'Tangerine': Inside the Transgender Revenge Comedy of the Year

How a DIY movie about trans streetwalkers shot on an iPhone became an indie successs story

Mya Taylor, left, and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez in 'Tangerine.' Credit: Magnolia Pictures

Director Sean Baker remembers the first time he saw his muse.

Several blocks from where the filmmaker lived in West Hollywood, at the intersection of Highland Ave and Santa Monica Blvd, there's a corner that is, in his words, "known for its drama and its chaos." That's where the neighborhood's transgender sex workers hung out, and for weeks, he and his cowriter Chris Bergoch had been trying to ingratiate themselves. A few people showed mild interest; most simply gave them the brush-off. Then one day, Baker noticed a tall, striking woman talking to a crowd of people. Her name was Mya Taylor. "She had that it-factor thing," he says. "It wasn't just her physicality, she was just. . .you could tell this person was running the show." 

Mya would become the key to making Tangerine, a raucous, raw, day-in-the-life transgender revenge comedy that became the left-of-center hit of this year's Sundance Film Festival. A motormouthed streetwalker named Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) has just finished a 30-day jail stretch on Christmas eve. Her best friend, Alexandra (played by Taylor), accidentally lets it slip that Sin-Dee's boyfriend/pimp, Chester (The Wire's James Ransone), has hooked up with a new girl. Given that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, our heroine takes off in search of her romantic competition and her two-timing beau; Alexandra, meanwhile, is preparing for a singing slot at a local cabaret that might be her big break. Along with an Armenian cab driver who's smitten by the ladies, everyone spends their day running around the city, finally converging at a late-night doughnut shop for one blowout confrontation.

Once Baker and Taylor initially exchanged numbers, she helped let everyone know that hey, these guys that keep nosing around? They're not cops, they're OK. She was the one who'd sit for hours at the local Jack in the Box, telling them about what life on the street was like. She was the one who told him, "I know someone you need to meet," and introduced Baker to the force of nature that is her co-star, Rodriguez. And most importantly, Mya was the one who set down the ground rules. "She said, 'There are two things you have to promise me, Sean,'" he recalls. " 'You have to show what it's really like out there — how hard it is, especially for trans-women of color who are forced to resort to prostitution for a living, because there's nothing else for us. You have to be brutal, even if it's not PC.' Then she took a long pause and told me, 'And you have to make it hilarious. If we wouldn't laugh at this, then what's the point?'"  

For Baker, the chance to simply follow these two women around as they interacted with each other and any passerbys who happened to wander into their sphere was like a DIY director's dream come true. "Mya and Kiki have been friends for years, so they have a rapport," he says. "But it's beyond that: They finish each others' sentences. It's like a stand-up routine. There's this yin-yang energy between them that when, you heard them talk to each other — we knew that was going to be the movie more than anything else. We had a loose story outline, what we called a 'scriptment,' and we knew we wanted to end up at the Donut Time right on that corner. But everything else was, do what you'd do and say what you'd say. It was 'We need to get from Point A to Point B, but other than that, add your own dialogue in and just make it as real as possible. That's where the humor and the drama will come from.'"

The director trusted that this dynamic duo would be able to add a level of been-there-seen-it verisimilitude and street vernacular into the mix if he let them go off-book. ("There was a lot of me calling them up six months after we shot and going 'Kiki, what's a teener?' when we were mixing," Baker says, laughing. "I was consulting online slang dictionaries a lot." For the record, it's a measure of crystal meth.) As for the actresses, improvising lines was easy; the hard part was initially putting their trust in some guy filming them on the street — on an iPhone, no less — was on the up-and-up. "If you're in Hollywood and on the streets, do you know how many times you hear 'I'm a filmmaker, I want to put you in a movie'?" Rodriguez says. "Especially if you're as gorgeous as I am? My first reaction was 'Great, OK, so where's Ashton Kutcher? This is some sort of Punk'd situation, right?" Asked when she realized this was a legit offer, she joked, "After we filmed the whole movie! I kept telling Sean, 'Until you make this whole thing and get it into Sundance and get this movie in theaters, I do not believe you!'"

"Honestly, I just thought it would be a regular project," Taylor adds. "I had no idea it would sort of turn into something a lot bigger than what I figured. At the beginning, it was simply me telling him my experiences on the street, stories I'd heard and things I'd seen. But Sean told me that he actually started to fall in love with how I told the story as much as what I was telling him. That was what he wanted to capture. And Kiki and I are very close but we're complete opposites, so I knew that she would bring a certain energy to the project that was necessary. Once things started to happen, I needed to get our personalities and our neighborhood into it as much as possible."

If nothing else, Tangerine is a love letter to both its leads and that particular section of L.A. they call home, from the side-street strip malls to the fluorescent-lit diners and doughnut shops where the streetwalkers hang out — though actually filming in these locations weren't without its pitfalls. "Oh God, the Donut Time scene," Taylor says, cracking up. "You'd be in the middle of take, screaming at each other, and a customer would come in and try to order, or some homeless man would start hitting you up for change. You'd be sitting there muttering 'Can you just hurry the fuck up so we can shoot?'" Rodriguez remembers being impressed by one situation where things started to get volatile with someone who'd wandered in to the shop and Baker just kept his cool, trying to nail the take. "The man deserved some sort of award for filming in there at 3 a.m. — a gold-plated bulletproof vest or something!"

"Let's just say there were a few times when we maybe didn't inform the general public that we were shooting a scene, and leave it at that," Baker says, recalling a filmed-on-the-sly fight sequence on a bus that inadvertently attracted way more outside attention than planned. But in the end, he says was whatever risk they ran was more than worth it; the idea was to give people an idea of who these women are and what their daily reality is like. If it meant pissing off a few bus drivers, so be it. And considering the rapturous reception the film received at its Sundance premiere last January and the interest its actresses have attracted — both were singled out in The New York Times' recent breakthrough performances feature; Taylor has already finished shooting a role in another film — Baker feels like he accomplished exactly what he set out to do.

"I hadn't even heard of Laverne Cox when we started filming this," he says, "and now we're at this moment where transgender rights are finally being discussed in a meaningful way. It's great to feel like we're contributing to that. But the intention was always to shine the light on these specific women. I wanted to keep my promise to Mya — make it funny and make it real. I wanted people to notice how extraordinary they really are."