An interview with Sean Baker, director of Tangerine

Ng Yi-Sheng

July 3, 2016

It's the closing week of The O.P.E.N., and one of the films we'll be showing is the sensational, award-winning Tangerine. It's an indie comedy about two transgender sex workers, played by Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, causing chaos on the streets of Los Angeles as they search for a pimp who broke one of their hearts.

There's two pretty unusual things about the movie. First, for budget reasons, it's filmed on an iPhone 5, with all the colours saturated in post-production with the result that loads of formerly pale pinks and reds turn out—you guessed it—tangerine. So it's a social realist film that looks hyperreal. Hella fun.

Second, Taylor and Rodriguez are trans women themselves. And though issues of whitewashing have been raised consistently in Hollywood, few people have tried to do anything about the trend of cisgender actors being cast to play transgender roles. (Ciswashing?)

Director Sean Baker is a busy man, but he agreed to answer a few questions via email!

Sean Baker

NYS: What was the most difficult part of making this film?

SB: I think the most difficult aspect of making this film was how emotionally taxing it was to make. We were shooting in a very sad environment in which many of the women that we encountered have dealt with trauma in their lives. These are individuals who have been shunned, ignored and ridiculed by the general population. So even though there was a tremendous amount of humor and fun experienced, the overall experience was very draining. 

Shooting on the iPhone was surprisingly painless.

NYS: Do you think the ability to create high-quality films on phones is going to change Hollywood? Right now the only other famous phone film I can think of is This Is Not a Film by Jafar Panahi!

SB: Yes, I believe so. I've heard that some famous directors are interested in using smaller cameras and they have the power to change Hollywood. At the same time, I should emphasize that filmmakers must hold on to celluloid as a medium. Film is an incredibly beautiful capture medium and we can not let it die just because technology has presented us with new ways of making films. 

NYS: There are very few trans roles in film, and most are played by cis actors. What are your thoughts about this? 

SB: A good actor should have the opportunity to try to play characters from outside their personal experience. However, in 2016, I feel it is more to do with an ethical approach to casting. The sad state of affairs is that transgender people experience unemployment at twice the rate of the general population, with rates for people of color up to four times the national unemployment rate.  I feel that if I have a trans role to cast, the ethical choice is to cast that role with those individuals who truly need the employment and have very few opportunities. Hopefully in the future, when equality is achieved (positive thinking), both cisgender and transgender people can compete for these types of roles. However in 2016, I think we need to do everything we can to help those whom society has ignored for so long.

NYS: Is there anything else you'd like to tell Singaporean audiences?

SB: I love Ilo Ilo. 

Tangerine will be screened at 7:30pm on Friday 8 July at the Projector. Register here (if you can still find a slot.)

  • 2016