Director Sean Baker's latest film "Tangerine," now available, garnered a great deal of attention when it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2015. Shot with hand held cameras is a quasi-documentary style, "Tangerine" is a serio-comic tale which offers a no-holds-barred look into the hard lives of transgender prostitutes in Los Angeles. The low budget production further impressed audiences when it was revealed that Baker shot his film with an iPhone.
"I had to convince myself that this was the right move," auteur Baker told SFGN. "At first it felt like stepping back, but technology has advanced so its now possible – you have to embrace the aesthetic."
Shooting with the phone proved to be an asset to the small, intimate production. "The benefits of the iPhone revealed themselves as we were shooting," Baker said. "Tangerine would have been a different film if it had been shot with a 35mm camera. The iPhone was perfect for this kind of film as I was trying to capture street life."
Most impressively, the final product has a polished and professional look. "Moon Dog Labs created an anamorphic adapter that fit over the iPhone lens," Baker reports. "This elevated the film to a cinematic level."
Another impressive aspect of "Tangerine" are the appearances by several famous Hollywood faces, like noted character actor Clu Gulager. Now 86 years old, Gulager's extensive career includes long stints as a popular TV cowboy on 1960s TV series such as "The Virginian" and "The Tall Man." In "Tangerine," the still-active performer is seen in a brothel.
"Clu came to me," Baker said. "He's a fan of my previous films and said if you ever need me, I'm there."
James Ransone, a rising star who's many film and TV credits, include the "Sinister" film series, "Law and Order" and "CSI", is wonderfully over-the-top as a foul mouthed pimp who operates his business out of a donut shop. Baker calls the actor a "good friend." And finally, openly gay comic Jason Stuart has a cameo as the doorman at a Hollywood cabaret.
Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor, two transgender actresses, head the cast as Sin-Dee and Alexandra. Both are hard boiled street prostitutes and best friends. That friendship is tested as Sin-Dee searches Hollywood and West Hollywood for Dinah, the cisgender woman who her fiance (Ransome) slept while Sin-Dee was in jail. The camera follows the two women around town as they meet up with a variety of shady characters, including a married Armenian cab driver who has a fetish for transwomen – Baker noted that the film's Armenian cast members are all celebrities in their home country.
Set on Christmas Eve, "Tangerine" effectively captures the harshness of street life and the dangers that transgender prostitutes often face. Baker addressed concerns that have come from within the trans community regarding the constant portrayals of trans women as prostitutes in popular culture.
"We made a film about a small microcosm," he said. "It’s a film about sex workers, and about a location, as much as its about trans people."
The film captures a reality about trans life, Baker argues. "Unemployment is extreme among trans people," he pointed out. "Many are forced into the underground economy – sex work and drugs. This exists. To ignore it is still marginalizing. I want to humanize these characters--there's so much shaming, and that's not a fair thing."
It's also, the filmmaker points out, possibly the first film in which a trans character is played by a trans actress in a lead role.
"These are characters that anyone can identify with," Baker said.
"Tangerine" is now available on DVD and Blu Ray.