MEET THE FILMMAKER: Sean Baker (Tangerine)

On Tuesday, July 7th, Rooftop Films will screen Tangerine. Sean Baker’s big-hearted third feature film is an innovative, confident, and highly affecting piece of filmmaking, sure to change the way we think about movies in the context of our rapidly shifting cinematic landscape. Set in sun-blistered streets of Los Angeles, the film follows Sin-Dee (the extraordinary Kiki Kitana Rodriguez), a transgender woman prowling Hollywood on Christmas Eve in search of the pimp who left her heartbroken.

Formally, the film (shot entirely on an iPhone 5s) is technically unprecedented. Socially, Baker’s work manages to confidently tackle issues of sex, gender and race with comic exuberance and self-assurance. It’s a winning, and rare combination, and we’re proud to have it as part of the 2015 Summer Series. We had a chance to talk with Baker about the challenges of marrying quality filmmaking with social commentary, as well as his influences in making Tangerine.

Rooftop Films: One of the things that we love about the film how it manages to be fun and risqué, without compromising any of its realism (which is a rare combination). Are there particular films that you were inspired by that share these characteristics?

Sean Baker: One film that has this characteristic which I put on a very high pedestal is Lars Von Trier’s The Idiots. For me, it has the perfect combo of realism, social commentary, laugh out loud –  daring comedy and ultimately an extremely emotional and cathartic ending. I love this film so much.

The film creates a realistically gritty and detailed picture of a very particular side of L.A. street life. How did you become familiar with this culture and did you immerse yourself in that world in any way to absorb those details?

With all of these films, it’s about spending time on the street, observing, interviewing, exploring, immersing ourselves inside various subcultures. Every scene in the film comes from stories that we heard or incidents we actually experienced. A couple of examples here… we would watch how police officers would interogate people they suspected of being under the influence on the street – the pulse reading on the wrist was a regular procedure. Another example is the make-shift brothel in the motel. Chris Bergoch, who co-wrote the screenplay, tracked down an actual brothel being run out of a motel. He posed as a ‘john’ to gain access but intentionally forgot his wallet to allow him to back out after getting a lay of the lands. The layout of the brothel in the film is based on the one he witnessed — down to the multiple ‘johns’ –including a customer being serviced on a toilet.  So basically, it takes a degree of immersive journalism to find these details.

It can be difficult to focus on such a specific sub-culture while also creating an entertaining work of fiction. Were there particular aspects of the Trans community that you wanted to convey and particular stereotypes or generalizations  that you wanted to avoid?

Yes, this is a story that takes place within a specific subculture, a microcosm if you will. In a way, the film is about one city block in Los Angeles. So it was just about representing that locale accurately and fleshing out the characters that inhabit this area as much as one can in a 90 minute period of time. Instead of an avoidance of stereotypes or generalizations, our goal was to develop these characters enough that stereotypes and generalizations weren’t even possible.  There are two aspects of this microcosm that we did want to convey however. 1) The humor that these sex workers use in order to cope. We witnessed this daily and to not convey this would be dishonest. 2) The support that the women gave to one another. These women have been alienated, ostracized and ignored by society and in most cases by their own families… in the end, they are their only family. It was very important to show this.

Much has been made of your use of the iPhone to shoot the film—and rightfully so. It looks great and certainly adds a certain free-wheeling naturalism to the vibe of the movie. But I can imagine the style of shooting had its limitations. Would you consider using that technology again, even if you had the resources to shoot a future film with a more conventional setup?

Perhaps but I’ve been working for a very long time to increase my budgets so I can shoot on film again. I haven’t been able to since my first feature. If I had all the money I’d want, I would shoot 70mm celluloid.

Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor are both revelations, of course, and deserve all the attention that the film has been bringing them. But we were curious about the casting of James Ransone, who also stars in Bloomin Mud Shuffle, which we are showing. What about him made you think he was right for the role?

I worked with James on my previous film Starlet. And I’ve been a fan of his work for quite awhile. He is wonderful at behavioral comedy… allowing the humor to stem from mannerisms and delivery. He’s also fearless and is wonderful at improvisation. So I’m sure I’ll be working with him again soon.

**Meet Sean Baker in person when Rooftop Films screens Tangerine on the roof of John Jay College of Criminal Justice on Tuesday, 7/7**