Mar 23, 2017
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Team Tangerine Interview Each Other
by Doniphan Blair
'Tangerine''s writer/director/editor Sean Baker (rt), writer/producer Chris Bergoch (lft) and co-star and researcher Kitana Rodriquez. photo with iPhone: D. Blair
BREAKING NEWS ON 'TANGERINE': Mya Taylor, the star of “Tangerine,” garnered a Gotham Award on Monday, November 30th, and a few days before, an Independent Spirit Awards.
Indeed, "Magnolia Pictures previously announced it’s backing the critic’s darling for an awards season push, the first time in Hollywood history that a distributor has launched an Oscar campaign for transgender actresses," according to Variety Magazine (12/2/15).
"Then came the surreal moment where Taylor came face-to-face with her longtime idol, Laverne Cox," a star of “Orange is the New Black”, whom Magnolia enlisted to appear at a Manhattan theater to lobby for “Tangerine” to a room full of Oscars voters on Tuesday.
Before we jump into our feature length—and rather revealing—interview with Sean Baker (director plus), Chris Bergoch (writer plus) and Kitana Rodriguez (co-star plus), often by and of each other, we have to stop and marvel at what a miracle “Tangerine” truly is—see
—and not just for its celebrated iPhone use or trans exposé.
In this world of quarter-billion dollar flops, futile philosophical exercises and ridiculously false characters, the low-budget “Tangerine” is incredibly humanist and fetching, if also way out there and reality-stretching.
Indeed, all four films from Baker, who directs, co-writes, shoots some and edits—“Take Out“, 2004, “Prince of Broadway“, 2008, and “Starlet“, 2012 (we’ll leave aside ‘Radium”, 2001, for now)—and Bergoch, his co-writer, co-producer and character actor on the last three, take us on very realistic journeys into the lives of people we may recognize or have even met but know precious little about.
Take “Take Out”, filmed entirely in Chinese and co-directed by longtime Baker collaborator Shih-Ching Tsou. In this case, it’s a Chinese delivery boy whom we meet at the receiving end of a beating by Chinese gangsters and who spends the rest of the day, and the film, trying to scrape together the necessary loan payment.
In “Prince of Broadway“, filmed further uptown in Manhattan’s Fashion District, it’s a charismatic street hustler selling knock-off sneakers who, one day, is approached by an old girlfriend toting a toddler and telling him it's his kid and that she has to go away.
In “Starlet“, it’s a porn star, played by Dree Hemingway, Ernest’s great-granddaughter—a beautiful touch since Baker and Bergoch are so into mixing high/low ideas, actors and production techniques.
But, instead of anything prurient, it’s about her days off, drugging with her roomies, meandering around the San Fernando Valley with her Chihuahua named Starlet, befriending an elderly woman, all a bit boring save for one surprise discovery, one sensual—but not titillating—scene and the denouement.
”, it’s the travails of two transgender, male-to-female working girls and their friends, johns and enemies, up and down—and back up—the streets of Hollywood, as one attempts to get back at her pimp boyfriend, by finding and dragging his “whore” new girlfriend to him, and the other to hook some money and debut her singing act at a little café, also all in one day—Christmas!
Kitana Rodriquez's Sin-Dee gears up to start her quest, while co-star Mya Taylor's Alexandra councils caution at the start of ''Tangerine'. photo: courtesy C. Bergoch
Scrupulously researched, because Baker and Bergoch believe in “writing what we didn’t know,” as the latter told me, they spend months in the field, locating informants and uncovering not only the facts but the situation's most incredible stories AND their stars!
Only in “Starlet” is the central character a professional actor—and Hemingway is excellent, in a low keyway, but still a tribute to her great-grandfather’s high-octaine adventurousness, horndogging and crossdressing. Meanwhile, the stars of the other three films are all people who were actually there, on the ground—although 'Tangerine' also has fantastic pros like Karren Karagulian, James Ransone and Mickey O'Hagan.
Precisely because their films get down into the granularity of their story, they don’t need to go over-the-top Hollywood to tug our heart strings or explore what actually happens inside their characters, whom they seem to caress and unfold rather than grab and expose.
“Depraved, perverted and crazed, ‘Tangerine’ is in fact a very loving film, both the characters with each other AND the filmmakers with their characters!”, is how I described it in my first review, see
Again and again Baker/Bergoch characters descend into deliriums of their own doing, or imposed by their environments, often quite tough or tragic, but they dodge the bullet; they stagger forward; they choose life; and they express love.
No wonder audiences are eating up “Tangerine”, with all the murder and mayhem surrounding us on the screen as well as in real life, not to mention absence of love.
Indeed, it’s on its 13th week in the US and still going strong in a few theaters, until recently the Castro in San Francisco, to be expected, but also the Mary Ross Theater in Lincoln, Nebraska, of all places. And now “Tangerine” is going wild overseas!
They’ve already made back over six times their budget, admittedly low, but still almost a million dollars. If you haven’t already, and it's still playing at your local art house—go see it right now and then read their revealing interview! Or follow them on Twitter, @TangerineFilm, or
Couldn’t happen to a better movie or nicer team.
So, it was with great pleasure that, one night in August, I bombed down to LA to interview Sean and Chris at the Sundance/Sunset Theater in Hollywood, where I was pleasantly surprised to find they had brought along a special guest: co-star Kitana “Kiki” Rodriguez.
Since trans issues are the focus for most of the surprisingly extensive media coverage, including Terry Gross on her popular radio show, "Fresh Air", I figured it was CineSource's brief to concentrate on the filmmaking. Ms. Rodriquez soon disabused me of that.
Sitting down for the interview, Chris Bergoch, Sean Baker and Kitana Rodriquez, upstairs at the Sundance/Sunset Theater in Hollywood. iPhone photo: D. Blair
Tangerine looks totally scripted but is there also improv?
It’s a mix. We made a 79 page ‘scriptment’ but many scenes are improv—half and half. Some scenes were completely broken down [scripted] like the Donut Time scene at the end [of ‘Tangerine’].
That had to be all scripted—you can’t have organized chaos without a script!
There are the scenes of Sin-Dee and Alexandra [Kitana 'Kiki' Rodriguez, now smiling broadly, and her co-star, Mya Taylor] walking where we might just have ‘story beats’ without written dialogue.
I liken it to: We draw the picture but give the actors the crayons to color it in.
All the Armenian dialogue [in ‘Tangerine’] was scripted to a ‘T.’ Sean and I don’t speak Armenian [but] we have Karren [Karagulian]. He has been in all five of Sean’s films and was our translator. He was also the quality control, to insure we were getting everything we needed.
All five films, including ‘Radium'!?! [his first, 2001]
Yes. He’s like Sean’s good luck charm. They became friends in New York.
For this film, I said to Sean, ‘I want to show Karren in a way we have never shown him before.’ He’s always been that stern guy. With Razmik, the cab driver from ‘Tangerine’, we made him a little more meek, with his walk and everything.
Sometimes it is literally like having a conversation with the actors from behind the camera.
In Donut Time, Chris had his own earpiece and he would be running in, saying, ‘Let’s go with this line.’ So he is writing right on the set. We would sort of mold the dialogue on the set.
Kitana 'Kiki' Rodriguez:
He’d say, ‘Give out this emotion.’ It was such a random emotion. I was, like, ‘Really?!?’ And he’d say, ‘Just do it!’ Like the scene on the food line.
Sean: That’s a good example, thanks for bringing that up. We had five or six takes of Sin-Dee [Kitana’s character] interrogating Bob, the guy from the food line.
Just between you and me, Graham Mackie is a great guy [a professional actor seen in ‘Hit and Run’, 2012, ‘Just Me and All of You’, 2014] but he wasn’t hitting what we had on the page.
So we kept reducing his lines—stick with the exposition!—and near the end I went up to Kitana and whispered, ‘At the end of this take, I want you to knock the food tray out of his hand.’ No one knew but us two!
Rodriquez confronting her boyfriend's new girl, played by Mickey O'Hagan, with Baker and DP Radium Cheung (back to camera) shooting iPhone 5ses and Irin Strauss (far left) doing sound. photo: C. Bergoch
Kitana: A lot of the mean stuff, I got from Sean. I started thinking he was Regina George from ‘Mean Girls’. It was so comedic. I didn’t get [that at first] because I am actually a really nice person.
Like that time that girl is trying to explain to me that she is sober, [Sean] said to me, ‘Just walk off.’
Sean: Yeah, just don’t give a shit.
Kitana: I didn’t know too much about mean. Now, let me tell you, I am the perfect bitch because of you [to Sean, who laughs]. I have to thank you.
Chris: You’re like an anti-hero. There is nothing cooler in the world to write than an anti-hero that you can still get the audience behind.
Sean: [Smashing the food tray] is the scene that gets a little bit… According to our two financiers, Marcus and Karrie Cox, they said, ‘That’s where the room gets serious.’
I don’t watch the film with audiences—I still haven’t seen it.
You have this thing were you come up to the edge of injuring characters but then you back off. In ‘Prince of Broadway’, the gangbangers start to wrestle but don’t take out guns. In 'Take Out', the beating is one blast in the back with a hammer.
Or in 'Tangerine’, with all the prostitutes in the room, it’s pretty weird but it doesn’t cross the line; it remains human.
Chris: I appreciate you noticing that. We work hard on giving even bit players, with only 30 seconds of screen time, something to make them human.
In the motel [with the prostitutes], right before Sin-Dee barges in, you have Madame Jillian [played by professional actress Chelcie Lynn] sitting on the couch, talking about how she couldn’t get anyone to dance with her, a tender conversation with this guy—who is completely naked!
Even the cops [Julie Cummings and Rae L. Siskind], we try to give them a moment to get to know them. So they are not cartoon characters.
Everyone gets that treatment except [the frat boys] committing the hate crime at the end. We never meet them; we never get to know them.
When you are doing rapid fire stuff, how do you keep people from stepping on lines?
Sean: There is a lot of that but my sound recordist, Irin Strauss, is great ['Welcome to the Dollhouse', 1995, 'Blue's Clues', 1996, 'Starlet', 2012].
I drive him crazy. Sometimes you let [a shot go] because there is too much dialogue—one on top of the other—but I am willing to take the risk.
While Director Sean Baker is cool and calmly spoken, his star Kitana Rodriquez is a fast talking, New Yorker-type, albeit raised in the San Fernando Valley. iPhone photo: D. Blair
During Donut Time, I had it miked with a boom but also had each actor Lavaliered so I could play with the levels of their lines in post. My mixer was great at cleaning it up.
You shoot about how many takes?
Sean: It is hard to say how many takes but the ratio, in the end, is ten to one, no matter what, with every movie I have done.
Chris: The carwash [scene] was two [takes]. The throw up scene, where I got puked on, was one—because you can only do that once. Josh Sussman really threw up.
Kitana: It smelled so horrible!
Chris: I had to take one for the team. We couldn’t ask anyone else to do that. And Josh Sussman had breakfast that day at the Griddle Café—which is next door to where we are now—so that was part of what came out of him.
Sean: Jesus Christ!
The laundromat scene is also one take.
Kitana: I wouldn’t let him do more than one.
Chris: You both [Kitana and Mya] were so brave to trust Sean. We had the crew outside to block the windows because that is really intense.
Sean: It was almost approached as a nude scene.
Kitana: It’s weird that you guys got that. Transwomen—we DON’T get out of character!—so it was like doing a nude scene for us. We don’t like to take off our hair.
We are in transition, and people don’t have the right to see me going through that process. It’s another reason for them to say, ‘Whatever, whatever!’
I’m the most easy going person— I would never complain!—but that day I was bitching and complaining. I don’t know how [Sean] got me into doing it. I would rather get shot in the head. When Mya took off her wig, that was when I got comfortable.
So that was a little too far for you? Was that the only time in the film when things went too far? There was also when you had to talk to James [Ransone, who plays the pimp Chester] through that one scene?
Sean: James is quite seasoned [tons of television, notably HBO’s ‘Treme’ 2010-13]. He’s been around the block but I don’t think he completely knew—like all of us—that this film could take off, go to Sundance and get into the theaters.
Kitana: I predicted we were going to Sundance!!!
Sean: Yes, she did.
Of course, by the time we were shooting, I had full confidence in the film. But when we were shooting James’s stuff outside of Donut Time, that was the night of the Golden Globes. [Sunday, January 12, 2014]
He had friends a few blocks away in tuxes, getting awards, and he was, like, ‘Look, I am on the corner of Santa Monica and Highland being shot on an iPhone for $100 a day—what happened to my career?’
Rodriquez's Sin-Dee (lft), her pimp boyfriend, Chester, played by established actor James Ransone, and Mya Taylor's Alexander, as well as most of 'Tangerine''s other characters converge in the climactic 'Donut Time' scene. photo : A. Quirk
Did he actually say that or are you surmising?
Sean: No, he said that.
Kitana: He is like my best friend now. I don’t know if he was different before he met me but now I talk to him a lot. He’s like a really, really good big brother. For transgender people, that is a lot.
People are like, ‘Oh my gosh, it is time for transgender in film,’ but there is so much we are not used to.
Me and Mya thought the movie would come out like a drama. When you are used having a whole lot of dramatic shit in your life, we were thinking, ‘It is going to be the saddest movie ever, everyone will be crying!’ But it is the funniest movie.
Sean: Were you aware, during the shoot, that we were going towards comedy?
Kitana: No! I didn’t realize until I saw the film! Everyone thinks you are constantly being funny but they don’t realize: What else can you do if your life is shitty.
Laughing to keep from crying?
Kitana: And the fact that the film ended up that way, is, like, brilliant! Sean is, like, brilliant!
Me and Mya were idiots. We thought it would be like ‘Precious’ —‘Oh so sad!’ It is weird how life plays like that. Me and her were both surprised that this movie is so fucking hilarious.
Chris: [In fact,] Mya gave Sean two important ‘notes’ to follow if she was going to do this movie.
Sean: She wanted it to be realistic, brutal in its realism, but then also funny.
Kitana: We both wanted that! [grinning broadly]
Sean: That was when I realized it was going to lean more towards comedy then my previous films. There is a lot of comedy in ‘Prince’ but ‘Tangerine’ is comedic in its style.
Kitana: Me and Mya were just two girls. I was living on Section 8 [housing vouchers] and I let her come in. I met her homeless on the streets. We really had nothing.
You could have put me on a red carpet and given me an Oscar and I’d be, like, ‘This is all fake; I don’t believe it!’
When did you start to believe it?
Kitana: When we started doing ‘Behind the Scenes’ [for the DVDs] a couple of months ago.
Director Sean Baker uses a 'bicycle dolly' while shooting 'Tangerine'—one of the benefits of the iPhone 'camera rig.' photo: C. Bergoch
Sean: She’s exaggerating.
Kitana: Yes, a little bit.
[Sean and Chris] gave us the opportunity, and they also gave opportunity to more homeless. A lot of the other people in the background are homeless or girls working the streets.
Everyone got $100 bucks a day?
Sean: Yes, the SAG rate for ultra, indie low-budget. So James was making the same as Kitana or—
Chris: Even the bit players, if they spoke. [To Kitana] Are you friends with Bebe Maya? She has a tiny part. She is really cool. She came here [to the theater] for a Q&A last week.
She was in a Subway [sandwich shop] when I approached her. It is always interesting when you do that. People do the head tilt, ‘Is this for real?’ I’m, like, ‘We are right over there, if you want to be in it.’
They would come out and, when they see I wasn’t fucking with them, they would be, ‘Yeah, sure we would love to be in it.’ We would cast on the spot.
Do you mind me asking, what was the budget?
Chris: No matter how many good reviews you get, it is never easy to get production money from people unless you are doing mainstream, which Sean doesn’t want to make.
Excuse me one sec [he turns to the manager of the theater where the Q&A will start in 30 minutes].
Chris: We will put mainstream elements in but we don’t want to make ‘Paul Blart: Mall Cop 3’—nothing again the franchise.
Sean can speak to more to [the budget] but ‘Prince of Broadway’ was 40-50 grand, very small budget. For ‘Starlet’ we jumped up to 250 [grand], which is still relatively small but the most amount of loot we’ve gotten to make a movie.
‘Tangerine’ is in the middle—half the budget of ‘Starlet’—but we kind of used it to our advantage.
‘If we are going to do this with the iPhone, we can’t look at it as a step back, we have to embrace it,’ Sean said. ‘What can we get with the iPhone that we can’t get with a bigger rig?’
Who had the idea for that?
Sean had the idea after seeing what could be done with the adapters [Moondog Labs' anamorphic clip-on lens].
Pitched to Mark… Duplass gave his blessing—said “Go for it, it’s punk rock!”
Dree Hemingway, who plays the porn star in Baker's fourth feature, 'Starlet' 2012, befriends an elderly woman and joins her at bingo. photo: courtesy S. Baker
The greatest thing about this is, it brought us back to making movies on Super 8 cameras when we were 9 years old. No monitor, no feed, simple.
Lovely. Jumping back to what you [Sean, who just returned] were saying about James [Ransone].
His experience is the story of the film; it takes place on Hollywood Boulevard but it is the seedy, low budget side of Hollywood.
Sean: Right. I think James has a tendency to be a little… When you are working in the industry, in a structured way… My sets are so different. They can scare seasoned actors.
But the Armenians are seasoned actors. You have been with Karren [Karagulian] for—
Sean: To tell you the truth, the only one who was a little confused by what was going on was Alla [Tumanian, who plays] the mother-in-law [of Karagulian's character]. She comes from 40 years of stage and screen [in Armenia and Hollywood] and suddenly she is being shot on the corner of Santa Monica with no lights on an iPhone.
Now she is very happy! She has seen the film five times. She has gone to Karlovy Vary [a famous film festival] in the Czech Republic with it.
But at the time—plus the language barrier—it must have been a little confusing for her. I know that, at the time, she thought that James was actually Chester [his pimp character]. She was scared of James until we got to Sundance. She didn’t know that he was a seasoned actor.
Chris: That is so funny!
Karren has been with you quite a while and is super fierce.
Sean: Yes. All five [of my features]—he’s up for anything! [But] this film scared him a little because in Armenia right now homophobia and trans-phobia are extreme—more then it is here. So it was brave for him to do this.
He kept saying ‘I can’t show this in Armenia. I will be, like, stabbed on the street.’ So he had to think about it for a couple of days before agreeing.
Kitana: You know what is great about this film: Everyone comes from a different class of life!
The last scene [Donut Time]—we are going to rip each other apart, from Alla to everyone—but we all came to an agreement. We had so much fun, being so ‘impolitically’ correct! We were holding our faces laughing. It was like seeing the roles open up: no judgment.
'Tangerine' team in front of the Sundance/Sunset Theater in Hollywood where the film had an extended run. iPhone photo: D. Blair
Chris: There is a moment [in Donut Time] when Chester laughs, a real laugh.
I called that scene, in my review, ‘a cinematic love fest.’ It is so well-motivated. You have three or four stories lines all heading towards this crash. It is very satisfying.
Chris: Now the press is saying, ‘Now everyone can make a movie on their iPhone!’ And that is true—go make movies!—but they never mention that you need good sound and that Irin Strauss rented so many Lavaliers.
How many, ten?
Sean: No. One, two, three, uh, only eight.
Kitana: And some of us had to share and stand close by each other and yell!
Chris: Mamasan [Donut Time’s countergirl] didn’t need one at all times. I remember a photo where [Strauss] was booming Mamasan.
[Mamasan is played by Shih-Ching Tsou, a longtime Baker collaborator, who does everything from co-direct to act, makeup and continuity—sometimes all at once!]
Anyone can make a movie is a ridiculous conceit! Francis Ford Coppola said, back in the ‘80s, that some teenage girl is going to make the next great feature on a little camera. Where is that movie?
Kitana: I dare someone to hang their iPhone over the 401 freeway, 20-30 feet in the air, just to get me walking across [a bridge].
Sean: We didn’t end up using that shot.
We were using this painter pole; we got a couple of shots like that in the movie. We had one that was pretty impressive but for some reason—what was it Chris? Geographically it didn’t fit.
Chris: Right. We wanted people to be able to come to LA and follow the path of Alexandra and Sin-Dee [Mya and Kitana]. There is only one, little cheat.
So you are going to be doing Hollywood tours, the ‘Tangerine’ version?
Sean: We could. During rush hour we had a painter’s pole extended over The 101, [the camera] coming over the traffic and then finding [Kitana] walking.
Kitana: I was, like, ‘Jinga, that pole is going to fall right into the freeway!’ [Sean took] some bubble gum out of his mouth and put it on the back of the phone and taped it to this pole.
Director Baker shooting over the highway with an iPhone strapped to the end of a painter's pole. photo: C. Bergoch
Chris: [showing a photo on his phone] Here is the location, you can see the pole.
That is amazing!
There is so much film craft to go over in your work. Like in ‘Prince of Broadway’, at the end, I saw all these music credits but I didn’t hear any actual tracks during the film.
Sean: That’s because it is all music was coming from [various] radios. There is only one [real] track.
I knew it! But then on ‘Tangerine’ all this music is up front—classical, rock, hiphop! That was quite a jump.
Sean: Yes, it was. I don’t know if I am going to stick with that [style] on the next one, which is going to disappoint some people.
Kitana: He is so serious with his music. The music has to fit PERFECTLY with everything.
Sean: After we decided to go down that road, I was finding all these tracks, all this eclectic music, on Sound Cloud. We decided to use music that has a ‘drop,’ that would help put an exclamation point.
Kitana: It also made the movie more grunge and more gay. Sorry, I didn’t mean to say it like that—I am so ‘unpolitically’ correct.
Sean: We were going to use ‘trap music' [a genre of hiphop] up to when Sin-Dee is by herself, outside the subway station, about to make her decision whether or not go on ‘The Mission’ [to find ‘the fish,’ the woman her boyfriend has been sleeping with].
The way we shot that scene—we had so much coverage, so many wide shots—I thought I should go for something different, more elegant.
I found this Beethoven track, which just happened to be very appropriate. It is about an emperor about to go to war and his mother trying to talk him out of it. He ends up going.
That is the most striking sound cue in there.
Sean: Thanks. That was free, a public domain track.
Kitana: That’s funny because Mya is kind of, like, imitating [the emperor’s] mother, trying to convince me not to go to war.
Sean: When we got to the classical music there, it became making [the sound track] as eclectic as possible… jazz, electronica. We could do whatever we wanted.
Chris: ‘Tangerine’ told us what the music requirements were, we didn’t go in there knowing. The movies speak to us.
Prince Adu, the star of Baker's 'Prince of Broadway' (2008) and Aiden Noesi, the talented young boy playing his son. photo courtesy S. Baker
Kitana: My favorite song was the last one, the 'Washing Machine Song’. He was doing music for everything but, at the end, you just hear the washing machines.
Sean: That was important. Chris and I always put up a set of rules—we put it on the wall—so we wouldn’t get talked out it. I tell everyone, even my girlfriend: ‘Do not let me get talked out of this!’
For example, in ‘Starlet’, it was very important to have an explicit sex scene. We are making a film about the porn industry and it didn’t feel honest unless we had an explicit scene.
That scene is gorgeous. ‘Starlet’ is gorgeous. But, except for finding money in the boots from a garage sale, it starts really slow. What was your feeling for that?
Sean: I felt the pace should reflect the pace of real life. Jane [Dree Hemingway's character] is bored and life is moving slowly for her. I never wanted to bore the audience. However, I did want them to experience the glacial pace.
The sex scene is so naturalistic and lush, with its hand-held camera looking around at people talking to each other. In a sense, it is more sexy then over-lit porn. What was your feeling for doing that?
Sean: I simply wanted to cover the scene the same way that a documentary would—making sure to focus on all of the surroundings. The last thing I wanted the scene to be is titillating.
In [‘Tangerine’], there were a few rules. One of them was: No music over the end credits. It is time to bring us back to reality.
We have wall-to-wall music, the entire film, but then, at that last moment, when we are alone with [Alexandra and Sin-Dee], we don’t want this manipulative element. We just want to be sitting in laundromat with them.
And in ‘Prince of Broadway’, it is the reverse, the only track is at the end.
Sean: That last scene, in ‘Prince of Broadway’, the hustler [played by Prince Adu, originally from Ghana, nominated for a Gotham Independent Film Award], is being hustled. The stuff he was selling was fabricated, fake knockoffs. Now he is being given this fabricated life.
If you notice [the DNA test says], it wasn’t really his kid. Levon [his boss, played by Karagulian] lies to him and puts the DNA test away.
Wha?!? I missed it.
Sean: If you look at [the letter from the lab] closely, you will see it is negative. That is why I have the [one] music score there including strings. He is with his girl and ‘his’ kid and it is this fabricated life.
Mya Taylor as Alexandra, Sin-Dee's best friend (Kitana Rodriguez), in the opening of 'Tangerine'. photo: courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
Then all those kids come running by? You brought them in?
Sean: No, that’s where it is all about ‘happy accidents.’
We wanted this scene that is almost over the top. I am looking through view finder and, all of a sudden, this family comes around the corner [running] and I am, ‘Ahhhhhhh!’
Kitana: Weren’t you surprised when we first talked about ‘Prince of Broadway’ that I knew it wasn’t his kid? I love how you ended it! Karren doesn’t tell [Prince] because he doesn’t want to disrupt his happiness.
Sean: Yes, because [Karren’s character] in ‘Prince of Broadway’ looses everything—his wife, his business. And he was never able to have a kid. So he was projecting his wants on [Prince].
But then, as is your style, [Karren’s character] is going to rent a new place upstairs and it is all going to start all over again.
Sean: [laughs] Yes, right. It wasn’t that bad.
I love that film. It has an honesty and the central symbolism of the child—who is such a fabulous actor—is fantastic.
Sean: It was written for a full-blooded black kid but we couldn’t find anyone who was working. Prince said, ‘I want you to meet Aiden [Noesi]. He is a Dominican, so you would have to rewrite and make the mother Latina.’
I said, ‘Ooh, I don’t know about that, but let’s go meet them.’ The minute I got in the house, little Aiden ran over and hugged Prince’s leg and I am, like, ‘Oh, there we go.’
All the other kids we were meeting were crying in front of Prince. None were bonding.
Didn’t the mother worry a little about all the dragging around of the kid?
Sean: Yes, a little, but Prince was always very careful holding him. Of course, the one moment, the scariest to shoot—when we crossed Broadway—we made sure there was no traffic.
Darren Dean, the producer, is actually in the shot—you wouldn’t never notice him—but he is there making sure no cars came.
I love the way Prince dropped the diaper bag, like, twice.
I assumed he was Prince’s kid since the bonding is so close. And I loved the lines like ‘Mixed race kids are often lighter at first.’
Sean: We had to write that in.
Dree Hemingway and her porn manager, played by Baker regular, Karren Karagulian. He also co-stars as the cab driver infatuated with trans girls in 'Tangerine'. photo: courtesy S. Baker
Chris: That is a good point about Darren and Shih-Ching being such good producers—they are not above getting their hands dirty.
Sean: That was the first time Darren and I collaborated. Shih-Ching was on every film except ‘Prince’. [looks down at phone]
Oh, hey! I just found out there was a religious protestor outside the screening of ‘Tangerine’ in Detroit!
Chris: It is about time!
One other thing [about producers]. We were so lucky to work with Mark Duplass [an actor, writer, producer known for ‘The League’, 2009, ‘The One I Love’, 2014] and Marcus Cox.
We worked with a lot of people. You don’t always get the luxury of the full trust in Sean of making the movie we wanted to tell. A lot of other people would like to micromanage a movie like this, out of fear, but [Duplass and Cox] were hands off.
They gave notes—we are VERY receptive to notes! I’m just talking about the people who say, ‘Hey, we love you but we are going to change everything you do.’
What advice would you give to a starting-out filmmaker who wants to remain true to their vision but is opposed like that on all sides?
Sean: That is really difficult.
Chris: Always keep an open mind but also stay true to your vision and gut instinct and know that you don’t have to take the notes.
Sean: Duplass gave great notes.
You know the food line scene, where [Kitana] finds Bob? There was a whole lot more to that: she gets up to the front of the line, everyone starts complaining she cut in; she starts throwing food. It was improv but it was scripted that she would start chaos.
There is that golden rule: If you are laughing too hard on the set, it probably won’t work in the film.
It was like a Will Ferrell movie: she was throwing food; everyone was screaming. I remember the day we were shooting, it was the funniest thing ever. I was laughing from behind the camera.
There is a saying that you have to leave your favorite scene on the cutting room floor because your love for it prevents you from seeing it doesn’t fit in the film.
The 'Tangerine' script plus its entire 'camera package,' two iPhone 5ses featuring their anamorphic clip-on lens from Moondog Labs. photo: courtesy C. Bergoch
Sean: Kill your darlings.
Chris: There were a few darlings we had to kill.
[to Sean] Since you are the editor, that must be tough.
Sean: I knew from the beginning. [to Chris] I said 88 minutes, didn’t I? When I gave Mark Duplass the 103 minute cut, I said, ‘Don’t worry, it will be 88 minutes.’
He said, ‘I am not worried but here are some notes.’ One of those notes was about the food line, another was trimming some [other] scenes.
Chris: In the first half an hour, we had some redundant street walking with Sin-Dee and Alexandra talking. Too much of the same thing.
Sean: And the opening scene. I always thought I needed a full minute of them talking before it was revealed about ‘The Fish.’
Kitana: The fish! [laughs]
Sean: But all I needed was three lines back and forth.
I thought you did a masterful job on the walking down the street scenes. It was really rocking and rolling with all those swooshes. ‘How is that possible,’ I’m thinking, ‘the iPhone doesn’t have a zoom!’
Sean: And we didn’t have any external monitors, so we had to do the shot [swing the iPhone on the painter’s pole], pull it down and look at it. After a while, we realized that it was more efficient to do ten takes in a row, then look at them.
Mickey [O'Hagan] and Kitana were just going up and down. [the latter almost dragging the former]
Is Mickey a pro?
Chris: Oh yeah! When people see Mickey at the Q&As, she looks so different in real life and they ask, ‘What did you have to do with the film?’ Which is a great compliment to her.
Clu Gulager is also in the film—do you recognize him from ‘The Last Picture Show’? If you look up Clu Gulager’s IMDb you will see many films you recognize.
Sean: Is he the one who had sex with Cybill Sheppard [in ‘The Last Picture Show’]?
Chris: Tonight, at the Egyptian Theater [ten minutes away], there is a Q&A with him for the ‘The Return of the Living Dead’ . I wish we could be there!
‘Tangerine’ is quite a mixture of professionals and non.
Team 'Tangerine' does excellent Q&A, enthusiastically answering questions they have been asked hundreds of time. iPhone photo: D. Blair
Sean: Yes. I am really happy with this ensemble; it is a cool team. For the next film, we are starting to figure out how to work in Kiki [Kitana]. We already know we are working with James [Ransone] and Karren [Karagulian] again.
Why not, if they are ‘working’ for you?
Chris: It is also fun to create a character for them that we have never seen. Like what we did with Karren in this film. He’s very versatile.
You met him at NYU?
Sean: It’s a long story. A producer from my first film put him in a short that I saw and really liked him. Since then, I have given him little bit parts. He had a small but memorable role in ‘Take Out’.
As a tough customer who rejects the food—he was great.
'Take Out' was a great film. I loved the opening in the complete dark with just the gangsters voices, as they come up the stairs. But then the ending, also in the dark. It’s like a structuralist film, the star bicycling around Manhattan in the rain and snow.
Sean: The film is most definitely structured. But hopefully Shih-Ching and I disguised the structure.
Our intention with the final scene was to bring Ming Ding [the star of 'Take Out'] to the center of the Western world, or at least what symbolizes that in the United States—Times Square. He is among celebration but still struggles within.
Right. So both of you started in NY and—
Chris: We made the move to LA in ’09 for an MTV show called ‘Warren the Ape', which was a spinoff of ‘Greg the Bunny’ [a puppet-based TV show created by Dan Milano, who voiced of Greg, Spencer Chinoy and Baker].
‘Greg the Bunny‘ became this cult thing. We had five incarnations: we started on New York Public Access, shooting on Hi8 decks, then we went to the Independent Film Channel in the late ‘90s. And then to Fox with Steve Levitan the showrunner—he became a big deal with ‘Modern Family’.
That didn’t workout and we went back to the Independent Film Channel in ‘05-‘06 to do these puppet parodies. Let’s say IFC was going to air ‘Eraserhead’ . We—me, Sean, Spencer Chinoy and Dan Milano—would do an interstitial ten minute parody [with puppets].
Then Warren the Ape: he is trying to make his comeback in LA. That is the story.
"Warren the Ape' puppet from Baker/Bergoch's very odd precursor to their cinema verité films. photo: S. Baker
That, again, was very short-lived—no advertising! MTV wanted ‘Jersey Shore’ at the time, which was getting 1.5 million views a week. We weren’t a good fit for MTV. MTV aired 12 episodes [in 2010] but there is no DVD. MTV didn’t get us, although [‘Warren the Ape’] is on iTunes.
The greatest thing about that was we were trying to appeal to the young male teen demographic. And, in one episode, Warren the Ape goes to the Adult Film Awards in Vegas.
When we were hanging out with some of the girls, [we saw] they are just regular people—our preconceived notions were not true at all! I remember talking about bedbug infestations with one girl—the normal problems of average people. We thought: ‘What if we followed the day-to-day of one of these girls?’
That became ‘Starlet’ starring Dree Hemingway—Muriel’s daughter, Ernest’s great-granddaughter!
Kitana: I had a dream about the puppet show. I was watching ‘Starlet’ one day and everyone was talking about the puppet show and I went to sleep and had a dream about the puppets—isn’t that weird?
Puppets are weird in general but you guys did a whole show!
It was funny. Last night, at the showing [of 'Tangerine'], a television director came over and said, pretty loudly, ‘My favorite actress was in ‘Tangerine’!’ I was trying to figure out who he was talking about, Alla [Tumanian], Mickey [O'Hagan]?
Finally, he says, ‘Ana Foxxx is my favorite.’
Chris: Ana Foxxx plays the girl in the cab—she is also an adult film star.
Kitana: When we were shooting, I got stuck with Ana in a room—it was the most fun working day!
[to Chris] Getting back to your work history?
Chris: So ‘Warren the Ape’ lead us to ‘Starlet’. After ‘Starlet’, Sean didn’t want to do another micro-budget movie. He was hoping more doors would open. Some did—we got hired to write this action movie!
But it takes a long time to get projects finalized [in Hollywood], so we got antsy. We hit the streets one day and that is what led us the beautiful Kiki [Kitana] here and ‘Tangerine’.
Kitana: Well, Mya first.
Sean: We met Mya Taylor at the LGBT center in Hollywood. [1125 N. McCadden Place, LA]
That is the thing: you always do this research? You met Prince, of ‘Prince of Broadway’, hustling on the streets of Manhattan?
A selfie with a devoted fan but—oops—her phone died and this author had to take the shot and email it to her. iPhone photo : D. Blair
Sean: It’s funny. The woman that I did all that research with just texted me [Victoria Tate, an associate producer and actor in ‘Prince of Broadway’]. She is probably feeling we are talking about her.
We spent about a year on Broadway [from] 26th to 30th streets, just walking around and asking questions. Everyone was like, ‘You have to find Prince! Prince is your guy.’ Eventually, we did, two months in. He knew we were coming.
He said, ‘I want to make this film with you and if you put me in the lead I will find you locations, cast, I will do everything.’
Victoria and I were, ‘Oh my god!’
That is almost what happened with ‘Tangerine’. Chris and I were walking the streets [of Hollywood] but we weren’t getting that far the first day or two. So we went to the LGBT center and ran into Mya and started hanging out with her at the local Jack in the Box. Mya brought Kiki.
Kitana: There were frequent meetings at Jack in the Box. Not only should we be [sponsored] by iPhones but Jack in the Box [laughs].
They made the biggest mistake you can make. You don’t take ‘trannies’, who are taking hormones, and offer them something to eat. We are like three pregnant girls each.
[The first time] Mya was, like, ‘You got to meet these guys,’ and I am thinking, ‘Oh no, she is setting me up for something.‘ When we first walked over, I joked that she was an undercover cop, because [Jack in the Box] is where all the undercover cops always were.
Chris: What made you trust her?
Kitana: Well, I had nothing better to do! I am amazed she remembered that I told her I liked to act.
Sean: I remember her saying you had studied drama.
Kitana: That’s why I’m so into her! I am just gagged when people remember little things like that.
Chris: It is cool she brought you to the table—literally! That was the moment we saw Mya and Kiki together. You finish each others sentences; it was like watching a comedy routine.
‘This is the movie,’ [we thought], ‘we not only have collaborators but we found our stars!’
A cornerstone moment?
Sean: Definitely, the LGBT Center, meeting Mya, meeting Kiki. The next milestone moment was when Kiki pitched us the idea of the ‘Fish Story’.
Kitana: Which is funny ‘cause the other day I was wondering, ‘Why did I pitch that? Where did I come out with that?’
I always tell [my boyfriend], ‘If you ever cheat on me I will drag her to you and tell you, ‘Fuck her now!’’
Sean: [At first,] Chris and I said ‘[‘Tangerine’] would be about two or three people finding each other.’ That was based on the first ‘Starlet’ idea.
Bergoch with the Armenian stars of 'Tangerine': (lft) Luiza Nersisyan, who plays Karren Karagulian's wife and Alla Tumanian, the mother-in-law, along with producer Shih-Ching Tsou, who also plays Mamasan (back right). photo: courtesy C. Bergoch
Chris: ‘Starlet’ was originally supposed to be more cinema verité, not a traditional three-act structure.
It would all take place in one day and be about a girl, who happened to be a porn star but not focusing on that. It is her day off; she looses her dog. Searching through the streets of LA, she meets some interesting characters.
Kitana: I really like ‘Starlet’.
Have you seen all their other movies?
Kitana: Oh, yes. ‘Prince of Broadway’ I found at the West Hollywood Library—I watched every movie in the West Hollywood Library.
Chris: That was before you met us? Wild!
Kitana: I told Sean this already. I saw ‘Prince of Broadway’ a year before we met you guys.
The cover is this little baby. [My boyfriend] said, ‘This is a foreign film.’ But me and my best friend Maria used to watch a lot of foreign films, so I said, ‘Let’s get it anyway.’
Chris: So ‘Starlet’ evolved into the story [about Hemingway’s character] befriending an elderly woman.
But the Point A to Point B adventure story never left our system. That is what we brought to the [‘Tangerine’] table.
Your style is like making documentaries. When people shoot documentaries, they shoot all this footage and then they try to find a story. You do the research, then write a story.
Chris: Right. Interesting.
That is why Terry Gross, on ‘Fresh Air’, was picking up on ‘Tangerine’’s documentary aspects —you [Sean] did a great job on her show, by the way.
Sean: Thanks. That was nerve-wracking, that day.
Chris: She almost acted as if were a documentary. Which could be taken as a compliment, I guess.
It was a little odd that she was so into interviewing the subject of the film and not the filmmaker.
Chris: Some people think it is all improv. Do they think we just turn the camera on and people know what story to act? It’s insane.
Sean: I don’t know how they edited [‘Fresh Air’]. We spoke for almost two hours.
Chris: You didn’t listen to it?
Sean: No. But I have been reading some tweets and sometimes they praise it and other times they say ‘Awkward.’ There were some moments were Mya may have cut me off, I don’t know.
Another day on the publicity tour job with 'Tangerine''s Chris Bergoch, Kitana Rodriquez and Sean Baker. iPhone photo: D. Blair
That was Terry’s fault. She wanted to focus on trans people. I can see why; they are very important in our culture right now; and ‘Tangerine’ is a great window into that.
But imagine if Tarantino was in there and she is focusing on his stars’ daily life?
Sean: Oh, I see.
Kitana: You know what is funny? I am like a wild card for you! When you were getting ready to film, I said, ‘Don’t tell the [other actors from the LGBT community] I am part of it because they are not going to want to do it.’
It is because of my mouth—you know how crazy I am.
Chris: But that is what I love about you.
Kitana: I think Sean was crazy to cast me—crazy like a fox!—because I will just give you the ‘streme.’ I will make it sound worse than it is.
Like the car wash scene? We said, ‘Let’s start out with a girl doing her john at the car wash and then we hustle her ass and steal her money!’ [laughs]
Chris: It’s not just you. You can have professional actors and they are going to think that too: ‘Am I doing right by the director? Should I hold back or go way out?’ It is cool you didn’t hold back.
Sean always talked about how he wanted to incorporate a carwash into a film. We were talking with Mya and Kiki one day and they mentioned that the carwash is one of the spots where you can get some privacy.
Sean was giddy! ‘Yes! I can put a carwash into this movie!’
Certain locations, you could be carrying them around in your head for a decade, because it has to be organic to the story. Something like that occurred in ‘Prince of Broadway’ with the [Lava Lamp] light. He always thought that would be a good shot.
I loved that shot. Do you rehearse and workshop a lot?
Sean: Yes. We had some workshop sessions in a rehearsal room on Santa Monica. We had already scripted some dialogue but we would just sit down in the chairs and say, ‘We are on the bus and now it is the three of you traveling back from the club.’
They would just riff on our minimal dialogue. I would record it and transcribe it and we would play with some lines.
Kitana: You know how we speak the gay or trans language? I found out from a friend in New York they call it the ‘Queen’s Speech’ there. Sean was writing down and trying to decipher every thing we said like, ‘Oh that’s crazy boots,’ or ‘shaboo, shaboo.’
Sean: We would need definitions for everything.
You cleaned the dialogue up?
Sean Baker shooting Dree Hemingway in 'Starlet', with Irin Strauss on sound. photo: courtesy Sean Baker
Sean: Not really. And ‘shaboo, shaboo’ didn’t even make it into the script. What does that even mean?
Kitana: We don’t know. [laughs]
Sean: They don’t even know!
Chris: When the script said something basic like ‘That is not cool’, Mya would say, ‘I wouldn’t say that.’
‘So what would you say?’ ‘That is not the ‘T.’’ 'Ok, great, make it your own.’
When you are shooting, do you ever pull directorial ‘rank’ when you feel things are going off? Or do you just trust your actors?
Sean: Oh no, no. Chris and I, at the point that we are shooting, we have a beginning, middle and end. Every scene has an arc. There is not much wild improvisation that would change the direction of the scene while we are shooting.
But if something is going wildly off the rails?
Sean: I am trying to remember…
Chris: You never yell cut ‘cause you never know what you might be getting [at that moment].
[to Kitana] Did Sean ever yell cut at you?
Kitana: Uh, no, but I have a good one! I am crazy as fuck—I have to push buttons!
Remember the scene where me and Mya are walking down the street and I was saying, ‘I promise there will be no drama’? These two boys were walking by and I am, like, ‘What the fuck are you two looking at?’
Sean: Let’s take that scene for example: we were really racing against sunlight. We couldn’t even get close to them with out throwing shadows—that is why it is in a wide shot.
By the time, we got there, we had rehearsed enough times and it was pretty much locked. The scenes are very well structured—beginning, middle and end. We had to be very disciplined—keep it tight! I think we may have had four takes. The only improv was what she just said.
I don’t think there was any time I had to yell cut because it was going in a direction it shouldn’t have.
Kitana: From watching him work, I think he likes the misdirection [improv]. Sometimes Mya and I would look at each other, ‘Uh oh, Sean is going to be mad at us!’ But he’d be ‘Oh yes, I love that.’ That’s why it comes off as more real.
Sean is so cool about a lot of things. He has ‘hood credits. Everyone who lives on the street, who is out there, gives him a kind of respect. He was so open to the trans community, taking whatever come out of our mouths.
Bergoch, Ana Foxxx, an adult film star who plays a working girl in 'Tangerine', and Baker. photo: courtesy C. Bergoch
On top of that, he was like MacGyver. I don’t know how he comes up with these inventions to get these shots.
Chris: It is always a give and take. That is why I love working with Sean. Sometimes writers are not even on the set [but] it is so fun to be on the set and evolve the script.
Like in Donut Time: you can’t have a big scene with out actors knowing their lines. But then Kiki here yells out the line about Razmik’s wife and her hair.
Sean: What happened there—and I have had to talk about it a lot in Q&As—we were also racing against time. We only had two and half nights [at Donut Time]—two nights and we begged for a third and got a few hours.
But that scene was very well scripted. In the end, I was starting to panic, not knowing if I had enough coverage. I went for singles, letting everyone riff. I rolled the camera on Kiki for about three minutes and said, ‘You are looking over at her now.’ That is where the improv happened.
Chris: That was a really good method.
Do you have a continuity person?
Sean: Well, she was Shih-Ching, who played Mamasan [the Donut Time counter person].
Chris: She was a producer on the film, as well, AND she is really serving donuts to actual customers! AND she is doing wardrobe!
Kitana: No joke! She was telling me that my eyehadow, [in accent] ‘You have more gold today on this side.’ She is, like, five miles away. I am, like, ‘Oh my god, Shih-Ching, how can you see that?’
Sean: It was, like, a budgetary thing, we couldn’t bring on another person.
I am also the editor, so in my head, I am editing and able to tell—not the stuff Kiki was mentioning—but positions and eyelines. I was conscious enough because I would be editing it.
Kitana: The great thing about the film is people think it was mostly improvised but, no, we had a full script and we rehearsed it a lot—especially that last scene. But it was a race against time.
In the three minutes on each person, Sean and Chris were, like, ‘We don’t care, we just want you to be yourself.’ How you feel in this moment, how you would be reacting?
Sean: It was funny. Just before we were going to shoot that night PJ [another name for James Ransone] had problems with the motivation for Chester. He wanted him to be defensive—over-the-top defensive.
I said, ‘No, he is a pimp; he doesn’t care whether he is caught cheating or not.’
Kitana: Which is true.
Sean: It shut things down for an hour and half while we sat around and discussed it.
Finally, it was you [Kitana] or Mya who said, ‘PJ, you are not a pimp in real life. You don’t understand, this is not the way a pimp would act.’
Kitana: There would be no emotion.
Sean: PJ wanted to play it like a boyfriend caught in the act and denying everything. That was one of those moments where it was a last minute…
That leads me to the question of collaborative films. You obviously have a lot of collaboration going on but film is also run by the director. How does that tension effect you?
Sean: For the most part everyone around me is open to collaboration and not too demanding. That was the one time it started to feel as if it was going to be hard. It got a little hairy the last night we were shooting
Chris: After 24 days running around with no sleep, the tensions were running high.
Sean: And, even in LA, it was getting cold.
You were actually shooting at Christmas?
Sean: We had to, to take advantage of the decorations. We had no money.
Kitana: You want to hear the cutest thing ever? That year everyone went home for Christmas, I had no where to go.
Christmas eve was the first day we started filming. I filmed with Sean and Shih-Ching and they actually gave me a small present. You gave me a card and a Target gift card. I went home and cried.
It was cute, you can’t find better people to work with.
Chris: It’s Christmas, you have to give presents.
Sweet. Out of curiosity, in ‘Prince of Broadway’, did you ever use fake snow?
Sean: No, that was all real. The same thing in ‘Take Out’ which was co-directed by Shih-Cheng [it is almost entirely in Chinese].
We scripted for rain—it was about a delivery boy and it makes it more dramatic to have him battle the rain. We were blessed with the rainiest June in recorded history.
Every morning we would go out, it would start to drizzle and we were, like, ‘Perfect.’ All my friends, they are in film as well, and their productions were shut down that entire June. Blankets of rain.
Do you ever cheat anything? Do a catch-up shot?
Sean: Yes, there were some pickups.
Chris: A fun fact for ‘Tangerine’: it was shot starting Christmas eve, 2013, and then principal photography was done in January but the last shot was on Christmas eve, 2014—kind of nice bookend.
We already had a cut that was accepted to Sundance but we wanted to reshoot the bus scene and make it more current. Instead of it reading 2013 [on the schedule display], we got a shot of the bus time that said 2014. That is the official last shot of the film.
Kitana: When I saw that, I was, like, ‘That computer graphic is awe
Posted on Oct 02, 2015 - 01:15 PM