The corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and Highland Avenue, in Hollywood, is in some ways an intersection of the new Los Angeles. It’s a base for the city’s booming gallery scene—Regen Projects, Steven Turner, Kohn, LAND, and Redling are all in the hood—but it’s also the epicenter of L.A.’s transgender/transsexual prostitution trade. It was at the local LGBTQ center, that the writer-director Sean Baker met the trans performer Mya Taylor, the star of Tangerine, the film he shot on iPhones and which premiered to raves at Sundance this year.
“I saw her and her friends conversing in the courtyard,” recalls Baker, seated in the Donut Time shop where much of the film takes place. “I was drawn to the area. I saw there was a cinematic story around this corner,” he says. Then he met Taylor. “Immediately, I was like, ‘I want to work with you.’”
The two met twice a week at a nearby Jack-in-the-Box to record Taylor’s stories, trying to craft a narrative from her life but to no avail. Then one day she brought her friend Kitana Kiki Rodriguez along. “Their chemistry was palpable,” Baker says. Rodriguez became Taylor’s co-star, and Baker and his co-writer Chris Bergoch quickly crafted a warp speed, trap music-and-dubstep-fueled quest that follows two sex workers—Alexandra (Taylor) and Sin-Dee (Rodriguez)— around this Hollywood hot zone on Christmas Eve. (Think Thelma & Louise via the artist Ryan Trecartin—who, incidentally, shows at nearby Regen Projects.) Their budget was virtually non-existent: they couldn’t even afford to shut down Donut Time to paying customers, some of whom appear the film. Baker ended up shooting the entire project in 23 days—on iPhones.
“I was shooting crazy stuff on a bike, swooping shots that were just much more fluid than in my other films,” says Baker, who once worked as a bike messenger in New York. “I could see this film having movement like Run Lola Run or Slumdog Millionaire.”
From their initial meeting in Donut Time, the story follows Sin-Dee as she attempts to track down the “fish” who her pimp boyfriend (James Ransone) is fooling around with; Alexandra tries to help her while simultaneously promoting her pay-to-play show at a dive bar. “It’s less a tale about sex work than it is one of friendship,” Baker says.
Though he’s busy promoting Tangerine, the new auteur of America’s underbelly already has his next project. He’ll soon be off to Orlando to investigate the homeless motel scene outside the Magic Kingdom, along Highway 192—which is home to several makeshift brothels. “Maybe,” Baker says, “it’ll be part of a sex-work trilogy.”