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A Downtrodden LA Corner Inspires Comedy And Friendship In 'Tangerine'
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A Downtrodden LA Corner Inspires Comedy And Friendship In 'Tangerine'

Movie Interviews

A Downtrodden LA Corner Inspires Comedy And Friendship In 'Tangerine'

A Downtrodden LA Corner Inspires Comedy And Friendship In 'Tangerine'
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Actress Mya Taylor and director Sean Baker collaborated on the film Tangerine, a comedy about a friendship between transgender sex workers in Los Angeles' unofficial red-light district. i

Actress Mya Taylor and director Sean Baker collaborated on the film Tangerine, a comedy about a friendship between transgender sex workers in Los Angeles' unofficial red-light district. Rebecca Cabage/AP hide caption

toggle caption Rebecca Cabage/AP
Actress Mya Taylor and director Sean Baker collaborated on the film Tangerine, a comedy about a friendship between transgender sex workers in Los Angeles' unofficial red-light district.

Actress Mya Taylor and director Sean Baker collaborated on the film Tangerine, a comedy about a friendship between transgender sex workers in Los Angeles' unofficial red-light district.

Rebecca Cabage/AP

When film director Sean Baker moved to Los Angeles three years ago, he found himself drawn to one of the city's most infamous intersections. The corner of Highland Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard is "an unofficial red light district," Baker tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. But Baker's interest in the area went beyond the usual transactions: "I thought there must be some incredible stories that take place on that corner."

Baker wanted to tell those stories, so he and co-screenwriter Chris Bergoch began walking the streets in search of a collaborator who could act as their "passport" into an unfamiliar world.

Many of the women Baker and Bergoch approached assumed they were cops and refused to talk. But then they met Mya Taylor and something clicked: "There was just something about Mya — she attracted our attention from 40 feet away — and we went up to her and introduced ourselves and started talking about this project and it was that 'eureka' moment where she expressed just as much enthusiasm back to us. ... She was that collaborator we were looking for."

Taylor went on to co-star in the Baker-directed film Tangerine, an off-beat comedy that follows two transgender sex workers as they work the intersection on Christmas Eve. The idea to make the film funny came from Taylor. "I told Sean I wanted the story to be very real and I wanted it to be very funny because, like, who wants a theater full of crying people?" she tells Gross.

Baker was initially reluctant to follow Taylor's suggestion. "I didn't know exactly how I would go about doing that; it seemed like too hard of a balancing act," he says.

But in the end, he realized that turning the film into a comedy would broaden its audience appeal. "I was very thankful that she had this request because I'm not sure I would've gone down this road without her guidance on it. ... It's something that I was very apprehensive about at first, but then I realized it was the only way to go because it wasn't condescending to the subjects."


Interview Highlights

On Taylor's transitioning to female while filming Tangerine

Mya Taylor: It was a very sensitive time of my life, because I went through life with my transition keeping shades on my face and covering up with a whole bunch of clothes — like turtlenecks and jackets and things — because I wasn't comfortable with my body or with my face at that time, because I knew that it wasn't developed to the way that I wanted it to be, and I knew that it was going to take a few years. ...

Alexandra (Taylor) and Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) take a break on Christmas Eve in Tangerine. i

Alexandra (Taylor) and Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) take a break on Christmas Eve in Tangerine. Augusta Quirk/Magnolia Pictures hide caption

toggle caption Augusta Quirk/Magnolia Pictures
Alexandra (Taylor) and Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) take a break on Christmas Eve in Tangerine.

Alexandra (Taylor) and Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) take a break on Christmas Eve in Tangerine.

Augusta Quirk/Magnolia Pictures

During the filming and everything I was very comfortable, though, because of the crew and Sean and Kiki [co-star Kitana Kiki Rodriguez], those are the two people that I'm closest to, but I was very comfortable during the whole thing, I guess, because [by] acting I kind of took my mind away from that. ...

Sometimes during some of my screenings I'll come and sit in the back of the theater where nobody can see me and I see myself on the screen and I have to say, I've come a long way because I don't look like that anymore.

Sean Baker: I realize how brave it was for Mya to allow us to shoot the film at that moment in life. There were some women that we met in the area who didn't want to participate in the film because of where they were in their transition and they expressed that to us. They said, "Oh if you just would shoot this next year I would be more comfortable with myself," so for Mya to do this, I consider it to be extremely brave. And I have to thank her very much for doing that.

On how Taylor started doing sex work

Taylor: I've done sex work in my life and it's not fun, it's not easy and it's nothing that you can just get used to. I was pretty much thrown away from my family when I came out to them when I was 18. ... I left and I moved to LA with another family member, who actually treated me horribly. ... I was forced out to the streets and I came across the youth center — at the time it was called the Jeff Griffith Youth Center — and I went to the center and they helped me a lot with housing and everything to pretty much get myself back on my feet.

But I was constantly surrounded by all these sex workers and drug dealers in the area, and I needed money and I was applying for all these jobs over and over and over and I was like "Why am I not getting any jobs?" So eventually I started applying for more, I did 146 jobs in one month and the last month that I applied for jobs, before all this movie stuff, was 186 jobs and I found myself being discriminated against and I could actually prove it. So you have to ask yourself, "Why are there so many sex workers on Santa Monica and Highland?" Me personally, I did it, because I could not get a job.

Baker: I witnessed it firsthand. ... We shot [Tangerine] a year and a half ago, so there was a lot of waiting until Sundance came around and in that time I was with Mya and we were trying to find her temporary employment. Let's just say Mya knows automobiles like nobody's business. I mean she knows cars in and out and I watched her apply to numerous car dealerships, even garages, and it was one after another just being turned down.

On the fear she experienced as a sex worker

Taylor: When you're getting inside a car with somebody, it's scary as it is, because you never know what they could do to you, or you never know if they're a cop that's going to take you to jail. It's really, really, really scary. I think I was more scared of being taken to jail, which I had been [to] already, quite a few times, for doing that. ... The whole time, every time I got out there, my heart was always just pounding and pounding. It pounded even harder when a car would pull up, because I know that this person is here, but I know that I need this money.

On shooting the film on an iPhone 5S

Baker: This all stemmed from us having no budget, a very small budget. ... We had multiple locations, an ensemble cast, we couldn't afford the higher-end cameras, that's basically what it came down to. So once we decided to go down this route with the iPhone, though, it was really about doing whatever we could do to elevate it to a cinematic level. Early on, I was actually going through Vimeo, because Vimeo has this channel dedicated to iPhone experiments and short films and clips shot on the iPhone.

I was really impressed, actually, with what I saw, but I wasn't in any way convinced that this would work until I came across this Kickstarter campaign for this company called Moondog Labs and they created an anamorphic adapter which fits over the iPhone lens. It's a tiny little thing — it's like the size of a matchbook — and actually what it does is it allows you to shoot in true scope, so it's widescreen cinema that you're capturing on your iPhone.

That, in conjunction with this app, called Filmic Pro which anybody can get on their iPhone, basically it locks the camera at 24 frames a second. It has all these other bells and whistles like locking aperture and focus and creating a more professional look that you can get from the video on the iPhone. Those two things together, combined, really, for me, it's what elevated this. It's what convinced me that we could pull this off. Then, of course, heavy color-grading in post [production], adding grain, trying to emulate film.

When it comes down to it, I'm still in love with film — I'm a cinephile. If I had the choice I would've shot this on film, if I had the budget I would've shot this on film, but sometimes you just have to make the most of what you have and that's exactly how this came about.

On an unexpected benefit of shooting on an iPhone

Baker: From a director's point of view, a lot of my supporting cast, which were sometimes first-time actors and first-time behind-the-camera, I definitely saw a difference. Because with all of my other films I like to combine first-timers and seasoned actors, I always do that, and I always see that it takes about a week for the first-timers to get comfortable enough, to get over this little hump, where they're not intimidated.

In this case, the iPhone completely wiped away that intimidation, because you're using a communication device that everybody has in their pockets. Between takes people would be whipping them out — their own phones out — and taking selfies of each other. It lent itself to a much more casual shooting experience and so that was one of those benefits that the iPhone really revealed to us once we were shooting.

On why Tangerine is a comedy

Baker: Mya actually said that to me very early on in the process ... she actually said to me that she wanted me to make this hilarious, which I have to say, it's dangerous. I'm a cisgender white male coming from outside and I'm trying to make this film, and suddenly I'm asked to make it into a full-out comedy. ...

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that what Mya was asking was to make pop, was to make something that would actually appeal and pull in general audiences, and mainstream audiences, because that's how you communicate to the mainstream — through pop, and part of pop is comedy.

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