Warsaw 2015 Interview: Director Sean Baker Talks TANGERINE, Social Awareness And Smartphone Filmmaking
Sean Baker would probably not have guessed that his indie darling would end up in Oscars talks when he premiered the film at Sundance earlier this year. The Los Angeles Christmas tale of a "fish" searching odyssey -- and not your usual buddy comedy -- stars actual non-professional transgender actresses, who might becomes the first to net golden statuettes for lead and supporting actress, respectively. Distributor Magnolia Pictures and executive producers Jay and Mark Duplass have already started campaigning for the film, sending screeners to people voting in acting, cinematography and screenwriting categories.
ScreenAnarchy met with the director while he was promoting the film at the Warsaw Film Festival, teasing the audience ahead of its Polish distribution, set for December. It´s not everyday a U.S. indie film gets a theatrical release in Eastern Europe. And ScreenAnarchy could not missed the chance to talk to the director about the film, the social awareness it bears, and smartphone filmmaking in general.
ScreenAnarchy: How did you find out the story for TANGERINE?
Sean Baker: The mission to find a fish actually emerged once we got to know Mya [Taylor] and Kiki [Kitana Rodriguez] and their friends which happened after we did the street casting. We went out and introduced ourselves. We found Mya in the LGBT center which is around the corner of Santa Monica and Highland and she was hanging out with some friends.
Immediately, I saw her, I knew she had that sort of persona we were looking for but I was not expecting her to have that enthusiasm. And, thank God, she had that enthusiasm and was willing to work with us. She introduced me to Kiki and other friends. In the beginning, Chris Bergoch and I, we are both cis-gender white men from outside that world and we did not know what story we wanted to tell. So we wanted to hear them from girls and we knew we would hear enough stories that eventually we would be able to settle on a story that we can then fictionalize.
This story you see in the movie actually happened to Kiki. She was cheated on by her boyfriend and was contemplating going after the cis-gender woman who is part of this affair. That is how it began. We heard the story and even though it did not happen, it did not play out into fruition, we still thought that that is a really interesting idea and why don´t we use that as our A-plot. And this is really how it came about.
What was the research process like?
We started the research eight or nine months before the shoot and we wanted to hear everything. For instance, we heard many many stories about run-ins with police but eventually we had to figure out how to pick-and-choose the details until we created our own scenes based on all that. We had to immerse ourselves because it was the only responsible way doing so.
Why did you choose to run the taxi driver side story?
I worked with Karren Karagulian five times. I think he is a great actor and I wanted to work with him again and it just happens to be that there is a huge Armenian population in Los Angeles plus many cab drivers are Armenians, so it has just made sense, it all fit in the place. Once we already knew we will be focusing on the theme of family and also infidelity, all we did was to write parallel stories with both of the themes.
It was actually something that almost wrote itself because it just seemed very appropriate and very necessary to see another side. Not the other side, but just another side. It´s funny because sometimes audience love that plot and sometimes they hate it, they feel it so unnecessary and they don´t even know why I focus on it with which I obviously disagree.
In generally, US production has a sort of problem in depiction of racial and sexual minorities but your movie addresses both of them at once.
Well, the films I make are socially conscious and sometimes interviews at film festivals worry me because I become too analytical of that and then I feel as sometimes films that are very aware of their own social consciousness may become contrived and become seem as having a too much of overt political message and that worries me sometimes. I believe that best political films are actually presented from an entertainment standpoint and are more subversive that way, so I put my blinders down when it comes to this stuff.
But when it comes to racial, gender or maybe even religious relations, they do fascinate me because it´s the way that humans interact and that´s what our lives are all about. I also see a lot of humour in it, you know I do, because sometimes we all act so silly and sometimes we do not see how so much alike we all are. That is the crazy part to me because we usually see our differences instead of our similarities and the humour for me comes from this ignorance.
You see, ignorance can lead to obviously terrible things like discrimination, oppression but at the same time, the ignorance shows that we still have a far away to go and I laugh at the juvenile and immature aspects of it sometimes.
I did not want to enforce anything. The political plane is very subtle, you just happen to address both issues at once.
Sure, but you know you got things fired up by media and even though you have left and right media, they are all constantly trying to sensationalize and now this thing running in social media, this fake outrage in which everybody has to be upset at everything. No matter how much the progress is being made, you will always have naysayers basically trying to school everybody telling them how they should be thinking.
And this has become a little crazy for me and all of this discussion is sometimes the perfect example of words over actions and it´s becoming a little bit silly in US right now. But it´s not silly in terms of violence that´s occurring and when it leads to people getting hurt and getting discriminated, that´s obviously a terrible thing. I approach everybody as individual, I don´t like generalizing and I don´t like putting people into boxes.
People sometimes watch Tangerine and then ask me if this how I see trans-people like sex workers and I say "No, who said that" I am just shooting one corner in Los Angeles which just happens to be a place where trans-women of colour coming from poverty have nowhere to go but to underground economy because of discrimination and some of them have unfortunately resorted to drugs and sex working. That is just this one particular location.
Caitlyn Jenner is obviously on other side of the spectrum, a millionaire celebrity who decided to transition and she has nothing to do with this world and that world has nothing to do with hers. Just because I made this one film, and of course that the representation is important, but in my case it is a specific representation and not a general one. I think that films that attempt general representation are probably the most insulting because they think they can make sweeping generalization statements on the world. That´s not what I try to do, I am talking about individuals and hopefully, we see ourselves in those individuals and we can connect.
The take on Los Angeles is pretty vivid.
It was a slightly dangerous area and I am sort of use to it. My portrayal of it, some people say is gritty and I guess it is but I kind of was in that environment to a certain degree, so I think it´s more gritty than I thought it was. Anyway, I live a half a mile from that intersection and it´s an intersection that people pass by everyday because it´s a main artery. It was something I saw and why has not anybody made a film about it struck me a little peculiar.
The environment, I would say, is always a character. I think that in my favourite films you can see usually that the environment or the weather or just something other than human beings in the movie are as just as the character. Since I am new to Los Angeles, I think I wanted to impress Angelenos and I wanted them to feel like this movie was made by somebody who really knew the city and loved the city and so far that is the response I got. Thank God.
How did the shooting on location go?
Well, we still had the professional shoot where we would get permits and ask locations to allow us to shoot there though we kept under radar. We would not announce we will be shooting in order to be able to capture the real street life and then to try to get releases afterwards. That´s the only difference because you run a risk when not getting releases as well as you run the risk of pissing somebody off.
Did you piss somebody off?
Well, of course. Some people ask to not be on a camera and why we were shooting them, so then you just apologize and move on. That´s the risk you take making these sorts of movies.
Almost everywhere is kind of pointed out that the film was made on iPhone. Is this somehow relevant, I mean since the film was made on micro-budget was this part of some product placement deal?
Well, that´s the thing. It obviously does not matter whether it´s an iPhone or a smartphone. I had used iPhone because there were two tools created at the time that helped me and because I owned one. It was easy for me to practice. I did not have a Samsung or whatever other products, it was simply a matter of convenience.
And number two there were the tools, an anamorphic adapter and as far as I know this anamorphic adapter was not created for any of the smartphones and then there is this app made only for iPhone. And these things were created by third parties for the Apple product and not a Samsung product. It´s not like we had any product placement and I am not trying to advertise in any way for Apple.
How did it go with iPhones instead of regular cameras?
I am happy that they made this device I can make a movie with. Some people say why didn´t you shoot on small DLSR camera or even maybe a black magic camera. There were some reasons, budgetary reasons for the choice but more importantly, I think people are forgetting that the more important aspect of it is that the first and foremost, this is a communication device.
Most everybody owns a smartphone, so we do not consider it a camera. It´s a phone and therefore you can get away with a lot more in terms of the intimidation factor. People do not take you seriously, it´s much more casual environment and for films I want to make which have this blur between narrative and docu, it´s actually the best thing I could imagine.
And what about digital cinema versus traditional one?
You see, I still love celluloid and I still want to shoot my next movie on film because I want to capture the look and be satisfied with the technical aspects of it but if I would be shooting a documentary today I would shoot on an iPhone. No doubt about it. Because my subjects would be more comfortable, I would probably get a lot better results. Though I have to say and I am not endorsing Apple, I am endorsing smartphones. If you are doing a documentary, you should probably shoot on iPhone, it would only make your job easier.
Whether this should be applied to all narrative work? Definitely not. You know, the fact is that I am looking forward to see Tarantino's new film on 70 mm and I am very happy about that. What I do not appreciate about the digital cinema when it´s trying to entirely replace the film and I can see the difference. With something like Tangerine, this is not trying to do it, it´s trying to do something different.
But when you have these films, shot digitally with all that money, the only thing that separate them from movies shot on film is literally the film. I mean, you had the money and this big crew, in that case why wouldn´t you shoot on film. It doesn´t make sense. For instance, Fast and Furious should be shot on film, there is no reason to shoot it digitally. Now it just looks crappy.
Did you have to train for the shoot?
Well, you always have to do a little training, especially with the little steadicam Smoothee which is the stabilizer for this. That took a month to figure it out and I had to do a lot of practice. That is also the crazy part and why I do not get to be dogmatic about learning in any sort of software or hardware because things change too much. All of a sudden, in a year and half since we shot, I do not even need the stabilizer anymore because new phones have it already built in and it looks so beautiful. And I do not usually like digital stabilization and I am impressed. If you shoot with them now, it looks like you have a steadicam. So you see, I practice for a month and now I never need to use that skill again.
You have some really nice shots looking like dollying. How did you achieve that?
With the stabilizer, either us [me or the cinematographer Radium Cheung] running or me on a bike.
Riding a bike and shooting?
I used to live in New York and I rode my bike everywhere and I was a bike messenger too, so I was used to riding in tight place and I had my left hand on the handlebar and with my right hand I held the stabilizer. But imagine what even a better biker could do. One of these crazy San Francisco bike messengers, they would be able to get fantastic shots.
You are already established filmmaker. How come you had to work on a budget that was half of your previous one [TANGERINE's $120,000 compared to STARLET's $235,000]?
Honestly, I think the industry is so upside down that is very hard to get financing and it´s a whole other skill in a business sense. You have to find financiers, you had to find benefactors, basically you have to find rich people looking to lose money. You see, this is not the best moneymaking business in the world and that takes a whole other skill. You have to convince people that it´s OK for them to lose money because they could say they made a movie and that´s hard for me to do.
So that´s why I wasn´t able to get the money. But this time around, Tangerine is actually getting a lot of recognition, so I do not expect it would be as hard as before which is wonderful and I am very happy with that.
Have you considered crowd-funding?
Well, no. Unless you are a celebrity, it is not going to be significant. It is hard to even get $20,000. And also I want to keep crowd-funding for when I really need it. For example, my first film was shot on 35 mm and nobody is ever going to give me money to get it remastered, to get it scanned properly into 4K.
So that would be the case for crowd-funding where I would use the popularity of Tangerine and say "Hey, look, I would want to get my first film on Blu-ray and I going to do it myself, so I need 15 000 to do it". To start on a big project, you know, unless you are Spike Lee or Werner Herzog, you are not going to get much, I do not know whether he even got them...
Abel Ferrara did not, Alejandro Jodorowsky did, Gyögi Pálfi did not...
...Uwe Boll did not...
...well, that maybe was not the worst thing to happen. How did Mark Duplass get on board?
He liked my film called Prince of Broadway and at one point he told me if I ever wanted to make micro-budget film, the opportunity is open. I called him up and said I am up for it.
Have you got to pitch it to him somehow?
No, he got sold at the idea and then I had to do the research and I gave him the treatment and he was fine with it. He was always very supportive of it.
Everything you mentioned regarding making of TANGERINE sort of resembles Dogme filmmaking for the 21st century.
Well, I am very influenced by the Dogme movement. I think Lars von Trier´s The Idiots is one of the best movies ever made because for me, it has the perfect balance of drama, comedy and social criticism. Then on top of it, he made very emotional film that is not using a manipulative tool like music to still move me.
I love The Idiots and every time I doubt the means in which to make a film, my producer Shih-Ching Tsou, she always says "Can you stop complaining...Shut up...Look what your favourite film is...shot on Standard Definition Video..." Dogme 95 is actually an important stage. Well, we had small 16mm cameras that helped a lot with cinema vérité in 60s but it was different because Dogme was when we could shot on MiniDV and really democratized it. All this around Tangerine is just a next step and it helps on other levels like putting people at ease, taking away the professional perception of it almost entirely.
Will there be comeback for you regarding smartphones?
Maybe. But rather for television project. I think that would be an interesting thing to do. Somebody is going to do it soon. There is a lot of wonderful stuff on TV though cinema is for me always priority number one. I can see television as me having fun, experimenting and making money. Actually, my most favourite film of last year was miniseries, Li´l Quinquin by Bruno Dumont. But at least he was able to shown it on big screen, so he made a piece of cinema that is shown on TV. Even if it´s miniseries, you can still watch it as 3-hour film.