating on her with a "real fish" (street-speak for a cisgender woman) during her brief stint behind bars. A punishingly loud trap score rapping at their high heels, the pair prowl around a papaya-steeped Tinseltown in search of the woman, named Dinah (Mickey O'Hagan). But what begins as a raucous journey to kick someone's ass descends into a thoughtful meditation on trust, friendship and the gruesome realities that accompany just trying to get by.

Director and co-writer Sean Baker, the brains behind well-received indie flicks including Starlet, Prince of Broadway and Take Out, used to live right around Tangerine's stomping grounds; specifically, the corner of Santa Monica and Highland, L.A.'s unofficial hotbed of transgender sex work solicitation. Seeing something that had been never captured on film, he sought to explore the area further. "It was basically this red light district less than a mile from my home, and was a world I was unfamiliar with," he says.

Baker and his co-writer, Chris Bergoch, began hanging out in the area, and soon the pair met the illustrious Taylor, an aspiring performer, at the LGBT Center on McCadden Place. While Taylor was not and is not a sex worker, she had befriended transgender women and men working the area, and had been struggling to find employment after transitioning a few years ago. In a recent interview with The Huffington Post , Taylor said she had applied to 186 jobs and had yet to find employment, a testament to the discrimination these women face, forcing some to resort to working the streets when the world doesn't offer them much else.

Taylor tells Newsweek that she trusted Baker and Bergoch immediately, and was on-board for their project. "I just wanted to tell my story, some of the things I had been through and some of the things I had seen out there," she says. She became Baker and Bergoch's sherpa around the area, introducing them to working girls and boys and eventually the firecracker Rodriguez, who would later be the other half of her on-screen duo in Tangerine, which opened in select theaters on July 10.

The filming technology aside, Tangerine feels especially prescient in that it depicts what transgender men and women deal with on a daily basis. While it circles around contemporary conversations—such as the subjects of Caitlyn Jenner, the policing of bathrooms and the fight for appropriate pronouns based on personal identification of gender—instead of adhering to a transformational narrative or the tired trope of searching for an identity while transgender, Tangerine subverts these notions by focusing entirely on humans. This is a story that grapples with betrayal, love and friendship, and ultimately the universal search for a connection.

Transgender issues weren't as much in the zeitgeist when Tangerine initially began to bloom, and Baker says he was initially dissuaded from deconstructing these narratives focusing on two transgender women of color in his ambitious feature film. "The stereotypes [of transgender prostitutes] that people are talking about are always caricatures shown one minute in a film, in and out, and they're either the butt of a joke or they're the moment of clarity or disgust or ridicule and they're never given [exposure]," he says. "I actually had a few people tell me not to make this film."

He forged ahead anyway, but had to strike a tenuous balance as per a promise to the people who entrusted him with their tales. "Mya said, 'I trust you but you have to promise me two things: The first thing is that you'll try to capture reality as well as you can, and make this brutally real even if it's considered un-P.C. and hard for the audience to watch. And secondly I want you to make this funny, and I want you to make this for the girls,'" he says.

With the help of Rodriguez, Baker soon dissected a plot for the film and got to work. Along the way, Rodriguez and Taylor were there to help help him fine-tune the script to appropriately reflect the area's language, and help make the cuts as realistic as possible. As for the iPhone approach? It was initially bred out of necessity; while the film had been picked up for production by brothers Mark and Jay Duplass, the brains behind Togetherness and Transparent, Baker was struggling with selecting the best possible method that would help Tangerine shine. "I remember calling [Mark Duplass] up and said I'm really leaning towards the iPhone. And he said, 'I think this will be punk and different and why not? And if it will allow you to make a better movie, why not?'" he says.

Watching Tangerine, though, it's clear that the iPhone is the only way it could have been filmed. For one, it helped the actors, many of whom had lived and worked around the community but hadn't accrued much formal acting experience up until then. "It stripped away the inhibitions, anything that would be intimidating to a first time actor," Baker says. "[Mya and Kiki] were naturals, but everyone has a smartphone—so in between takes they were taking selfies with each other." The camera's miniscule size also helped the crew avoid drawing too much attention as they were filming at bustling intersections and businesses in the area.

Most importantly, the iPhone approach serves to better involve viewers in the action instead of allowing them to passively observe from afar, a common phenomenon in social realist films that Baker calls the "National Geographic approach." With the help of a Steadicam and an $8 Filmic Pro app, the iPhone shooting approach is not point of view per se, but it helps Tangerine feel intimate and unobtrusive. Cinematic shots taken from Baker's bike instead of, say, from a helicopter also help pull audiences into the film. This is critical filmmaking: because the truth about these women's lives is unfortunately less cheery than fiction—from being cheated out of money, to having cups of urine thrown on them, to other violence that often goes unreported. "This stuff actually happens," Taylor says. "It's out there and it's real." Baker adds: "These are not only trans women who are dealing with the way that society sees, or doesn't see them, but they're trans women of color—and that's just another fight they have to fight."

Of course, the film's micro budget also meant that Baker had to make other kinds of concessions besides phoning it in, so to speak. The film takes place in the course of a day, so as to not spend extraneous funds on wardrobe, and all the music featured in the film comes from emerging artists who posted their work on Soundcloud. Yet Baker admits between chuckles that he "kind of wants things to go wrong" while filming, and explains how unexpected mishaps led to some of the film's more magical moments. For instance, he recalls one scene in which Sin-Dee and Dinah finally have a confrontation in the bathroom of a club, and the sound rig wouldn't fit into the tiny space. Thus the crew had no choice but to film the scene, in which the two share a pipe and hits of meth, without sound. What was initially a disaster ended up evolving into one of Tangerine's most ephemeral scenes, at once a moment of forgiveness and a respite from the consistent wisecracking punctuating the rest of the film.

Baker admits he grappled with a "mid-life crisis" while writing, directing and editing the film late-night, in part due to the ambitious approach and with the subject matter. "The movie was emotionally taxing. Really. Dealing with these stories, you're putting yourself in a dark place for a long period of time, even with the humor," he says. Yet the balance of humor and seriousness is what makes Tangerine feel so critical, for both cinema-goers and those who prefer to stay at home. These issues aren't going away anytime soon, and it's up to these kinds of films to present these stories and hold them up to a new light. "It felt real," Taylor says of the film. "I'm proud of it, and proud to be a part of it."

Even Baker is happy with its outcome. "I figured out that if you plan 75% and leave 25% to chance that you're going to find those happy accidents," he says. "You'll also be driven crazy and lose sleep and have disasters happen, all that, but you will also walk away with stuff you never could have written, expected or dreamed." These are precisely the kinds of swerves that keep us returning to the theater, even in our contemporary era of all things streaming: the unexpected scenes, tangy surprises and salient social commentary. It doesn't get much sweeter than that.