After completing his fourth feature, Starlet, director Sean Baker vowed he'd never make another micro-budgeted film again. For the next 18 months, he waited. And waited. "I hoped Starlet would finally open doors for me and lead to a much bigger budgeted movie, but that didn’t happen," he says. "To tell the truth, it was frustrating, but if I'd just wallowed in that frustration I wouldn't have been able to move forward. So instead, I said 'Lets explore our options.'"
Committed to a shoestring budget that was half what he'd previously worked with, Baker used a souped-up iPhone to film two big characters he met on the streets of Hollywood and made Tangerine, a Sundance hit that has subsequently earned the kind of rave reviews that transcend the interesting story of how the film was captured. By turns bittersweet and hilarious Tangerine (opening July 10 in New York and Los Angeles) follows trash-talking transgendered prostitute Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and her best friend Alexandra (May Taylor ) as they trudge the mean, sun-drenched streets of L.A. on Christmas eve in search of love, revenge, and redemption.
Recapping his decision to shoot a movie on a smartphone camera, Baker explains, "It started out as a budget thing. Tangerine being my fifth film, I was out of favors. I couldn't afford to get the Arri Alexa or RED cameras and I definitely couldn't shoot on film. I could have shot the movie on a DSLR but I wanted to separate myself from the pack and make something that looked very different."
Enter the iPhone 5s. When the upgrade hit in the fall of 2013, Baker jumped on the phone's improved image capturing system. "It had a better camera so I started exploring possibilities there and the next thing you know there were a bunch of tools that came out."
Two break-through technologies enabled Baker and director of photography Radium Cheung to wrest feature film quality from a couple of $400 smartphones. The FILMIC Pro app captures images at theatrical-release 2K resolution. And Moondog Labs' anamorphic adapter configures video in a wide-frame format reminiscent of vintage motion pictures. "Those two things together elevated the image to a cinematic level," Baker says. "We shot sample footage and showed it blown up on a big screen to our financiers."
Baker's test screening and companion pitch made perfect sense to indie kingpins Mark and Jay Duplass and Through Films. "We told them 'We’re not making a mumblecore movie here. We want to shoot as many locations as possible with an ensemble cast and we’re going to have music. Let's put all the money toward those elements and save on the cameras.' And everybody gave us the thumbs up. They were like 'It's lo-fi, it's punk rock and it looks great so—why not shoot on the iPhone?'"
Tangerine's kinetic street scenes make the most of the modified iPhone's ability to incorporate Los Angeles' blazing sun as an atmospheric motif. "The anamorphic adapter spreads the light across the frame so we were able to get these classic looking light flares," Baker notes. "When I first moved to L.A. I felt like I was always being blinded. No matter what direction I walked in, I was being kicked in my eyes by the sun, so I wanted to capture that sensation in this film. It's a big part of L.A."
With hardware requirements stripped down to the size and weight of a smartphone rig, the Tangerine cast and crew shot fast and moved quickly. "You still need insurance, you still need permits to get a film released, but we had a very small footprint," Baker says. "Sometimes we shot clandestinely to capture real street life. If anybody was recognizable we’d have to chase them down and ask for releases, but I was used to doing that from my previous film Prince of Broadway, which we shot in New York City. The moves from one location to the next were easy because we were able to travel very light."
Tangerine's run-and-gun cinematography, filmed largely on steadicam-mounted iPhones, proved an apt fit for the gritty subject matter that first caught Baker's attention after he moved from New York to Los Angeles four years ago. "I live half a mile from this unofficial red light district at the intersection of Santa Monica and Highland in Hollywood," he explains. "Over the years, I'd pass that area thinking 'This is quite a dramatic little corner. There must be some stories to be told.'"
Inspired to learn more, Baker says he and co-writer Chris Bergoch spent months researching the Los Angeles' transgendered street scene. "We pounded the pavement, told everybody around there what we planned to do and most importantly, looked for a collaborator."
The filmmakers found their muse in the person of entertainer Mya Taylor. "One day, we saw Mya hanging out with some friends in the courtyard of the LGBTQ Center," he recalls. "She had this aura that kind of drew us in so we approached her and thank God, she expressed enthusiasm for what we wanted to do."
In place of a conventional production office, Baker and Bergoch took meetings with Taylor at the local Jack in the Box. One day, she brought Kitana Kiki Rodriguez to meet the filmmakers. Baker recalls, "The minute I saw Kiki and Mya sitting there together in the booth, I realized: there’s our dynamic duo. This is going to be a movie about friendship and the two lead characters will be played by Kiki and Mya. Now we just have to find a plot."
Tangerine's primary dramatic arc came later courtesy of Rodriguez, when she related a story about a transgendered prostitute betrayed by a "fish"—transgender lingo for biological female. "Kiki old us this whole woman scorned story. We thought, that's the perfect A-plot right there. It’s layered, it puts our characters on a journey, and then we sprinkle all these anecdotes that we heard from Mya. So that’s how we fleshed out the story."
Augmenting the cast with James Ransome (The Wire) as Kiki's pimp, Mickey O'Hagan as his prostitute girlfriend and Karren Karagulian as an Armenian-American taxi driver, Baker began shooting at donut shops and cheap motels in Decmember 2013, long before Caitlyn Jenner and the Transparent TV series catapulted transgendered sexuality into the mainstream. "We had no idea the transgendered conversation would get to this level," Baker says. "It's a great development for my two wonderful actresses if audiences are more accepting. The greatest success for this film would be for Mya and Kiki to be embraced by the industry and find other roles immediately."
While Tangerine demonstrates how a potentially game-changing camera technology can radically cut costs for indie filmmakers, Baker points out that the smartphones served a larger storytelling purpose: to document charismatic performers, biting dialogue and true-to-life dramatic conflict within the context of a rarely explored community.
"Even though it's shot on an iPhone, you still have to put in the same amount of work as you would on any other film," he says. "That was something where I had to basically read the riot act to everybody early on, just before we started production. I reminded them, 'Look, this might seem like a step back, it might seem like amateur hour, but we can’t think of it that way. We have to accept this and realize we’re making our own aesthetic here. Otherwise we’re going to fail.' Every one needed to step up and embrace what it was that we were working with."