Sean Baker is a writer, editor, cinematographer, and filmmaker. In 2003, he co-created Greg the Bunny, a comedic television show starring Seth Green. Beginning with 2004’s Take Out, three of Mr. Baker’s films have been nominated for the John Cassavetes Award at the Independent Spirit Awards. In 2015, his fifth feature, Tangerine, had its World Premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. Tangerine has gone on to receive huge international acclaim, and was nominated for four Spirit Awards, including Best Feature and Best Director. The film is available on DVD, Blu-Ray, and digital download through Magnolia Pictures. Just before the nominees were announced, Mr. Baker spoke with Sean Malin of CineMalin: Film Commentary and Criticism about the uniting sensibility behind his movies, working with old friends, and the ongoing awards campaign for stars Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez. This interview has been transcribed, edited, and compressed from audio for publication.
Sean Malin/CM: As we speak, you’re in an airport, common for you these days since you have been touring with Tangerine around the world. Your last film, Starlet, made the international festival rounds as well, but its dynamic and its energy are so different from Tangerine‘s.
Sean Baker: In the sense of the comedy, you mean?
CM: Yes – Tangerine is such an eye-popping, color-saturated kind of experience; Starlet, on the other hand, was kind of sleepier, sedate even. How did that comic sensibility grow so large from your previous film to now?
SB: I’m one of the creators of a show called Greg the Bunny, and for that [show], I always took inspiration from very high-brow comedy: British comedy, especially, and then later on here with Mr. Show with Bob and David and Kids in the Hall. Those shows were influences for Greg the Bunny, which in turn was where I really cut my teeth as a director of comedic improvisation. That learning process has made its way into all my films, but with Tangerine, I made the decision to just go full-out comedy, rather than dramedy. I don’t know if I will continue that way, though.
CM: From Starlet to Tangerine is such an energy jump. Knowing those films, the next one will probably be nearly silent or in black-and-white.
SB: The people who like Tangerine are going to be so disappointed by the next film *laughs*. It’s all going to be [shot with] long takes, the camera’s going to be locked down, et cetera…
CM: Starlet had a somewhat handheld look, but it was definitely a dreamier kind of feeling.
SB: The new one might, as well, but it will also have a lot of comedy in the dialogue.
CM: Comedy as a community plays a big part in Tangerine, especially for fans of stand-up and improv. It’s one thing to see character actors like James Ransone [who plays Chester] in your films, but it’s even more special for us to see Ian Edwards pop up out of nowhere. Comedians must tell you all the time how much they love that moment.
SB: I love working with stand-ups because they are so incredibly talented. It keeps me laughing during editing, which is so important. The weird thing about getting Ian in Tangerine is that he’s one of the guys I did not have a strong connection with before the movie. I just saw him at The Improv on Melrose once. At the show, he shot down a heckler really hard, and I thought, “Oh, that guy’s funny. That is really hilarious.” Then I saw him at the Comedy Cellar in New York just a little later, and I thought, “I have to cast this guy.” One of my housemates, who’s a comedian named Monty Franklin, hosts shows at the Laugh Factory, and he was able to get me Ian’s number. That’s how we got him involved.
CM: One of your skills as a director and cameraperson is taking people who are not traditionally or popularly known as actors and helping to bring out their personalities on camera while they’re in character, not just for someone like Mr. Edwards, but in Starlet with Besedka Johnson, and with Mya Taylor and Kiki Rodriguez. How do you talk to civilian actors who are laypeople before they act professionally?
SB: There’s definitely not one particular method. Sometimes people will credit me with how performances come out, but I was very, very lucky to find Mya and Kiki and Besedka. For Tangerine, we auditioned many people, and so few of them were able to do anything once they were on camera; they just froze up. But you do have to find the right people. Sometimes it’s a matter of removing any intimidation by saying, “We’re all here together. There’s no embarrassment here. You can feel free to experiment and we’re not going to judge you in any way.” I edit my own movies, so no one else is going to see these experiments in the editing room. If you want to try something, and it turns out there’s a line we know doesn’t work, so what? We’ll try something else.
CM: With veterans like Edwards, a funny person who’s been funny for a long time in public, you can count on them while you’re casting to be funny in your film. But I think audiences are still surprised when people like Karren Karagulian or Mickey O’Hagan, whose faces aren’t familiar, prove to have exemplary comic timing.
SB: Were Karren and Mickey familiar to you from Starlet or something else?
CM: Yes, and both, I remember, were in the film you made before it, Prince of Broadway. In fact, I only know Karren from the films you have worked on together. There were other people in Tangerine who are in your stable and a lot of them were familiar to me from other places, like Ransone or Josh Sussman. You’ve worked with them before, too, right?
SB: Yup, both of them. Josh was in an incarnation of Greg the Bunny [called Warren the Ape], though he’s best known for a big role he had on Glee.
CM: For those guys, operating at the energized pitch that Tangerine is on – full-throttle comedy – probably comes more naturally than for Karren and Mickey, if only because those actors get to flex their chops more. Was it a challenge to get the less practiced and non-professional actors to hit their comedic marks?
SB: Mickey O’Hagan and Karren Karagulian are always up for anything. But when the vibe began leaning more towards comedy, everyone on set, including me, had to get used to it. Ultimately, I think both of their performances are grounded in reality with humor coming from the situation…which I guess makes Tangerine a sitcom, right?
CM: I feel right there with you guys because Starlet was the first film of yours I saw. Its pacing and its ethereal lead character lull you into a sort of calm, so when I saw Tangerine, I had to make a big adjustment to get on the film’s level. I can only imagine that your fans at the Independent Spirit Awards who campaigned for Starlet to win the Robert Altman Award are watching Tangerine going, “Oh wow, I was not expecting this!”
SB: Right, right, but I kind of like that feeling, when an audience goes in expecting one thing and you give them something else. Also, I feel like the sensibility is still the same behind my films, even though the presentation is so different. Yes, the style is crazier, the cutting is faster, the camera’s always moving, and there’s lots of music [in Tangerine], but the actual dialogue and the human interactions are pretty much the same. So ultimately, I hope it isn’t too strong of a contrast.
CM: Please don’t get me wrong, I see close connections between the projects. The clearest through-lines for me are in the scenes in Starlet and Tangerine where James Ransone speaks. Comedically, the dialogue is very similar.
SB: If I’m judging by Twitter, people who have seen one of my earlier films tend to like the change in pace even more, especially since it’s the sensibility in the dialogue that comes through strongest. There have been two retrospectives for [my films] so far. One, in New York, showed Prince of Broadway , Starlet , and Tangerine . And something that people say to me a lot after these retrospectives is: “I saw ‘em all, and I liked ‘em all, but Tangerine is definitely your best film” or “Prince of Broadway is my favorite.” Then I showed my last four films, including Take Out , in Athens, and for some reason – maybe because of the recent influx of immigrants in Greece, Take Out did the best of the four there. People came up to me after the screening saying, “I can’t believe I didn’t know about this movie.”
It’s also been nice that this new film, which did well in New York and Athens, is turning people on to the old films. I had hoped that might happen, but you never know.
CM: Take Out, Prince, and Starlet were all nominated for the John Cassavetes Award at the [Independent Spirit Awards], which is for films made under $500,000. You produced those films as well as writing, directing, editing, and partly shooting them. In your industry, these films each cost a pittance compared to Tangerine, which was executive-produced by the Duplass brothers. I’m sure the audience adoration and the critical acclaim are validating since you are so heavily involved in the movies. But further than that, the attention to your older films must also be reaping financial rewards as they show internationally.
SB: That is definitely one of the great things about Tangerine’s success. I’ve been waiting a long time to see what the French audiences would think because, you know, we all care about them…
CM: As a film critic, I completely agree. The French are some of the best writers, critics, and cinephiles in the world, and it’s important to almost everyone to have their films screen or their creative voices heard there.
SB: It felt really great to have them embrace Tangerine. It certainly took a lot – I was doing press around the clock, to the point that I didn’t even get to see Paris when I was there. Right now, the film’s in theaters in the U.K., and I don’t think it’s been better received, critically, anywhere in the world yet. We’ll see how that affects its performance in France.
CM: Since Starlet, you’ve been steadily present in film news and press, and your position in the industry reminds me of other filmmakers breaking through just now to bigger-scale films, like Ramin Bahrani, Kelly Reichardt, or Joe Swanberg. You’re on the same train that the stars of Tangerine and Starlet – Dree Hemingway, Mya Taylor, and Kitana Rodriguez – are on: your career is going to explode soon. How does that impact the work you’re gearing up to make in the near future? Is it important to you that the things we discussed earlier, like the filmmaking sensibility and your attention to actors, carry over into new films? Or are they disposable in the face of great opportunities?
SB: Oh no! No, no, no – the sensibility is very, very important to me. When the budget came in for an upcoming film, it kind of scared me because it was so large. I don’t like to waste money on things we don’t need. I even told my producers, “Who said we need some of this stuff? Why are we adding a hair and makeup budget? I’ve never used hair and makeup.” And I’ve always cast my own films in the past. It’s certainly a chore for me, but doing it is the only way I feel totally comfortable on set.
Another thing that’s important to me with this next film is to shoot it on film. We’re losing that opportunity as filmmakers, so I want to do it while it’s still possible. We are going to shoot it right, not on 2-perf just because it’s cheaper – no way – and we’re going to shoot on 4-perf, real anamorphic. That’s going to make things a little larger and the budget will increase, but that has much less to do with sensibility than with the final, physical end-product. It’s so important to keep that sensibility from film-to-film. I hate to ask my crew members to wear so many hats, but hey, if they’re compensated right for it, why not?