Standing on its own in the parking lot of a strip mall at the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and Highland Avenue, Donut Time is a place countless Angelenos have driven by countless times and likely wondered about the bustle that seems to be going on at all hours of the day and night.
The film "Tangerine," opening July 10, starts its story inside the shop, using it as a central location for its alternately playful and dramatic tale set amid the transgender sex workers along Santa Monica Boulevard. Directed by Sean Baker, whose previous films include "Prince of Broadway" and "Starlet," the new film continues his nuanced explorations of subcultures that often go unseen on screen and the underground economies that make them run.
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In the film, set on Christmas Eve, Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) is just out of a 28-day stint in jail. Her best friend, Alexandra (Mya Taylor), accidentally reveals that Sin-Dee's pimp and boyfriend, Chester (James Ransone), has cheated on her while she has been away. Sin-Dee then spends the day trying to find the girl he cheated with, Dinah (Mickey O'Hagan), before confronting Chester. At the same time, a cab driver, Razmik (Karren Karagulian), takes solace from the pressures of family life with Alexandra.
Taylor and Rodriguez make their feature film debuts in "Tangerine," and their dynamic on-screen chemistry has a playful snap that tops off deeper emotional bonds.
Shot on an iPhone 5S, the film's look matches its energy, at once nimble and intimate and still sweepingly cinematic. As Sin-Dee and Alexandra make their way up and down the boulevard, the film becomes an unusual blend of a screwball buddy comedy and a dramatic adventure.
"Of course it's slightly heightened. There's a lot going on in one day," said Baker of the film's emotional tone and the balancing act between comedy and drama, light and dark. "The balance was probably the most difficult thing for me and it's something I'll always be analyzing. That balance, especially with the trans movement being such a part of the zeitgeist right now, our sensitivity to it was very important. One degree off is a disaster."
Baker and co-writer Chris Bergoch wanted to set a story against the hubbub of Santa Monica Boulevard, not far from Baker's apartment. As they researched the area they met Taylor at the Los Angeles LGBT Center around the corner from the doughnut shop. She in turn introduced them to Rodriguez, her roommate at the time. The two then contributed anecdotes to Baker and Bergoch, who collected them into their script.
Baker, Taylor and Rodriguez were back at Donut Time recently for a photo shoot on the morning after the L.A. premiere of "Tangerine." Sitting down together, Taylor and Rodriguez, both in their 20s, had much the same dynamic they do on-screen, Taylor with a contained, elegant reserve and Rodriguez a dynamo splatter of energy. They each said they trusted Baker to tell the story with insight and affection without concern for oversimplification or exploitation.
"It was very accurate. Very much," said Taylor, originally from Houston. "But it wasn't a concern to me. I knew Sean was going to do the right thing. I knew it was going to come together."
"I knew everybody had the right frame of mind," said Rodriguez, originally from San Bernardino. "I think anybody who has been in that area, any of the girls, they'll probably like it."
Baker credits Taylor with crystallizing for him the two essential challenges to be worked out in the screenplay. One was to be brutally real, including moments that might seem unflattering or too raw, including drug use, the everyday logistics of sex work and all-to-commonplace harassment. And the other was that no matter what else, it had to be fun.
"Nobody wants to sit inside the theater with a bunch of crying, sad people," said Taylor. "It definitely showed the life around Donut Time, but it's all about the characters too."
"We already have so much negativity, and when life is depicted in a bad area all you want to do is turn around and make humor out of it," added Rodriguez. "Who wants miserable, miserable, more miserable? Even if that's all you can see or the predicament of the life you're living in, I think that's what people out here do. You know, misery loves comedy."
When the film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January it was met with universal praise. The Hollywood Reporter called it "a vibrant and uplifting snapshot," and Variety said it was "an exuberantly raw and up-close portrait." The New York Times referred to it as a "perfectly cast, beautifully directed movie" and a "sometimes comic, sometimes melancholic journey into a little-seen world."
Working on the film alongside a number of longtime collaborators, including Bergoch and cinematographer Radium Cheung and producers Darren Dean and Shih-Ching Tsou, Baker for the first time collaborated with the prolific duo of Mark and Jay Duplass as executive producers.
Though the decision to shoot the film on an iPhone was initially to keep the budget down and the crew's footprint small, Baker and Cheung came to realize it allowed for a creative freedom that included using a 10-speed bicycle as a camera dolly for a whirling mobility that might not have been possible with a more conventional camera package. After much online research and testing, the film was shot on an iPhone 5S, using an anamorphic lens adapter and $8 app to adjust the image.
"It felt like a step back, it did," said Baker of adjusting at first to the idea of shooting on the iPhone. "For us it was a little bit difficult. As filmmakers we've been doing this for a while and then to jump back ..."
"Now it turns out to be your biggest movie," interjected Taylor.
"That's exactly what happened," said Baker. "Shih-Ching always said, 'It's all about the content, it's not about the camera.'"
Even since the film's premiere in January, the public visibility of the trans community has grown, seemingly exponentially. Though spurred in no small part by the media coverage of Caitlyn Jenner, there was already a building push of trans characters represented in several television shows, including "Orange Is the New Black" and "Transparent."
When Taylor and Rodriguez first began working with Baker creating "Tangerine" they could have no idea that this is where matters would be by the time the movie was released. They are each still reconciling that they now are, in some way, a face of this cultural moment.
"I'm just happy to be part of the movement," said Rodriguez. "I've never seen it that way."
"I do. And it feels good," said Taylor.
"Prostitution and everything, it's been going on on this block, for years," Taylor added. "It's not so much a choice to be out here; some trans people or gay people are rejected from their families and they come out here to be around other trans people or gay people. Even with all the mess out there going on."
"Tangerine" continues in the vein of observant curiosity from Baker's previous explorations of subcultural economies, New York City immigrant street merchants in "Prince of Broadway" and aspiring porn stars in the San Fernando Valley in "Starlet." When he began the work that would become "Tangerine" he certainly wasn't looking to ride a media trend.
"When we set down this road almost 21/2 years ago, we had no idea trans visibility would get to this degree," Baker said. "It's a wonderful thing that's happening, and it's just important that there are more stories, different stories.
"This is a micro look at a very small subculture; it basically is about a block. And so it's in no way meant to represent all trans people, it's just a very small part of that. My hope is that other stories will be told."