A Downtrodden LA Corner Inspires Comedy And Friendship In 'Tangerine'
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."
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. ...
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.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TANGERINE")
MYA TAYLOR: (As Alexandra) I will go with you under one condition - you must promise me that there's not going to be any drama.
GROSS: That's a promise that's never kept in the new comedy drama film, "Tangerine," about two trans-women who are sex workers in LA. I have two guests. Mya Taylor is one of the film's stars. That was her we just heard in the clip. She was transitioning to female when the movie was made. Sean Baker directed and co-wrote "Tangerine" and was the co-cinematographer. The film was shot on an iPhone 5s. He also made the movie "Starlet," which was about a young porn actress and a woman in her 80s whose lives begin to intersect. Before I go any further, you should know that parts of our conversation will be about sex workers, and may not be appropriate for children. The two trans sex workers in the film are Alexandra, an African-American woman played by Mya Taylor, and her friend Sin-Dee, a Hispanic woman played by Kitana Kiki Rodriguez. Sin-Dee has just returned to the neighborhood after 28 days in prison. In the opening scene, the two women are in a doughnut shop, talking about what happened on the block while Sin-Dee was in prison. To understand what they're talking about, you need to know that Chester, the guy they're going to talk about, is Sin-Dee's boyfriend and a pimp. And the word fish is used here as a slang term for a woman born with a woman's anatomy. Alexandra, played by our guest, Mya Taylor, speaks first.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TANGERINE")
KITANA KIKI RODRIGUEZ: (As Sin-Dee) So - I got some good news to tell you.
TAYLOR: (As Alexandra) What?
RODRIGUEZ: (As Sin-Dee) I've been keeping a secret about me and Chester.
TAYLOR: (As Alexandra) Girl, (laughter), I know what it is. You're breaking up with him. Thank, God because Honey, for him to be cheating on you like that...
RODRIGUEZ: (As Sin-Dee) Wait, wait, whoa, whoa - what?
TAYLOR: (As Alexandra) You didn't know?
RODRIGUEZ: (As Sin-Dee) How the [expletive] would I know?
TAYLOR: (As Alexandra) Girl because everything that you been hearing on the block about the girl that he's been with.
RODRIGUEZ: (As Sin-Dee) Girl, you're the first girl I seen on the block.
TAYLOR: (As Alexandra) You...
RODRIGUEZ: (As Sin-Dee) Who is she?
TAYLOR: (As Alexandra) Girl, she's some white fish, I don't know.
RODRIGUEZ: (As Sin-Dee) Chester's gonna cheat on me with real fish?
TAYLOR: (As Alexandra) Like, a real fish, Girl - like, vagina and everything.
RODRIGUEZ: (As Sin-Dee) I been gone for 28 days, and you mean to tell me that he's been out here cheating on me with fish?
TAYLOR: (As Alexandra) Yeah.
RODRIGUEZ: (As Sin-Dee) Do I know her?
TAYLOR: (As Alexandra) I don't know, I just know that her name starts with a D. It's something like Danielle, Desiree, Deedee. I don't know, girl.
RODRIGUEZ: (As Sin-Dee) Give me your phone.
TAYLOR: (As Alexandra) It was shut off. I had to cover your rent last month.
GROSS: (Laughter). Mya Taylor, Sean Baker, welcome to FRESH AIR. Sean Baker, let me start with you. Why did you want to make a movie about transgender sex workers?
SEAN BAKER: Well, to tell you the truth, I live about a half a mile from the corner of Santa Monica and Highland, and I moved out to Los Angeles about three years ago, and I was drawn to that location. I saw - I started to realize that there was so much of Los Angeles that had not been covered in film and television. This was one of those locations that just drew me in. You know, the - it's sort of an infamous intersection - an unofficial red light district. And I thought, you know, there must be some incredible stories that take place on that corner.
GROSS: So you've assumed that there were interesting stories on this corner. How did you go about finding what some of those stories might be?
BAKER: Well, my co-screenwriter, Chris Bergoch, and I - we wanted to find a collaborator, and this is very similar to the way I make all of my films. You know, there's a long research period of time, or long research process, where we literally have to just pound the pavement, introduce ourselves to people and get to know people and then find a collaborator. And in this case, we weren't really - for a couple weeks, we would show up, walk around the area, say, hello. We weren't getting very far, mostly because we were - some of the women thought we were police officers, or they didn't have time for us, being the fact that they were actually working at the time. Eventually, we made our way around the corner to the LGBT Center, which is on McCadden, about a block away from the corner of Santa Monica on Highland. And it was one morning - or late morning - that we entered the courtyard there, and we saw Mya Taylor hanging out with some of her friends in the courtyard. And there was just something about - you know, 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, like, she expressed enthusiasm - just as much enthusiasm back to us. And we exchanged, you know, contact information, and then we just started our research from there. She was really our - sort of our passport to that world. She was our - she was that collaborator we were looking for.
GROSS: Mya, what's your take on that moment when Sean comes up to you and wants you to help him make his movie? Were you thinking, maybe he's a cop? Were you thinking, maybe he's really just, like, a con of some sort? Like, did you really believe that he made movies and that he was capable of making a good movie about that neighborhood and the people in it?
TAYLOR: Well, I didn't think that he was a cop or anything because I wasn't doing anything that I wasn't supposed to be doing so, (laughter) I did believe him. I mean, 'cause it's obvious, like, if you IMDB him, you know, it all pulls up and everything. And...
GROSS: Right, with his photo (laughter).
TAYLOR: Yeah, yeah, with his photo and everything (laughter), on it. He was extremely adorable and approachable. He really is. And I was like, OK, well, let's talk about this. You know, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to get involved with a movie. So...
GROSS: Were you already interested in performing?
TAYLOR: I was very interested in performing 'cause I'd always wanted to be just a full-on entertainer. I wanted to sing, act, dance and model, and - yeah.
GROSS: How much of that had you done before starring in "Tangerine?"
TAYLOR: Well, singing, I've been doing it my whole life. I've had many, many, many vocal lessons and everything, and my voice is pretty much very developed for singing. I had did some modeling in my former life, but I don't really talk too much about that because that was the life that I lived before I transitioned. So I knew that I wanted to do acting, and I just said, you know, I cannot turn down this opportunity, so I want to learn more and, you know, talk more. And eventually, you know, it evolved into this.
GROSS: As we heard, the movie revolves around one of the trans sex workers, Sin-Dee, seeking revenge against the woman who had sex with Sin-Dee's boyfriend while Sin-Dee did 28 days in prison. So is that revenge plot based on stories that were told to you, Sean, by - told to you by Mya or other women that Mya introduced you to?
BAKER: Well, yes, actually. After spending several weeks - perhaps even maybe a month or two - you know, hearing anecdotes and stories from Mya and her friends. And then when Mya introduced me to Kiki and I saw the two of them together, I knew right there and then that we would have to write our two lead characters for these women to play because they were just such - this - they had such a wonderful interaction. They contrasted one another, yet complemented one another. They were finishing each other's sentences and setting up jokes and delivering punch lines. They were this dynamic duo, and I just knew that they would now be, you know, the lead - they would be playing the lead characters. So at that point, I said to the two of them, I go, look, this is what Chris and I have. Basically, we don't have a big budget. We have a tiny budget - next to nothing. So we know this film has to take place in, like, a 24-hour period of time because we don't have enough money for wardrobe changes, and it's much easier to make a film that takes place over the course of a few hours, for budgetary reasons, number one. Number two - we - I have this idea of two or - two people just sort of coming together, and I don't know exactly why. And perhaps this is, you know, a romance story or a revenge story - I really don't know the genre that we'll be working in. And then Kiki actually gave me a call, couple weeks later, and said, I have something for you. There's a story that, actually, I want to tell you, and it's about two people coming together. We met up, she pitched me this idea - the idea that led us to, you know, a woman who finds out about, you know, her boyfriend cheating on her with a, quote-unquote, "fish." I said, can you define fish?
BAKER: (Laughter), And then - and so that led to that. But Chris and I, when we first heard the story, we were just so fascinated because we found it to be very layered. And we also found it to be - it would be a perfect vehicle to take our characters on a journey and get to know them and it would be - it would obviously have, you know, an arc.
GROSS: Mya, you were beginning to transition to female when you started making the movie. Do I have that right?
TAYLOR: That's correct. Yeah, that is correct (laughter).
GROSS: It strikes me as a very unusual period to find yourself on camera 'cause just as you're emerging as, you know, an authentic self that you feel you've been but haven't expressed fully before, you're being captured on camera in a character. You know (laughter), in a character that's not you.
GROSS: So was it a challenging time to act in front of a camera, or was it actually a good time to do that?
TAYLOR: You know, when I look back at it now, I have to say, you know, it was a pretty good time because it really does fit the role and everything because they're supposed to be living a hard life and everything. So at that time, you probably couldn't tell that I was taking hormones and doing all of that. I had just started. So you know, maybe the character couldn't afford hormones or anything, you know, (laughter). I think about stuff like that. But 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 or 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. So you know, during the filming and everything, I was very comfortable though because of the crew and Sean and Kiki, you know - those are the two people that I'm closest to. But I was very comfortable during the whole thing, I guess because you know, acting - I kind of took my mind away from that.
GROSS: But also you were playing a character, so the character looked that way. It wasn't you, per se.
GROSS: Was that helpful, that you could...
TAYLOR: It is.
TAYLOR: It is. And, you know, sometimes during some of my screenings, I'll come and sit in the back of the theater where nobody can see me and...
TAYLOR: ...And I see myself on the screen and, you know, I have to say I've come a long way 'cause I don't look like that anymore.
GROSS: Well, compare how you look now with how you looked then.
TAYLOR: Well, I'm much more softer. I finally have, you know, a smaller waist and bigger hips and thighs. And my face is fuller and my skin looks better. Yeah, pretty much. And, I have breasts.
BAKER: We actually did a pickup shot seven months after we shot, and it was a close-up of Mya. And you can tell that she looks different from when we actually shot.
GROSS: Were you able to use that shot?
BAKER: I was able to use it because you know, the - it is iPhone footage, when it comes down to it. It's a little bit grainier and a little bit, you know, there's - the detail falls away. But I'm certainly able to tell and so is Mya.
GROSS: So what do you think you learned about yourself, transitioning while acting?
TAYLOR: (Laughter), That I was very insecure at that time, I can tell you that. I guess that's pretty much all I learned while transitioning - about transitioning.
BAKER: It was - I have to say, I realized how brave it was for, you know, for Mya to allow us to shoot the film at that moment in her life. You know, 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, you know, would shoot this next year, I would be more comfortable with myself. And so for Mya to do this, I consider it, you know, extremely brave and I have to thank her very much for doing that.
GROSS: I want to ask you about the word fish, which is used in the movie by the trans sex workers to describe cisgender women - like, women who are born with a woman's anatomy and are comfortable with that...
GROSS: ...And identify with that.
BAKER: I guess the proper term these days is chromosomal female.
GROSS: Oh, is it changed already from cis?
BAKER: It's already changed (laughter). That's semantics.
GROSS: Wow, I can't keep up with it. It's chromosomal now?
BAKER: Nobody can keep up with it. Yes, nobody can...
GROSS: So it's chromosomal woman.
GROSS: Chromosomal female. OK, so, Mya, have you been hearing fish for a long time? Is that a new word or an old word? I'd never heard it.
TAYLOR: It - you know what, it's an old word, and I used it in the film because I knew that it's used in that area a lot. But, like, I knew how to use it, but I cannot tell you exactly where it came from. I just know how to use it. I do not use it in my daily speech (laughter).
GROSS: It sounds a little derogatory (laughter).
BAKER: Yeah, I think that's where, (laughter) I think we all know where it comes from.
GROSS: (Laughter) Right.
BAKER: I mean, it's a derogatory...
TAYLOR: Oh, my God. Yeah, yeah it does. Yeah, I don't use that in my daily life. I don't talk like that.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are Sean Baker, who is the director and co-writer of the new film, "Tangerine," and Mya Taylor, one of the stars of the film, and the film is about trans sex workers on a corner in LA. And it was a big success at the Sundance Film Festival, and now it's being released in theaters in the U.S. Let's take a short break then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. If you're just joining us, we're talking about the new film "Tangerine." My guests are Sean Baker, the director and co-writer, and Mya Taylor, who's one of the stars of the film. And the film is about trans sex workers in LA. So one of the main storylines in the movie has to do with after Kiki tells in your character, Mya, that, you know, she's out for revenge. You go, I'm not coming with you unless you promise me there's no drama 'cause your character really wants to avoid drama, especially since she has a singing engagement that night at a little bar. And so she's - that's her thing that day. She doesn't want any distractions from that. But from that moment on, there's nothing but drama. (Laughter) It's like...
TAYLOR: It is. It is. That's true.
GROSS: Everything starts to go wrong - nothing but drama. Is this a community in which there's a lot of drama? And have you tried to...
TAYLOR: There is a lot of drama, all the time. That's why I normally try to avoid it. I really do.
GROSS: Is it hard to avoid?
TAYLOR: It is pretty hard to avoid. Well, I guess, like, it's not hard for me to not get involved in it. Let me just go ahead and give you the back story.
TAYLOR: So you have to ask yourself what is Cindy and Alexandra doing out on the streets? You know, what are they doing sex working and, you know, doing all these horrible things and everything? Well, I can't tell you how they got out there 'cause they're characters, but, you know, I can tell you how I got out there. So, yes, everybody, 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. And I pretty much grew up with my grandparents, and they didn't take it too well, you know, when I came out to them. So I was forced to leave, and I left. And I moved to LA with another family member who actually treated me horribly, but I was forced out to the streets. And I became homeless and everything because I didn't have anybody. I didn't really know too much about my biological mom at that time, which I'm very close to now, you know? I got closer to her, and I love her, and she's very supportive of my transition. She actually came up with the name Mya. My name comes from Jeremiah (ph) being changed to Mya, but...
TAYLOR: Yeah (laughter). I was forced out to the streets, and I came across a youth center. At that 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 and - 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 like 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, you know, why are there so many sex workers on Santa Monica and Highland? Me, personally - I did it because I cannot get a job. And...
GROSS: Why do you think you were being discriminated against?
TAYLOR: Because I was trans because at that time, my name wasn't changed legally. Like, I went by Mya Taylor, and I looked like Mya Taylor. But when I would give them my ID and everything, that's when they would give me the runarounds, saying, oh, well, we found somebody better, or we're not hiring anymore. And, you know, I actually caught somebody doing that to me, and I proved, you know, that it was discrimination. I just - I didn't sue or anything 'cause I just want a job.
BAKER: I witnessed it firsthand. In postproduction, we - you know, we shot a year and a half ago, so there was a lot of waiting until Sundance came around. And in that time, I was, you know, with Maia, and we were trying to find her temporary employment. And, well, let's just say Mya knows automobiles like nobody's business. I mean, (laughter) 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, and it just seemed like a nonstop runaround.
GROSS: My guests are Sean Baker, the director and co-writer of the new film "Tangerine" and Mya Taylor, one of the film's stars. After a break, we'll talk about shooting the film on an iPhone, and for reasons you'll understand later, I'll ask Sean Baker about his recipe for movie vomit. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Sean Baker, the director and co-writer of the new comedy-drama film, "Tangerine," which he shot on an iPhone 5S. The film is about two trans women sex workers in LA. One of them is played by Mya Taylor, who is also with us. She was transitioning to female when the film was shot.
Mya, when you first came out, did you come out as gay as opposed to trans?
TAYLOR: I did. I did because I went through therapy for a full year before I decided to fully transition because I had so many insecurities in my mind, like, will I actually be passable, you know? How will - will the world accept me and all of that? Which - you know, none of that really matters. It doesn't matter what anybody else thinks. But, you know, I had to go through all of that to learn for myself about myself. And, yeah, then I started, like, a year later.
GROSS: Did you not even recognize within yourself that you were trans for a few years after coming out as gay?
TAYLOR: You know, I - at that time, when I was growing up, I lived in Texas. I did not know what trans was. There was a person in my family that actually was trans, but I actually didn't even know, you know (laughter)? I can't talk too much about her, but she was stunning - stunningly beautiful. And I wanted to be so much like her because, you know, I just - I did not think anything of it until, you know, later on, like, when I grew up and I found out and everything. And I was like, oh, OK, well, I want to be like that (laughter) 'cause I knew that, you know, I loved to wear, like, the women's clothes and, you know, I wished that my body looked like this, and I wished that my hair was super long, which, you know - you know, I wear. You know, if you're not rocking 22 inches or better, you're practically bald. (Laughter).
GROSS: So did you think that there was something wrong with you for wanting to wear women's clothes and look like a beautiful woman? Did you accept that within yourself?
TAYLOR: I did. I accepted that quicker than I accepted being gay, which I identified as gay, you know, all the way up till I was 18 because I didn't know anything about trans, which I should've identified as trans at that time 'cause that's really how I always felt. I always felt like - whenever I was in men's clothes, it just - it wasn't me. So I'd always buy clothes that were more tighter, more fitting to my body and everything. And, yeah, so - yeah (laughter).
GROSS: If you don't mind me bringing this up, it must have been kind of challenging, I guess, to be a model while you were still identifying as a man...
GROSS: ...While wishing that you were wearing a woman's clothes.
TAYLOR: Yeah. Yeah, it was. I had auditioned for - what was it - First Models Houston, and there were, like, 200 other boys. And then they chose me, and then I started to take a few pictures for them and everything. And then I switched to Page Parkes, and I - I don't know. It just - something wasn't clicking with me. Like, I felt like I had to be more masculine than what I actually was, which, you know, that's obvious. Look at the business. So that just - it wasn't working out for me because I wasn't living in my truth. But, you know, if I were to do it now, you know, it fits me more.
GROSS: So you mentioned that when you became homeless for a while, the only thing you could do to make money was sex work.
TAYLOR: Was sex work.
GROSS: Right, and...
TAYLOR: And I'll tell you, you never get used to that. It's about, you know, when you're getting inside of 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. Like, it's really, really, really scary. And I think I was more scared of, you know, being taken to jail, which I had been already quite a few times for doing that.
GROSS: How do you identify who's a potential trick?
TAYLOR: You can tell. Like (laughter), like, I would - I would post ads and, you know, then there were certain people that would come to my page or whatever and they just - I don't know. Like, you know, they'd talk to me and everything, and then I determine whether I want to go see them or not. Or if I'm on the streets, you can kind of tell because they come up to you and, you know, they blow their horn or they roll down their window or whatever.
BAKER: It was also those guys who would cruise, just circle the block.
TAYLOR: Exactly. And, you know, the whole time, like, every time I got out there, my heart was always just pounding and pounding. And 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.
GROSS: My guests are Mya Taylor, who stars in the new film, "Tangerine," and Sean Baker, who directed and co-wrote the film. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Mya Taylor, who stars in the new film "Tangerine," and Sean Baker, who directed and co-wrote it and served as the co-cinematographer. So, Sean, I want to ask you about how you shot "Tangerine." And this is becoming a famous story in the film world, but you shot it on an - on an iPhone...
GROSS: On a 5s iPhone, which isn't even a 6. It's, like, not...
GROSS: It's not even the latest model with a larger screen.
BAKER: Well, we did shoot a year and a half ago, and the 6 wasn't available, so...
GROSS: Oh, OK, then. OK, then. And it really looks good. What did you do to customize the cell phone camera to make it film-worthy.
BAKER: Well, yeah, first off, this all stemmed from just us having no budget - a very small budget. And we had already written out our script, and we knew we had to - we knew we wanted to put a lot of production value up on the screen. You know, we had multiple locations, an ensemble cast. We couldn't afford higher-end cameras. That's basically what it came down to. So we were - 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.
And early on, I was actually going through Vimeo because Vimeo has this channel that's dedicated to iPhone experiments and short films and clips shot on the iPhone. And I was - I was really impressed, actually, with what I had - what I saw, but I wasn't in any way convinced that this would work until I saw this - 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 about - it's, like, the size of a match book. And it actually - what it does is it allows you to shoot in true scope, so it's real - it's widescreen cinema that you're capturing on your iPhone. And that, in conjunction with this app called Filmic Pro, which anybody can get on their - 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 just creating a more professional look that you can get from the video that you - on the iPhone.
And those two things, together, combined, really, like, for me, it's what elevated this. It's what - it's what convinced me that we could pull this off. And then, of course, you know, heavy color grading in post, adding grain, trying to emulate film, you know? When it comes down to it, I'm still - I'm in love with film. I'm a cinofile (laughter). 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, you know, sometimes you just have to - you have to make the most of what you have. And that's exactly how this came about.
GROSS: So the saturated colors in the movie are from manipulating the color?
BAKER: Well, over-saturating it. We basically - you know, going down this road, I've worked in this sort of - my wheelhouse is social realist cinema, right? So - and it's sort of - I think we associate reality with - or we associate desaturated colors with reality. That's what you normally do in these types of movies. You desaturate the colors. But when I - I remember editing one of the first scenes where they're both in Donut Time together and trying that. I desaturated the colors, and it just simply didn't work. It just simply didn't match their colorful personalities and the - and also the hue of the LA sun. And I went the other way. I pumped the colors through the roof, and suddenly, it really spoke to me and said this is the look of the film.
GROSS: Mya, do you think it was helpful to you as an actress new to film to be shot on a cell phone as opposed to with a big camera. Do you feel like maybe you - it allowed you to be a little less self-conscious 'cause there wasn't so much technology - like, visible technology intervening?
TAYLOR: No, not at all.
BAKER: I mean, for Mya and Kiki - they seem to have already - because they were aspiring entertainers, and, you know, Kiki actually studied drama in high school...
GROSS: Oh, I didn't know that.
BAKER: Yeah, you could've shoved a big camera in their face, and I think it would've been absolutely fine no matter what. But I have to say from a filmmaker's point of view - from a director's point of view, a lot of my supporting cast, which were sometimes first-time actors and first time behind a camera I saw - 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.
And in this case, the iPhone completely wiped away that intimidation. It - because you're using a communication device that everybody has in their pockets. Between takes, people would be whipping them out - their own - their own phones out and taking selfies of each other. So there was - we - it lent itself to a much more casual shooting experience. And so I really do - that was one of those benefits that the iPhone really revealed - it's - to us once we were shooting.
GROSS: Part of what gives your movie, Sean, the energy is the soundtrack, which is this kind of, like, super hyper-charged, fast electronica.
GROSS: And there's probably a word for this particular subgenre. I can't say I'm that familiar with that subgenre of music.
BAKER: Well, right. There many genres of music in the film, but the real backbone is called trap music - T-R-A-P - trap. And it's something I discovered by watching a lot of Vine videos. It's a genre of hip-hop, and I was addicted to Vine at the time that I was editing. And this young Viner by the name of Wolftyla, an 18-year-old out of New York, happened to post 6 seconds of this song that just hit me. And I thought that is the sound of "Tangerine," and I tracked the musicians down through SoundCloud, and SoundCloud became my tool.
And for independent filmmakers out there, I have to say SoundCloud is just incredible because it allows you to reach out directly to the artists and negotiate deal and try to acquire their music for your film. So that's what I did. I started - I found this trap music. That track led to the next and led to the next, led to the next. And that was just - and now I'm very happy to say that people love - have embraced the soundtrack so much, that, you know, Milan Records reached out to me, and they're putting out a soundtrack. This is the first film I've made that actually has a soundtrack, so...
GROSS: Wow. Great.
BAKER: Feels good.
GROSS: So can I ask - Sean, can I ask you a weird question?
BAKER: All right. Go ahead.
GROSS: What's your recipe for vomit? And here's why I ask...
BAKER: Oh (laughter).
GROSS: For our listeners - there's a scene where somebody throws up.
GROSS: And it's among the more realistic portrayals of that that, you know - that I've seen, so...
BAKER: (Laughter) Well, I don't know. Have you seen any of my other films?
GROSS: I haven't, I confess.
BAKER: (Laughter) OK, well, I have a vomit scene in every film.
GROSS: Do people throw up in every film? Is that - is that...
BAKER: Every film. It's becoming my...
GROSS: Wait, have I hit on your trademark?
BAKER: I think you have. It's my signature.
GROSS: Oh, wow.
BAKER: Up to "Starlet," which was my previous film, I was using ipecac because what ipecac is is a vomit-inducing syrup that you take when you feel like you're poisoned, and you need to get this out of your system. So it was very easy, but they stopped selling...
GROSS: Oh, you were making people do real thing.
BAKER: Oh, my actors go all the way for me (laughter). Yes.
BAKER: So up to that point, it was very easy. You could purchase this stuff over-the-counter. Then they stopped selling it over-the-counter. So I was on this film, and I was about to give it up when Josh Sussman, who's known, actually, for "Glee" and "The Wizards Of Waverly Place." He's actually quite a well-known actor. He said, I want to be in your film, and I'll vomit for you. I'll be - I'll do the vomit scene. And I said, I don't know how to do that without ipecac. And guess what? When he showed up on set that day, he had about five shots of vodka in him, and he was ready to go. So (laughter) - I wouldn't - this is guerilla filmmaking, you know? You do what you have to do, and Josh went all the way with it. And so...
GROSS: Oh, no wonder it was so realistic looking.
BAKER: Oh, it's real.
GROSS: Sean, why did you want to make this movie about trans sex workers in LA a comedy, or at least partially a comedy?
BAKER: Well, I've always...
TAYLOR: Maybe I can answer that better.
BAKER: Would you like to answer that (laughter)?
TAYLOR: Yeah, I have to take that because John talks too slow.
TAYLOR: So, you know, (laughter) you remember - I'm a collaborator, you know, when it comes to making the film. And I told Sean I wanted the story to be very real, and I want it to be very funny because, like, who wants a theater full of crying people? Like, nobody has time for that. Like, I like to see people laughing and everything. And think about what these girls are going through. They're so low in their life that, you know, all you can do is think to go up, so laugh about everything. Like, make life fun.
GROSS: Did you also...
BAKER: At least, that's what I did.
GROSS: Did you also not want the film to be about the tragic plight of trans sex workers?
TAYLOR: Well, it's not - the film is not about trans sex workers. It just happens to have sex workers in it (laughter), well, as characters. It's more about friendship, so...
BAKER: Right. I - when Mya actually said that to me, very early on - very early on in the process...
GROSS: About the comedy?
BAKER: Yeah, yeah. She actually said to me that, you know, she wanted to make this hilarious, which, you know, I have to say there was that - it's dangerous. You know, I'm a cis-gender, 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. And I was - I didn't know exactly how I would go about doing that. It seemed like too hard of a balancing act.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that what Mya was asking was to make, you know - was to make pop, was to make something that would actually appeal and pull in general audiences and mainstream audiences because, you know, that's how you communicate to the mainstream - through pop - and part of pop is comedy. So I realized that this request was actually really something that I have to say that 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.
And then once we - you know, once we started going down that road and we started making humor part of the dialogue, it also translated into the style of the film. You know, there's humor in the cutting. There's humor in the music cues. There's humor - there's even humor in some of the camera moves. So, yes, it's something that I was very apprehensive about at first, but then I realized that it was the only way to go because it was - it wasn't condescending to the subjects.
GROSS: Well, Sean Baker, Mya Taylor, thank you both so much for talking with us. Congratulations on the film. Good luck to you both.
BAKER: Thank you so much.
TAYLOR: Thank you.
BAKER: Thank you for having us.
GROSS: Sean Baker directed and co-wrote the new film "Tangerine." Mya Taylor stars in the film. After we take a short break, rock critic Ken Tucker will review a new album by singer and songwriter Miguel, who says he's been influenced by Prince and Van Morrison. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.