Interview: Sean Baker and Mya Taylor (Filmed with iPhones, Tangerineis a must-see movie)
Originally published at SameSame on 9 September, 2015.
Tangerine is the coolest movie of 2015. A full-throttle, high-octane comedy throughout the streets of Los Angeles’ red light district on Christmas Eve as a transgender prostitute seeks to find the cisgender woman who’s been bonking her boyfriend while she’s been in prison.
Famously filmed on an iPhone 5s and premiering earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival, this exciting and incredible film is finally coming to Australian audiences.
Same Same interviewed director Sean Baker and one of the film’s stars, trans performer Mya Taylor about making the film, their responsibilities to the trans community, and Celine Dion.
Why did you want to make this movie at this moment?
Sean Baker: I was living about half-a-mile from the intersection of Santa Monica and Highland, and I was always taken aback by the fact that when I moved to Los Angeles only a part of the city has been shown on film and television. We think of Los Angeles as Beverly Hills and Venice and the Hollywood sign and maybe the walk of fame, but that’s about it. There’s so many other neighbourhoods and communities where there are plenty of stories to be told. So basically, there’s this infamous intersection, which is sort of an unofficial red light district, and I was drawn to that as a filmmaker knowing that there were probably some very dramatic stories that took place there.
As far as the trans subject goes, this area is predominantly trans sex workers so that was the reason why it focuses on two trans leads. It wasn’t in any way a ploy to capitalise on what’s going on in the zeitgeist right now, because when we started it was before this really kicked in. This last year and a half we’ve had Obama use the term transgender, you’ve had Laverne Cox making the cover of NewsWeek, you’ve of course had Caitlyn Jenner and her transition, and those things have really brought awareness and visibility to the transgender communities, but quite honestly it’s just good timing.
What was the genesis of the film and the involvement of your lead actors?
Sean Baker: Chris Bergosh and I, who co-wrote the screenplay, we’re both cisgender white males so we didn’t wanna go in there and impose any sort of plot or script. It wouldn’t have been right. I knew the only way to do this story correctly was to find somebody from that neighbourhood and that world who could be our passport into that world, a collaborator. So that’s what happened in this case.
So I met with some of the women who knew this area… and over the course of the next couple of months we actually spent time listening to Mya Taylor’s stories and anecdotes, all the stories she had heard and witnessed, her friends who had actually worked the streets. And one day she brought Kitana Kiki Rodriguez to meet us and I remember Kiki sitting down across from me next to Mya at this fast food restaurant and the minute I saw the two of them together I thought instantaneously there’s our dynamic duo.
Mya Taylor: Basically we collaborated on a lot of stuff. He asked me a lot of questions and I gave him a lot of information and he fell in love with my story and my personality and here I am today interviewing with you. I wanted people to know that that life actually exists. You know, a lot of people kind of sweep it under the rug, but it’s something that shouldn’t be swept under the rug.
Sean Baker: Later, Kiki said ‘I have an idea for you’ and she pitched the idea of the woman scorned trying to find the cisgender female that her boyfriend was cheating on her with. I thought it was extremely compelling. Chris said ‘Well there’s our plot’, and now we’re gonna take all these stories we’ve heard over the last couple of months and sprinkle them around it.
Were you nervous about having a certain level of responsibility in making a film with not just one, but two transgender actors? And did you expect any criticism from the trans community for making another movie with a transgender prostitute character?
Mya Taylor: No, not at all. For one, I really don’t give two fucks about whatever anybody has to say. But, for number two, I had just started my transition. I was more nervous about putting myself on screen knowing that I really, really, really wasn’t ready. I knew I had just started my transition and I wasn’t as womanly as I wanted to be. And even nowadays, I look back at the film and I’m like ‘oh my god’, just by looking at the way I look at that time. That was the only thing I was nervous about.
Sean Baker: I didn’t expect criticism from the trans community, but I expected it from the PC Police. I expected it from activists outside the trans community who are sometimes really protective, but the initial reaction I got from the community I was focusing on, the Los Angeles trans women of colour who actually have to resort to sex work, they were very supportive of the project because there’s never been anything like this before. They said, yes there’s been the stereotypical character of the trans prostitute, but it’s always done in a way in which they’re never fleshed out, they’re never a deep character, they’re not humanised, they’re used as either a punchline or a plot twist. And I think when people understood what we were going to do they were 100% accepting of it.
I get a lot of tweets and a lot of messages from people saying they were wary or sceptical over how we were going to do it. Of course I could understand their concern of a cisgender white male from outside of that world because we don’t have a particularly good track record of representation, but it was something I was aware of and didn’t want to do it unless we were going to do it right. I saw the way the community reacted to the casting of Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club. They were not happy with that. I understood the concerns, I understood the actual level of responsibility that came with this. It was something that was taken very seriously from day one.
What was it like working with the iPhone?
Sean Baker: Basically the iPhone thing came to us from figuring out how we were going to do this on a budget. When I found out there were options out there to transform the iPhone video quality to a cinematic level, I thought why not. I had to convince myself. I was very reluctant, but I eventually convinced myself.
Mya, do you have any career idols since there aren’t that many trans people in the entertainment industry?
As far as transgender women, I love, love, love and adore Ts Madison. Be sure to print this, I love Ts Madison. If I see her I would die. I just love her and I want to meet her so badly. Laverne Cox and I, we talk on the phone and everything and I adore her. She’s sort of leading the way for everyone.
As far as role models for music, I’d have to say Toni Braxton, Tamar Braxton and Celine Dion. If I were to die tomorrow, I’d have to at least meet Tamar Braxton. That’s my dying wish right there. I’d have to have Tamar Braxton by my bed. What I love about Celine Dion is her full package. She’s so elegant, she’s so gorgeous, and I believe she’s one of the richest female celebrities of all time. She’s amazing. She’s so gorgeous and her voice is so perfect.
Your next project is ‘Happy Birthday, Marsha’ about Marsha P. Johnson. Can you talk about that?
Mya Taylor: Well of course Mya Taylor is the main character! I finished filming it a few months ago, but it’s going through editing and I believe it’s almost done from what I last heard. Marsha P. Johnson was a trans activist was one of the first people to start the Stonewall riots. Basically our movie is about Marsha’s birthday, she invites people to come over for her party and nobody shows up, so she decides to go out to Stonewall that night. She was already having a very shitty night after everything that had happened to her, she goes in, she tries to have a good time, and then the cops come in and raid it and talk shit and everything and that’s where the riots started. It follows that night, a very tragic night.
This film as well as ‘Starlet’ [Baker’s excellent last film about the friendship between a senior citizen and a younger porn actress] seek to demystify the negativity around sex work—have you heard any reaction been from those in the profession?
Sean Baker: We’ve actually gotten a lot of very positive reactions. Some of our very first being from Australia. We showed the film at the Sydney Film Festival where there are some collectives for advocates for sex workers and we heard from them almost immediately how much they appreciated the film.
We had the guidance of Mya Taylor, which was very important. I think that changed the approach to it where the film became even more of a comedy because Mya Taylor told me that she wanted me to show the brutal reality of what it’s like on the street for these women, but she also wanted it to be funny because she wanted it to be as entertaining for the women who work out here as it is for everybody else.
Mya Taylor: Yeah, I love that it can make people laugh. When I got involved with this, I told Sean that I wanted the movie to be funny and I wanted it to be very honest. Don’t lie about anything, don’t fabricate anything. And we pulled it off!
Sean Taylor: I didn’t want it to be condescending. I like that she sent me down that path, because she ultimately sent me to approach this project with a pop sensibility in order to reach a larger audience – with the hope that this would lead to audiences who would never think of watching a film about the world we focused on to actually identify with these women on a human level, and hopefully going home and doing their homework and understanding why these women do what they have to do it.
Sean, what do you hope that filmmakers get from ‘Tangerine’? And Mya, what do you hope transgender and queer audiences get from it?
Sean Baker: You know what would be the ultimate thing, and it’s very selfish thing to say, but if a filmmaker was inspired by Tangerine to go out and make a film then I hope it’s a damn good film. Hopefully this inspires filmmakers with talent and brings new talent into the world.
Mya Taylor: Basically, I want people to open their eyes and actually see that part of some transgender peoples’ lives. I have to tell you, I myself have done sex work. Yes, Mya Taylor was in that same position, so I know what it’s like to be out in the streets because you can’t get a job because you are transgender. I applied for 180 jobs in one month, true story, and I was doing three interviews a day and I didn’t get any job at all. I am the prime shit right here!
Tangerine will be released in selected Australian cinemas in Sydney and Melbourne on Thursday 10 September.