text by Nao Machida
photo edit by Ryoko Kuwahara

#BFF 『Tangerine』 Sean Baker Interview


- That means she’s a great actor then.

Yeah, yeah. She was able to turn it on really quick and turn it off. So anyway, that was when we just started figuring out what the plot line was going to be based on all these anecdotes that we heard. I told them from the very beginning that I wanted their approvals through every stage, it was very important… just because we were two cisgender white guys from outside of that world.
I always do that for every film, but especially with this, there haven’t been many stories told about trans sex workers in the way that I think it’s been respectful and heard their voice. So we gave them our 7-page treatment, and they loved it. They had a few notes but then we moved forward and started to flush it out, and we had workshops… And then even in post-production, at least Kiki was very helpful in terms of coming by and watching me edit and telling me what she thought.

- What were some of the directions that you gave them?

They understood my sensibility because of my previous films. It’s based on the realism so it has to be real and also has to entertain. But I think it was Mya who actually said “I want this even funnier than your other films!” [laughs] She said, “I want this to really show how hard it is for the women out here, but at the same time I want you to make this hilarious.” And I was like “Oh boy…” That’s a hard balancing act.
But you know what? I think she was right. Because when I was hanging out with them at that restaurant all the time, they were so funny. And they always used humor to cope with their problems. And I thought if we didn’t infuse that humor into the movie, it would be untruthful. So it just became to the point where we always had to make sure that we were balancing that comedy and pathos.

- Their lives are tough but I was laughing a lot throughout the film, and there was that right amount of lightness.

I honestly did not know how people were going to react. I thought it was going to be 50/50 quite honestly. Love and hate. But it was a nice universal acceptance of it because I think that people saw that it was genuine and we weren’t making fun of. It was instead just seeing the real humor of life. And sometimes it does come from tragic places, but we all face tragic things all the time, and we use humor to get by. There are some filmmakers I really respect to do that, like Alexander Payne. “Nebraska” is tragic, right? But at the same time, you are laughing the whole time. Lars von Trier does it all the time. And I think that’s the style and tone that speak to me, because it reflects real life.

- Also, their conversations sounded so real and so much fun to listen to. I loved the part where she said “you didn’t have to Chris Brown that girl.”

That was scripted. [laughs] That was my line that I’m still scared about. One day, Chris Brown is going to punch me in the face!

- Were there some lines they came up with?

There were some incredible lines. When Mya was in the car with the john, and the john goes “oh you know you want it” and she goes “oh you see right though me, don’t you?” And that not only is a good line, and well delivered and funny, but LGBT critics have brought it up as an important line. Because they say it’s one of the few times in a movie seeing that sort of interaction from the sex worker’s point of view. So they not only delivered funny lines, but they brought their voice to it, which I think is very important.

- I loved the scene where Mya was singing. She wanted to sing in the film, right?

But she hated our choice. [laughs] She wanted to sing Mariah Carey!

- That scene was so dreamy and beautiful though.

Thanks. That was fun to shoot. “Toyland” is a song from the film “Babes in Toyland” which is a famous Christmas musical. It meant a lot to me because I have a connection to the original “Babes in Toyland.” But for her, she was just like “why do I have to do this?” But she did it well. Ultimately, she’s very happy with it. And the fact that it’s on the soundtrack, she’s very happy.

- You said they were shy about acting in the last scene, but it was just great.

They were wonderful. I only did one take, which is dangerous. Because you never know if you could lose the digital file or something would be messed up. But I couldn’t put them through it again, because I could see it was beyond acting. I frame the shot the way I wanted it. That was like how I envisioned the shot. But I didn’t know they were going to be delivering such powerful performances. I don’t get emotional on my own sets, but that was the one time where I got teary eyed. Because I was looking at them and “oh my god, I can’t believe this is happening.” They were wonderful.


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