DIY GENIUS

‘Tangerine’: How One of the Most Stunning Movies of the Year Was Shot on an iPhone

Shot on tricked out iPhone 5s’s along the streets of L.A., Sean Baker’s no-budget trans-venge odyssey Tangerine is not only a staggering achievement, but a brilliant film.

07.03.15 9:15 AM ET

It took three tiny cameras, a few groundbreaking gadgets, next to no budget, and a whole lot of indie spirit to pull off the fiercest, ballsiest, and heartwarming-est film you’ll ever see about a hooker’s rage-fueled odyssey across Los Angeles. Subversive, surprisingly sweet, and a hit at Sundance where it landed a buzzy distribution deal, Tangerine is a rarity to begin with: a film centered on a heroine who is transgender. And it was shot entirely on the iPhone 5s.

Scripted by Sean Baker and Chris Bergoch, the palpably electric Tangerine is set in the prostitution-heavy strip of Santa Monica Boulevard that landed Eddie Murphy in the tabloids in 1997, a hood bordered by the trendy gay mecca of WeHo and the working-class ethnic enclaves of East Hollywood.

It’s into this urban landscape that sex worker Sin-Dee (Kitana “Kiki” Rodriguez) lands back on the block after a month-long stint in jail, only to learn that her man (James Ransone) was unfaithful with one of his cisgender girls while she was gone. Thus sparks Sin-Dee’s righteous rampage across Hollywood one Christmas Eve as she sets off to go RiRi on both of their asses, her trusty BFF and fellow prostitute Alexandra (Mya Taylor) reluctantly in tow. 

Baker had celebrated indie features (Starlet, Prince of Broadway) and an Indie Spirit Award under his belt when he developed the idea for Tangerine after meeting Taylor at an LGBT center in his neighborhood. Taylor, a singer, introduced him to Rodriguez, who told Baker of a local trans woman who had gone after her boyfriend and the cis woman he’d cheated on her with.

He had a story, but what Baker didn’t have was a budget. Tangerine’s producers couldn’t afford to rent a camera and equipment, but the iPhone 5s and a trifecta of techie dream tools offered an alternate solution never before possible. Baker called his cinematographer and co-producer Radium Cheung, who’d lensed his 2012 film Starlet, with a crazy idea.

“I was not happy,” Cheung recalled via phone from New York, where he’s based. “To be honest, no cinematographer would be happy to shoot on a phone as opposed to a real camera. But what it came down to was that was truly what we could afford.”

The first tool was a lightweight, thumb-sized lens adapter from Moondog Labs that hadn’t yet hit the market, but had the potential to create a 2:35 Cinemascope ratio from footage shot on a smartphone. Baker reached out to the company, dropping exec producer Mark Duplass’s name as proof his project was legit.

“I found them during their Kickstarter campaign and said, ‘Mark Duplass is producing this film. We may not be the first movie to shoot on the iPhone, but we want to be the first film that really tries to elevate this look. We want to be the first Scope iPhone movie,’” Baker told The Daily Beast.

The second element was an app called Filmic Pro “that allowed us to shoot at 24 frames per second, lock aperture and focus, and the compression rate was actually a higher quality than you would get if you just turned on video mode on your phone,” Baker explained.

The third and final key to Tangerine’s technical triumph was the Steadicam Smoothee, a nimble handgrip stabilizer available online for $150. The filmmakers bought three $550 64-gig iPhones after unsuccessfully lobbying Apple for freebies. “We reached out to Apple and they wanted nothing to do with us,” jokes Cheung. “So we had to buy them. I think it had to do with the subject matter, or the fact that they get 20 calls a day begging them for help.”

Baker was sold on the radical DIY tech package, which seemed to fit the plucky misfit spirit of the film. “Then it was just about convincing everybody else.”

Tangerine cranks its colors all the way up when Sin-Dee is on the warpath to let the sun fill every inch of the screen as its heroine stomps her way in and out of her de facto headquarters—Hollywood’s iconic Donut Time, where the film begins and ends. Baker found the film’s hyper-saturated look and feel early on after testing a more drab social realist palette. “These women have such colorful personalities,” he said. “It just made sense.”

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With a skeleton crew and a handful of filming permits, Baker and Co. hit the streets of Hollywood during the Christmas 2013 season. They filmed on live sidewalks using natural light, in and around the small businesses that line the sketchier stretches of Santa Monica Boulevard. Co-writer Bergoch was on set with Baker throwing improvised lines and additional dialogue at their cast, who enhanced the script with their own street-legit lingo.

On the second day of production he hopped on his bike, stabilized iPhone cam in hand, and discovered the fluidity of movement he’d use throughout the film to keep momentum in Sin-Dee’s tear through the city. Later, Baker and Cheung rigged an iPhone to an extending painter’s pole to simulate a sweeping crane shot, effectively inventing their own makeshift super-selfie stick a year before they became ubiquitous.

Their crew was so small everyone wore multiple hats. Co-star Karren Karagulian, who appeared in Baker’s previous features Prince of Broadway and Starlet, also earned an associate producer credit on Tangerine while playing Razmik, an Armenian cab driver hiding his intimate friendships with Sin-Dee and Alexandra from his family. Producer Shih-Ching Tsou pulled quadruple duty during scenes inside the donut shop, tracking continuity, costumes, acting—and slinging donuts to real customers. 

Tangerine

'Tangerine' director Sean Baker.

“She was playing the donut shop owner, Mama-San, mostly because we were not allowed to shut down the place,” laughed Cheung. “But they were nice enough to trust us to sell the donuts for them. So we’re shooting, she’s playing the owner, people would walk in and she would sell them donuts. There’s one shot where you see her almost cracking up at [James] Ransone, who is just so funny. All while producing and keeping track of continuity and selling donuts.”

Occasionally civilians, either unaware or apathetic to a half-dozen filmmakers shooting with little fanfare on tiny smartphones, would walk in and out of shots. The Tangerine crew filmed swiftly and surreptitiously on location in public, everywhere between Hamburger Mary’s in West Hollywood to the car wash at Santa Monica and Curson, setting one of Sin-Dee’s many melodramatic moments at a busy bus stop at Santa Monica and Vermont. 

Only one byproduct of barebones filmmaking nearly sent Baker into a panic. As night falls on Christmas Eve, Sin-Dee has captured her boyfriend-pimp’s “fish” Dinah (Mickey O’Hagan), a scrawny white female prostitute she’s yanked right out of a motel room orgy and forced to march, barely dressed and—mostly—with just one shoe on, from Thai Town to WeHo. In one scene actresses Rodriguez and O’Hagan were supposed to board a city bus when Hagan slipped and fell—hard.

“We played it safe,” said Baker. “But that was real, and that was a moment when I thought, ‘Oh god, this production is going to be shut down. It’s over.’ She got onto the bus and it took off, and I almost vomited. Everybody was shaking, she was bloody, and then we got a text saying ‘We have to go to the hospital.’ When we caught up with her two stops later she was crying but she said, ‘Did you get the shot?’”

Baker & Co. shot into the first few weeks of the New Year, but Tangerine didn’t officially wrap until almost a year later, with another year to go before it landed a Sundance Film Festival berth.

“It was Christmas night, 2014,” recalls Cheung, whose credits also include FX’s The Americans. “Sean had to get one pickup shot.” Baker hopped on a city bus with a camera to capture the LED scrolling display marking the date, December 24, 2014—the exact day and year that Tangerine takes place.

“That was our final shot,” said Cheung. “It had to wait a year. That put a timestamp on our movie.”